The Five Conservative Generals
by

Of the individuals mentioned as candidates for Secretary of State, what reassures is that they all are serious, prudent men. The question occurs, therefore, why the Washington yak-yak classes should raise their collective eyebrow at the possibility that with the choice by the President-elect of such as David Petraeus (USA, Ret.) or Stanley McChrystal (USA, Ret.) to join John Kelley (USMC, Ret.), Michael Flynn (USA, Ret.), and, perhaps most importantly, James Mattis (USMC, Ret.), the Republic would have a team of old soldiers in the key national security Cabinet positions.

It may be that their having served in the uniforms of the United States armed forces for more than a century between them has a discomfiting effect on the yak-yaks. Many members of this class are military veterans, but they partake of a mindset that shares a peculiar conception of the purposes of military power. They fear a quartet of ex-generals in high positions of responsibility for national security would upset the comforts and advantages that come with this conception.

The primary purpose of military power, from time immemorial until after World War II in the U.S., is to deter aggression. Si vis pacem para bellum and all that — “If you want peace, prepare for war” happens to be a truism, but it’s a very good one. It worked pretty well against the Soviet Union, until the latter broke down. But it is difficult to escape the thought that it would have worked even better and saved a hundred thousand American lives — Korea, Vietnam — had it not been twisted by what is most certainly not a truism, namely, that if you want to make friends, in international affairs, be nice to them.

This led, when push came to shove and shove proved to be effective, to a kind of anti-military victory mission creep. Go after the root causes of enmity between nations; spread democracy even over reluctant societies; restrict your power, use graduated responses — all these ideas, no doubt, have their time and place. But they are counterproductive, as our recent experiences in the Middle East and Afghanistan show, when they supplant the traditional forms of prevailing militarily. Worse, they subvert aims that were well within our grasp.

Generals are often polite to a fault, but nice toward America’s enemies, no. This attitude, when followed consistently, deters war. Maintains the peace. Saves lives.

On the other side, the perverse strategic conceptions of peace-without-strength have led, continue to lead, to all manners of strategic contradictions that serve our country not at all, though they certainly help keep a large chunk of the yak-yak classes employed. A condition of their prosperity is that the views of professional soldiers be muted, kept within narrow spheres. At the popular level, this comes out as a twisted interpretation of the time-honored and constitutional tradition of civilian control over the military.

But it is not that at all, in fact. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal are civilians. So is, for that matter, James Webb, the former Virginia senator; he did not attain the rank of general in the Marine Corps, but he retired a highly decorated colonel and served in a high DoD position (Secretary of the Navy) in the Reagan administration. He was, still is, a Democrat, but primarily, he is a patriot and by all accounts an able administrator. So why, while we are at it, should he not be in the running for Secretary of State?

For the same reason that the appointment of retired Marine general John Kelley to Homeland Security may sink retired Army general and CIA Director David Petraeus’ chances: notwithstanding their records as managers and thinkers in civilian positions, Petraeus’s, Webb’s, McChrystal’s years in uniform render them suspect of… but of what?

Here, liberal bloody-minded hypocrisy surely offers a clue. While no one on the liberal side would for a moment think of disparaging “the uniforms that guard us,” they affect to believe, and maybe they even do believe, that having worn the uniform for the better part of one’s working life is ipso facto a disqualification for high-government leadership, with the possible exception of the presidency itself.

One wants to snicker in reply: The gray flannel uniforms have done better? Let the past half-century — more like seven decades by now — speak for itself.

To strengthen prejudices they know very well are just that, the liberals conjure up vision of “Seven Days in May” and other “fascistic” fantasmagoria. If they are deep into left-wing folklore, they may even evoke los cuatros generales, that charming song of the Spanish Civil War, whimsical and heartfelt. Which, by the way, also got it wrong: In the end, the caudillo made it perfectly clear to his fellow soldiers that eternal Spain thanked them for their services, and now they could shut up and retire to their barracks, subordinate to a civilian dictatorship like everyone else.

The credit they give soldiers is sentimental, where it should be sober. What they really fear is that a team of sensible men intent on avoiding war may put out of business, much of the army — though the metaphor is scarcely apt — of Beltway grifters who specialize in bad advice.

Observe in this regard that career officers are well aware of the price their own services pay for these freeloaders. The “waste fraud mismanagement” that plagues the military comes at the expense of the battlefield expenses they would much rather be making to protect their men.

The President-elect, though the same liberals who make up myths about military takeovers of government cannot bring themselves to see it, showed his instincts were good in this area, when he made one of his terse comments about the costs associated with Air Force One, built by Boeing.

Scoff they may (grudge the president some luxury?), the insight meshes with militarily accurate skepticism regarding the whole business of weapons procurement, itself a close relative of Beltway we-know-better strategic “thinking.” It was not Air Force pilots and the infantry they support who wanted to retire the close-support A-10 Warthog, but the experts who push the kind of stratospherically expensive futuristic aircraft that may justify their cost someday but are not about to take the place of the relatively cheap workhorses we are likely to need — the Hercules C-130 being another example — for the foreseeable future.

If five men qualified for high national security responsibilities, including the responsibility for engaging friend and foe in diplomacy, are retired military officers, where is the problem? Should a president prefer retired senators? We have just had that experience, and it is not clear we are more secure for it.

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