Beginning with the 1991 Gulf War, our society’s adoration of the military has begun to border on fetishization. But that hero worship falls apart a little bit when it comes to the brass.
When matters of national security are portrayed in American pop culture, the usual caricature is that of the warmongering generals restrained by cooler civilian heads. It’s a cliché that could hardly be more trite and hackneyed. It’s the nature of comedy to depict authority figures as pompous and out of touch, but the strict regimentation and hierarchy of military culture—right down to wardrobe and costume jewelry—makes generals and admirals especially ripe for ridicule.
No one did it better than Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick to blackly comic effect in Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). But when it comes to fictional coups d’etat and/or accidental nuclear wars, there has also been Seven Days in May, Fail Safe, Twilight’s Last Gleaming (strangely, Burt Lancaster’s second turn as a rogue Air Force general), and lesser others. Indeed, the loose cannon military martinet is among the laziest of tropes.
Which doesn’t mean it is always untrue.
BANGS AND WHIMPERS
We now know that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy’s calm, restrained response saved the world from the global apocalypse that would have ensued had he followed the bellicose advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff. (“These brass hats have one great advantage,” an appalled Kennedy memorably told an aide. “If we do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”) It was bold of the young president to defy them, and not easy to do at a time when his foreign policy bonafides were wobbly after being embarrassed by Khrushchev in Vienna, launching the Bay of Pigs debacle, and getting mixed reviews on a series of crises in Berlin. But JFK’s clear-eyed thinking and rock-ribbed courage saved our bacon in that dark October.
Of course, Kennedy had been a warrior himself, famously saving the lives of his crew on the PT-109 as a young Navy lieutenant in the South Pacific in World War II. Perhaps he had already been disabused of any unearned awe at the pronouncements of flag officers.
In his superb and epic 2007 book House of War, author James Carroll tells another a chilling story that took place a year before the Cuban crisis. In early 1961, newly installed Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked to see the Pentagon’s top secret plan for waging nuclear war, contained in a pair of documents known as the SIOP (Single Integrated Operating Plan) and the even more comprehensive J-SCAP (Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan), prepared by the Air Force and Navy, as custodians of the US nuclear arsenal. Incredibly, the Pentagon brass informed McNamara—their superior—that he didn’t have a high enough security clearance to see the plan.
In fact, for the preceding ten years USAF General Curtis LeMay, the godfather of the Strategic Air Command, had refused to show the plan for how we would fight a nuclear war (then called the “Basic War Plan”) to anyone, even the Joint Chiefs, all of whom outranked him. LeMay and his bomber staff showed the White House and their other superiors only what they felt like. (Ironically, McNamara had been one of LeMay’s subordinates as a junior staff officer during the bombing of Germany. Perhaps LeMay didn’t notice that their positions had reversed.)
In the popular imagination McNamara has been vilified, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, and rarely given credit for his occasional shining moments. But this was one of them. The outraged SecDef rightly insisted on being briefed on the goddam plan. What he was shown astonished him. As Carroll writes, the Pentagon plan was no plan at all. It called for an all-out orgasmic strike on every single city in the Soviet Union, its satellite nations, and China, using every last warhead in the American arsenal, with enemy dead conservatively predicted to be more than 400 million. Moreover, in order for this scheme to work, SAC needed to initiate the US nuclear “response” at the slightest hint of provocation by Moscow, before any Soviet missiles hit the US, a system which required an immediate unilateral decision by the SAC commander—not even the head of the Air Force—with no time to obtain permission from the White House.
In short, it was Strangelove come true. LeMay—the real life, cigar-chomping inspiration for Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper—had secretly usurped the president’s prerogative as the sole individual who could authorize the use of nuclear weapons. When Kubrick’s film came out some three years after the McNamara incident, Daniel Ellsberg was a still-unknown analyst for the RAND Corporation, privy to the top secret inner workings of the American nuclear machine, including the J-SCAP, which he was the first civilian to read. Walking out of the theater after seeing the film, he reportedly marveled to a friend, “That was a documentary!”
