America’s “leaders” believe they are in-the-know, and the rest of us are know-nothings who can be pushed around or ignored.
Perhaps the most honest thing Hillary Clinton ever did was to speak of her “basket of deplorables” after which she dismissed them as “irredeemable.” This is exactly how Hillary and most of our “leaders” think. Anyone who’s skeptical of them, anyone who asks for proof, anyone who’s willing to resist, is thrown into a “deplorable” basket and dismissed.
It will work until it doesn’t; indeed, it’s already not working. But the system is not about to give in. At the presidential level, America’s likely candidates for “leader of the free world” in 2024 are Joe Biden and Donald Trump, or, as my wife likes to joke, ODR versus ODR. Old Demented Rotter versus Old Divisive Rotter.
Let’s take the “old” part first, since ageism is an instant rejoinder. It used to be said that being President of the U.S. was the toughest, most demanding, job in the world, making enormous demands on physical stamina and mental acuity. Eisenhower was considered old when he left the presidency at the age of 70, replaced by John F. Kennedy at the age of 43. If Biden is reelected in 2024, he will be 82 that November, and Trump will be 78. Both men are well past their prime. Are they truly ready for the rigors of the office? Do we trust either man to be able to complete another four-year term in office?
Now, let’s take the “D” part. Many observers have noted Biden’s mental decline; it was readily noticeable in 2020 when he ran as a candidate in the primaries. Sadly, mental decline often accelerates with age, sometimes unpredictably. Reelecting Joe Biden in 2024, assuming he runs again, will likely lead to his vice president taking over for him during his second term of office. Trump, meanwhile, is a divisive leader whose personal motto might be “divide and rule.” A leader should bring people together for their mutual advantage, not tear them apart for his own advantage.
And now the “R” part, the “rotter.” Neither Trump nor Biden is a champion of workers, of the poor, of the vulnerable. Neither has much empathy. Both are deeply compromised. It’s a common failing of “big fish” politicians to have so little regard for the commoners that they rule, but surely we can find candidates that are, dare I say, less rotten?
“Leaders” like Hillary Clinton are fond of denouncing large swaths of the American public as “deplorable.” Is this not a classic case both of projection and of profound narcissism? How do we move beyond ODR versus ODR in 2024?
In a sad spectacle, former President Barack Obama visited the White House and humiliated his former VP, Joe Biden, as this video shows:
Who cares, right? But I do want to say a few things about this:
Obama stands revealed here as a total narcissist as he basks in the applause and approval of White House political operatives while Joe Biden stands outside the circle of joy, looking lost and insignificant.
Obama’s “joke” of addressing a sitting president as “Vice President” was unintentionally revealing of Biden’s lack of power within the White House and his own party.
I’m not surprised Obama treated Biden in this humiliating manner. Obama intervened in 2020 and made Biden the nominee for the Democratic Party. Recall how he got both Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to drop out before Super Tuesday, thereby boosting Biden’s vote in his race against Bernie Sanders. Without Obama’s intervention, Sanders would have been the likely winner of the nomination process. But Obama and the DNC could not stomach the idea of a progressive like Sanders winning the nomination, so Biden was propped up as the candidate who could win, i.e., the candidate who could be controlled by corporate forces.
Here’s my biggest concern. Biden isn’t a complete dummy, and no man truly wants to be a puppet of others. So I wonder if we’ll see Biden increasingly go off-script, in increasingly angry ways, that contribute to an increasingly dangerous world.
Biden has already gone dangerously off-script in calling for Vladimir Putin’s overthrow in Russia. To Biden, Putin is a “war criminal” who must not remain in power. It’s possible this heated, somewhat unhinged, rhetoric is that of an emasculated man who knows he’s little more than a figurehead.
Biden turns 80 later this year and says he wants to run again in 2024. Yet, at this Obama celebration at the White House, he looked like a man lost, a bit player in his own house, diminished to the point of irrelevance.
And that’s not a good thing when the U.S. needs effective, sound, and determined leadership.
If nothing else is true, COVID-19 is a wake-up call to all of us about the need for strong, smart, and resolute leadership.
Donald Trump is not that kind of leader. He ducks all responsibility for mistakes, provides false information, and blames the crisis on others (Europeans, a “foreign” virus, the Obama administration, and so on). His VP, Mike Pence, has been a non-entity for years and has done nothing to allay the concerns of Americans.
