n 2003, I found myself in a Kuwaiti desert, preparing for
battle, foiled by a weather slide that wouldn’t print. I’d
led my detachment of tactical intelligence analysts only
three months but had really been preparing for combat leadership
since taking my Oath of Office almost seven years earlier.
I’d pushed myself to run faster than the Army standards
for males, to identify traditionally “enemy” vehicles on sight,
and to immerse myself in Middle Eastern history, culture, and
basic languages. Now sand was invading every crevice of body
and machine, and all my expensive training was useless for
want of a properly formatted printout. My husband (academy
classmate and Ranger-qualified infantry officer) was only
yards away, preparing his antitank platoon for the same fight,
and I knew that watching his gun truck cross the line of departure
a few hours before mine would be frightening, as would
the constant threat of ambush or incoming fire; but it never
occurred to me that the single greatest stressor when preparing
for a light infantry brigade’s ground invasion would
be ‘‘Death by Dell.” It wasn’t that the slide was essential to
the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, since the weather
could be briefed in three letters—H-O-T; it was that our major
was growing so furious about the technical snafu that it
was paralyzing all attempts at analysis. Beloved by higher-ups
for brains and PowerPoint wizardry but prone to temper tantrums
when subordinates failed to understand his self-contradictory
orders, he was the “Staff Officer” stereotype personified.
He was, in short, perfect material for a generalship.
I tell this story because Democrats seem to have developed
an attachment to generals. In 2004, when John Kerry
wanted to project commitment to a strong defense, he surrounded
himself with high-ranking retired military officers.
(During the Democratic convention that year, twelve retired
admirals and generals stepped onto the podium to endorse
him.) When the midterms came around in 2006, the liberal
online magazine Salon proudly noted that two retired generals
had called for a Democratic takeover of Congress. And,
just recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Web site carried
statements from five generals endorsing the Iraq Accountability
Act, which calls for drawing down the troops.
Well, maybe that helps get us out of Iraq. But if it’s military
votes you want, that’s not the way to do it. That’s because
most troops don’t like generals.
Generals don’t think like the other 99 percent of troops,
because generals are political animals as much as they’re military
animals. Their career advancement depends greatly on
White House and congressional favor. Their subordinates
know this. We don’t envy them the hassle of juggling politicians,
reporters, subordinates, and the salesman and contractors
peddling some brilliant new gadget that real troops
will think worthless. But we also associate them with air-conditioned
Iraqi palaces, aides fetching cold drinks, and
hours spent cleaning to prepare for their nice little speech.
That’s why once reporters and strangers are out of the
room, the real bitching begins. The gist of the complaints is consistent: that the military’s senior leadership is out of touch
with the troops, more concerned with their political safety or financial
future than with the sacrifice of leadership. That’s rarely
been as clear as it is now, when generals have remained largely
silent as military training and readiness—especially in the Reserves
and the National Guard—have been steadily decimated
by an uncertain, fundamentally nonmilitary mission in Iraq.
The difference between a good military leader and a bad
one is simple: a good leader has strategic knowledge, tactical
competence, and a dedication to troops and country over self;
a bad one lacks such traits. The duty to advise civilian political
leaders about military strategy requires moral courage. Generals
must object to plans that are not militarily sound. Unfortunately,
a lot of mediocre leaders are promoted based on their
caution or staff work, adding to a self-perpetuating problem.
Loyalty to the system matters a great deal for promotion; today’s
generals pick tomorrow’s generals, and they often pick
officers who look and think like they do. Unfortunately, this
causes many good military leaders to flee. They don’t want
the frustrations created by micromanagement, inattention to
training, or unclear missions. (A 1999 study at Fort Benning,
“Home of the Infantry” and notionally the heart of the Army,
confirmed what most of us already knew: “leavers” are generally
considered to be among the best officers—competent, innovative
thinkers that the Army needs most.)
As the war in Iraq grinds on, we see the fruits of such
trends. Bluntly put, there’s no escaping the role played by top
military brass in getting us to this point. Nor can the brass
avoid blame for understating the catastrophic implications of
White House decisions for military readiness, training, supply,
recruiting, medical systems, and overall morale. Even if civilian
politicians didn’t know how to use their defense resources
judiciously, you’d think that generals and admirals, who get
paid over $100,000 a year to be the military’s far-seeing advocates,
would have pointed out the serious disconnect between
civilian visions and genuine military capabilities. They might
have warned that if the military isn’t capable of fulfilling current
missions without exhausting itself or instituting a draft,
then the military is out of business: Not. Mission. Capable.
To be sure, some generals perform superbly, and some
have even sacrificed their careers in order to voice unpopular
thoughts. (Witness Eric Shinseki.) Also, every general has
been steeped in military ethics emphasizing the importance
of civilian control of the military, which makes voicing dissent
a delicate matter that must always be weighed against respect
for the Constitution. Nevertheless, for too many senior military
officials, going along with poorly considered civilian plans
has been justified in the name of respect for civilian control. It
often looks more like careerism masquerading as principle.
When we see hypocrisy or weakness in leaders, we struggle
to honor anything more than the courtesies demanded by rank.
Over the last decade, Gen-X and Gen-Y soldiers and leaders
have become disillusioned, looking up at a military hierarchy
that seems more Office Space than Band of Brothers. With the
military falling apart from the inside out, the last thing we need
is undeserved praise heaped on the military senior leadership
behind the status quo. Democrats should understand this.
Of course, that troops should have a say in choosing their
commander-in-chief is in one sense bizarre. But that doesn’t
mean they don’t embrace the opportunity. For any Democratic
candidate genuinely interested in making inroads with the military,
learning about the perspectives of enlisted soldiers and
lower-ranking officers—not admirals and generals—will be essential.
With any luck, such a candidate will come away convinced
of the need for greater accountability from the upper
ranks, echoing down through subordinate leaders and across
to civilian counterparts. At the very least, he or she will begin
to grasp the extent of the military’s problems today. And anyone
who does that—and who can offer some hope of reenergizing
the spirit of American service that the military represents—wins.
. . . return to cover story