“War with impersonal leadership la a brutal soul-destroying; business, provocative only of class animosity and bad workmanship. Our senior officers must get back to sharing danger and sacrifice with their men, however exalted their rank, just as sailors have to do. That used to be the British way, but, unfortunately, there was a grievous lapse from it in the last war.” Colonel C.S.O. Head, A Glance at Gallipoli
It has been a strange week for the military. I will be writing some more on this over the next few days but in the wake of the scandals wracking the military.
Some of these things have been brewing for some time. But the revelations of an extramarital affair of retired Army General and now former CIA Director David Petreus, the revelation that Petraeus’ successor in Afghanistan Marine General John Allen sending allegedly flirtatious e-mails with the woman whose complaints of e-mail harassment triggered the investigation that exposed the Petraeus and his mistress-biographer Paula Broadwell.
General William “Kip” Ward, the former commander of US AFRICOM was demoted following an investigation that tied him to “unauthorized expenses” and “lavish travel” to the tune of 129,000 on an 11 day “business trip” that only three days were actual business.
Meanwhile in Fort Bragg North Carolina Army Brigadier General Jeffery Sinclair is going through the military version of a grand-jury investigation for sexual harassment and other such crimes against a number of his female staff officers. One alleges that Sinclair forced her to have oral sex and that he threatened to kill her or her family if she told anyone.
As a career officer myself, having spent the last 31 years in the Army, the Reserve Components of the Army and the Active Duty Navy I am disappointed but not surprised. I spent almost over half my career as a company grade officer or enlisted man and a fan of the late Colonel David Hackworth, who called he senior leaders of the military “perfumed princes.”
I think part of the problem is that many of us in the military have become more supporters of the preservation of the institution of the military than we are of the Constitution or the country. This is not surprising and in a sense I can understand this and probably at more than one point in my career been guilty of this. We are afraid of cuts to the military institution because it impacts us.
The roots of the problem go back to Vietnam but can probably be traced further back. The revolt of liberals and young people against the war, the military and the draft forced an end to the draft and the beginning of the All Volunteer force. This was a two edged sword. On the positive side it allowed the military to reform, reorganize and become the premier fighting force in the world. On the minus side of the equation was the fact that the military became a society within the society. We became insular and in many cases, including mine distrusted liberals and Democrats on any national security issue. Those old enough can trace that back to how either we, or our fathers were treated by liberals, Democrats and the media during the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Others, younger than me simply have bought the lie that liberals and Democrats are inherently anti-military. This has been particularly the case since the end of the Reagan administration and the George H.W. Bush led Gulf War victory over Iraq which cemented a narrative that the military was invincible.
Over the course of the next 20 years, the 8 years of Bill Clinton, the 8 years of George W. Bush and the first 4 years of Barak Obama the esteem for the military by the general population has continued to go up, even as that population is increasingly divorced from the need to serve in the military. The military at any given times in the past 20 years numbered less than 1% of the American population. This statistic is unlikely to go up in the near future with the reduction of the military to its pre-Iraq war strength and the increase in the population.
While the military has been engaged in a protracted war since the attacks of 9-11 and heavily involved in other wars or “operations other than war” since the Gulf War it has continued to shrink in relative terms to the US population. At the same time the military has become a lot more top-heavy in numbers of General and Flag Officers since before the Second World War. The percentage of Generals and Flag officers added to the military since the beginning of the War on Terror has only increased, especially at the 3 and 4 star level.
There were in 2011 a total of 964 Generals and Admirals in the US military down slightly from 1017 at the end of the Cold War when there were more than 600,000 more personnel in the military. In the Second World War there were about 1.7 Generals or admirals per 10,000 personnel, the line today is about 6.8 per 10,000. See ( http://www.pogo.org/pogo-files/testimony/national-security/ns-wds-20110914.html )
Regardless of the administration in power the senior ranks of the military have increased not only in numbers but in influence in the government. Highly respected by the public and with probably more power than at any time in our history the senior leadership of the Armed Forces has become insular and isolated. The senior ranks of the military have become a culture within a culture within the culture. The ongoing revelations of the Petraeus affair and possible involvement of General Allen regarding two women, most notably Jill Kelley a socialite who has cultivated close relationships with military leaders assigned to CENTCOM in Tampa as well as the culture of the Washington Beltway shows the depth of that disconnect.
