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America Needs to Stop Sucking Up to Generals

A former army man reflects on generals who misbehave and the media that loves them anyway.

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 1:05 PM EST
General David Petraeus

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Few things have characterized the post-9/11 American world more than our worshipful embrace of our generals. They've become our heroes, our sports stars, and our celebrities all rolled into one. We can't stop gushing about them. Even after his recent fall from grace, General David Petraeus was still being celebrated by CNN as the best American general since Dwight D. Eisenhower (and let's not forget that Ike commanded the largest amphibious invasion in history and held a fractious coalition together in a total war against Nazi Germany). Before his fall from grace, Afghan War Commander General Stanley McChrystal was similarly lauded as one tough customer, a sort of superman-saint.

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 supersecret job and the supersexy 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.

The English used to say of American troops in World War II that they were "overpaid, oversexed, and over here." Now we're overhyped, oversold, and over there, wherever "there" might happen to be in a constantly shifting, perpetual war on terror.

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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.

It's Not That Generals Suck, It's That We Suck Up to Them

Recent scandals involving some of our top brass have one virtue: They've encouraged a smidgeon of debate on things military. The main problem isn't that our generals suck, though one might indeed come to that conclusion after reading two recent high-profile articles. In the New York Times, Lucian Truscott IV dismissed General Petraeus and similar "strutting military peacocks" as phony heroes in phony wars. What we need, he suggested, is not "imitation generals" like Petraeus, but ruthless nail-spitters like his grandfather, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., of World War II fame.

Tom Ricks, formerly the Washington Post's chief military columnist and himself a fan of Petraeus, was more circumspect if no less critical. In a probing article in The Atlantic, based on his new book, The Generals, he argued that the US military has failed to reward virtuosity and punish deficiency. Combine an undiscriminating command structure that gives every general a gold star with their constant rotation in and out of command billets and you have a recipe for "a shocking degree of mediocrity" among the Army's top leaders.

Such criticism comes as welcome relief after nearly a decade worth of hagiography that marched into our lives alongside Petraeus (once known sardonically among some Army colleagues as "King David" or in the media as the one man who could "save" Iraq) and McChrystal (a "one of a kind," "battle-hardened" Spartan ascetic, according to a glowing 60 Minutes profile in September 2009). But it doesn't go nearly far enough.

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.

Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy

A simple first step toward radical surgery would certainly involve cutting the number of generals and admirals at least in half.

America's military is astonishingly top heavy, with 945 generals and admirals on active duty as of March 2012. That's one flag-rank officer for every 1,500 officers and enlisted personnel. With one general for every 1,000 airmen, the Air Force is the worst offender, but the Navy and Army aren't far behind. For example, the Army has 10 active-duty divisions—and 109 major generals to command them. Between September 2001 and April 2011, the military actually added another 93 generals and admirals to its ranks (including 37 of the three- or four-star variety). The glut extends to the ranks of full colonel (or, in the Navy, captain). The Air Force has roughly 100 active-duty combat wings—and 3,712 colonels to command them. The Navy has 285 ships—and 3,335 captains to command them. Indeed, today's Navy has nearly as many admirals (245 as of March 2012) as ships.

Any high-ranking officer worth his or her salt wants to command, but this glut has contributed to their rapid rotation in and out of command—five Afghan war commanders in five years, for instance—disrupting any hopes for command continuity. The situation also breeds cutthroat competition for prestige slots and allows patterns of me-first careerism to flourish.

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