Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

McChrystal a sign of long war’s corruption

posted by Rod Dreher

Pretty sobering piece about the military hierarchy from Andrew Bacevich, the retired Army colonel and religious conservative whose son was killed fighting in Iraq. Bacevich warns that the McChrystal mouthing-off was a sign of a deeper rot. Excerpt:

Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend. The smug disdain for high-ranking civilians casually expressed by McChrystal and his chief lieutenants — along with the conviction that “Team America,” as these officers style themselves, was bravely holding out against a sea of stupidity and corruption — suggests that the officer corps of the United States is not immune to this affliction.
To imagine that replacing McChrystal with Gen. David H. Petraeus will fix the problem is wishful thinking. To put it mildly, Petraeus is no simple soldier. He is a highly skilled political operator, whose name appears on Republican wish lists as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. Far more significant, the views cultivated within Team America are shared elsewhere.
The day the McChrystal story broke, an active-duty soldier who has served multiple combat tours offered me his perspective on the unfolding spectacle. The dismissive attitude expressed by Team America, he wrote, “has really become a pandemic in the Army.” Among his peers, a belief that “it is OK to condescend to civilian leaders” has become common, ranking officers permitting or even endorsing “a culture of contempt” for those not in uniform. Once the previously forbidden becomes acceptable, it soon becomes the norm.
“Pretty soon you have an entire organization believing that their leader is the ‘Savior’ and that everyone else is stupid and incompetent, or not committed to victory.” In this soldier’s view, things are likely to get worse before they get better. “Senior officers who condone this kind of behavior and allow this to continue and fester,” he concluded, “create generation after generation of officers like themselves — but they’re generally so arrogant that they think everyone needs to be just like them anyway.”

This is dangerous to democracy for obvious reasons, Bacevich argues, but he also points out that these attitudes are allowed to grow among the military leadership thanks to the inattention of the American people, who are prepared to accept endless war, as long as the people having to fight it are not them and their children.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Patton did the same thing and Ike releaved him. He made a comment about starting a war with these Russian “bastards” and making it look like their fault. War shouldn’t be decided by a politician sitting in Washinbgton. It should be decided by the generals on the field of battle

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Bob B.

posted June 28, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I just finished Sebastian Junger’s book “War,” and a similar point is made there. According to Junger, the men fighting in the unit he highlighted in his book didn’t really think about the politics or the overall justification for the war, or even the rationale for them fighting for a particular piece of real estate. They just had a job to do, and they focused on that and didn’t think much further about it.
I couldn’t agree more with Prof. Bacevich that we are not “at” war. For myself, except for feelings of concern generally for the men and women fighting the war, I have not been impacted in any way by these wars. No one close to me has been involved. And I have worried for some time about what this is doing to our military (including more specifically, to the military members and their families), and how this will ultimately impact how our society views war in the future. But I see no public ground swell about this, because most people (like me) are not affected.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Good post. Thanks for sharing this Rod.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Re: War shouldn’t be decided by a politician sitting in Washinbgton. It should be decided by the generals on the field of battle
And if the generals are idiots? If Lincoln had endlessly deferred to Gen McClellan I’d be living forty miles from an international border. Not to mention generals who get too big for their own egos have a nasty habit of trying to rule everything: I give you Julius Caesar, Cromwell and Napoleon.
The Founding Fathers knew those first two guys as history. Of our first six presidents only one was a military man, and he set the precedent that the military stands down before politics.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 1:54 pm

A bit of an over-reaction. They were drunk – celebrating an anniversary. Outside their area of expertise these are regular guys – who (as it turns out had an agreement with the RS slimeball that everything they said was off-the-record). They don’t realize how nefarious the media can be. They do now.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Someone who knows more about war movies can correct me but I remember a tank scene where one soldier/commanders asks the other when the war will end, when will he get to go home to his children. The commander replies that there will be no finish! Endless war, forever and ever and ever! (He says this with a gleam in his eye).
And I shuddered when I watched that scene.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Things in the military have certainly changed. I just finished 20+ years. When I first entered, discussing politics–criticizing the sitting president–was taboo. Sometime in the 90s, things seem to have changed. Everyone was talking politics. When called out, the answer was always, “as long as we’re not campaigning.”
I’m not sure if these things are related, but the military should definitely be apolitical.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 2:16 pm

