Wednesday, June 23, 2010

McChrystal Balls

The McChrystal affair demonstrates, once again, a basic fact of life when it comes to the American nation – namely, that the military will never – and I mean never – not in a thousand years – overthrow the civilian government in some sort of coup. Now, I say this despite its being a fairly obvious fact, because it wasn't that long ago that it wasn't obvious at all. There were rumors of military coups in the offing during the Vietnam war, for instance – the notion that the civilian leadership was too soft, too ambivalent, too willing to compromise... and not patriotic enough. Downright anti-American, even. Treasonous! And so forth. Some of this same thinking was revived – with good reason – during the Clinton administration, and, sure enough, the next Democratic president has created some of the very same... not ideas so much as feelings.

I mean, think about it – the military is expected to go to war for no damn good reason in any flea-bitten craphole on earth that our politicians and their advisors consider fighting in, or over. That's number one. And then they are subject to mediocre, at best, compensation, housing, food, medical care, etc. -- they are trapped in the service because of “stop loss” policies... and if they come home in anything but one piece they will be subject to the tender mercies of the VA hospital system for the rest of their natural lives. All in exchange for fighting what can, at best, be described as unpopular wars. Their only hope for unambivalent esteem and respect lies in the possibility that they'll be sent home in a body bag, in which case all of the fetishes and iconography of America in the act of burying its war dead will be trotted out. But if they're not around to appreciate it, what good is it?

On the other hand, the military as an entity, and especially its higher-ranking officers, see value in war for all sorts of reasons. Not only is it, as I've said before, the premier self-defining activity for any society, especially our own, it's also an opportunity (one of the few that is left) for our youth to “prove their manhood” (or for their female counterparts to prove their manhood, I suppose). That's on the idealistic side. On the practical side, there is no form of training that is better than actual combat... and no form of testing of weapons and materiel better than that afforded by actual fighting in a war zone. I mean, how do we know whether our troops are well-trained and their equipment well-made unless they are tried out once in a while – and not in some limp-wristed military “exercise” but in the real world of blazing combat, against people who really are trying to kill you, no kidding.

And then there is the whole promotion/rank/esteem aspect of war... the fact that wars generate medals, and ribbons, and ascending to the heights for those who have shown themselves worthy. We need, and want, victory parades and heroes crowned with laurel wreaths... and there is considerable self-definition value in having millions of veterans, in various states of handicap and decay, housed in a vast system of hospitals and available to be trotted out on patriotic occasions. As a culture, we place a higher value on war than on any other activity – so it's shameful when we wind up ambivalent, at times, about the results. Millions of veterans with PTSD? We should be celebrating the fact! After all, they went where they were told to go, did what they were told to do, and all for the greater glory of “the American way of life” (which somehow, mysteriously, requires us to always be in a state of war with at least one other country). So even if we were remiss in fully celebrating their return to the homeland, we should not now continue to neglect them, or their needs, because they represent, in fact, the ultimate truth about America... our world view... our way of life. Without them, none of it would be possible; you might say that by their stripes we are healed and made whole.