REINING IN OUR MANCHILD SOVEREIGN
Weirdly, the United States now has precisely the opposite situation. An ignorant, impulsive bully of a president—totally unschooled in even the basics of military affairs, security policy, and national defense, and needless to say with no military experience of his own—appears to be restrained from blowing up the planet only by the calm, steadying hand of a few military professionals: chiefly, Marine General (Ret.) James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the current SecDef, and active duty Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the National Security Advisor. (And lest we forget, there is also retired Marine General John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland Security, which is now very much a part of the national security state.)
Anyone with brainwave activity ought to be shitting their pants that a man like Trump is in possession of the nuclear codes. We have a president (I’m using the term loosely) who, while running for office, recklessly advocated war crimes like torture, killing the family members of suspected terrorists, and wantonly stealing the resources of conquered enemies…..who openly pondered why we have nuclear weapons if we never get to use them….who suggested that it might be a good idea to have more, not less, nuclear proliferation, to include encouraging Saudi Arabia and Japan to acquire their own nuclear arsenals…..and who since taking office has done more damage to US security and global stability than most of our enemies could have hoped to cause themselves.
The American people have inexplicably given a D-list TV celebrity and real estate con man command of the most powerful military force in human history (along with the right to reshape the Supreme Court for the next thirty years, and almost unlimited power to pardon all his associates for crimes all the way up to and including treason). What could go wrong? So it is a rich irony that politically progressive Americans now find themselves thanking god for Mattis and McMaster as stabilizing influences on this monstrous head of state.
When a man whose nickname is “Mad Dog” is seen as the sanest dude in the administration, you know we’re in uncharted waters.
PURITY OF ESSENCE
It’s hard to know how successful these generals have been thus far in controlling our fake president. We haven’t yet gotten into a thermonuclear war with North Korea—or Australia, or Gabon—so that’s encouraging. I also found it heartening that during the pathetic circle jerk of a Cabinet meeting wherein Trump demanded that his minions lavish him with public praise, Jim Mattis alone found a way to salvage his dignity (without submitting his resignation) by deftly pivoting to praise the men and women of the Defense Department, rather than His Royal Highness the Emperor Pussy Grabber. If Trump noticed the Jedi mind trick, he either didn’t take offense or was too intimidated by the fabled Warrior Monk to complain.
But a few events on the geopolitical front in the past six months have caused a cold chill to go down my spine, and I’m not even talking about when Trump gave top secret codeword intel to the Russians on a silver platter. One was when Donald Trump nonchalantly ordered a commando raid in Yemen that the Obama administration had deemed too risky, one that resulted in the deaths of a US Navy SEAL and numerous innocent children. Another was when he ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on Syria, the exact kind of largely symbolic, operationally ineffectual reaction for which he used to excoriate Barack Obama. A third was when Trump—by delegating the authority to the local ground commander—effectively assented to dropping a MOAB, the largest non-nuclear piece of ordnance in the US arsenal, on ISIS elements in Afghanistan. I don’t object to the use of that weapon in principle, or even to that delegation of authority. But in light of Trump’s overall jingoism, it speaks to his casualness with regard to the use of force, the slippery slope of escalation, and a worrying reinforcement of the dumbass mentality that all we need is bigger bombs. Not to mention the despicable glee of his supporters over its use.
All of these occasions made me stop in my tracks and remember that Donald J. Trump is now legally allowed to order the killing of human beings virtually at will, a privilege that he exercises on a regular basis, and apparently with no more introspection than he tweets. That is a stunning and deeply depressing reality of the Twilight Zone in which we now live.
It’s unquestionably good that we have men like Mattis and McMaster—the so-called “Axis of Adults”—as curbs on Trump’s ignorance, impulsiveness, and general (no pun intended) belligerence. God help us if we did not. The CIA and other elements of the US Intelligence Community—members of the so-called “Deep State”—are in a similar role as unlikely defenders of democracy to whom the left is looking hopefully.
