Presidents Get the Military Leaders They Deserve
Twenty years after his presidency ended, Harry Truman reflected on firing General Douglas MacArthur, noting in Time magazine that, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. ...
Twenty years after his presidency ended, Harry Truman reflected on firing General Douglas MacArthur, noting in Time magazine that, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
It’s difficult to imagine a contemporary politician talking about the American military that way. And it wasn’t just in retirement that Truman was tartly critical: while president he complained that only Stalin had a more effective propaganda machine than the U.S. Marine Corps But Truman, like most men of his generation, had done military service in the war. So even if he considered it politic to apologize to the Marine Corps, he had standing to be critical. America also had a public much more familiar with its military because of conscription and recent large-scale wars.
Forty years after the end of conscription, America’s military needs are met by half of one percent of our population serving. Americans tend to like their military more and know it less. This has occurred simultaneously with the collapse of public trust in our elected officials, which may be affecting the civil-military relationship at its highest levels. Politicians covet military leaders’ support and retired military leaders’ endorsements in ways that may not be healthy for either the republic or its military.
Civil-military relations remain an unequal dialogue, the military subordinate to elected political leaders. No squawk was heard from the military when General Stanley McChrystal was relieved for disrespecting Vice President Biden — not even when General Jim Mattis was retired early for no stated reason. Our military knows its leaders serve at the pleasure of the president.
But the president is more reliant on military leaders than civilians often acknowledge. At some point in nearly every presidency comes the moment when the Commander in Chief has to depend on our military: bad guys to be killed, hostages to be rescued, Embassies to be evacuated, countries to be liberated or defended. That is when sound military advice is essential. And in an age where the American public knows little about its military and distrusts its politicians, the public looks to the military to validate the political leaders’ choices.
The American military has disparate views on whether it is the professional responsibility of military leaders to advocate for the president’s policies. As a political matter, it is hugely injurious to the president for them not to. Which means trust is at a premium for the president in choosing his senior military advisors.
Unfortunately, that often results in civilians choosing military leaders they’re “comfortable with.” That’s the wrong criteria, if the president wants both good counsel and reliable shielding by his military leaders. Military culture is distinct from our broader popular culture, and the leaders who grow up in it are often not “comfortable.” Like politicians, military leaders also have constituents. When the best of them talk, they do not talk only to the American public, but also to and for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coast guardsmen with their lives on the line — so they often cannot talk in ways comfortable to civilian leaders or come up with limber options to finesse political problems.
And when political leaders talk about the military, they very often talk piteously, instead of commending the post-traumatic growth many veterans are experiencing, the strong marriages that withstand extended and stressful separation, the resilient kids who excel in school despite frequent moves. President Obama often talks about the burden of visiting wounded veterans and writing letters to grieving families. He sometimes seems to talk more about social issues in the military than the wars we are fighting. But he has selected a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deeply respected for his war fighting skills rather than his views on gender integration or global warming or for being a “first.” Perhaps the president begins to get the feel of military culture. Or we could chalk it up to the beneficial influence of Ashton Carter as Defense Secretary. Either way, the Obama administration has made a good choice in General Joe Dunford.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images