Meanwhile, the Democratic front runner, Joe Biden, has given short remarks read off a teleprompter. I see headlines like “Can Biden handle a two-hour debate?” and I wince. If serious people think Biden may not have the physical and mental endurance to perform well in a staged political conversation, how can we possibly believe he is fit enough to be president for four years? Biden will be 78 in November, and none of us is getting younger. If there are serious concerns about his mental and physical stamina now, when he’s not being pushed, how can there not be profound concerns about his ability to handle the burden of presidential leadership? Severe stress ages everyone, and we shouldn’t close our eyes to this reality.
Roughly the same age, Bernie Sanders appears mentally and physically robust, and his speeches on the pandemic have been sensible, detailed, and smart. But even Bernie isn’t getting any younger.
In Biden’s case, people may argue that Joe can always fall back on his VP if he fails in office. But we don’t elect a president with the idea that he’s infirm and may soon need to pass his duties to a younger man or woman.
There is one presidential candidate still in the running for the Democrats who is strong, smart, and resolute and who is young to boot: Tulsi Gabbard. She is 39 and has dramatic ideas to help ordinary Americans during this crisis. Yet she’s been excluded from the Democratic debate by the DNC that can’t forgive her for supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016 while criticizing corruption within the party.
As Americans, we need to get serious about our leaders. Trump has shown he has no answers. Biden’s debate performances (among other public appearances) raise serious questions about his mental and physical capacity for office.
Yet as of this moment these two men appear to be our likely choices come November. At a time of severe crisis, that’s no choice at all.
In 2004, when I was still on active duty, I spoke on leadership at the Panetta Institute in Monterey, California. At the time, I was the associate provost/dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
To prepare for my talk, I jotted down a few notes; I’ve decided not to update these or change them. (I’m sure I’d say a few different things today; then again, I’ve been retired from the military since 2005.)
Here are my notes from 2004 (with a few additions for the sake of clarity):
What is uniquely military about military leadership?
Life and death situations (but also true of Police, Fire, MDs, etc.)
Mandate to take the lives of others under certain ROEs (rules of engagement)
Inherent chaos (fog and friction) of war. Thus leaders must promote cohesion—bonds of trust within a unit—else the unit may collapse under the stresses of war
Possibility of routine loss of leaders on the battlefield requires the development of junior leaders with the willingness and emotional strength to take command when needed
Importance of an officer’s commission from the president, and his/her oath of office to the Constitution. Fidelity to the Constitution, and Integrity and Honor in general, are essential qualities
Role of long-serving NCOs (non-commissioned officers)—take care of them, and help them take care of junior enlisted. Put their needs before your own. Share sacrifices: Yes, RHIP (rank has its privileges). But officers should eat same grub as grunts. Take care of the needs of the men and women you’re leading before you address your own needs.
No one personality type. Our greatest leaders have been everything from vainglorious (MacArthur) to self-effacing (Gen Bradley)
“They don’t care how much you know, but they’ll know how much you care.” Actually, your subordinates care about both. Combination of emotional intelligence with intellect and hard work. You don’t have to be the brightest or best, but you may need to compensate with work.
Respect for subordinates; and don’t play favorites
Listen before acting
Keep calm in times of stress
Role model: As a leader, you are always being watched
Humility but not diffidence: If you don’t lead, who will?
Refuse to tolerate incompetence
Recognize top performers. Don’t take your best people for granted. Remember to reward them.
Communication: Telling people to suck it up sounds tough and appropriate in a military context. But are you sucking it up too? Nothing more corrosive than hypocrisy at the top. Integrity and sincerity are essential.
Look inside yourself. Why do you want to be a leader?
Academic leadership: Irony is that many academics avoid leadership positions because they distract from individual scholarship and academic achievement. [This mindset is] foreign to the military. Officers and NCOs trained to lead. Necessary because war might quickly knock out commanders; subordinates must be ready to act. Thus department chairs [in academe] often rotate; “burden sharing” rather than leadership. Healthy iconoclasm in academe, but it should not get in the way of leading.
“Question authority” is not enough. “Change authority” or “Become authority” if you don’t like the answers you’re hearing.
At the USAF Academy, there was a “Bring Me Men” ramp, but that slogan was removed due to sexual harassment scandals, even though the sentiment was based on a quotation from the late 19th century. But what it always was intended to mean was “Bring Me Leaders.” Leaders have moral courage to take responsibility and report clearly to the people. As commissioned officers, we swear an oath to the Constitution, and to protect it against foreign and domestic enemies. We do not swear an oath of allegiance to a specific leader or monarch. But an officer must also respect the chain of command. You go outside that chain at your peril.