But it’s worth remembering that it’s not an ideal situation. The Founders established absolute civilian control of the military for good reason. (Yes, Jim Mattis is technically a civilian, but the man spent 44 years in the Marine Corps. His nominal status as a retired general rather than an active duty one does not materially change his military-oriented perspective and approach. Any jarhead will tell you that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine.) Our current situation is unique, but untenable as a permanent state of affairs. A country in which the military must be relied on to check the worst impulses of its venal civilian leaders is not a a country that’s going to remain a democracy for very long.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
So what are the dangers of the status quo?
Many years ago, as a teenager, I read a rare fictional piece in one of my father’s professional journals about a military coup in the United States. Written as a cautionary tale, its premise was that the Pentagon brass grew tired of being tasked with more and more responsibilities beyond their normal purview of warfighting and finally decided that if the American people were going to ask that much of them, they might as well just take over the government full stop. It was a warning against “mission creep” at a time when the armed forces almost alone among public institutions in the post-Watergate era retained and even increased its standing among the American people.
If that was true in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, even in the wake of Vietnam, it is infinitely more true now.
Since the end of the draft in 1975 and the subsequent rise of the “all-volunteer force,” there has been an ever-widening chasm between that tiny sliver of Americans who carry out the deadly business of defending this nation, and the rest of the country that benefits from their labors. The many dangers of that unjust system is a complex topic for another day. But one aspect pertinent to this discussion is the collective guilt it has inspired, and the insidious ways that guilt manifests itself.
The over-the-top valorization of those who serve or have served in uniform is now endemic in our society, from F-16 flyovers at the Super Bowl to the endless, hollow exhortations to “support the troops,” reflecting the unease—conscious or otherwise—many Americans feel for how little they must sacrifice for their own security.
An even more dangerous effect is how the civilian population regularly prostrates itself before our military, afraid to offer even the slightest criticism or dissent. Even our political leaders often submissively defer to the judgment of military professionals when they should not, and sometimes even when they are duty-bound to do otherwise. Allegedly this was the great lesson of Vietnam: that the craven politicians “didn’t let” our soldiers win. It’s considerably more complicated than that, of course. The hubris and errors of our civilian leadership in that era (and since) are undeniable, as is the value of drawing on the expert advice of career military officers. But the military is by no means infallible. By. No. Means. Any warrior who pretends otherwise is full of shit.
In the most galling recent example, Trump—who during the campaign famously bragged that he knew “more about ISIS than the generals”—has largely abdicated responsibility for huge chunks of military decision-making that rightly belong to the president alone (such as troop levels in Afghanistan), and instead given Mattis full authority to make those calls. That is not admirable respect for the military; it’s shitty leadership. The president is supposed to be leading this country. If he is incapable of doing so, the answer is not to pass the buck to uniformed subordinates, but to get a president who can do the job.
I’m sure she’s out there.
Asked recently about Trump’s fitness to serve as commander-in-chief, retired General Dave Petraeus replied that it is “immaterial” because the national security team around Trump is so outstanding. Think about that for a moment. That is a stunning assertion. It is nothing new for general officers to think they “know better” and try to manipulate their civilian leaders. But to bluntly argue that the fitness of the president is immaterial is an outlandish position…..one that speaks to how unfit this commander-in-chief truly is that one of our most famous, accomplished, and respected military leaders—retired or otherwise—would feel comfortable speaking of him this way.
Dave Petraeus is rightly regarded as one of the smartest military thinkers of his generation. But even Petraeus can make mistakes, as we know. And on this point he has made an enormous one. Like all military men, he knows very well that leadership flows from the top. If the Pentagon is forced to work around the president as a matter of course, that is a major problem. (Did I just have to write that?) At best, it is a difficult and unwieldy way to do business. At worst, the military leadership may find itself unable to manipulate the president, or simply overruled. Given Trump’s impulsiveness, paper thin skin, quickness to anger, resistance to advice, and history of hasty, ill-considered decisions, the latter seems more likely than the former.
