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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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Such power and privilege corrupts. It leads to General Petraeus, then head of Central Command, being escorted to a private party in Florida by a  28-cop motorcade. It leads to General William Ward, the head of U.S. Africa Command, spending lavishly and so abusing his position that he was demoted and forced  into retirement. It leads to generals being so disconnected from their troops that they think nothing of sending a trove of  flirtatious emails to a starry-eyed socialite.

Disturbing as their personal behavior may be, the real problem is that America’s four-star proconsuls are far more powerful than our civilian ambassadors and foreign service members. Whether in Afghanistan, Africa, or Washington, the military controls the lion’s share of the money and resources. That, in turn, means  its proconsuls end up dictating foreign policy based on a timeless golden rule: “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Think of those proconsuls as the prodigal sons of a  sprawling American empire. In their fiefdoms, vast sums of money  can be squandered or simply go missing, as can vast quantities of weapons. Recall those pallets of hundred dollar bills that magically disappeared in Iraq (to the tune of  $18 billion).  Or the magical disappearance of 190,000 AK-47s and pistols in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, representing  30% of the weapons the U.S.  provided to Iraqi security forces. Or the  tens of thousands of assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers provided to Afghan security forces that magically disappeared in 2009 and 2010.

Such scandals in U.S. war zones should surprise no one. After all, noting that the Pentagon couldn’t account for $2.3 trillion (yes -- that’s  trillion) in spending, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared  a war on waste.  Good intentions, bad timing. The declaration came on September 10, 2001. A global war on terror followed, further engorging the military-industrial-homeland-security-intelligence complex with  nearly a trillion dollars a year for the next decade, while it morphed into the blob that ate Washington.

Whether in money, personnel, or the prestige and power it commands, the Pentagon simply  blows away the State Department and similar government agencies. Sheltered within cocoons of compliance (due to the constant stoking of  America’s fears) and adulation (due to the widespread  militarization of American culture), our proconsuls go unchallenged unless they behave very badly indeed.

Put simply, Americans need to stop genuflecting to our paper Caesars before we actually produce a real one, a man ruthless enough to cross the Rubicon (or the Potomac) and parlay total military adulation into the five stars of absolute political authority.

Unless we wish to salute our very own Imperator, we need to regain a healthy dose of skepticism,  shared famously by our Founders, when it comes to evaluating our generals and our wars. Such skepticism may not stop generals and admirals from behaving badly, but it just might help us radically downsize an ever more militarized global mission and hew more closely to our democratic ideals.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. His books and articles focus primarily on military history and include Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005). He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu.
 
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