Now, having said all the above, you would think the American military would settle comfortably into their role as the leading edge of the American Empire, with all that that implies and entails. And most of them do, most of the time. But occasionally a troublemaker manages to rise up from the ranks (even though countless safeguards are in place to prevent this from ever happening). This would be someone with an “attitude”, let's say... someone who fancies themselves a modern incarnation of George Patton (or Rommel). Now, these people are valuable, no doubt – especially in extreme situations. It's not hard to imagine McChystal, for example, crawling up out of a swamp with a dagger in his teeth, ready to slay an entire platoon of Viet Cong (or Taliban, whatever). But the problem with these Rambo types is that you can dress them up, but you can't take them out. They don't work and play well with others. They have spotless uniforms but bad haircuts. They're not paper-pushers, bureaucrats, administrators, diplomats, ass-kissers, toadies, or any of the rest of it – qualities which are invaluable around the Pentagon, and around Washington, but which are generally held in contempt by “the guys in the field”, especially the guys in war zones. So the eternal conflict – within the military as well as between the military and their civilian overlords – is: What makes the good, and ideal, general (or admiral)? The diplomat? The bureaucrat? The ass kisser? The technocrat? Or the warrior? (I use this term advisedly, because, as someone once pointed out, “Soldiers are trained to fight, but warriors are _born_ to fight.”) Is there any room, in other words, for the Patton or the MacArthur in today's military, in which the skills that are needed most of the time and in most places anything but combat skills – i.e. anything but leading troops to victory. And this is why kerfuffles like the McChrysal affair are inevitable, if increasingly rare – because the military itself is ambivalent as to what makes a good leader, and the civilian world is even more ambivalent. And for the “purist” among the military – and I assume McChrystal counts as a purist – this is all a perfectly disgusting and distressing state of affairs. After all, the purpose of the military is to fight, right? With everything at one's disposal, and without holding back. No doubts, no second thoughts, no ambivalence – just “over the top” and mow down as many of those little yellow (or brown, whatever) devils as you can, because this is what the folks back home (and especially that “special gal” who still writes you letters, thank goodness) expect you to do. And, above all, don't wimp out, don't be one of those pussies who refuses to fire live rounds at the enemy, or who develops “shell shock” or PTSD. War is a man's game, so be a man – or get the hell out of the way. This is what you might call the “McChrystal mindset” -- his and that of his type. And they have very little use for their peers in the military who insist on seeing the other guy's point of view – especially when that other guy is some fat, lazy, corrupt politician who's probably never even fired a gun in his life (Dick Cheney being at least one notable exception). It is a vision that is remarkable in its clarity... in its black-and-whiteness... and it is simply incompatible with politics, or diplomacy, or all the other ambivalences that characterize our habit of making war in these times. And at times the dissonance between this vision and the political reality reaches such a level of disgust that even the best-disciplined, most self-sacrificing and stoic soldier occasionally “loses it” and starts saying what he really thinks. And when he says it to a reporter (Rolling Stone?? You've got to be kidding.) there's hell to pay... because all of a sudden the wimpy, pale, flabby civilian turns out to be your boss, and you turn out to be... turned out. And that this situation is highly offensive to the true believers in the military hardly needs to be said... but it's a fact nonetheless, and one that is not likely to change at any time in the present era of history. The U.S. is not, after all, in Latin America, or Africa, or Southeast Asia, or just about anywhere else where, because might makes right, the military take it upon themselves, on occasion, to upset the civilian government and install one of their own as ruler. And this usually turns out to be a bad idea because... well, because the military mind is the military mind, that's all. Even Gen. Petraeus, for all of his brilliance, only thinks part way into questions – further than most, certainly, but not as far as one would need to think to be a truly great leader. The military attitude, basically, is that if you've solved the military questions, you've solved all the questions – there are no others worth worrying about. But this is to believe that the military, and war, are ends in themselves, and not means to other ends. But we know better – or at least think we do. The military is a tool, and nothing more – although this role can be of vital importance, and it makes a huge difference to the fate of a society whether or not it is performed well. A successful society with an incompetent military isn't going to last for long – at least not in this world. A deeply flawed society with a successful military? Well, it may last a while, but it will not die an easy death. This is what the Romans experienced, and what, I believe, we are fated to experience. I don't suppose sending the McChrystals out to pasture is going to accelerate the trend all that much... but the incident does illustrate our degree of degeneration at this point. If a general who believes in winning is fired for expressing that belief, what does that say about the civilian leadership? That they don't believe in winning? Ultimately, the answer has to be yes. They don't want to win, because the current program is based on a premise of perpetual war. So things have to stay ambivalent, equivocal, and a bit anemic – and this is precisely what people like McChrystal object to, and can't stand – that the military is being given hopeless, no-win assignments on purpose... and we are fighting wars that not only are unwinnable, but are actually designed that way. This has to be infuriating for the true believer type, and I'm amazed that his comments on the matter were as mild as they were. What he should have said is that politicians who get us into wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be taken out and shot. But then, there are all those medals...

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