“You must not fight too often with one enemy or you will teach him your art of war.” –Napoleon Bonaparte
A few months ago, something caught my attention on CNN or MSNBC, one of which is usually on in the background while I’m working. One of the seemingly endless parade of retired generals who are brought on these networks as commentators, a grouchy man whose name escapes me, answered an innocuous question by exclaiming that he learned everything he needed to know about his country’s enemies, “in a foxhole in Afghanistan”.
I was struck by the absurdity of this statement on two levels. First, ‘foxholes’ in Afghanistan probably aren’t the places where one would generally go looking for the U.S. military brass. Second, the General seemed to be burnishing a made for television image as a no nonsense, battle hardened soldier, and the act was pretty obvious, at least to this former Army brat.
The press likes to make a big fuss over military leaders, they will often assign them bizarre titles like “Warrior Monk” (Secretary of Defense James Mattis) or “Warrior Scholar” (NSC chief H.R. McMaster) implying that they are innovative thinkers rather than men who have pushed many of the same failed strategies for most of their careers.
Although it’s not true in every case, the culture of most militaries doesn’t normally reward creative thinking, at most times and in most places, it’s a culture of ‘yes men’ who go along to get along.
An example of this was offered by a former Marine Lt. General Greg Newbold, who spoke out about how this culture led to disaster in Iraq when high ranking officers refused to stand up to then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld’s low cost approach to the occupation, “When you look around at how many people were in positions to raise their voices, senior military leaders who had a duty to object, and how many did – I’m having trouble getting above one. But I know, personally, how many thought this whole thing was crazy. And if the military had said, ‘We won’t be a part of this,’ then it wouldn’t have been. They couldn’t have done it publicly, but they could have given their best military advice. And it was their duty.”
Some of these very same men, who seem to have cared more about their careers than the junior ranks whose lives they put on the line in places like Fallujah and Basra, are now serving in high positions in the Trump Administration and are among the very few figures that are spared unrelenting criticism in the press.
Having said that, this culture and the discipline it implies is in many ways the antithesis of the extreme nationalists temporarily elevated by President Trump but, for the moment, the generals appear to be ascendant in his administration This, however, creates a new set of problems that most media are not grappling with.
As an unnamed source within the White House told the New Yorker recently, “The White House is much looser now. They’re turning to the military and saying, ‘You do it. We trust you. You’re the pros’ I’m worried the pendulum is swinging the other way, and that the military gets whatever the hell they want.”
The President himself, who attended a military school, seems to enjoy the pomp and ceremony associated with military service, even if he usually ignores the advice his generals give him and often creates havoc for them.
In one recent example, he took to Twitter to announce a ban on transgender soldiers without informing either his Chief of Staff or the Secretary of Defense. He also reportedly asked his first National Security Council chief, the disgraced and somewhat unhinged Michael Flynn, to wear his uniform to work even though he was retired.
A rift on the right
The Trump Administration’s increasing reliance on three main generals: James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly, has caused a major rift in Trump’s base, separating the nativists who enthusiastically embraced the more populist part of his platform from many of the mainstream Republicans who also voted for him.
The former group, whose standard bearer in the White House was Steve Bannon, could be called the Alt-Light since their favored term, Alt-Right, has been somewhat ironically hi-jacked by Neo-Nazis. This isn’t to say that they aren’t racist (and misogynist), it’s that they prefer obvious dog-whistles to the full-throated bigotry expressed by the likes of Richard Spencer.
A battle between the more conventional generals and the coterie of extreme nationalists around Bannon began almost as soon as the President took office but really heated up after Kelly was moved from Homeland Security to replace Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff. Kelly reportedly gave McMaster, who replaced Flynn as the chief of the National Security Council, carte blanche to fire NSC staffers who were loyal to Bannon, including Ezra Cohen-Watnick and retired Col. Derek Harvey.
Their sin was having, “Meetings with Bannon throughout their tenure, described as hushed national security ‘chats’ by one senior White House official, without seeking McMaster’s permission beforehand.”
For all the press about the brilliance of the highly over-rated Bannon, he should have seen that protocol, while not important to a right wing bomb thrower like himself, is everything to a career military officer like McMaster.
