Three Generals Walk Into a Bar …

W.J. Astore (and Andrew Bacevich)

Back in May of 2019, I wrote an article here on General William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was conventional in every sense of the word; it was his misfortune to be put in charge of an unconventional war in Southeast Asia, a war he didn’t understand but also one that was unnecessary for U.S. security and incredibly wasteful to boot. Relieved of command by being booted upstairs, Westmoreland went to his grave convinced that the war was winnable. If only he’d received the reinforcements he needed …

Today at TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author, imagines Westmoreland grousing in a bar with two other generals: George S. Patton of World War II fame, and an imaginary general of today’s wars, Victor Constant. Let’s just say General Constant does not cover himself in glory, failing to live up to his victor(ious) first name as he loses himself in vapid catchphrases he’s gleaned from PowerPoint briefings on war and its meaning. Much like today’s generals, in fact.

So, with the blessing of TomDispatch.com, here is that barroom conversation, as imagined by Colonel (ret.) Bacevich:

Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
By Andrew Bacevich

It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

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.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”

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.

Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11

“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 that it’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.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich


1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.

2 The chief of staff, U.S. Army. Return to story.

3 The president of the United States. Return to story.

4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.

5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.

6 Shorthand for the North Vietnamese army. Return to story.

7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.

8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.

9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.

10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.

11 “Patton” (1970), starring George C. Scott. Return to story.

Trump’s Garden of Heroes

Statues
Silent teachers in stone and metal: U.S. Capitol

W.J. Astore

While castigating the “radical left” in his latest vitriolic speech before Mount Rushmore, Trump proposed a new garden of heroes to celebrate meaningful Americans.  Naturally, that list has generated controversy.  As others have noted, Native Americans are absent from the list; so too are Hispanics; and so too are Democratic presidents.

Here’s a look at Trump’s “heroes”:

John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, Orville and Wilbur Wright.

It’s easy to pick apart any list.  Why this person and not that one?  Or why not this person and that one?  For example, why not MLK Jr. and Malcolm X?  Why not Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali?  Is it because MLK Jr. and Jackie are considered safer, or less controversial, or more American because they were “less angry”?

Among other absences, there’s another I’d like to highlight: Any person dedicated to the cause of peace.*

Again, looking at Trump’s list, what struck me was the predictable worship of military men, not just Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Civil War or Audie Murphy from World War II but the usual generals Trump professes to love, Patton and MacArthur.  Two vainglorious wannabe Caesars, the very opposite of America’s citizen-soldier ideal, are Trump’s idea of America’s noblest generals.  Not George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley, also of World War II fame, and both more deserving of acclaim, and more suited to America’s military traditions.  Or how about General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, who became an outspoken critic of war after his retirement?

What also struck me was the presence of “the usual suspects” in the list.  Do we really need yet another statue to George Washington?  Abraham Lincoln?  Benjamin Franklin?  Can’t we come up with some lesser known heroes worthy of acclaim, perhaps someone like Prudence Crandall, a schoolteacher who established the first school for African-American girls in New England, and who faced mob violence as she fought to keep her school open.  Or how about Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith, who fought so hard in antebellum America against war.  America has a wealth of unsung heroes; why not take this chance to celebrate “ordinary” Americans doing extraordinary things?

Notice, naturally, the deep bow to conservative icons such as Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, and Antonin Scalia.  An evangelist, a president, and a Supreme Court Justice, respectively.  So how about Dorothy Day, Jimmy Carter, and Harry Blackmun to balance the partisan ledger?

Some science might be injected with Carl Sagan or James Watson.  Some environmentalism with Rachel Carson.  During a pandemic, why not Jonas Salk?  And why is America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, not on this list?  Of course, you could go on almost endlessly here.

Perhaps what amused me most was the stipulation the statues have to be lifelike or realistic, not abstract or modernist representations.  They are to be “silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal,” per Trump’s executive order.  This rejection of abstract or modernist representation put me to mind of Nazi Germany’s rejection of so-called degenerate art.  The Nazis preferred art that celebrated uncontroversially the heroism of Germans and the human form: art that was open only to the most obvious interpretation.  As a good friend put it, “Combine Trump’s classical garden of heroes with his edict that public buildings be made ‘beautiful again’ in a neoclassical style and all he’s missing is a catchy antisemitic drinking song.”