Get to know your military. How many of you plan to serve in the military? Congress is ignorant of military matters. A minority have served (about 30%, whereas in 1969 it was nearly 70%) and even fewer have sons and daughters who are willing to serve. Only six congressional representatives and one senator have children serving in the military. 7/535 members = 1.3%. Among the rich and connected, the military is not seen as a desirable profession compared to law, medicine, business, or other, honorable professions.
How to get to know “your” military: Take an ROTC course at your college/university. Attend a military ceremony. Ask questions. The U.S. military needs your interest. Perhaps too narrowly drawn from the lower classes, but that’s not the military’s fault. No recruit is turned away because he or she is too rich or because he or she attended Stanford or Berkeley.
How would you like to be the leader of a U.S. military unit in Iraq that was expecting to rotate after a year, after which your men and women are told they have to stay for six more months, possibly longer? How do you keep people’s spirits up? Keep them focused on the mission while they’re separated from loved ones for months at a time?
My wife perceptively notes how the USA is sliding backwards. Racism has new vigor even as science is rejected, e.g. climate change denial. A woman’s right to choose is under attack. Immigrants once again are openly subjected to prejudice and scorn. Diversity of views and efforts at inclusion are rejected as so many exercises in “political correctness.” Unions are being weakened and the working poor are attacked as lazy and irresponsible. Life expectancy for many is declining, mainly due to suicide, opioid and other addictions, and illnesses related to poor eating habits and obesity. War is perpetual and violence is never-ending. Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer, a sign of “greatness,” at least to Trump and his followers.
Sexism, racism, prejudice, ignorance, scapegoating, the privilege of rich white men to say and do whatever they want: this is “greatness” to Trump. The embodiment of fat cat privilege, Trump rides about in his golf cart and swats balls at his various “resorts.” Indeed, America’s hard-working president, who said as a candidate he’d have no time for golf or vacations, has spent one-third of his presidency on vacation. Mission accomplished!
Meanwhile, Democratic officialdom is looking backwards, not forwards. The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) idea of progress is to bring a lawsuit against Russia, the Trump campaign, and WikiLeaks for the 2016 election. This act will “fire up the base,” or so leading Democrats appear to think. But it’s really sour grapes, a loser policy conducted by pols who remain out of touch with the pressing concerns of ordinary Americans (you know, things like health care, a living wage, and other issues associated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign). If only America had a true Labor Party instead of a DNC that mirrors the Republicans while lacking their focus and ruthlessness.
Let’s face it: America needs a new leader, a fresh start, an unapologetic progressive, someone who’s smart but who also possesses empathy. Someone on the side of workers; someone like Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand.
Roughly half Trump’s age, Jacinda Ardern represents the future. Intelligent, principled, committed to her people, Ardern is refreshingly honest and frank. Imagine, for a moment, a truly progressive woman as president of the United States, one who has the courage of her convictions, one committed to fairness and equity in society, one untainted by big money, even one who’s unabashedly pregnant and who supports maternity and paternity leave for parents.
She’s got spunk too. When she first met Trump and he had a snide remark for her, she replied that masses of people didn’t take to the streets to protest when she was elected. As my Kiwi friend put it, “It’s the ability of Jacinda to not only represent her own party but pull together alliances that is impressive. Not only an arrangement with the conservative ‘New Zealand First’ party but also the Greens.” She brings people together for the greater good — making concessions when she has to. What a quaint concept.
America could use a woman like Jacinda Ardern as president. If only my Kiwi friends would let her emigrate! (Yes, sadly, she wasn’t born here so she couldn’t run, but let a man dream, dammit.) Perhaps Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard will emerge as America’s Jacinda in 2020; aligned with Bernie Sanders, Gabbard has moxie as well as military experience. But I wouldn’t bank on it. The DNC, still with its collective head up its ass, isn’t seeing the future too clearly.
One of the joys of blogging is hearing from insightful readers. Today, I’d like to share two notes that highlight vitally important issues within the military — and that touch on larger problems within American society.
The first note comes from a senior non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. This NCO highlights the tendency for “green” (new) officers to want to prove themselves as “warfighters,” instead of doing the hard work of learning their jobs, which entails listening to their NCOs with a measure of humility while working together as a team. It further highlights the arrogance of some officers who are full of themselves after graduating from military academies, where they are often told to “take charge” because they are “the very best.”
