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Petraeus Was a Disaster: Enough with Glorifying Failed Military Generals

Generals run amuck, politicians who could care less and an embedded media are not a good formula for accountability.

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Generals behaving badly aren’t the heart of the problem, only a symptom of the rot. The recent peccadilloes of Petraeus et al. are a reminder that these men never were the  unbesmirched “heroes” so many imagined them to be. They were always the product of a military-industrial complex  deeply invested in war, abetted by a media as in bed with them as Paula Broadwell, and a cheerleading citizenry that came to worship all things military even as it went about its otherwise unwarlike business.

Pruning a few bad apples from the upper branches of the military tree is going to do little enough when the rot extends to  root and branch. Required is more radical surgery if America is to avoid ongoing debilitating conflicts and the disintegration of our democracy.

Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy

A simple first step toward radical surgery would certainly involve cutting the number of generals and admirals at least in half.

America’s military is astonishingly top heavy, with 945 generals and admirals on active duty  as of March 2012. That’s one flag-rank officer for every 1,500 officers and enlisted personnel. With one general for every 1,000 airmen, the Air Force is  the worst offender, but the Navy and Army aren’t far behind. For example, the Army has 10 active-duty divisions -- and 109 major generals to command them. Between September 2001 and April 2011, the military  actually added another 93 generals and admirals to its ranks (including 37 of the three- or four-star variety). The glut extends to the ranks of full colonel (or, in the Navy, captain). The Air Force has roughly 100 active-duty combat wings -- and 3,712 colonels to command them. The Navy has 285 ships -- and 3,335 captains to command them. Indeed, today’s Navy has nearly as many admirals (245 as of March 2012) as ships.

Any high-ranking officer worth his or her salt wants to command, but this glut has contributed to their rapid rotation in and out of command -- five Afghan war commanders  in five years, for instance -- disrupting any hopes for command continuity. The situation also breeds cutthroat competition for prestige slots and allows patterns of me-first careerism to flourish.

Such a dynamic leads to mediocrity rather than excellence. Yet one area in which the brass does excel is fighting to preserve  their bloated slots, despite regular efforts by civilian secretaries of defense to trim them. 

Still, such pruning isn’t faintly enough. A 50% cut may seem unkind, but don’t spend your time worrying about demobbed generals queuing up for unemployment checks.  Clutching their six-figure pensions, most of them would undoubtedly speed through the Pentagon’s golden revolving door onto the corporate boards of, or into consultancies with, various armaments manufacturers and influence peddlers, as  70% of three- and four-star retirees have in fact done in recent years. 

Even a 50% cut would still leave approximately 470 active-duty generals and admirals to cheer on. Perhaps they should be formed into their own beribboned battalion and sent to war. Heck, the Spartans held the Persians off at Thermopylae with a mere 300 fighters. Nearly 500 pissed-off generals and admirals might just be the shock troops needed to “surge” again in Afghanistan.   

Of Proconsuls, Imperators, and the End of Democracy

In Roman times, a proconsul was a military ruler of imperial territories, a man with privileges as sweeping as his powers. Today’s four-star generals and admirals -- there are 38 of them -- often have equivalent powers, and  the perksto go with them. Executive jets on call. Large retinues. Personal servants. Private chefs. 

 
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