America already loves its generals too much, but national security adviser H.R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly nonetheless deserve a special round of thanks for conclusively demonstrating why it’s foolish to trust generals when they swap their uniforms for suits and ties.
While Kelly is hanging onto his job for now, McMaster has gotten the boot from President Donald Trump in favor of former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who is a genuinely terrifying individual and one of the fiercest war hawks of our times. Whether it’s Iran, North Korea, or Iraq, the military option is pretty much the only one for which Bolton has enthusiasm. His ascension to the White House should deepen our anxieties.
But that’s not a reason to give a free pass and warm hug to McMaster and other generals who have gotten top White House jobs. A year ago, McMaster and Kelly, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, were hailed by civilian Washington as the grown-ups in the Trump Cabinet. While Mattis has not yet tarnished himself, McMaster and Kelly have displayed a range of failings — proving that generals are often the opposite of the trustworthy hands their civilian admirers believe them to be. That’s because when generals emerge from military service, they are black boxes of political and emotional behavior.
The military enforces strict rules on what its service members, particularly the ones with stars on their shoulders, can say about political issues. Are you a Christian evangelical who distrusts Muslims and Jews? Do you believe Syrian and Honduran refugees are a mortal threat to our society? Should North Korea’s nuclear installations be taken out with a pre-emptive strike? Does Hillary Clinton deserve to be locked up? Generals are not supposed to take positions on issues like these — which means that few people outside their immediate family know what to expect when they recover the right to speak freely.
There’s more. The much-admired effectiveness of generals is not automatically transferable to the civilian world. Soldiers who disobey a general’s orders can face a court-martial. That’s a reason why sure-handedness, or its appearance, can be easier to achieve in a top-down military setting than in the horizontal mess of democracy. A civilian who displeases her White House boss might have to resign, but there’s always the lucrative consolation of a book contract or cable news gig; years in a military brig are not a concern. We might like to believe that generals have a magic managerial touch, but these are projections rather than realities.
McMaster and Kelly have displayed a range of failings — proving that generals are often the opposite of the trustworthy hands their civilian admirers believe them to be.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when the shackled become unshackled and betray our illusions. The quick version of Kelly’s failures is this: He protected Rob Porter as his deputy even though Porter’s ex-wives accused him of violent abuse; he described undocumented immigrants as “too lazy to get off their asses”; he lauded Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as an honorable man; and he smeared a member of Congress who accurately noted that Trump made insensitive comments to a grieving war widow.
McMaster was an unexpectedly reckless hawk regarding North Korea until Trump shocked everyone and agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. McMaster is also reported to have a general’s impatience with civilians who don’t toe his line. According to Foreign Policy, he refers to people who support him as patriots and to those who don’t as “reflecting the enemy narrative.” Generals are not known for their modesty, and while the same is true for a lot of people in Washington, it’s useful to at least be capable of pretending you are humble.
What’s particularly ironic is that America’s beloved war on terror generals hail from the most lukewarm generation of military leaders since, well, forever. We are approaching 20 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no end in sight, and still no general has had the vision or courage to admit the folly; they ramble on about degrading the enemy, and after 12 months they collect another star on their way back home. As Tom Ricks, a well-regarded military reporter, has written, “To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers. … Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military.”
Paul Yingling, who served three tours in Iraq, put his finger on the problem in a widely read article, titled “A Failure in Generalship,” published in the Armed Forces Journal. Yingling famously wrote, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” The military is a lot of things, but one thing it is not, at its upper echelons, is a culture of excellence. Steeped in obedience and a paucity of accountability, today’s generals are perhaps tailor-made for a Trump administration — but not for saving us from it.
What we are seeing, in the slow-motion failures of Kelly and McMaster, is not the soiling of good men by a bad president, but the truth of who these men are once they take the blinding stars off their shoulders. This was highlighted not long ago by Kevin Cullen, a Boston Globe columnist who was relieved when Kelly joined the administration — but who now suspects that being immersed in Trump’s sleaze does not fully explain Kelly’s cruelty and indecency in the White House.
“John Kelly is no one’s fool,” Cullen wrote recently, “which raises a worse scenario … that John Kelly always thought like this. That the Marine Corps, with its ethos of merit-based, color-blind, identity-blind judgments, tempered his thoughts, leading him to shun racist, separatist, and authoritarian ideologies. And now that he is free do to so, in a workplace overseen by someone where such thought is not only encouraged but rewarded, he is showing his true colors.”
The general-as-savior delusion is not solely a Trump-era condition, of course. When the Washington elite speculated in the 1990s about Gen. Colin Powell turning to politics, there was a guessing game about whether he was a Republican or Democrat. It was the same with David Petraeus: Whose side was he on? It kind of boggles the mind that so many people placed their faith in military figures about whom such a basic question had to be asked. The answers emerged, and these two generals, the most famous of their generations, suffered world-class failures once they shed their stars. (Powell, as former President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, falsely told the U.N. that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction; Petraeus, as director of the CIA under former President Barack Obama, had an affair with his biographer and gave her notebooks filled with military secrets — and then lied to the FBI about it.)
What we are seeing is not the soiling of good men by a bad president, but the truth of who these men are once they take the blinding stars off their shoulders.
The thing we need to understand is that a military career might very well be the worst incubator for civilian leadership (with the caveat that there have been exceptions, though you have go back a ways to find them). What was the origin of Kelly’s unusual sympathy for Porter despite the domestic abuse accusations — and for a Marine colonel, Shane Tomko, on whose behalf Kelly vouched in 2016 during his court-martial for sexual harassment? (Tomko, after being thrown out of the military, was arrested for child abuse.) It’s hard to ignore the fact that Kelly spent most of his life in an institution that has a dismal record on sexual harassment and violence against women.
As the military news website Task & Purpose has pointed out, data from the Defense Department shows that 14,900 service members were sexually assaulted in 2016. The issue catapulted to public awareness with the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which 83 women and seven men were assaulted during an annual Navy conference in Las Vegas. “In the decades since Tailhook, more high-profile incidents have come to light, steadily revealing the cultural and systemic problems that have enabled sexual harassment and assault to persist across all branches of the military,” Task & Purpose noted. Is this the well of experience from which we should draw civilian leaders in the #MeToo era?
My argument is not anti-military. For what it’s worth, I’ve spent years covering military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war zones, so I’m more than familiar with what the military does and how it does it. It’s not an anti-general argument either, because the U.S. military needs generals (though probably not as many as it currently has). Rather, it’s a specific argument that while generals can do lots of good things once they leave the military, running the government probably is not one of them. What comes after McMaster and Kelly (the clock is certainly ticking on the chief of staff’s tenure) could be quite a bit worse because of Trump’s dreadful inclinations, but for the collateral gift of exposing the misbegotten mystique of our top soldiers, we might have at least one thing for which to thank the Donald.