The Generals Aren't Going to Save Us

There is perhaps no more depressing reflection of the state of American democracy and the desperation many progressives feel about it than the fact that many who are concerned about Donald Trump believes that a coterie of generals including Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor HR McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly are the best hope for preserving our democracy. However, civilian control of the government generally and the military have long, and for good reasons, been bedrock principles of our democracy, but today it is these military men who many see as providing the only check, or perhaps sanity, in the Trump administration. Projecting democratic values, or even the ability to craft good policy onto these generals reflects the dire nature of how many feel today, but ultimately it is grasping for political straws and failing to recognize just how bad things are.

For example, compared to many of the other members of Trump’s cabinet, such as Ben Carson or Rick Perry, James Mattis is smart and has ample relevant experience. Simply meeting what should be a basic requirement for serving even in a mid-level position is so unusual in the Trump cabinet, that many have ignored another side of Secretary Mattis. He is an extremely hawkish military man occupying a position that has long been reserved for civilians. The US has long urged its allies, particularly NATO aspirants to maintain civilian control of the military, as an important democratic principle. Today many look at the abrogation of that here as good.

A few weeks ago a short video went somewhat viral among critics of Donald Trump. The video showed Secretary Mattis speaking to troops in Afghanistan. Overall the Secretary spoke respectfully and inspiringly to the brave American men and women listening to his speech. He sounded exactly as an older senior military man should while speaking to younger members of the military who are very much in harms way. For that Secretary Mattis should be lauded. However, that was not what made the video so popular. A few minutes into the speech, the Defense Secretary urged his audience to keep doing their work, despite “it (the US) ha(ving) some problems right now. You know it and I know it.” He asked those in active service in Afghanistan to “hold the line until our country gets back to respecting and understanding each other.” That was a very unusual statement coming from a sitting Defense Secretary suggesting that domestic divisions are on the minds of our most senior military officials and that they know these problems are real.

The Secretary’s statements about the condition of our country are why many opponents of Trump were heartened by the video, but if they paid close attention a minute or so earlier in the video, they would have heard Mattis say, “We’re gonna keep right on fighting until they are sick of us, (and) leave us alone.” That sentence is a good encapsulation of what is wrong with US policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, particularly Iraq. Continuing to fight until they, presumably our enemies, are sick of us, is an absurd idea. It overlooks the central reality that the terrorists never get sick of us, and in fact rely upon the American military presence to recruit more people to their cause. Mattis’s formulation, in other words, is a recognition that there is no end in sight in Afghanistan and that our efforts there amount to permanent war for permanent peace.

A few sentences while speaking to troops, coming from a general, is simply bluster, but from the sitting Secretary of Defense, it is essentially policy. Moreover, Donald Trump’s recent speech in which he outlined his Afghanistan policy reflected the same sentiment. Thus, our Afghanistan policy remains that of continuing the effort there until things get better and then staying there to make sure they don’t regress. There is illogic to this policy, one of throwing good money after bad and throwing more brave American young men and women into combat with no clear objective.

Mattis is a general and a Defense Secretary in a Republican administration, albeit a very unusual one, so we cannot be surprised that he is a hawk. The problem is that we have a president who is sufficiently cognitively impaired that he cannot weigh options and is likely to simply listen to the last person with whom he spoke, or the person who appeared the most impressive while speaking. In that context, the absent of thoughtful civilian control of the military is even more devastating.

The generals who many now think can save our democracy reflect the military thinking that helped create the problem in the first place. The commitment to these long wars, with no concrete end or goal in sight has contributed to the economic problems, shattered young live and communities and contributed to increased racial tensions and the appeal of demagogues like Donald Trump. People who don’t make that connection are unlikely to be the ones rescuing our democracy anytime soon.

Photo: cc/Jim Mattis