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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 2:05 PM EST

Such a dynamic leads to mediocrity rather than excellence. Yet one area in which the brass does excel is fighting to preserve their bloated slots, despite regular efforts by civilian secretaries of defense to trim them.

Still, such pruning isn't faintly enough. A 50 percent 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 percent of three- and four-star retirees have in fact done in recent years.

Even a 50 percent cut would still leave approximately 470 active-duty generals and admirals to cheer on. Perhaps they should be formed into their own beribboned battalion and sent to war. Heck, the Spartans held the Persians off at Thermopylae with a mere 300 fighters. Nearly 500 pissed-off generals and admirals might just be the shock troops needed to "surge" again in Afghanistan.

Of Proconsuls, Imperators, and the End of Democracy

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.

Such power and privilege corrupts. It leads to General Petraeus, then head of Central Command, being escorted to a private party in Florida by a 28-cop motorcade. It leads to General William Ward, the head of US Africa Command, spending lavishly and so abusing his position that he was demoted and forced into retirement. It leads to generals being so disconnected from their troops that they think nothing of sending a trove of flirtatious emails to a starry-eyed socialite.

Disturbing as their personal behavior may be, the real problem is that America's four-star proconsuls are far more powerful than our civilian ambassadors and foreign service members. Whether in Afghanistan, Africa, or Washington, the military controls the lion's share of the money and resources. That, in turn, means its proconsuls end up dictating foreign policy based on a timeless golden rule: "he who has the gold makes the rules."

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 percent of the weapons the US 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.

Such scandals in US war zones should surprise no one. After all, noting that the Pentagon couldn't account for $2.3 trillion (yes—that's trillion) in spending, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared a war on waste. Good intentions, bad timing. The declaration came on September 10, 2001. A global war on terror followed, further engorging the military-industrial-homeland-security-intelligence complex with nearly a trillion dollars a year for the next decade, while it morphed into the blob that ate Washington.

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.

William J. Astore is a TomDispatch regular. A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he welcomes reader comments at wjastore@gmail.com.

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