American Military Leaders have Forgotten American History
“What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
President Donald Trump may have been channeling former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when he considered invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 and deploying active-duty troops to Washington, D.C. to support local law enforcement and the D.C. National Guard as they responded to rioting following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
A chorus of nay-sayers was joined by several retired generals and admirals who decried the use of active-duty troops in any situation that appeared to be interfering with Americans’ legitimate right to protest. Their sentiment seemed heartfelt, but other than an aside by retired General James Mattis about a “small number of lawbreakers,” they forget that Americans don’t have a legitimate right to loot, burn, and riot. Or that business owners have a right to not lose their property to a mob; such is the myopia that comes from a lifetime of government employment.
But the pile-on was glorious.
Colin Powell, America’s best-known soldier, called Trump a liar who has “drifted away” from the Constitution. Mattis, who was also Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, denounced Trump as a threat to the Constitution. And John Allen, who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, claimed “There is no precedent in modern U.S. history for a president to wield federal troops in a state or municipality over the objections of the respective governor.”
But before you cast that first stone…
• Powell’s bravery in Vietnam and service as America’s first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as Secretary of State will always be overshadowed by his speech at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, that Iraq absolutely, positively had weapons of mass destruction. 4,431 dead Americans would disagree.
• Mattis has often ruminated on leadership but still hasn’t publicly explained what he was doing on the board of directors at the failed medical testing startup Theranos before it collapsed in what the Securities and Exchange Commission called an “elaborate, years-long fraud.”
• Allen overlooked several times federalized National Guard troops were deployed against the wishes of governors. For example, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi, and Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who were defying attempts to enforce desegregation. (1,000 troops from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division were also sent to Little Rock, Arkansas.) Hopefully, Allen can find some wiggle room in “no precedent” for supporting civil rights.
One reason retired officers oppose Trump is because they are the creatures of military culture, which is somewhat isolated from mainstream American culture. Trump is a creature of the real estate and entertainment worlds which make their money by anticipating American culture.
The military is hierarchical and institutional, values shared experience, and presents itself as apolitical. These officers were socialized as generals and admirals in the Bush and Obama administrations which were similar: “the interagency,” the Deputies Committee, another reappraisal of whatever it is we’re trying to do in Afghanistan, etc. The leaders’ key advisors aren’t the intel and operations chiefs anymore, but the lawyer and the public affairs officer. They aren’t masters of warfare; they’re masters of process.
Expelling Trump is how they get back to their comfort zone.
Trump is impulsive, ad-hoc, personalized, and hyper-political. He avoided going to Vietnam and won’t apologize for it. On top of that, he allegedly called military leaders, who are prideful men, “losers” and “dopes and babies.” And Trump, being a businessman, understands “sunk cost,” that you walk away from a failing project. That’s a different mindset from that of military leaders who talk of “honoring the sacrifice” of the dead troops by staying in the fight.
Another reason for retired officers’ opposition to the president is they never thought about a mission to America.
The last military operation in the Lower 48 was the Battle of Juarez in June 1919 when the U.S. Army launched a reprisal raid from El Paso against the forces of Pancho Villa in Juarez, Mexico. In fact, it was the 24th Infantry Regiment, a Buffalo Soldier unit, that chased Villa out of Juarez.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. had unopposed use of the air and sea domains which made it easy to move troops and equipment anywhere in the world. Anytime-anywhere access, coupled with unthreatening neighbors in Canada and Mexico, shaped the military’s expectation that military operations happened overseas.
After the Cold War ended, the U.S. led major campaigns in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan that were challenging logistically, especially Afghanistan, but no one had to fight their way in or out. Defense reform efforts such as the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 elevated the position of the regional Commanders-in-Chief, later renamed as Combatant Commanders, who commissioned large planning apparatuses that were always staring outward.
The luxury of always fighting in someone else’s country created the assumption that military missions, save the odd disaster relief job, happen somewhere else and don’t involve stringing concertina wire in the Southwest desert.
But in 2018 the military was doing just that as President Trump ordered the Defense Department to support civil agencies working on the Southwest border, the prime portal for illegal immigration, human trafficking, and narcotics smuggling into the U.S. Then-Secretary of Defense Mattis said, “Border security is part of national security” but the defense leadership hoped it was temporary.