The problem is when the armed forces of a nation are perceived to be (or objectively are) more competent than civilian institutions.
That has been the case, on and off, in this hemisphere for generations and the result has been the cycle of military takeover, then restoration of civilian goverance, over and over. In each case, the military takeover was more popular than not – especially initially.
FWIW, of all the nightmare political possibilities for the USA, that is the one that I think is most likely.
As this country increasingly resembles a *Banana Republic* in terms of income and wealth distribution – why not in politics. also.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Are you serious, Puck? Did you even read the whole article? After the good general was sacked, many have come forward (from within the ranks) and said this attitude is festering in the military right now. Bacevich, a retired career officer and West Pointer who now teaches history, knows of what he speaks. I’m going to defer to him on this one and shudder. You, sir, are shooting the messenger. This has NOTHING to do with the Rolling Stone reporter. Nada. Zilch.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I don’t know if an actual rebellion will be the end result here, but I do think that the growing separation of our military from the rest of our society is a problem. Military members come from an ever shrinking demographic, as more and more young Americans never even consider serving in uniform. Fewer and fewer folks who are not Southern, poor, or from a military family sign up. Part of this is an increasing emphasis on college education – which the military could rectify by moving recruiting from high schools to career centers, community colleges, and other institutes of higher education: once young people begin to grasp what their education will cost in effort and money they may look more kindly on military service as an option.
There is also an incorrect perception that the military is a place where criminals and high school drop outs go when they have nowhere left to turn – an echo of the real problems in the ranks faced coming out of the Vietnam war. This is not all the case anymore – the military will not take you if you have anything more than minor criminal charges, and people without a high school diploma need not apply. A GED is not even good enough.
Another issue I think is the American public’s quickness to deem all men and women serving in uniform as “heroes.” Firstly, not all are. Sure, it is admirable to serve in a time of war, but there is nothing heroic about merely shipping out. Heroism might ensue if a soldier performs extremely bravely in combat, but it is by no means automatic. Secondly, there is an undercurrent to the praise which I’ll put into parentheses: “Our men and women in uniform are heroes! I could never (would never) do what it is they do every day!”
So the separation increases. Within the ranks soldiers do think of themselves as more disciplined and driven than your average civilian. This is well and good and likely true. But when that attitude starts leaking over into an “us” and “them” division, and an attitude of derision, it becomes an issue. The troops are deploying for a year every other year for the forseeable future, while average Americans are virtually untouched by the war. Shared hardship breeds unity. And eventually a sense of exceptionalism.

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eric k

posted June 28, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Accurately quoting someone is “nefarious reporting”

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posted June 28, 2010 at 5:16 pm

We can’t talk about the know-it-all attitude of some in the military without talking about the Cult of the Troops. AnotherBeliever touches on this a bit.
No mention of the military, our wars, the DoD budget, the VA system and the like can be made without peremptory odes to “The Troops” or “Our men and women in uniform.” No politician is willing to make a stand on matters of war and peace without prefacing it by saying it was a general’s idea or a general approved it. No policy that is framed as “for the troops” will be defeated, no matter how wasteful or counterproductive.
I’m all for tying yellow ribbons, sending care packages and providing adequate care for veterans, but we go to war for America, not for the troops. Generals follow civilian orders, not the other way around. They must be viewed with the same critical eye we use to evaluate the people who run other huge bureaucracies.
Our indiscriminate exaltation of those in the military, whether they are battle-scarred war heroes or high level tacticians, leads to muddled thinking and bad choices. The military is a means to an end, not an altar at which to worship.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Means to an end. I like it, RJ.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Physically McChrystal has the look of a French paratroop-general of the late 1950s. In Indochina and Algeria the French Army was politicised, leading to a near-coup atmosphere in the early 1960s. But the political system in the USA is much more stable than that of late ’50s France.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 7:40 pm

I think AnotherBeliever hits it right on the head.

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posted June 28, 2010 at 11:16 pm

This will pass. The United States can not be on a constant war-footing. Our NATO allies are withdrawing from Afghanistan. Some of our troops are on their fourth or fifth deployment, according to AB. The mystique of the military, constantly nurtured under the Bush Administration for politcal advantage, is no longer prevalent. Hopefully, American troops will begin drawdown in Afghanistan by the summer of 2011. Frankly, if the US continues in COIN (a/k/a nation building) beyond 2011, the combat effectiveness of our military is at risk. A long occupation creates its own problems. American troops in Viet Nam during the end of the conflict had a saying, ‘The lifers (command) are in the rear, with the gear, where there is no fear.’ Greatest risk is for that type of thinking to set in. If Viet Nam was any benchmark, it took seven-eight years (circa 1980) to bring any type of combat effectiveness back to standard.

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posted June 29, 2010 at 7:35 am

I’ve never heard r’s supposed quote from Vietnam, and lifers are not commanders per se, but those who make the military a longterm career.

