Needed: Civilian Control of the Military
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In an August 7th Breaking Defense article entitled “Too Many Generals in the Trump Administration?” Naval War College Professor Joan Johnson-Freese questioned whether general officers with little or no experience outside the U.S. military bring the right job skills and cultural dispositions to their positions in the nation’s civilian government. Such a question seems particularly relevant in view of the way in which senior Trump administration positions have gone to the military.

We have the greatest military in the world, but that’s not an argument for giving them the keys to the White House. Military leaders are trained in tactics, in how to defeat an enemy, but not in the grand strategy of identifying an enemy and deciding what to do about it. That’s why civilian control of the armed forces is so crucial.

In addition, we’ve learned through experience to mistrust the politicized generals, the George McClellans and Ben Butlers with whom Abraham Lincoln had to contend. The skill set needed to promote oneself in the media isn’t the same thing as the strategic smarts that are called for in mapping out the grand strategies of America’s foreign policy.

Which brings us to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, an active duty Army Three Star General. He’s regarded as a hero in the press, but that’s in no small measure a consequence of his talent at self-promotion. The view from the ranks is a bit different.

McMaster has been a publicity seeker wherever he served. In 1991, he was a single Troop Commander in a 1,100-soldier armored cavalry squadron that led the VII Corps offensive into Iraq. He participated in the well-known battle of 73 Easting, which he re-engineered into a personal launching pad, wasting no time in exaggerating his role in the battle. He penned a self-serving account of his heroics that mysteriously found its way into the hands of Joe Galloway, then a reporter for U.S. News and World Report.

Eager for news from the battlefield, Galloway published the account, which put McMaster center stage in the 100-hour war. The army was deeply disturbed by this behavior since other accounts of the battle had been submitted through official Army channels. Worse, in public forums and documentaries, McMaster largely ignored the contributions of the other soldiers who spearheaded the attack and won the battle. It was the first of several events involving the press that would earn McMaster a reputation as a shameless self-promoter, even as the neocon press spread his fame.

McMaster’s command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was not without fanfare either. In short order, McMaster quickly sought out the attention of the New York and Washington press corps. The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Ricks was among several reporters anxious to showcase McMaster’s efforts in Tal Afar, Iraq as evidence that the failed counterinsurgency strategy was actually working. McMaster’s love affair with the press was aimed solely at glorifying himself before the audience in Washington. Eventually, his antics backfired with the only audience he wasn’t courting — his soldiers.

McMaster’s officers and noncommissioned officers grew tired of his bombastic personality and oppressive command style. After being relieved multiple times and then reinstated in Iraq, the regiment’s officers threw up their hands in frustration. Soon, Generals Casey and Vines ordered Major General (later four-star general) David Rodriguez to conduct a formal assessment of McMaster’s command performance. The resulting Command Climate Report was explosive. McMaster had bullied officers below him, lashed out in tirades at his subordinates and created a climate of discontent within his command. McMaster was permitted to stay in command under the condition that command of the 3rd ACR would be his last.

It is worth noting that the U.S. Army never permitted McMaster to hold another command. And McMaster’s ongoing correspondence with General David Petraeus, an open critic of President Trump and another politicized general, does not help matters.

The picture that emerges from all of this is of a person with an inflated sense of self-worth and an unwillingness to tolerate contradictory opinions. Sadly, that appears to be the way in which he’s running the National Security Council, forcing out people with whom he disagrees. What the NSC needs, particularly at this time, is open debate. What should be done about Iran? About North Korea? If there’s one thing that’s clear about all this, it’s that we should mistrust the person who thinks he has all the answers, who demands blind loyalty from subordinates, and whose chief skill has been his ability to manipulate the press.

That’s not to say that military leaders should have no place in the administration. The appointment of General Kelly as Chief of Staff seems inspired, and Army LTG Bill Odom (1932–2008) brought a very sophisticated strategic vision as National Security Agency director under President Reagan. Without question, however, McMaster is no Bill Odom.

Rabelais is the nom-de-plume of a patriot living in the heartland.

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