The View From Olympus: Are the Generals Risking their Legitimacy?

The September 3 New York Times reported that General John Nicholson, our supreme commander in Afghanistan for the last 31 months, in his departing speech as he turned over his command called for an end to the war.

Nearly 17 years to the day (since 9/11), now a four-star general departing as the commander of the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, (General Nicholson) stood under the shade of pine trees in Kabul on Sunday, and delivered an emotional farewell.

The general. . . said he wanted to speak from the heart.

“It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end,” General Nicholson said.

Well, yes.  That has been true since the failure of the U.S. Army’s attempt to encircle and capture Osama bin Laden in the first couple months of the conflict.  But why did General Nicholson wait until he was giving up his authority and leaving the country to state the obvious?  When President Donald Trump wanted to end the war and bring our troops home, did General Nicholson support him?  Or did he remain silent, or, worse, join the piling-on when our senior generals convinced the President to stay and send in more troops?

The frequency and blatancy of American generals’ failure of moral courage appears to be growing.  It is not a new problem.  During the entire Vietnam war, not a single service chief resigned in protest, though many said after their retirement that they knew we could not win.  Generals and admirals alike have long done nothing in the face of vast procurement debacles, like the ongoing disasters that are the Ford-class aircraft carriers and the F-35 fighter/bomber.  All senior military leaders have presided for decades over a Second Generation military, with only a few, such as Marine Corps Commandant General A.M. Gray, attempting to wake their service from its slumber and move it at least into the Third Generation as war moves into the Fourth.  No one, it seems, ever told American generals one of the Church’s oldest truths, that the sin of omission is as grave as the sin of commission.

Yet now we are seeing more and more cases of generals making active blunders, blunders that reveal their distance from their troops and the realities they face in the field as well as a lack of moral courage.  In the Marine Corps, a Commandant, General Neller, had to concur in the relief of Lt. Col. Marcus Mainz, the Corps’ best battalion commander, for the trivial offense of using a politically incorrect word when speaking to his Marines.  Such public groveling before the idol of cultural Marxism should alone disqualify anyone from commanding anything.  Now, the Chief of Staff of the Army is pushing a new physical fitness test, the ACFT (Army Combat Fitness Test), that from preliminary results may force at least a third of our soldiers out–at a time when the Army is falling short of its recruiting goals and end-strength.  Does he have any awareness of his service’s realities beyond his (plush) office?  Could he pass the ACFT himself?

Generals need two kinds of legitimacy if they are to be effective as military leaders.  They need legitimacy in the eyes of the men they command and they need legitimacy before their political superiors, which in our case includes the American public.  History is full of the names of generals who, by their own military incompetence, their disconnect with their troops, and their alienation from their political bosses were failures, often to the point of destroying their armies and their countries.  Heading the list in the 20th century is Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, Chief of the K.u.K. (Austro-Hungarian) General Staff before and during much of World War I.  His campaign plans were such colossal failures that he virtually devoured his own army; his initial offensive in Galicia in 1914 wiped out the peacetime Austrian army in three weeks.  During the entire war he visited the front only three times, living the high life of wine, women, and song in AOK, his headquarters in Poland, as Vienna starved.  Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination at Sarajevo touched off the war Conrad wanted and the Archduke did not, loathed him and tried to force him out.  Franz Ferdinand could have saved the Hapsburg Monarchy; Conrad destroyed it.

America’s generals’ legitimacy is increasingly in question, for much the same reasons: military incompetence, i.e., wars lost; distance from those they nominally lead; and moral cowardice, as in the Mainz affair, that alienates much of their conservative political base.  Who among our generals should get the Conrad Prize?  Nominations are open.


Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.

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