Prussia Without the Victories: Kaiser Trump’s Cabinet of Generals

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
Kaiser Trump is surrounding himself with generals

W.J. Astore

In my latest article at TomDispatch.com, “All the President’s Generals,” I examine Trump’s affection for retired military generals to fill America’s most senior civilian positions related to national defense.  I urge you to read the entire article at TomDispatch.com; here I wish to focus on the quartet of generals/warriors Trump is empowering as part of his drive to “win” again.  Trump seems most pleased that “his” generals are allegedly cut from the same cloth as George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two of America’s most anti-democratic generals.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.  Like Prussia in the age of Frederick the Great, America is increasingly becoming a colossal military establishment with a state attached to it. Unlike Prussia, our colossus is not producing any meaningful victories.  And no one, I think, would confuse the educated and enlightened Frederick with America’s angry and undisciplined Tweeter-in-chief.

Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy (from TomDispatch.com)

General officers, by the way, have come to resemble a self-replicating organism.  The grooming process, favoring homogeneity as it does, is partly to blame. Disruptive creativity and a reputation for outspokenness can mark one as not being a “team player.”  Political skills and conformity are valued more highly.  It’s a mistake, then, to assume that America’s generals are the best and the brightest. “The curated and the calculating” is perhaps a more accurate description.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Trump’s chosen threesome, starting with General Mattis.  He has his virtues: a distinguished career in the Marine Corps, a sensible stance against torture, a dedication to all ranks within the military.  Yet like so many high-ranking military retirees — take General Mark Welsh of the Air Force, for example — Mattis quickly cashed in on his career, reputation, and continuing influence via the military-industrial complex.  Despite a six-figure pension, he joined corporate boards, notably that of military-industrial powerhouse General Dynamics where he quickly earned or acquired nearly $1.5 million in salary and stock options.  Mattis is also on the board at Theranos, a deeply troubled company that failed to deliver on promises to develop effective blood-testing technologies for the military.

And then, of course, there was his long military career, itself a distinctly mixed bag.  As head of U.S. Central Command under President Obama, for instance, his hawkish stance toward Iran led to his removal and forced retirement in 2013.  Almost a decade earlier in 2004, the aggressive tactics he oversaw in Iraq as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Fallujah have been characterized by some as war crimes.  For Trump, however, none of this matters.  Mattis, much like General Patton (in the president-elect’s view), is a man who “plays no games.”

And Mattis seems like the voice of reason and moderation compared to Flynn, whose hatred of Islam is as virulent as it is transparent.  Like Trump, Flynn is a fan of tweeting, perhaps his most infamous being “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”  A brusque man convinced of his own rectitude, who has a reputation for not playing well with others, Flynn was forced from his position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, after which he became a harsh critic of the Obama administration.

In his brief retirement, Flynn served as a paid lobbyist to a Turkish businessman with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, while running a business consultancy that is due to profit by providing surveillance drones to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border.  Rising to prominence during the Trump campaign, he led the chant against Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up!”) at the Republican National Convention in July.  (His son recently helped spread the false rumor that Clinton was involved in a child sex trafficking ring involving a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.)  Flynn, who sees Islam as a political conspiracy rather than a legitimate religion, is an angry warrior, a dyed-in-the-wool crusader.  That Trump sees such a figure as qualified to serve as the nation’s senior civilian security adviser speaks volumes about the president-elect and the crusading militarism that is likely to be forthcoming from his administration.

Serving in a supporting capacity to Flynn as chief of staff of the National Security Council (NSC) is yet another high-ranking military man (and early supporter of Trump’s presidential run), Army retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg.  Almost a generation older than Flynn, Kellogg served as chief operations officer for the ill-fated Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which badly mismanaged the U.S. military’s occupation of the country after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.  Like most retired generals, Kellogg has profited from close links to defense-related industries, including CACI International, Oracle Corporation (Homeland Security Division), and Cubic, where he was senior vice president for ground combat programs.  It’s hard to see fresh ideas coming from the NSC with long-serving military diehards like Flynn and Kellogg ruling the roost.

General John Kelly, the last of the quartet and soon to be head of the Department of Homeland Security, is yet another long-serving Marine with a reputation for bluntness.  He opposed efforts by the Obama administration to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, claiming that the remaining detainees were “all bad boys,” both guilty and dangerous.  He also ran afoul of the administration by criticizing efforts to open combat positions to qualified servicewomen, claiming such efforts were “agenda-driven” and would lead to lower standards and decreased military combat effectiveness.  Despite these views, or perhaps because of them, Kelly, who served as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and has been well vetted by the system, is likely to be confirmed with little real debate.

Of Coups and Crusades

Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military.  With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower.  Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president.  It’s far worse.  Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.

Read the entire article at TomDispatch.com.  Many thanks.