America’s love affair with generals

Foxnews, The Associated Press and the UK’s Telegraph are all hinting that General David Petraeus may run for President. Foxnews and the Telegraph are actively promoting the idea. The Drudge Report spread the rumor as well. Petraeus was the architect of the “surge” which the government says was a towering success, although the exact nature of this success has never been explained or defined. Obviously “success” has nothing to do with a peaceful or orderly or prosperous Iraq.

So, we’re told that Petraeus is a grand phenom as a general.  We’re also told that he is a brilliant mind, fearlessly independent, a man of few words, and an evenhanded weigher of facts uncolored by the ideological battles of the day.

Never mind the fact that this description could be applied to every single other general put forward as the nation’s next greatest president whether it be Norman Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell or Douglas MacArthur. Americans eat this stuff up, although the idea that high-ranking generals aren’t politicians firmly entrenched within the beltway is based on nothing resembling reality whatsoever.

Toby Harnden, writing for the Telegraph nicely recycles some fanciful American ideas about generals:

Many voters yearn for an outsider, someone with authenticity, integrity and proven accomplishment. Someone who has not spent their life plotting how to ascend the greasy pole, adjusting every utterance for maximum political advantage.

Does Harnden seriously think this statement describes high-ranking military officers? Calling a four-star general an “outsider” in relation to the Washington establishment stretches believability to its absolute breaking point. High-ranking generals are full-time politicians who owe their positions to savvy manipulation of the political environment and thorough currying favor with the right political patrons and benefactors. And they certainly “adjust their utterances for maximum political advantage.” The idea that advancement in the officer corps is based on some kind of objective measure of accomplishments is especially curious for a military that hasn’t won a major military conflict in 65 years.

Petraeus isn’t the only politician-in-uniform to be viewed as a wise sage standing up to the politicians who are mere civilians. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal played politics and leaked his own call for more troops in Afghanistan, he was lauded by conservatives and by Americans who fancy themselves as pragmatists. McChrystal was guilty of rank insubordination for this move, of course, but he escaped any sort of reprisal from Congress or the President because he’s a high-ranking general, and is therefore viewed by the American public as smarter and more objective than the President.  As a lifelong bureaucrat, it should surprise no one that McChrystal was cravenly pressuring the Congress and the President into increasing the size and scope of McChrystal’s command, yet his obvious self interest was regarded as selfless sacrifice by a saintly member of the warrior class.

One of the few decent things Harry Truman ever did was can Douglas McArthur, and Obama missed a chance to do a singular decent thing by handing McChrystal a pink slip.

For anyone who values elected officials who have a decent grip on the realities of daily life for normal people, the suspicion of  high-ranking military officers should be without limit. No high-ranking military official has held a real job in decades. In most cases, they’ve spent their entire adult lives in government, around government, and living off the sweat of the taxpayer. When they retire, they’ll receive enormous paychecks, care of the American taxpayer, to play golf every day for the rest of their lives. In many cases, as with McChrystal, these generals are the sons of generals, and thus have never in their lives come face to face with the realities of being laid off or enduring a pay cut or worrying about retirement. The high-ranking military man spends his days in a government machine and the civilian life endured by the people who pay his salary is just a misty memory to him, assuming he has any experience with such things at all.

Alas, Harnden’s piece is all true in its summary of the American view of generals:

In this toxic climate, perhaps the only public institution that has increased in prestige in recent years is the American military. Its officers are looked upon, as General George Patton once noted, as “the modern representatives of the demi-gods and heroes of antiquity”.

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