CSA-Archive/Getty Images
The Greatness Agenda

Does the Military Brass Know Best?

A fighting force that can be held accountable for its mistakes is desperately needed in our era of eroding trust in civic institutions. And given how many mistakes one can lay at the door of William McRaven and others like him, it would be best if they shut up.


- October 27th, 2019
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Death and taxes are certain. And Donald Trump’s presidency offends technocrats to the point that they act like lunatics. The first two certainties have been with us from time immemorial: the last is more recent, but seems no less immutable in spite of it.

The most recent group of technocrats to lay rhetorical siege to Trump is one whose disdain has been, if no less poisonous, at least less obvious before now. I refer to the Washingtonian military brass. Of these, perhaps the most notable specimen is former Navy Admiral William McRaven, who found President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria so offensive that he treated it as an attack on American institutions. Why a president’s decision to cease engaging in an undeclared war with dubious connections to American interests is an attack on American institutions, unfortunately, was left unexplained.

More interesting, however, was McRaven’s claim to have met an unnamed four-star general at Fort Bragg who “grabbed [his] arm, shook [him] and shouted, ‘I don’t like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic!’”

Whether that unnamed four-star general really exists, or is merely a creation of McRaven’s literary imagination, is yet another unanswered question. To some extent, however, it is beside the point. The idea of high-level military brass feeling that way is certainly plausible, particularly at a moment when Trump has done something presidents apparently are never supposed to do in the military mind: exit a conflict. It is worth remembering, for example, that James Mattis resigned as secretary of defense over Trump’s policy preferences on Syria.

With All Due Respect

Others, such as Angelo Codevilla, have questioned the propriety of military leadership speaking out so brazenly against an elected president. They point out, quite correctly, that the majority of U.S. service members voted for Trump, and that Trump, as commander-in-chief, is a superior officer both constitutionally and institutionally to all these supposed experts who claim the right to decide when and where to fight wars. “Who the hell do they think they are?” Codevilla asks, scathingly.

Codevilla means this question rhetorically, but it does have a genuine answer: these men believe themselves to be the proper voices for America’s military interests, presumably due both to their rank, and the successful leadership skills they believe their rank implies.

McRaven, for example, is known as the man who commanded the raid that killed Osama bin Laden: not exactly an irrelevant credential if one is claiming to be able to discern what American military forces should or shouldn’t do. What’s more, the military is not a democratic institution: rather, it is completely technocratic and rank-based, so the votes of the rank-and-file count for very little in the military mind. No soldier would elect a drill sergeant to train him, if given the choice, but the drill sergeant does the best job of it nonetheless.

Thus, the normative claim that military leadership, to say nothing of retired military leadership, should not speak out in favor of removing a president “as soon as possible” is all well and good, but ultimately beside the point. The question of whether the brass know best about what America’s military should be doing is not merely, or even primarily, a normative question; it’s an empirical one. McRaven and his peers think they know what is good for the Republic, and also that Trump not only doesn’t know, but doesn’t particularly care.

An extraordinary claim like that, to say nothing of one being made against a superior officer, requires extraordinary evidence. At a bare minimum, it would require a very impressive record on the part not just of the person making it, but on the part of the class for which they speak. So, does McRaven’s class of technocratic Washingtonian military leadership possess that record?

Stop laughing.

One Boondoggle After Another

Let’s review some very uncomfortable facts: in 2015, the Department of Defense tried unsuccessfully to bury an internal report showing that it had wasted nearly $125 billion on bureaucratic nonsense. According to the Washington Post, which unearthed the report, it was hidden to avoid potential budget cuts from Congress. Again, before you even get into what the Pentagon spent on its military projects, it was capable of wasting $125 billion on paper-pushing alone. Does that sound like something that belongs on the record of America’s most technocratic institution?

And let’s talk about the projects themselves. For example, what of the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ships, which cost $360 million each and yet suffered more than four mechanical breakdowns in 2016 alone, two of which were just two days apart? Where was McRaven’s complaint about disregard for the military—particularly his own branch of it—then?

And stepping outside the Navy, what about the grand-daddy of all insanely Kafkaesque wastes of money, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? This program, which is designed ostensibly to produce the next generation of fighter plane, is already eight years late and hundreds of billions of dollars over-budget.

In fact, over its lifetime, the F-35 program has cost the U.S. government $1 trillion. And according to some commentators, even if the plane worked perfectly (spoiler alert: it still doesn’t work well enough even to enter full production), it would already be obsolete. Why has this project been allowed to go on? Partially because Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35, regards it as a “too big to fail” expense, and has gone out of its way to manufacture parts for the plane in all 50 states, thus trapping all of Congress into supporting the plane indefinitely. But also, partially because the military brass seem more than happy to go on feathering Lockheed’s nest, anticipating—with some justice—that they may end up working there, themselves.

And they’re not wrong: one retired Air Force general sits on Lockheed’s board. To a layman, that might look a bit like corruption—you know, the very thing McRaven claims he and his fellow technocrats are above.

And speaking of corruption, is no one going to bring up the $12 billion in cash that the Defense Department sent to Iraq (in what must have been the world’s most expensive suitcase) and then allowed to disappear from their hands? That’s the kind of thing you expect from an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, or the Keystone Kops, not from an institution led by people who claim to be guardians of the Republic.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all military service members are incompetent: the members of the military who “work for a living,” to quote R. Lee Ermey’s famously acerbic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, remain one of the finest fighting forces in the world. It’s only the Washingtonized, calcified military leadership and its bureaucratic world of hangers-on and apologists who seem to be the problem.

And make no mistake, that problem is bigger than whatever one thinks of President Trump’s foreign policy. After all, Codevilla has this right: the president can be thrown out of office. The president can be fired. But while the fish rots from the head, the military leadership appears to rot from the neck down, such that even the commander-in-chief has great difficulty fixing it without being treated as a “threat to the Republic.” A fighting force that can be held accountable for its mistakes is desperately needed in our era of eroding trust in civic institutions. And given how many mistakes one can lay at the door of McRaven and his ilk, it would be best if they shut up and kept still.

Get our
daily email

Our top articles every day

© Copyright 2012 - 2019 | All Rights Reserved