Generals to the left and generals to the right — onward rode the Pentagon. For some reason today’s generals appear to have a penchant for attracting attention, and not the glorious kind. It really can’t be blamed solely on the media, though stories that feature people with stars on their uniforms have a better chance of gaining an editor’s attention than grunts with mere chevrons. However, that part may be all to the good.
Generals always have had a special place in U.S. history, but never before have so many “four stars” claimed so much attention for having affairs with available female biographer/Reserve Lt. Colonels. (That Reserve commission really gets ’em.) Eisenhower had a much-rumored romance with his attractive female driver, though she denied every bit of it. The Petraeus incident involving Paula Broadwell was particularly shocking because he had been so well portrayed as the intellectual nice guy, butter-wouldn’t- melt-in-his-mouth, general. Of course one thing really doesn’t have much to do with the other; it just didn’t seem to follow his well-publicized Boy Scout characterization.
Then, of course, there was Petraeus’s number two in Centcom and his eventual replacement in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen. Hundreds of pages of emails over a period of several years flowed back and forth with another Tampa socialite, Jill Kelley. The Inspector General ruled it was all good general fun. That’s a special category in the Marines. With stars on your shoulders there shouldn’t be any time for “innocent correspondence.” Get out there and shoot somebody, General. Or at least make sure someone is doing that 24 hours a day. As many a sergeant has told his troopers, “There’s plenty of time for sleeping when you’re dead.” And exchanging emails regularly with available tootsies takes up valuable shootin’ time.
Then there is the sad case of General Stan McChrystal, who had such a buddy-buddy relationship with his young staff officers that he allowed them to drag along a magazine writer to chronicle their innermost views while touring about Europe on a base-touching diplomatic trip to NATO capitals for conferences with defense personalities over plans for Afghanistan. The staffers provided the correspondent with plenty of anti-Obama goodies that Stan-the-man tended to reaffirm in his own “private on background” musings. Goodbye, Stan. And he seemed like such a sharp guy.
The latest is big, tough Marine General James Cartwright, former second-in-command to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We are told he is being investigated by the FBI for divulging highly classified information on the U.S. cyber weapon program aimed at Iran. One source used the old Navy expression, “Hoss (Cartwright) was so tough he could chew nails and spit battleships.” Sure, and after a few drinks a featured New York Times correspondent could always get the skinny on how strong the president was when it came to authorizing aggressive actions. It seems that tough guy Cartwright was more of public relations consultant than a Marine.
There are many more, of course, but these are the highest profile stupid general stories at the moment. We should have been alert to this sort of thing happening soon after it became apparent that the military had authorized the self-adoring ornamentation of ranking officers with ribbons and medals reaching from shoulder to just short of the crotch. This writer tried to count Petraeus’s collection but had to stop somewhere around 45. That adornment seems typical of most higher ranking types with medals and badges on both chests. The combination of gold braid on the sleeves and egg salad on cap visors suggests a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta costume. It does reflect a certain pretense and lack of personal restraint.
There was a time when George Patton strode about in breeches and boots with his ivory-handled revolver. But then Patton had the tradition of the U.S. Cavalry to uphold — he thought. Patton had maintained his reputation for extravagant display and personal courage since his days as a young officer with Pershing on the Mexican border pre-WWI. As Eisenhower did, we excuse Georgie for a lot of things. He proved several times that he deserved it.
The diametric opposite to today’s generals was General Joseph (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell. As military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in China during the 1930s, Stilwell reconnoitered the countryside in shorts and sandals and a cheap shirt. Many years later after Pearl Harbor he walked out of China and through Burma as a general in a khaki version of the filthy pants and shirt he had worn seven or so years before. This time, though, he had boots and an old campaign hat. No one ever questioned his rank or courage — though his disposition was something else. Of course Douglas MacArthur would have worn a toga if they had allowed him. He preferred his signature corn-cob pipe and the highly embellished garrison cap he had created for himself as Governor of the Philippines.
It would be worthwhile if today’s general officers — and those so aspiring — would look back to even earlier times when Major General U.S. Grant, seemingly instinctively scruffy, would be seen in the field wearing an enlisted man’s jacket (blouse) with his stars hastily sewn on his shoulders. In any case, it’s not the uniform that counts but what is accomplished in the name of the nation that uniform represents.
The United States has had great generals, has some today and will in the future. But as anyone trained as an officer will have been instructed: Every general stands on the shoulders of the men beneath him in rank. They make him the general he is. In turn, every general must reflect the character he seeks to instill in the men he commands. That’s how elite units are created and led. Every one of the generals mentioned above knew full well what they did. They just chose to follow the old saying “RHIP” — Rank has its privileges. Rank, however, has its obligations. Too often that’s forgotten.