Listening to the Generals

US intellectuals and the corporate press, including these groups’ more liberal representatives, have long exhibited an awing reverence for the country’s high-ranking military commanders. In contrast to politicians, the narrative goes, the generals and admirals stand above partisan bickering as genuine and selfless representatives of the national interest. Their abundant experience in wartime decision-making gives them an unequaled expertise when it comes to US foreign policy.
Of course, the concepts of “national interest” and “expertise” inevitably remain vague in mainstream commentary. There is no discussion, for example, of how multiple and often-conflicting domestic interests might characterize a society like the United States, much less global society, or how those generals’ own personal interests might be very different from, and often opposed to, those of the rank-and-file soldier as well as the interests of the general populations in the US and the countries where the US military operates. There is no discussion of the nature of the generals’ “expertise,” or whether that alleged expertise entitles them to render judgments on issues of profound moral and legal importance. Rather, that expertise is universally understood to be deployed in the service of the undefined “national interest,” and therefore beyond challenge.
The two major wars in which the US is currently engaged offer numerous examples. Current military officials have tended to be among the most hawkish voices in elite circles, even if they are often wise enough to limit their ambitions to what they think is “achievable.” Generals Tommy Franks, John Abizaid, and David Petraeus have all strongly opposed troop withdrawals from Iraq, while Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen have been among the loudest voices clamoring for a larger US military presence in Afghanistan. And as Tom Engelhardt noted recently, the visibility of military commanders and their accompanying “chorus of military intellectuals” in the mainstream press and debate seems to have increased rapidly in recent decades [1].
But just as US criminality and imperialism did not begin with George W. Bush, nor are rabid militarist sentiments among members of the military elite a recent phenomenon. To pick just a few examples:

  • General Leslie Groves, along with various other members of the civilian and military elite, was instrumental in the decision to drop two atomic bombs on the civilian centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945
  • During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur strongly advocated the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea
  • Gen. Curtis LeMay, another engineer of the Korean War and the director of numerous firebombings of Japanese civilians during WWII, once said that “[t]here are no innocent civilians” and that “it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders” [2]
  • In the 1980s military leaders like Rear Admiral John Poindexter and Lt. Colonel Oliver North helped to provide illegal funding for terrorist operations in Central America

