A retired Army officer finds new sympathy for the German officers of the 1930s
Rather than commanding the military, Trump is militarizing his administration, and the echoes of 1933-39 are disturbing.
By Col. Robert Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
As a retired military officer and sometimes student of history, I have never quite felt sympathy for the pre-WWII German officer corps like I do now.
History blames the professional officers of the Wehrmacht for supporting Hitler’s rise, and for not resisting when his recklessness and lust for power led to Germany’s ruin. We are quick to say today that the German officer corps was supine in the face of National Socialism, that they had the keys to preventing his rise and Germany’s ruin, if they had only… done something.
But the context is much more nuanced. All professional military men and women worldwide share common values. They love their countries and largely subscribe to “my country, right or wrong.” They are stirred by the military life, a closed professional world that the great British Field-Marshall William Slim called “the freemasonry among fighting soldiers” that gave me, when I was on active duty, a great deal in common with Soviet officers or even the North Vietnamese, who I fought and admired.
Soldiers also share in the military ethos of discipline and obedience, and especially obedience to the flag, and to our oaths as commissioned officers. Officers also, unlike enlisted men and women, have the right to resign their commissions — a reminder that officers are the custodians of the moral standards of the Service.
High words. But soldiers and officers also, like civilian professionals everywhere, have practical worries as well: wives and husbands, kids to put through school, mortgages to pay and car payments to make. Patriotism, loyalty, and morality aside, a military officer has to make a living, just like everybody else, and taking a moral stand can cost a man or woman their livelihood. Also, daily life in the military can be pretty daily, and though sometimes it involves avoiding ambushes or slamming a jet down on a carrier deck, deep thinking is often overtaken by daily chores.
If military life is rewarding, the perspective is narrowly focused on threats and countering them. The prewar German generals had exactly such a worldview. In 1933, unpreparedness and inadequate funding plagued the German Army — just as it does today in our own. In the face of international threats — France, in their case, Russia and the Islamic State in our own — the German officer corps felt professionally neutered — just as our Joint chiefs have protested the irrationality, if not idiocy, of the 2012 Budget Control Act, which has crippled service readiness. Then, as now, a powerful political leader promised bigger defense budgets and more prominence to the military’s leadership. Of course the leadership was pleased that critical defense needs were being met, and they were won over.
At what point should the German officer corps have rebelled? When their budgets kept going up? When the new hardware, long sought, started coming into the field? Or should it have been when Hitler began risking war — as in the Rhineland — and getting away with it. He was right! He won! And it must have been so easy to take refuge in professionalism, in the mechanics of growing the army, in obedience and the flag. Perhaps the time would have been in 1934, when officers were required to swear a personal oath to the Fuhrer (we swear an oath to The Constitution). Like the frog in slowly heating water, there must have been a time, perhaps when the P-38s were slaughtering German soldiers at Falaise, that a colonel in field-gray must have wondered, “How did it come to this?”
I certainly don’t see a direct parallel from Germany in 1933 and the United States in 2017, and the leadership of today’s United States Armed Forces is a long, long way from German generals who not only blindly followed their leader into war but committed mass atrocities on the eastern and western fronts. And yet… history may never repeat exactly, but trends do. In only a month our new president has stocked his cabinet with two retired four-star generals — one with a domestic law and order agenda that includes warrantless detentions. Our president has also sacked — deservedly — a retired three-star national security advisor and hired an active-duty three-star replacement, and is shaking the foundations of our traditional alliances while cozying up to our long-term enemy. In fact, after a month of Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s obvious that, contrary to his campaign speeches, he admires more than loathes generals, recognizes few Constitutional constraints on his authority, and is far more a militarist than an isolationist. Rather than commanding the military, he is militarizing his administration, and the echoes of 1933-39 are disturbing.
If I were still on active duty, I’d be reading my oath again.
Col (USA ret) Bob Killebrew was an Army infantry and special forces officer for 30 years. He is a member of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Photo credit: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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