Monday, November 19, 2012

Generally Speaking

It's a serious question, one only being asked lately and, even then, not very loudly: how do you know when a general is competent? Since World War II, have we had any at all who were? Ike was, I think, and Patton. The former a careful and thorough planner, the latter a blood-and-guts go-for-the-kill sort. Bradley: seems like it. MacArthur? Not entirely sure. Nimitz did the Navy damn well, I'd say. But since then, to whom can we point without reservation?

I'm no military mind, but having spent a year in Vietnam, a probably unwinnable war, I'm of the opinion that General Westmoreland didn't really get it. I don't know who led the invasion of Grenada, an embarrassment cooked up by Reagan to viagrate our post-Vietnam sense of impotence; but a light colonel could have managed that one.

Colin Powell? Maybe so, at least in terms of the invasion of Kuwait. All in, then all out. And I don't blame him for the falsity of his UN appearance: I think he was duped. Tommy Franks, briefly a hero of Iraq number two, was thought brilliant, until it became evident he'd not planned past day three or so.

That David Petraeus couldn't keep his dick in his pants isn't really germane, but it has raised some questions about him, starting with the fact that he decks himself out in all his ribbons, looking a little like a silly Sovyetski. From experience I know the military loves to give itself ribbons, of which I have several, most of which I got just for showing up. (Which is not to say that those of many aren't far beyond deserved, and the least we can do in recognizing heroism and sacrifice.) But lots of career guys and gals choose only to wear a handful at a time. Not sure what it says about Petraeus and his coat of many colors that he parades in full dress guzzy; but, combined with a certain weakness of spirit recently revealed, it could be of a piece. But what's more relevant, and not much in the way of addressed, are his military skills and wisdom.

He literally "wrote the book" on counter-terrorism; and from what I understand of it, there's some deep thinking there, along the lines of hearts and minds. But how has it worked out for us? Which wars has he won, exactly? Here's an interesting opinion piece, with a pretty brutal title:

FASTIDIOUSNESS is never a good sign in a general officer. Though strutting military peacocks go back to Alexander’s time, our first was MacArthur, who seemed at times to care more about how much gold braid decorated the brim of his cap than he did about how many bodies he left on beachheads across the Pacific. Next came Westmoreland, with his starched fatigues in Vietnam. In our time, Gen. David H. Petraeus has set the bar high. Never has so much beribboned finery decorated a general’s uniform since Al Haig passed through the sally ports of West Point on his way to the White House...  
... No matter how good he looked in his biographer-mistress’s book, it doesn’t make up for the fact that we failed to conquer the countries we invaded, and ended up occupying undefeated nations. The genius of General Petraeus was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all. This is what the public and the news media — lamenting the fall of the brilliant hero undone by a tawdry affair — have failed to see. He wasn’t the military magician portrayed in the press; he was a self-constructed hologram, emitting an aura of preening heroism for the ever eager cameras.

Pretty tough stuff, the claims of which I have no basis for judging. But there's a implicit issue: How do you know if your generals know what they're doing; if their training and experience has created the high level of competence we need? Petraeus could indeed be the best we have; but "best" doesn't necessarily mean good enough. I assume the Pentagon asks those questions, but by what means does it answer them? Again, my experience tells me there's a strong inclination in the military to fluff the ratings, and to promote those who don't rock any boats. When you rack up a few stars above your clavicles, what then? Military hierarchy is very inbred. Unlike corporations, they don't bring proven leaders in from outside when profits are down.

I don't know the answers, but this seems a good time to start asking questions. It's unlikely we'll ever fight another war like WWII. And while teabaggers and teabaggRs scream about "gutting the military," it's not likely that owning another battleship would have prevented Benghazi, or will intercept a suitcase bomb in a mall. (Benghazi might have been different, of course, had the Rs in Congress not so severely cut the funding for embassy security that the Obama administration had requested. But, you know, we want stuff without paying for it, don't we?) And it's probable that, whereas there was a time we could mark the ends of wars by watching people gather on battleships to sign things, the new reality is that we may never again have an opportunity to say we've "won" anything; maybe just that we didn't definitely lose. Certain threats, barring the worldwide end of religious fundamentalism or witnessing a few more major steps in human evolution, will never go away.

But since we have the most expensive and arguably the most powerful military in the world, it'd be nice to know that it's being managed, at the level of carrying out -- and giving reliable input on -- orders by the Commander in Chief, by people who know what they're doing.

Yet what do you suppose would happen to politicians -- whether a president or members of Congress -- who raised the issue? Boy oh boy: people would be slapping "support our troops" stickers all over the place, wouldn't they?

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