The two-star army general strode across the stage in his rumpled combat fatigues, almost like George Patton—all that was missing was the cigar and riding crop. It was 2017 and I was in the audience, just another mid-level major attending yet another mandatory lecture in the auditorium of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The general then commanded one of the Army’s two true armored divisions and had plenty of his tanks forward deployed in Eastern Europe, all along the Russian frontier. Frankly, most CGSC students couldn’t stand these talks. Substance always seemed lacking, as each general reminded us to “take care of soldiers” and “put the mission first,” before throwing us a few nuggets of conventional wisdom on how to be good staff officers should we get assigned to his vaunted command.
This time, though, the general got to talking about Russia. So I perked up. He made it crystal clear that he saw Moscow as an adversary to be contained, checked, and possibly defeated. There was no nuance, no self-reflection, not even a basic understanding of the general complexity of geopolitics in the 21st century. Generals can be like that—utterly “in-the-box,” “can-do” thinkers. They take pride in how little they discuss policy and politics, even when they command tens of thousands of troops and control entire districts, provinces, or countries. There is some value in this—we’d hardly want active generals meddling in U.S. domestic affairs. But they nonetheless can take the whole “aw shucks” act a bit too far.
General It-Doesn’t-Matter-His-Name thundered that we need not worry, however, because his tanks and troops could “mop the floor” with the Russians, in a battle that “wouldn’t even be close.” It was oh-so-typical, another U.S. Army general—who clearly longs for the Cold War fumes that defined his early career—overestimating the Russian menace and underestimating Russian military capability. Of course, it was all cloaked in the macho bravado so common among generals who think that talking like sergeants will win them street cred with the troops. (That’s not their job anymore, mind you.) He said nothing, of course, about the role of mid- and long-range nuclear weapons that could be the catastrophic consequence of an unnecessary war with the Russian Bear.
I got to thinking about that talk recently as I reflected in wonder at how the latest generation of mainstream “liberals” loves to fawn over generals, admirals—any flag officers, really—as alternatives to President Donald Trump. The irony of that alliance should not be lost on us. It’s built on the standard Democratic fear of looking “soft” on terrorism, communism, or whatever-ism, and their visceral, blinding hatred of Trump. Some of this is understandable. Conservative Republicans masterfully paint liberals as “weak sisters” on foreign policy, and Trump’s administration is, well, a wild card in world affairs.
The problem with the vast majority of generals, however, is that they don’t think strategically. What they call strategy is really large-scale operations—deploying massive formations and winning campaigns replete with battles. Many remain mired in the world of tactics, still operating like lieutenants or captains and proving the Peter Principle right, as they get promoted past their respective levels of competence.
If America’s generals, now and over the last 18 years, really were strategic thinkers, they’d have spoken out about—and if necessary resigned en masse over—mission sets that were unwinnable, illegal (in the case of Iraq), and counterproductive. Their oath is to the Constitution, after all, not Emperors Bush, Obama, and Trump. Yet few took that step. It’s all symptomatic of the disease of institutionalized intellectual mediocrity. More of the same is all they know: their careers were built on fighting “terror” anywhere it raised its evil head. Some, though no longer most, still subscribe to the faux intellectualism of General Petraeus and his legion of Coindinistas, who never saw a problem that a little regime change, followed by expert counterinsurgency, couldn’t solve. Forget that they’ve been proven wrong time and again and can count zero victories since 2002. Generals (remember this!) are never held accountable.
Flag officers also rarely seem to recognize that they owe civilian policymakers more than just tactical “how” advice. They ought to be giving “if” advice—if we invade Iraq, it will take 500,000 troops to occupy the place, and even then we’ll ultimately destabilize the country and region, justify al-Qaeda’s worldview, kick off a nationalist insurgency, and become immersed in an unwinnable war. Some, like Army Chief General Eric Shinseki and CENTCOM head John Abizaid, seemed to know this deep down. Still, Shinseki quietly retired after standing up to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Abizaid rode out his tour to retirement.
Generals also love to tell the American people that victory is “just around the corner,” or that there’s a “light at the end of the tunnel.” General William Westmoreland used the very same language when predicting imminent victory in Vietnam. Two months later, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong unleashed the largest uprising of the war, the famed Tet Offensive.
Take Afghanistan as exhibit A: 17 or so generals have now commanded U.S. troops in this, America’s longest war. All have commanded within the system and framework of their predecessors. Sure, they made marginal operational and tactical changes—some preferred surges, others advising, others counterterror—but all failed to achieve anything close to victory, instead laundering failure into false optimism. None refused to play the same-old game or question the very possibility of victory in landlocked, historically xenophobic Afghanistan. That would have taken real courage, which is in short supply among senior officers.
Exhibit B involves Trump’s former cabinet generals—National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff John Kelley, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—whom adoring and desperate liberals took as saviors and canonized as the supposed adults in the room. They were no such thing. The generals’ triumvirate consisted ultimately of hawkish conventional thinkers married to the dogma of American exceptionalism and empire. Period.
Let’s start with Mattis. “Mad Dog” Mattis was so anti-Iran and bellicose in the Persian Gulf that President Barack Obama removed him from command of CENTCOM. Furthermore, the supposedly morally untainted, “intellectual” “warrior monk” chose, when he finally resigned, to do so in response to Trump’s altogether reasonable call for a modest troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria. Helping Saudi Arabia terror bomb Yemen and starve 85,000 children to death? Mattis rebuked Congress and supported that. He never considered resigning in opposition to that war crime. No, he fell on his “courageous” sword over downgrading a losing 17-year-old war in Afghanistan. Not to mention he came to Trump’s cabinet straight from the board of contracting giant General Dynamics, where he collected hundreds of thousands of military-industrial complex dollars.
Then there was John Kelley, whom Press Secretary Sarah Sanders implied was above media questioning because he was once a four-star marine general. And there’s McMaster, another lauded intellectual who once wrote an interesting book and taught history at West Point. Yet he still drew all the wrong conclusions in his famous book on Vietnam—implying that more troops, more bombing, and a mass invasion of North Vietnam could have won the war. Furthermore, his work with Mattis on Trump’s unhinged, imperial National Defense Strategy proved that he was, after all, just another devotee of American hyper-interventionism.
So why reflect on these and other Washington generals? It’s simple: liberal veneration for these, and seemingly all, military flag officers is a losing proposition and a formula for more intervention, possible war with other great powers, and the creeping militarization of the entire U.S. government. We know what the generals expect—and potentially want—for America’s foreign policy future.
Just look at the curriculum at the various war and staff colleges from Kansas to Rhode Island. Ten years ago, they were all running war games focused on counterinsurgency in the Middle East and Africa. Now those same schools are drilling for future “contingencies” in the Baltic, Caucasus, and in the South China Sea. Older officers have always lamented the end of the Cold War “good old days,” when men were men and the battlefield was “simple.” A return to a state of near-war with Russia and China is the last thing real progressives should be pushing for in 2020.
The bottom line is this: the faint hint that mainstream libs would relish a Six Days in May–style military coup is more than a little disturbing, no matter what you think of Trump. Democrats must know the damage such a move would do to our ostensible republic. I say: be a patriot. Insist on civilian control of foreign affairs. Even if that means two more years of The Donald.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army Major and regular contributor to Truthdig. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, and The Hill. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]