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posted June 29, 2010 at 8:47 am

Well said, AB. Your thoughtful and insightful comments are one of the best things about reading this site.
Interestingly, if you read some books about the administration of another Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, you see that there were some issues with the way he was viewed in some military circles back then, both among the officer corps and enlisted men. Gen. Curtis LeMay then was Air Force Chief of Staff and he clashed strongly with Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Rober McNamara during the Cuban missile crisis. LeMay strongly advocated bombing the missile sites while Kennedy leaned towards actions such as the blockade. There were other issues back during the Cold War, too, related to anti-Communism and perceptions of the two political parties in the U.S. That reportedly led to some issues with the type of reading political material that was being circulated in some quarters within the military during the early 1960s.
@rj, obviously much of what we’ve seen in terms of yellow ribbons and such starting with Gulf War I was a reaction to what happened during the Vietnam war.
Captcha: sounds like a FDR Democrat today — “the delano”

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posted June 29, 2010 at 9:51 am

Ian: Exactly correct. “Lifers” were long-term military during Viet Nam that had determined to make it a career. (Which included command.) There developed a schism between this group and the conscripts. (It wasn’t something that was openly said during assembly.) Possibly you didn’t hear it because you were in another group. The point that was attempted to be made is that structure deteriorated during the final stages of Viet Nam. You send people back four or five times for deployment, the same type of problem will likely occur.

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posted June 29, 2010 at 10:02 am

R, the difference now is that the shortest enlistment term possible is three years, and four is the standard term. That’s enough time for two combat tours. And while most troops still just do one term and get out, unlike in Vietnam, a fairly sizeable proportion become careerists – putting in their 20 years for retirement. There’s some joshing around that goes with that. There’s few insults that can get a rise out of someone faster than calling them a lifer about midway through a combat tour, when most people swear they are getting out just as soon as they kiss U.S. soil/their significant other. But given that you can retire at 20 years service, and the fact that you can easily support a family on the pay (which isn’t terrible considering the free health care and housing assistance) a lot of guys are tempted to stay. Especially in today’s economy. Back to back deployments become a habitual way of life. Things are simpler on deployment, anyway. You live, eat, and breathe the Mission 24 hours a day, and spare maybe half an hour a couple of times a week to call or e-mail home. So lifers get a grudging respect.
It is true that our senior-most officers (Generals) have less combat experience than people with just five or six years time in service. That is an interesting disconnect.

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posted June 29, 2010 at 11:21 am

AB: What you are talking about is an occupying garrison for decades to come. And without allies. NATO is heading for the door. Degradation will occur. Specifically in the ground military on advance outpost. (Not every reenlistee can be assigned to the rear. Particularly without a draft.) There is where retention, and recruitment, must be watched closely if the national economy improves. And not coincidentally, our economy would improve more quickly without the heavy military expenditure. The more you look at it, the greater the resemblance to the issues of Viet Nam.

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posted June 29, 2010 at 12:06 pm

This to me was George W Bush’s greatest mistake – the assumption that America could have both War Without End and Business As Usual.
For one brief period it was actually possible to contemplate a true national approach encompassing a re-introduction of the draft, oil rationing and tax rises to impose an equality of sacrifice and pay for a truly overwhelming force capable of remaking the whole Middle East.
Instead America got the tax cuts, the PATRIOT act and an-ever burgeoning deficit – while Iraq and Afghanistan got a decade of civil war and the oil despots were left safely in peace to oppress their peoples and pay for Wahhabi proselytisation and the production of ever more would be Shahids.
To waste such an epoch-changing opportunity for temporary electoral advantage, the enrichment of those already wealthy beyond most people’s wildest dreams of avarice and to protect Prince Bandar and his Saudi cousins was not stupid – it was positively criminal.
And the whole world – and above all its Muslim inhabitants – will pay for it in blood and fire over decades if not centuries.

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The Man From K Street

posted June 29, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Someone who knows more about war movies can correct me but I remember a tank scene where one soldier/commanders asks the other when the war will end, when will he get to go home to his children. The commander replies that there will be no finish! Endless war, forever and ever and ever! (He says this with a gleam in his eye).
Not sure, but somewhat similar was a scene from Peckinpaugh’s 1977 film “Cross of Iron” where James Mason as a disillusioned Wehrmacht colonel on the Eastern front sadly says “what will we do, when we lose the war?” To which David Warner, as his world-weary adjutant, resignedly replies “prepare for the next one.”
Physically McChrystal has the look of a French paratroop-general of the late 1950s. In Indochina and Algeria the French Army was politicised, leading to a near-coup atmosphere in the early 1960s.
And de Gaulle’s ascension to the Presidency in 1958 was a military coup, not a “near-coup atmosphere”.
But the political system in the USA is much more stable than that of late ’50s France.
Ah, that optimism is so charming. But I’ll give you a hint: The US economy ain’t in the middle point of any Les Trente Glorieuses.
captcha: “who crape”

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