Then-Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, even declared the Marines faced “rapidly accelerating risks” from, among other things, Southwest border operations. The U.S. military may be unique in that it considers securing the borders a distraction from its day job.
Some military leaders lack perspective and imagination.
In 2018, there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. In the same year, 15 soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan. Many of the drugs that killed those 67,367 American’s entered the country via the Southwest border General Neller wants to avoid lest it interferes with whatever it is the U.S. military is trying to do somewhere else.
After the United States’ use of subversion in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, Congo in 1960, South Vietnam in 1963, Nicaragua and Poland in the 1980s, and even in Ukraine in 2014, it is possible someone else may be trying the same in the U.S. in 2020. If so, the American confederates are the “domestic” in “all enemies, foreign and domestic” every commissioned officer recognizes from their oath.
The Pentagon has likely spent more time thinking about defending Germany’s borders than America’s.
Trump has a narrower definition of America’s interests than the national security establishment, which defines them as whatever the national security establishment is interested in. He reiterated that in his recent speech at the U.S. Military Academy: “It is not the duty of US troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never heard of. We are not the policemen of the world.”
Trump’s critics reply that America has “binding treaty commitments” but those are non-recourse agreements. To Trump, a treaty is a contract, and contracts are renegotiated all the time.
Trump wants to throttle America’s default to military intervention and do more deal-making, though he should rely more on experts in the State Department and the U.S. Trade Representative than injecting himself in the process too early (though it was needed to break the ice in North Korea). The best case for the bureaucrats (civilian and uniformed) may be for Trump and the principal to come to heads of agreement and for them to work out the filigree.
Trump is trying to renegotiate various post-World War II institutional arrangements without seeking the advice of the national security establishment. And that establishment is playing a weak hand: Afghanistan is a loss, Iraq is parlous, Libya would have been better off if NATO hadn’t overthrown Qaddafi, and the latest round of U.S. sanctions against Syria will devastate the economies of the region, leading to more instability and violence.
What the retired officers find unsettling and distasteful about Trump is what George Packer described as “…his instinct for every adversary’s weakness, his fanatical devotion to himself, his knack for imposing his will, his sheer staying power.” It’s hard to think of yourself as a warrior if you met your match against a reality TV show host.
Mike Mullen, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Trump’s actions “gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife” but he doesn’t understand the impact of the actions of American military and security service officials. Those foreign leaders also see an FBI director who claims “a higher loyalty” as he maneuvers against the president, and a retired admiral who called for Trump’s removal from office “the sooner, the better.” The ruling cliques in Pakistan, Egypt, and Myanmar know what that means.
All the work the State Department does overseas to promote good governance is wasted if every demarche about keeping the military out of politics is met with observations from American admirals who endorse political candidates and generals who give speeches at political conventions. The hapless messenger from the American embassy will be reduced to “It’s different when we do it.”
What can the military do?
This is an excellent opportunity for senior officers to heed the advice of their NCOs and “keep off the skyline.” A good start is avoiding the campaign trail. America shouldn’t be subjected to a convention parade or speeches by former commanders when they could be quietly advising the candidate of their choice, not giving a candidate the public endorsement of the guys who commanded the losing side.
Mullen, whose tone was more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, understands that “we’re training our young that this is OK.” But how will the services ensure good order and discipline when four-star officers, the winners of the military’s evolutionary contest, are unable to resist the urge to critique the civilian leadership?
One time military leaders were silent was when former Vice President Joe Biden declared he is “absolutely convinced” the military will have to escort Trump from the White House if Trump loses the general election in November. So, does silence = consent, gentlemen?
Retired military leaders have valuable expertise to share. But intemperate remarks like “Our republic is under attack from the president” will encourage the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, where they know “personnel are policy,” to wonder if they shouldn’t take a look at those admiral and general promotion and assignment lists in order to rebalance to neutrality. Military promotions have largely been free of partisan political scrutiny, but “unprecedented” only applies to how we did it yesterday.
Senior military retirees who chose to castigate the president must remember: If you get involved in politics, politics will get involved in you.