In other words, Trump wants a garden of heroes in which we’re expected to bow our heads in awe, rather than hold our heads in thought.  Awe is befitting to a dictatorship, but thought is becoming to a democracy.

* I’ve applauded MLK Jr.’s efforts to end the Vietnam War; he deserves to be recognized as a peace activist, but of course he’s on Trump’s list for his civil rights record, not his critique of America as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.  One name I’d love to see added to the list is Daniel Ellsberg, who risked everything to expose American lies with the release of the Pentagon Papers.

Trump’s Culture War

200704-trump-rushmore-axc-1205a_5601cdb840d1a993a5148125620777b3.nbcnews-fp-1200-630
Shameless, thy name be Trump

W.J. Astore

President Trump’s strategy for winning in 2020 is to fan the flames of culture war, including blatant references to white power.  Even some Republicans seem embarrassed, though not enough to make any difference in Trump’s reprehensible tactics.  Trump’s emptiness is incalculable — this and his cult-like “base” make him a dangerous man indeed.  He needs to be denounced and voted out of office; how disappointing is it that the Democratic alternative is Joe Biden, a man with his own record of lies, a man with little going for him except that he’s not Donald Trump.

Along with culture war, Republicans are also doing their best to discourage voting.  The tactics here are many: fewer polling stations, meaning longer lines and wait times; voter ID laws to counter non-existent voter fraud; disenfranchisement of voters through purges of rolls; opposition to mail-in ballots and other efforts to make voting easier and safer in the age of Covid-19; the presence of “monitors” at polling sites as a form of intimidation.

Rally the base while suppressing the overall vote: this, apparently, is what Trump is counting on this November.

Why?  Because Trump has nothing real to run on.  His biggest “accomplishment” was a tax break for corporations and for the richest Americans.  When asked by Fox News about what he wanted to accomplish in his second term, Trump had nothing specific to say.  No policy goals.  Nothing.  The one thing he seems determined to do, besides building his wall, is eliminating Obamacare, which would throw tens of millions off their health care plans during a pandemic.

If cynicism has a bottom, Trump hasn’t found it yet, though not for want of trying.

Of course, Trump’s culture war is as ugly as it is racist.  It’s also a distraction from rampant and blatant kleptocracy.  For example, the latest “defense” budget calls for $740 billion in spending, yet the key issue for Trump is to defend military posts that are named for Confederate officers.  Trump, a New York City trust fund baby, as Yankee as a Yankee can be, poses as a principled defender of Confederate leaders and the Confederate battle flag, in the name of “respecting our past.”  Consider him the quintessential con man as cultural carpetbagger, cynically adopting any position that he can use to inflame his base and drive them to the polls this November.

Truly, these are bizarre times.  Trump, the Vietnam draft dodger, the man of heel spurs infamy, celebrates Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as his ideals.  As military leaders, both were deeply flawed; both were vainglorious; both were over-celebrated and overrated.  Small wonder that Trump sees something in them that he sees in himself: overweening egotism, the quest for victory at any cost, including the deaths of their own troops.

Trump wants America to turn on itself, to consume itself, and as long as he wins another term, he couldn’t care less about the cost.  Why?  Because he doesn’t see us as his fellow citizens — he sees us as his subjects.  And even if you count yourself in his “base,” he likely sees you as nothing more than a patsy.  A sucker.  And, based on his total lack of leadership when it comes to Covid-19, he literally doesn’t care if you live or die.

Trump is a wannabe king, and he will say or do most anything to keep his grip on power.  Having just marked another July 4th celebration of America’s independence from a capricious monarch, King George III, it doesn’t make any sense to re-empower another mad king.

Don’t be distracted by Trump’s culture wars and his incessant divisiveness, America.  Remember its intent: to divide is the way to conquer.  Trump doesn’t want “to keep America great.”  He wants to keep it servile to him.  He wants you under his spell, shouting his name, laughing at his cruel jokes.

Is that what you want for yourself and for our country?