Here’s the note:
As a Chief Hull Technician, I ran the damage control and repair shop. My shop was responsible for hull, piping, water, sewage repairs and damage control equipment on our ship. The officer in charge of “R” Division is always a first assignment for new ensigns reporting to their first ship. I was a senior enlisted with 16 years in the Navy, working for a 22 year old (ensign) with either 4 years at the academy or nine weeks of OCS (officer commissioning school) and a year of SWO (surface warfare) school. All the new officers want to be war fighters. None want to know the nuts and bolts of actually running the ship. During my tour I had 3 (Naval) academy and one OCS ensign. The ensigns from the (Naval) academy were horrible. Not just bad officers, but lousy people. I understand the cluelessness of a 22 year old, but the desire to achieve with no regard for the people who will make you great was appalling. They did not realize their crew would make them great. They thought they were so brilliant, they could do it on their own. My job was to save them from themselves. My Chief Engineer would get mad at me when they made asses of themselves. My OCS ensign was a good officer. He wasn’t full of the Naval Academy education… Breaking traditions is hard in the military. The fact we have presidents with no military leadership is contributing to letting the Generals run wild. Instead of realizing the civilians control the military, not the other way. I would have fired or (forced) early retirements of all flag officers who supported the Iraq war. Who needs people around who give bad advice?
This senior NCO makes an excellent point at the end of his letter. Why not fire or early retire generals and admirals who offer bad advice? But rarely in the military is any senior officer held to account for offering bad advice. As LTC Paul Yingling noted in 2007, a private who loses a rifle is punished far more severely than a general who loses a war. Citing Yingling, military historian Thomas E. Ricks noted in an article at The Atlantic in 2012 that “In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.”
Since 1945 decisive victories by the U.S. military have been few but everyone nevertheless gets a trophy.
The second note I received is as brief as it is powerful:
My father is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he flew both Korea & Vietnam, had the time of his young hot shot fighter pilot life in Korea, but had grave misgivings in Vietnam, and in fact was passed over for a Wing & a promotion to General, because as he said to me on 1969 after his return; “There is something fundamentally wrong with dropping napalm on little old men in rice paddies, and going back to (the) Officers Club to drink it up, and do it all over again the next day.”
Yes, there is something wrong with dropping murderous weaponry on often innocent people, then returning the next day to do it again (and again), without experiencing any doubts or moral qualms. There is also something wrong with a military that promotes amoral true believers over those officers who possess a moral spine.
The issue of killing innocent civilians is yet again in the news as casualties rise during the Trump administration. According to The Independent:
More than three-quarters of the civilians killed during the four-year war against Isis in Iraq and Syria occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency, new figures show.
A total of 831 civilians have been “unintentionally killed” over the period, according to the US military’s own figures.
And the official figures offered by the U.S. military significantly underestimate civilian deaths, notes a recent study by Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan. Yet moral qualms about the deaths of innocents are rarely heard today.
I’d like to thank again readers who share their insights and experiences with me, whether by email or in comments at this site. This is how we learn from each other — it is one small way we can work toward making the world a better, more just, place.
The passionate discussion generated by our last article, America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed, was heartening. Our military academies will not be improved if we merely accept the status quo, with allowance for minor, mainly cosmetic, reforms. But truly radical reforms are difficult to achieve since the academies are so deeply rooted in tradition. A reluctance to change can be a good thing, especially when an institution is performing well. Yet since the Korean Conflict, and certainly since the Vietnam War, America’s military performance has been mediocre. Placing blame here is obviously contentious, with military professionals tending to point to poor decisions by civilian leaders, among other causes.
Rather than placing blame, let’s entertain some probing questions about the future structure and mission of military academies, with the intent of making them better schools for developing military leaders, as well as better institutions for defending America and advancing its values.
Here in no particular order are a few questions and proposals:
1. Is America best served by military academies that emulate undergraduate colleges in providing a course of study lasting four years? Or should the academies recruit from students who have already finished most (or all) of an undergraduate degree? The academies could then develop a concentrated course of study, specifically tailored to military studies, lasting roughly two years. In effect, the academies would become graduate schools, with all cadets graduating with master’s degrees in military studies with varying concentrations (engineering, science, English, history, and so on). Such a change would also eliminate the need to kowtow to undergraduate accreditation boards such as ABET.
2. West Point and the AF Academy rely primarily on serving military officers as instructors, whereas Annapolis relies primarily on civilian instructors. Is this a distinction without difference? Would West Point and the AF Academy profit from more civilian instructors, and Annapolis from more military ones? Should all the service academies work harder to bring in top instructors from the Ivy League and similar universities as full-time visiting professors?