Notwithstanding the fact that a third world war has not (yet) broken out, there is disturbing evidence that this dynamic is playing out even now. Politico recently reported on General McMaster’s difficulties in selling the President and others in the White House on his plans for Afghanistan:
To close observers of the machinations of Trump world, it’s yet another indication that McMaster—a three-star general widely hailed as a brilliant choice when Trump picked him to replace the ousted Michael Flynn amid the escalating Russian scandal—is increasingly a national security adviser out of sync with his mercurial president. On key policy issues from Russia and NATO to the Iran deal, McMaster has recommended a more stay-the-course approach, only to find fierce pushback from Trump himself. The fight over what to do in Afghanistan has received far less attention than any of those controversies, but the months-long backstage battle suggests the same immovable object for McMaster on this as the other issues: a president who simply isn’t on board.
Thus we may be seeing precisely this dark scenario play out, one in which the generals find themselves unable to outmaneuver the idiot president, belying our faith in Mattis and McMaster as democracy’s last best hope.
COUNTERWEIGHTS VS. ENABLERS
It’s very possible that in taking their current jobs Mattis and McMaster felt a heavy obligation to keep the country—and the world—safe from Trump. (Others in non-military roles in the administration may feel the same.) In that sense, they are virtually the only members of Team Trump who get a pass from the many critics of this administration. Indeed, they get hearty, sweaty-palmed gratitude.
Will there come a point when Mattis and McMaster feel they can no longer in good conscience serve this pitiful excuse for a president? A point at which duty demands not that they continue to try to mitigate his awfulness but instead resign in protest? If they were to do so, I suspect it might cause some damage to the heretofore solid wall of Republican support for this White House, especially within the military community and among other hawks. Of course, Trump’s hardcore base has been very creative in its ability to rationalize a vicious reversal on anyone, no matter how heroic or patriotic (paging John McCain) who dares defy the moron-king. To the rest of America, however—the part that is sentient—the resignations of these two generals would speak volumes, and—one hopes—help hasten the demise of the man they are now boxing in.
But it’s equally possible that that interpretation is a liberal fantasy. For all we know, Mattis and McMaster might privately be enthusiastic Trump supporters, even if they disagree with some of his policies or methods, which they plainly do. Or they might be grudgingly pro-Trump but in the lesser-of-two evils camp, much as I find it impossible to believe any thinking person could objectively look at the evidence and feel that way. (Call me partisan.)
It’s been widely documented that both men, like a fair number of US flag officers, were frustrated with what they saw as an insufficiently muscular foreign policy under the Obama administration (and its reported micromanagement of the Pentagon) and welcomed the chance to craft a more aggressive projection of US force overseas. Undoubtedly they see the Trump regime as a means to do that. Of course, a large number of people have made a similar utilitarian calculation in their unholy alliances with Trump: anti-abortion activists, the petroleum industry, plutocrats seeking tax cuts for the rich, and the GOP as a whole for that matter, to name just a few. In that context, a pair of men whose chief responsibility is defending American security might have one of the stronger arguments on that count.
(Then again, to critics of American power who see its application as largely malevolent, the opposite is true. To those observers, even if Mattis and McMaster are themselves men of intelligence and integrity, siding with Trump in order to pursue more robust US military adventurism is not a matter of a noble end justifying dirty means, but of one evil going hand in hand with another.)
It‘s often forgotten that McMaster is still an active duty US Army officer. When Trump tapped him to be National Security Advisor, perhaps General McMaster felt it was his duty to take the job and that he could not justifiably say no….and not just because he wanted to stay on to earn a fourth star. He may well have felt he had an absolute obligation as a commissioned officer to serve in the role that the Commander-in-Chief asked of him. Per above, he may have (privately) felt that Trump was a public danger and that it was incumbent on generals like himself to act as a firewall. Or conversely, he may have liked and admired Trump. He may have felt all those things, or pieces and variation of them, all at the same time. I don’t know. What I do know is that, regardless, his service in this White House has not burnished his image.
