The Contrary Perspective

Holding Military Boots to the Fire

Petraeus: Lots of ribbon candy crowded on that uniform

W.J. Astore

I write a lot about the U.S. military, partly because I served in it for 20 years, partly because I’ve been reading about it since I could read, and partly because I have a lot of affection for colleagues, young and old, who still serve.  My articles tend to be critical because there’s much to criticize about our military.  I get interesting responses, like the one from a military man who said I wrote well and had a few interesting things to say, but why couldn’t I write more positive articles about the military?  Why couldn’t I just focus on “good news”?  I explained to him that the military has a small legion of public affairs officers and that sharing good news is their job, not mine.  He didn’t write back.

I have a few critical things to say in my latest article at TomDispatch: “Seventy Years of Military Mediocrity.”  You can read the entire article here; what follows is an excerpt on America’s most senior officers and some of their faults and failings.  As ever, I welcome your comments.

America’s Senior Officers: Lots of Ribbon Candy, No Sweetness of Victory

In my first article for TomDispatch back in 2007, I wrote about America’s senior military leaders, men like the celebrated David Petraeus. No matter how impressive, even kingly, they looked in their uniforms festooned with ribbons, badges, and medals of all sorts, colors, and sizes, their performance on the battlefield didn’t exactly bring to mind rainstorms of ribbon candy. So why, I wondered then, and wonder still, are America’s senior military officers so generally lauded and applauded? What have they done to deserve those chests full of honors and the endless praise in Washington and elsewhere in this country?

By giving our commanders so many pats on the back (and thanking the troops so effusively and repeatedly), it’s possible that we’ve prevented the development of an American-style stab-in-the-back theory — that hoary yet dangerous myth that a military only loses wars when the troops are betrayed by the homefront. In the process, however, we’ve written them what is essentially a blank check. We’ve given them authority without accountability. They wage “our” wars (remarkably unsuccessfully), but never have to take the blame for defeats.  Unlike President Harry Truman, famous for keeping a sign on his desk that read “the buck stops here,” the buck never stops with them.

Think about two of America’s most celebrated generals of the twenty-first century, Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and how they fell publicly from grace.  Both were West Point grads, both were celebrated as “heroes,” despite the fact that their military “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan proved fragile and reversible.  They fell only because Petraeus was caught with his pants down (in an extramarital affair with a fawning biographer), while McChrystal ran afoul of the president by tolerating an atmosphere that undermined his civilian chain of command.

And here, perhaps, is the strangest thing of all: even as America’s wars continue to go poorly by any reasonable measure, no prominent high-ranking officer has yet stepped forward either to take responsibility or in protest.  You have to look to the lower ranks, to lieutenant colonels and captains and specialists (and, in the case of Chelsea Manning, to lowly privates), for straight talk and the courage to buck the system.  Name one prominent general or admiral, fed up with the lamentable results of America’s wars, who has either taken responsibility for them or resigned for cause.  Yup — I can’t either.  (This is not to suggest that the military lacks senior officers of integrity.  Recall the way General Eric Shinseki broke ranks with the Bush administration in testimony before Congress about the size of a post-invasion force needed to secure Iraq, or General Antonio Taguba’s integrity in overseeing a thorough investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.  Their good deeds did not go unpunished.)

Authority without accountability means no one is responsible.  And if no one is responsible, the system can keep chugging along, course largely unaltered, no matter what happens.  This is exactly what it’s been doing for years now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Can we connect this behavior to the faults of the service academies?  Careerism.  Parochialism.  Technocratic tendencies.  Elitism.  A focus on image rather than on substance.  Lots of busywork and far too much praise for our ascetic warrior-heroes, results be damned.  A tendency to close ranks rather than take responsibility.  Buck-passing, not bucking the system.  The urge to get those golden slots on graduation and the desire for golden parachutes into a lucrative world of corporate boards and consultancies after “retirement,” not to speak of those glowing appearances as military experts on major TV and cable networks.

By failing to hold military boots to the fire, we’ve largely avoided unpleasantness between the military and its civilian leadership, not to speak of the American public. But — and here’s the rub — 70 years of mediocrity since World War II and 14 years of failure since 9/11 should have resulted in anti-war protests, Congressional hearings, and public controversy. It should have created public discord, as it did during the Vietnam War, when dissent was a sign of a healthy democracy and an engaged citizenry. Nowadays, in place of protest, we hear the praise, the applause, the thank-yous followed by yet another bombastic rendition of “God Bless America.” Let’s face it. Our military has failed us, but haven’t we failed it, too?