3. How much of today’s experience at military academies is busy work? Or work driven mainly by tradition, i.e. “We do this because we’ve always done this.” Do we still need lots of inspections, marching, parades, and the like? Do freshman (call them plebes, doolies, smacks, what have you) truly profit from being sleep-deprived and harassed and otherwise forced into compliance as a rite of passage in their first year? Does this truly develop character? Or are cadet schedules so jam-packed that they have little time to think?
4. Why do cadets continue to have limited exposure to the enlisted ranks? NCOs are the backbone of a professional military, a fact that is not stressed enough in officer training. How do we increase opportunities for cadets to work with NCOs in the field?
5. A strong emphasis on physical fitness and sports is smart. But is it necessary to place so much emphasis on big-time sports such as Division I-A football? What is gained by focusing academy recruiting on acquiring athletes that will help to win football games? What is gained by offering such athletes preferential treatment within the corps of cadets? (Some will claim that athletes receive no preferential treatment; if you believe this, I suggest you listen very carefully to cadets who are outside of the charmed circle of celebrated athletes.)
6. When I was a serving officer at the AF Academy, cadets used to ask me whether I believed they were “the best and the brightest.” Certain senior leaders had told them that, by virtue of being selected to attend a military academy, they were better than their civilian peers at universities such as Harvard or MIT. Is it wise to sell cadets on the idea that they are America’s best and brightest?
How I answered the question: I told my cadets that comparing military academies to universities such as Harvard or MIT was an apples/oranges situation. First and foremost, military academies were and are about developing military leaders of strong character. If you compared cadets to their peers at Harvard or MIT, of course you’d find smarter students at these and similar top-flight universities. But that wasn’t the point. Military academies had a different intent, a different purpose, a different mission. This answer seemed to satisfy my cadets; what I sensed was that they were tired of being told they were America’s best, when they could see for themselves that this often wasn’t true.
We do our cadets no service when we applaud them merely for showing up and working hard, just as our civilian leaders do the military no service when they applaud us as the best-led, best-equipped, best-trained, and so on, military force in all of human history. Any student of military history should laugh at such hyperbolic praise.
7. And now for a big question: Are the academies contributing to America’s current state of perpetual war? Have we abandoned Washington’s ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier, the soldier who fights reluctantly and who seeks not military honors but only a return to normalcy and an end to war?
Some will argue that the world today demands perpetual vigilance and a willingness to use overwhelming “shock and awe” force to intimidate and defeat America’s enemies. And that only a professional corps of devoted regulars can lead such a force. Perhaps so.
But is it time to consider new paradigms?
What are the most serious threats that America faces today? For example, American infrastructure is crumbling even as we spend hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan with indifferent results. Should West Point return to its roots, unleashing its officer-engineers to lead a new Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild America? (Recall that George C. Marshall ran the CCC.) Should America’s military be refocused not on winning the “global war on terror” (unwinnable by definition, for terror will always be with us), but on preserving the global environment?
As humans wage war against our planet and biosphere, should not a force dedicated to the defense of America focus on preserving our livelihood as represented by our planet’s resources? With its global presence, the American military is uniquely situated to take the lead here. Indeed, the U.S. Navy already advertises itself as “A global force for good.” Can we make that a reality?
Too pie in the sky? The U.S. military has enormous resources and a global role in leadership. What would it mean to America if our military took the lead in preserving the earth while rebuilding the core strength of America? Aren’t these “wars” (against global environmental degradation; for America’s internal infrastructure) worth fighting? Are they not more winnable than a perpetual war on terror?
There you have it. Let’s hear your ideas in the comments. And thanks.
U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war). They are Archimedean. They focus on engineering and the machinery of war. But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.
There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations. But they do not. I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years. My experience? The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities. Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.
A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan. Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation. Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.
Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse. U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables. They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.
Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics. Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized. Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.
When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?” They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders. They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.
As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history. (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects. Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air. Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.
Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity. Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws. A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.
Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them. Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.
Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta. Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens. Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.
But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory. Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.
Recent news that the planned Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. remains in trouble greatly saddens me. When I was young, I considered myself a moderate Republican/conservative Democrat. I recall favoring Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. My idea of a Democrat was someone like Senators Scoop Jackson and Sam Nunn, supporters of a hard line against the Soviet Union. To me, these men appeared to be pragmatic, tough-minded, and willing to put country before partisan politics — much like Ike himself.