H.R. McMaster, USMA Class of ’84, is of my generation, just one year ahead of my year group. I didn’t know him personally when I was in the Army but I certainly knew him by reputation, and his reputation was sterling: as a leader, as a thinker, and as an iconoclast. I was surprised that he survived and made general, as those last two qualities are often career-enders at the highest level. I was very encouraged—deeply relieved even—when he took over as National Security Advisor after the firing of the short-lived and demonstrably cuckoo Mike Flynn, another three-star Army general (retired in his case). I told all my non-military friends that picking McMaster was the first smart thing Trump had done, and suggested that how long he lasted would be a bellwether of this administration’s ability to conduct itself in a rational manner.
But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been more than a little disappointed at how his tenure has played out thus far.
McMaster’s vaunted credibility has taken a severe body blow, and he has no one to blame but himself. His public defense of Trump’s jawdropping, apparently ad hoc disclosure of top secret codeword intel to Russian Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov IN PERSON, FACE TO FACE, IN THE OVAL OFFICE, WITH ONLY RUSSIAN MEDIA PRESENT (along with the chummy assurance to those Kremlin officials that he’d stopped the probe of Russiagate by firing that “nutjob” Comey) was shameful. The most generous interpretation is that he was doing damage control, trying to downplay the egregiousness of what Trump had done in order to tamp down justifiable alarm among our allies.
Likewise, McMaster recently wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, co-authored with National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, in which they offered a stark, Manichean vision of geopolitics as a zero sum game with only winners and losers and no place for mutually beneficial cooperation. In a different administration that might have passed for hard-nosed Nixonian realpolitik—admirable even, in its flinty-eyed toughness. But in the context of Trump and his dimwitted, fuck-you-I-got-mine, America First Know Nothingism, his insulting contempt for NATO, and his general arrogance in both private and public life, it just read as bullheaded, belligerent, and needlessly alienating to the rest of the world. Trump has earned no benefit of the doubt in such matters, and that extends to his underlings as well, no matter how impressive their CVs before boarding his death ship.
The Kislyak/Lavrov meeting alone was enough to destroy McMaster’s reputation with many people. I am willing to give him a lot more slack, but I was bitterly disappointed by that incident and am very uneasy going forward. Very soon there may come a time when McMaster can better serve his country by handing in his stars. That will be for him to decide. If and when he does, it will be a powerful statement, though of course we can expect Trump and his myrmidons to slander HR like they slander anyone who has outlived his or her usefulness to the Donald, let alone had the temerity to openly defy him.
Famously part of the McMaster legend is his book Dereliction of Duty, written as part of his doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina, in which he boldly called out the Vietnam-era US military leadership, particularly the JCS, for not standing up to the civilian leadership of the time. It took courage to publish that, and might well have ended his career. So it’s a cruel irony that a warrior whose reputation is built in good part on such an analysis might now go down in history as a toady of a civilian leader far worse than any of those who led us during Vietnam.
“I’M NOT SAYING WE WOULDN’T GET OUR HAIR MUSSED”
Lastly, for the sake of argument, let’s consider the unlikely possibility that we have this exactly backwards. Mattis and McMaster are accomplished, brilliant, thoughtful public servants of proven ability and unimpeachable integrity. Trump is an ass clown. But it is possible that the generals represent a dangerous agenda and Trump—if only accidentally—might be a useful brake.
When it came to foreign policy, Trump campaigned on an irrational, head-spinning mix of white nationalist neo-isolationism and faux macho jingoistic bluster. He was at once going to keep the US out of messy foreign wars (like Iraq, which he was for before he was against it) but also bomb the shit out of anyone who got in our way, and then take their oil.
Mattis and McMaster advocate a much more traditionally hawkish Republican approach to force projection, one that is at odds with at least some of Trump’s agenda, such as it is. Needless to say, the Bannonite faction inside the West Wing is particularly hostile to the generals’ goals. Bannon is a racist, an anti-Semite, and a neo-fascist troglodyte, but his desire for the United States not to be the world’s policeman is not without merit. He goes way too far, IMHO, and his Lindbergh-harkening America First 2.0 philosophy is clearly driven by shameful ethno-nationalism and xenophobia more than by anything resembling morality, democracy, or even simple decency. But not getting involved in stupid wars is not the worst guiding principle I ever heard.