At any given time there are well under 10% of flag and general officers commanding troops in combat. The rest are assigned to stateside units and staffs of various combatant commands, staffs and the Pentagon. In my service the Navy in World War II there were about 130 ships for every Admiral, today there are almost as many admirals as ships. While the ranks of the military have shrunk the numbers of Generals and Admirals has risen and the culture surrounding them has become more opaque. Generals and Admirals have become celebrities and power players in society in their own right. In fact I would guess that only the Great German Imperial General Staff of the Kaiser Reich had such influence in society at large or political power.
That respect which these men and women have earned in the nation which is often earned due to the incredible sacrifice of ordinary Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Likewise many General and Flag officer have done time in combat zones as lower ranking commanders and staff officers and have spent many years deployed and away from their families in direct combat or in supporting roles.
In spite of this there is obviously something amiss in the senior ranks of the military. The record numbers of the relief for cause of many senior officers and commanders due to various infractions, many of a personal, ethical or sexual nature is cause for concern. The concern that I hear from young men and women serving in the military and read about almost every day is that there is a separate set of standards for senior ranks than junior ranks. I have been fortunate that commands that I have been a part over the past 15 years have sensitive to this and have worked hard to ensure that standards are enforced regardless of rank but that is not always the case. High profile stories of scandal, privilege on the part of some have tarnished the hard work of many stellar officers and NCOs and the great sacrifice of those killed, maimed or wounded in mind, body and spirit in our current war.
The indiscreet and sometimes criminal actions of General Petraeus, General Ward, General Sinclair and fairly substantial number of other commanders who have been relieved for cause is is something to be concerned about.
Major General J.F.C. Fuller who served in the Royal Tank Corps in the First World War wrote a small but timeless book called “Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure: A Study of the Personal Factors of Command” in 1932. Fuller was quite critical of a culture in the higher ranks which had led to unnecessary slaughter and suffering during the First World War. It is a book that is well worth the read in such a time as ours. As the scandal continued to develop this week I remembered it and decided to re-read it.
The problems that we face are not unique to us. Scandals that are rocking the US Military are not new, they have been faced by other militaries before. The issue today is that the modern media and communications age has made it nearly impossible for those involved in salacious behavior to have it covered up. The Petraeus scandal has unfolded in large part due to the electronic media which almost all of us are dependent on, even for routine communications that never would have seen the light of day had they not been recorded in the cyber records of Google, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, e-mail providers or other electronic communication systems. There might have been insinuations, innuendo and accusations but many would have never seen the light of day.
The indiscretions of these men actually opened a door for honest questions and examination of the health of the American civil-military institutions. The military institution and those that swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States cannot become just another special interest group. Yes it is important to maintain national security and to take care of the troops when they return to civilian society. We cannot allow ourselves to become a state within a state or culture within a culture. The exaggerated numbers of General and Flag Officers compared to the overall numbers of personnel in the military can only be justified by the necessary bureaucratic and institutional power provided by the rank, not by mission or responsibility.
The power of the institution is dangerous when its leaders subtly shift the mission from the defense of the Constitution and the people to the defense and maintenance of the institution itself and their own power.
This is not simply about sex, improper relationships, assault or financial indiscretions of leaders, it points to broader and perhaps more dangerous threats to our system of government, but the unbridled temptation of power and influence that believes that comes with the unquestioned adulation of politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity. So even as the scandals rock the military it is not a bad thing. If we do not address them they will become millstones about our necks that will drag us under and expose the people and Constitution that we are sworn to defend to untold disaster.
Dwight D. Eisenhower reminded us so well about this danger in his farewell address in 1961:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
2 responses to “Twilight of the Generals: The Deeper Implications of the Petraeus Scandal”
Is it possible that some of the top-heaviness of the military is compliments of the top brass who, in the face of realignments and base closures, either find or make positions for themselves? I know there is a fair amount of grousing in the Royal Navy about having so many flag officers, there are a number of them commanding individual frigates. Could it be that, as we draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan, either the government or the military needs to put forth that an equal percentage of high-ranking officers be cut, as lower ranking officers and enlisted? Otherwise, I’m afraid we may continue to be top-heavy, to the point of the highest ranking officers creating “staff” positions to keep the disproportionate number of senior officers as “necessary”.