Retired Air Force officer William Astore, whom we’ve often posted from before, brings us another insightful piece on the increasingly uncritical adulation that America’s military CEO’s continue to be lavished with, and the dangers that this poses to our ability to sustain a our society in any kind of democratically meaningful form.
Petraeus and McChrystal crashed and burned for the same underlying reason: hubris. McChrystal became cocky and his staff contemptuous of civilian authority; Petraeus came to think he really could have it all, the super-secret job and the super-sexy mistress. An ideal of selfless service devolved into self-indulgent preening in a wider American culture all-too-eager to raise its star generals into the pantheon of Caesars and Napoleons, and its troops into the halls of Valhalla.
In our particular drama, generals may well be the actors who strut and fret their hour upon the stage, but their directors are the national security complex and associated politicians, their producers the military-industrial complex’s corporate handlers, and their agents a war-junky media. And we, the audience in the cheap seats, must take some responsibility as well. Even when our military adventures spiral down after a promising opening week, the enthusiastic applause the American public has offered to our celebrity military adventurers and the lack of pressure on the politicians who choose to fund them only serve to keep bullets flying and troops dying.
Generals behaving badly aren’t the heart of the problem, only a symptom of the rot. The recent peccadilloes of Petraeus et al. are a reminder that these men never were the unbesmirched “heroes” so many imagined them to be. They were always the product of a military-industrial complex deeply invested in war, abetted by a media as in bed with them as Paula Broadwell, and a cheerleading citizenry that came to worship all things military even as it went about its otherwise unwarlike business.
Pruning a few bad apples from the upper branches of the military tree is going to do little enough when the rot extends to root and branch. Required is more radical surgery if America is to avoid ongoing debilitating conflicts and the disintegration of our democracy.
A simple first step toward radical surgery would certainly involve cutting the number of generals and admirals at least in half.
Still, such pruning isn’t faintly enough. A 50% cut may seem unkind, but don‚t spend your time worrying about demobbed generals queuing up for unemployment checks. Clutching their six-figure pensions, most of them would undoubtedly speed through the Pentagon’s golden revolving door onto the corporate boards of, or into consultancies with, various armaments manufacturers and influence peddlers, as 70% of three- and four-star retirees have in fact done in recent years.
In Roman times, a proconsul was a military ruler of imperial territories, a man with privileges as sweeping as his powers. Today’s four-star generals and admirals — there are 38 of them — often have equivalent powers, and the perks to go with them. Executive jets on call. Large retinues. Personal servants. Private chefs.
Think of those proconsuls as the prodigal sons of a sprawling American empire. In their fiefdoms, vast sums of money can be squandered or simply go missing, as can vast quantities of weapons. Recall those pallets of hundred dollar bills that magically disappeared in Iraq (to the tune of $18 billion). Or the magical disappearance of 190,000 AK-47s and pistols in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, representing 30% of the weapons the U.S. provided to Iraqi security forces. Or the tens of thousands of assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers provided to Afghan security forces that magically disappeared in 2009 and 2010.
Whether in money, personnel, or the prestige and power it commands, the Pentagon simply blows away the State Department and similar government agencies. Sheltered within cocoons of compliance (due to the constant stoking of America’s fears) and adulation (due to the widespread militarization of American culture), our proconsuls go unchallenged unless they behave very badly indeed.
Put simply, Americans need to stop genuflecting to our paper Caesars before we actually produce a real one, a man ruthless enough to cross the Rubicon (or the Potomac) and parlay total military adulation into the five stars of absolute political authority.
Unless we wish to salute our very own Imperator, we need to regain a healthy dose of skepticism, shared famously by our Founders, when it comes to evaluating our generals and our wars. Such skepticism may not stop generals and admirals from behaving badly, but it just might help us radically downsize an ever more militarized global mission and hew more closely to our democratic ideals.
As Tom Engelhardt remarked, one of the more notable aspects regarding this whole affair is the role of the media in it. Particularly as it relates to the media management, or “perception management” to use the vernacular of the Pentagon.
As for Petraeus, on November 20th, the Times‚ Scott Shane reported that almost all the main figures in the ever-expanding scandal around him had hired “high-profile, high-priced” image managers. That included the general himself who had, in the past, proved the most celebrated military image-manager of his generation — until, of course, he managed himself into bed with his “biographer.” Petraeus, Shane noted, had hired Robert Barnett, “a superlawyer whose online list of clients begins with the last three presidents. Though he is perhaps best known for negotiating book megadeals for the Washington elite, his focus this time is said to be steering Mr. Petraeus’s future career, not his literary life.” Curiously, Barnett had represented Stanley McChrystal, too, when the axed war commander sold a memoir in 2010.
While both men evidently continue to engage in the sort of take-no-prisoners PR campaigning they know how to do best, the rest of us should be blinking in stunned wonder and asking ourselves: Just what are we to make of the decade of military hagiography we’ve just passed through? What did it mean for two generals to soar to media glory while the wars they commanded landed in the nearest ditch?
Someday, historians are going to have a field day with our “embedded” American world in the twilight years of our glory, the celebrated era when, wartime victories having long since faded away, the image of triumph became what really mattered in Washington.