Ike, of course, was a Republican but could have run as a Democrat. Indeed, today’s Republican Party would probably reject men like Ike and Gerald Ford. They wouldn’t pass certain litmus tests in the primaries on issues like abortion or gun rights or school prayer and the like. More’s the pity for our country.
Back in February 2012, I wrote this article (at Huff Post) on “Why I Still Like Ike.” When you read Ike’s warning below about too much money being spent on weaponry, and his prophecy about the disastrous influence of the Military-Industrial Complex, ask yourself whether any mainstream political candidate today of either party would dare to denounce major weapons makers and America’s propensity for war with such clarity and guts.
Instead, today we have Democrats wetting themselves in their eagerness to appear tough (witness Vice President Biden’s comment about confronting the Islamic State at “the gates of hell”), and Republicans eager to bomb everything in sight.
Ike wasn’t perfect, but we sure could use a person of his courage and gravitas in 2016. Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton, anyone? Forget about it.
Why I Still Like Ike (2012)
The ongoing controversy over the national memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower provides us with an opportunity to recall Ike’s legacy and his deeper meaning to America. Ike was of course a national hero, the supreme allied commander who led the assault at D-Day on June 6, 1944 and who later served as president during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His legacies are many and profound, from ending the Korean War to the interstate highway system that bears his name to advancing civil rights to creating the space program to the establishment of the department of health, education and welfare.
As important as Ike’s deeds were to our country, in some way his words were (and are) even more important, especially in this time of constant war and bloated budgets for “defense” and our burgeoning trade in deadly weaponry.
Ike was a citizen-soldier first and foremost, not a warrior or warfighter, and like the citizen-soldiers of World War II he came to hate war. This is not to say that Ike was a pacifist. He believed in a strong defense and intervened in countries such as Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, Formosa, and South Vietnam, in order in his words to prevent “communist efforts to dominate” these countries. And we may certainly question the legality as well as the wisdom of these “wars in the shadows,” especially with respect to Iran and Vietnam.
But let us focus on Ike’s words — his lessons to America. Grossly underestimated by intellectuals who were deceived by his amiable public demeanor and his love of golf (with its country-club associations), Ike was a fine writer and a deep thinker who thoroughly understood the American heartland — and the American heart.
Any memorial to Ike should seek to capture the wisdom of his words and how they struck to the very core of the American (and human) experience. It should confront us with his words and encourage us to contemplate their meaning in a setting conducive to reflection and reconsideration.
First, let’s consider what Ike said about war. In a speech at the Canada Club in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 1946, Ike stated:
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
Let all Americans pause and reflect on the hard-earned wisdom of that statement before plotting our next military intervention.
Second, let’s consider what Ike said about the true cost of spending on military weaponry. In remarks prepared for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953, Ike declared that:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Third, let’s consider Ike’s final warning upon leaving office in 1961 about the dangers of a growing “military-industrial complex” to democracy and freedom in America. In his words:
The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Ike’s tersely prophetic words are rarely heard in American political discourse today. Indeed, his avowed hatred of war, his condemnation of the deadly weapons trade as contrary to human values, his warning about an emergent military-industrial complex with the power to threaten our liberties, would likely be dismissed in this year’s election season, whether by mainstream Democrats or Republicans, as the ravings of a left-wing, weak-kneed, liberal.
All the more reason why these words need to be enshrined in a national memorial to Eisenhower.
One more lesson Ike can impart to us: the virtue of humility. In spite of his immense accomplishments, Ike remained a humble man. Doubtless this humility stemmed from his upbringing, but so too did it come from his military service. As he himself wrote, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”
In this age of American exceptionalism, in which our nation touts its “generation of heroes” and boasts of its unrivaled military power, Ike’s words remind us that humility is far more becoming a man and a nation.
Even the most powerful nation may fall if it loses itself in its own celebratory braggadocio. Ike knew this, and if despite his efforts such a fate had happened on his watch, he doubtless would have taken full responsibility. Consider here the words Ike prepared in case the D-Day attack had failed on June 6, 1944. This was what Ike was prepared to say:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
Fortunately for history, Ike never had to say those words. Left unsaid, they nevertheless live on as an example of Ike’s willingness to bear unselfishly the burden of defeat, even as he humbly bore the laurels of victory.
Whatever final form the national memorial to Ike eventually assumes, I sincerely and fervently hope it enshrines the wisdom, the courage, the humility, the humanity of Ike’s words, so desperately do we need these qualities today.
For Ike knew that America’s true strength resides not in the size of our arsenals but in the generosity of our spirit.