In his 1956 classic The Power Elite, sociologist C. Wright Mills commented on the role of military officials in the making of US foreign policy: “From the standpoint of the party politician, a well-trained general or admiral is an excellent legitimator of policies…Politicians thus default upon their proper job of debating policy, hiding behind a supposed military expertise” [3].
What Mills noted a half-century ago remains true today: military generals and other high-ranking officers still serve to help legitimate aggressive, militaristic policies overseas, with the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being prime examples. Many politicians today cite these military leaders to justify their own support for the continued occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The notion that President Obama and civilian officials are simply being held captive by war-loving military commanders against their will is a convenient image for Democratic apologists, but neglects the fact that the president and other civilian leaders still hold ultimate decision-making power over the military.
Several incidents from recent years underscore the extent to which mainstream commentators worship military commanders. During the debate over the  Iraq escalation in September 2007, the liberal group MoveOn published an ad in the New York Times referring to General David Petraeus as General “Betray-Us,” who was “cooking the books for the White House” regarding the situation in Iraq. The reaction to the ad was swift and unequivocal, with many commentators practically accusing MoveOn of treason for suggesting that a US military commander would have anything but the nation’s best interest at heart. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared that she “condemn[ed] any effort to impugn the patriotism and the service of anyone who’s worn the uniform of our country,” and the condemnation was considerably harsher from Republicans [4]. (In an interesting but unsurprising epilogue to the story, MoveOn apparently removed any mention of the ad controversy from its website immediately after Obama´s June 2010 appointment of Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan—showing once again, if there was any doubt, the utter absurdity of right-wing characterizations of the loyally-Democratic MoveOn as “left-wing” or “progressive”).
Last year, a revelation that should have caused a major scandal—the fact that the Pentagon had employed at least 75 former military commanders to give media interviews supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq—seems to have done little to disrupt the reverence of intellectuals, journalists, and politicians for high-ranking military commanders [5]. The summer 2010 ousting of Stanley McChrystal for insubordinate comments about Obama, and the mild media criticism of McChrystal that accompanied it, is no exception to this trend, for that criticism centered around the general’s “unprofessional” behavior rather than his far more serious crimes.
Of course, listening to the generals and military brass is not quite the same as listening to “the military,” since such men represent only a tiny and isolated fraction of the military. They often come from the upper class in society, they do not fight, and their interests are very different from—and often directly opposed to—the interests of the enlisted men and women who compose the rank and file, who come primarily from the working class and who do the actual fighting. Around the same time that the generals were clamoring for more troops in Iraq, a February 2006 Zogby/LeMoyne College poll found that 72 percent of US active-duty military personnel in Iraq favored withdrawal by the end of 2006 [6]. For this precise reason the US military, like most militaries, is deliberately anti-democratic: if US soldiers had their way, the US would have withdrawn from Iraq years ago. The severe disillusion of many US soldiers is also apparent in the outspoken opposition of many returning soldiers to the war, and the refusal of numerous brave soldiers to deploy or re-deploy to Iraq. A few years ago, thousands of members of the US military lobbied Congress for “the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq[7]. Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and a number of smaller groups include thousands of members and have called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Such groups have also produced invaluable human testimonies about the realities of war.These soldiers’ voices, roundly ignored or ridiculed by the corporate press, should be broadcast far and wide.
Citing the military brass when arguing against war and militarism strikes me as more problematic, though. Critics of the Iraq War have often pointed to dissident generals like Brent Scowcroft or William Odom to counter the hard-line militarist policies of current and recent government officials [8]. Citing these people may be useful in the short term, but doing so also risks legitimating the underlying logic of the military elite. Even at their most radical most dissident commanders still embrace the notion that the US can and should pursue an imperialist agenda in the world; the debate is over how, not whether, to pursue that agenda. Often the allegedly moderate and circumspect commanders who are cited also have plenty of crimes on their record. General Colin Powell, for example, was long seen as a moderate voice for his “Powell Doctrine” which cautioned against imperial interventions that lacked clear, definable objectives; the same Powell helped provide crucial legitimation for the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Dwight Eisenhower, lauded for his prescient 1961 warning to “beware the military-industrial complex,” also authorized illegal covert operations in Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, and elsewhere, often with horrific and long-lasting consequences for the people in those countries. Ex-Marine Martin Smith, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, notes that Iraq War critic Gen. William Odom was in fact “a committed Cold War hawk” and “was committed to U.S. hegemony in the [Middle East], but through different means.” Smith continues:
Odom’s entire career and his continuing devotion to U.S. domination of the Middle East demonstrate the extent to which both parties agree on the larger project of U.S. imperialism, even as they differ on the best ways to pursue such goals…Those in the antiwar movement would do well to remember the sage advice given to me as a private in the Marine Corps: Beware of anyone with bars or stars on their collars. We don’t need a general to justify our call for immediate withdrawal. [9]
Assuming military commanders to be infallible when it comes to moral, legal, or even military questions, or presuming that they have the “national interest” at heart, is even more absurd—and far more dangerous—than attributing moral infallibility to the Pope. Citing the criticisms of dissident military commanders might be useful in the short term if doing so can help limit the scale of US military aggression and imperialism. But we should never fool ourselves that those limited criticisms are sufficient.


*Portions of this blog entry draw from a May 2007 pamphlet by Wesleyan University´s Students for Ending the War in Iraq, available here.

[1] Englehardt,“Will Our Generals Ever Shut Up? The Military’s Media Megaphone and the U.S. Global Military Presence,” TomDispatch, 7 September 2010.
[2] Quoted in Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 287.
[3] The Power Elite(Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000 [1956]), 200.
[4] ‘Meet the Press’ transcript for Sept. 23, 2007 (Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan).
[5] “Pentagon Pundits: New York Times Reporter David Barstow Wins Pulitzer Prize for Exposing Military’s Pro-War Propaganda Media Campaign,” Democracy Now! 8 May 2009. Engelhardt concludes sardonically: “Nothing in the record indicates that anyone should listen to what these men [military commanders] have to say.  Nothing in the record indicates that Washington won’t be all ears” and that “the media won’t remain an enthusiastic conduit.” (“Will Our Generals Ever Shut Up?”)
[6] “US Troops in Iraq: 72% Say End War in 2006,” 28 Feb. 2006 [online]. Accessed 16 Dec. 2006 from http:// www.zogby.com/search/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1075. 
[7] “An Appeal for Redress from the War in Iraq” [online]. Accessed in 2007 from http:// www.appealforredress.org/. (The link now appears to be expired.)
[8] On Odom see Martin Smith, “The Democrats’ Favorite General,” Socialist Worker 674 (June 10, 2008).
[9] Smith, “The Democrats’ Favorite General.”

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