By some accounts, there are even questions about the extent to which Mattis and McMaster share a common agenda, or even get along. Just because two dudes are both generals doesn’t mean they’re going to be BFFs. In fact, exactly the opposite is often the case.
A case in point is McMaster’s aforementioned push for an expanded war in Afghanistan, which apparently has gotten no more traction than his efforts to steer Trump toward a more collaborative attitude regarding NATO, or a tougher one toward Russia, or a more pragmatic one toward Iran and its nuclear ambitions. No serious military strategist or Southwest Asia area expert believes the United States can “win” in Afghanistan by the usual definition of the word. Not even McMaster seems to believe that. He is merely looking for the least terrible option, which he apparently feels involves a US troop surge and an ongoing American commitment for the foreseeable future. (Many other informed thinkers disagree.)
Trump, typically, has no stomach for a hard dilemma like that which offers no good options, only degrees of failure. Hence the Trump administration’s active solicitation of a batshit plan to privatize the war and fight it with mercenaries, as proposed by Christian supremacist zealot cum fugitive war criminal and brother of Betsy DeVos, Erik Prince, the infamous founder of Blackwater. (Along with Stephen A. Feinberg the billionaire CEO of Dyncorp, another giant private military contractor conglomerate.) For Prince, this insane proposal is a two-fer: a chance to indulge the Republican impulse to privatize every fucking thing on the planet, and at the same time further line his pockets with additional billions of US taxpayer dollars. (Meanwhile, Trump has also asked Feinberg to conduct a review of US intelligence agencies, with whom Donald is of course at war, a clear-cut case of asking Dracula to inventory the bloodbank.)
No surprise, it was Bannon who commissioned that absurd and unconscionable proposal, with help from Jared “Flak Vest” Kushner. Steve-o, you see, isn’t against killing people—especially brown people. He just doesn’t want good old red-blooded all-American white kids to have to go do it. To his credit, Jim Mattis refused to include the Prince/Feinberg proposal in the survey of Afghanistan options he and McMaster were preparing for the president. And no surprise, Trump ultimately shot down the options Mattis and McMaster eventually presented, as none fit his infantile desire for a quick fix that required no expenditure of political capital.
If Trump manages to keep us out of needless wars, even by accident, that may be the only good thing he ever accomplishes as President. Then again, he might just as easily get us into one, equally by accident.
ELECT A CLOWN, EXPECT A CIRCUS
If Trump is indeed restraining his military leaders from ill-advised foreign entanglements, it is quite clear that it is not out of wisdom. Occasionally, greed and shameless self-interest have the purely coincidental effect of doing some collateral good. But by and large we are surely watching a rare inversion of the usual military-civilian dynamic described at the top of this piece.
So here we are, in a bizarro world where—for better or worse—we are relying on the military to save us from ourselves. Whether they will succeed is an open question. Only one thing is clear: the security and safety of our country and indeed the whole world has never been at greater risk, because the United States has recklessly put a malignant ignoramus with no respect for the truth, for advice, or for the rule of law into the most powerful position on earth.
Whoda thunk it?
7 thoughts on ““Strangelove” in Reverse: The Dangers of Mattis and McMaster as the Last Line of Defense”
“But when it comes to fictional coup d’etats and/or accidental nuclear wars…”
Coups d’etat, not “coup d’etats.”
Thank you! I stand corrected.
Good piece in Slate today addressing the growing chasm b/w the “warrior caste” and the rest of the American people, and the deleterious effects of that for our democracy….
You’re so interesting! I do not believe I’ve truly read through something like this before. So good to discover another person with some original thoughts on this topic. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This website is one thing that is required on the web, someone with a little originality!
LikeLiked by 1 person