Soon after the initial round of dismissals, Bannon himself was ousted and another controversial ally, Sebastian Gorka resigned (although some unnamed White House sources claim he was fired), writing in his resignation letter to the president, “Regrettably, outside of yourself, the individuals who most embodied and represented the policies that will ‘Make America Great Again,’ have been internally countered, systematically removed, or undermined in recent months. This was made patently obvious as I read the text of your speech on Afghanistan this week…”
Although he usually either contradicted himself or walked back what establishment voices saw as controversial statements regarding foreign policy during the campaign, Trump also posed as an anti-interventionist. This ‘instinct’, which he talked about during his Afghanistan speech has, if it was ever really there, been fully contained by the generals who are giving commanders in the field much more freedom from oversight than they had under the previous president. The result has been a massive increase in civilian casualties, not only in declared war zones Iraq and Afghanistan but in Syria, Yemen and Somalia as well.
While it’s important to be critical of senior officials in the Trump Administration, this isn’t an endorsement of the conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated attacks from the far right, especially on McMaster, who they call a ‘globalist’ and some have accused of being a tool of their favorite villain, currency manipulator George Soros.
A website put together by a man who gained some infamy attacking female game designers and journalists as a part of the Gamergate controversy and will remain nameless due to the fact that he’s the kind of basement dweller who thrives on any kind of publicity, ‘McMaster Leaks’ traffics in rumor and innuendo and doesn’t offer any real substantive leaks but gives readers an idea of the ire that has been directed at him.
McMaster, who is a better writer than any of his far right critics from Bannon on down, as evidenced by his book, “Dereliction of Duty” (although I don’t agree with most of his conclusions concerning the Vietnam War) has made light work of the white nationalist component of Trump’s White House. He is much more experienced at bureaucratic infighting than any of his opponents whose platform is built more on appeals to emotion than reason.
Although the coming escalation in Afghanistan pushed by Trump’s generals is a terrible idea that will probably end in more bloody failure and cost many more innocent Afghans and American and allied soldiers their lives, it is still better than the competing idea of privatizing the war pushed by Bannon and the notorious mercenary Erik Prince.
Still, the long standing argument about ensuring civilian control of the military has become more relevant than ever during the Trump presidency.
As explained by Dmitri Simes of the think tank Center for the National Interest, “I hear only good things about Mattis, and generals are important in terms of reassuring our allies and providing sound military strategies and advice to the president. But there is a long American tradition of having civilians with strong national security credentials in these jobs, and for a good reason. As the old saying goes, war is too important to be left to the generals.”
The problems represented by the over reliance on these military men is compounded by a staffing crisis that may be intentional. While Rex Tillerson has been a better Secretary of State than many thought likely, he is hamstrung by a lack of senior staff and more than seventy countries have no American ambassador. This is a problem that is afflicting every part of the government, including the Pentagon, where top civilian positions have yet to be filled.
After Charlottesville and Bannon’s ouster, the Alt-Light is, at least temporarily, a waning force in American political life, especially if the Chief of Staff is able to vet much of the news that finds its way onto his boss’ desk.
The most interesting thing about Bannon’s final week in the White House was an interview he gave to a reporter at the left leaning American Prospect. The choice of venue is as important as anything he said because it seems to show what many have long wondered, whether Breitbart and other organs of this new right are repackaging some of the ideas of the left (like infrastructure investment) and floating them alongside their repulsive xenophobia and sexism.
An argument has been bubbling in some places that the left should ally with some of these Alt-Light figures to achieve some of our broadly economically populist goals. Although we should be willing to work with anti-war libertarians in opposition to the generals and their media cheerleaders who may very well draw the United States and its allies into new wars, collaborating with fascists, even if advertised as ‘light’ is a bridge too far.
One enemy appears in public wearing t-shirts showing leftists being thrown from helicopters, while espousing ridiculous, ahistorical ideas about ‘Western chauvinism’ and ‘Cultural Marxism’ (although Marx did not write about culture) while the other wants to continue to dismiss and marginalize our voices while unleashing the vulture capitalists, despoiling the environment and calling for more war in places most of us can’t locate on a map. Both are dangerous and must be opposed, let’s hope they continue to fight among themselves.