I’ve written a fair number of pieces for TomDispatch, but this one is a bit different — some might even say strange — so Tom asked me to introduce it myself.
By almost any measure, we Americans are living through trying times. As a nation, we are long accustomed to being history’s spoiled child. Now, it seems our luck may be running out.
What’s the preeminent symbol of this extraordinary moment? A pandemic that has killed more than 190,000 of our fellow citizens? High unemployment and massive economic uncertainty? Wildfires and hurricanes that displace hundreds of thousands? Schools struggling just to open their doors? A long overdue reckoning with American racism? A white nationalist backlash? A political system corrupted by money and mired in dysfunction?
Take your pick. I suggest though that there’s at least one more item to add to that list: a national security establishment that has lost its way and is no longer able to distinguish between myth and reality.
According to myth: We’re Number 1! Planet Earth’s unquestioned maximum leader. The reality is somewhat different. Despite exorbitant sums spent by the Pentagon year after year, the American brand of global leadership looks increasingly tarnished, if not ready for the junk heap.
The other day, I stumbled across a striking claim by General James McConville, the chief of staff of the United States Army. You’ll find his here’s-what-we-stand-for statement prominently displayed on the Army’s website: “Winning Matters. We win with our People doing the right things the right way. When we send the U.S. Army somewhere, we don’t go to participate, we don’t go to try hard, we go to win. There is no second place or honorable mention in combat.”
Now, I understand the need for leaders to make a positive case for their organization. In Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury, the president of Walden College can be counted on to put a positive spin on an institution that ranks at the very bottom of the academic universe. He does know, however, that Walden is not Princeton. It serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.
So “win”? Please. The present-day United States Army rarely wins and it serves no purpose to pretend otherwise.
No doubt soldiers “try hard.” They are always out there bravely fighting someone, somewhere, and getting ready to fight somewhere else. The problem isn’t want of effort, it’s outcomes. And for that, senior military leaders like General McConville must bear at least some responsibility.
Now, it may be that when the general meets privately with his fellow four-stars to discuss how things are going, they ruminate over the lack of meaningful success in places like Afghanistan and Iraq despite endless years of effort. Maybe they even feel some sense of remorse. But if they do, they keep such critical thoughts under wraps. My guess is that they choose to ignore the recent past in favor of conjuring up future wars more to their liking — imaginary wars rather than real ones. And that qualifies as professional malpractice.
And as a long-ago soldier of no particular distinction, I’m haunted by this pattern of malpractice and the breezily dishonest posturing that sustains it. To illustrate the scope of this dishonesty and its implications, I’ve conjured up a conversation between three senior army officers — World War II’s hard-driving George Patton (a Trump favorite), Vietnam War commander (and “light at the end of the tunnel” guy) William Westmoreland, and a present-day general of my own invention. Listen in as they engage one another on the imperative of, and difficulty of, learning what war has to teach us all.
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.
Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.
Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.
Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?
He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.
The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.
The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.
“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”
“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”
“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”
Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”
Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”
The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”
“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.
“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”
“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”
Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.
“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.
Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”
“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.
“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”
Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”
Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”
“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”
“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”
VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”
“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”
VC squirms and falls silent.
His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”
He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”
Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”
The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.
“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.
“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9
Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”
“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.
“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”
“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”
“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.
“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.
“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”
“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”
“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”
“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”
A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”
Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”
Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”
Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”
Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”
He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”
However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”
Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses thatit’s time to go home.
“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.
“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.
What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.