Major General Despair
The wages of exalting generals and admirals come when we see them express open contempt for the people who exalted them.
Edited by Sam Thielman
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LURKING BENEATH THE SURFACE of the post-9/11 pact between Warrior and Civilian, the one that heralded military service as a higher form of citizenship, was, respectively, contempt and indifference. The Warrior, accepting blithe public adulation and 10 percent off at participating Applebees, resents the Civilian for opting out of the crucible of war. The Civilian, mouthing something about thanks for doing whatever it was you did, goes back to not giving a shit.
I’ll grant you that this is a severe oversimplification. My anecdotal experience is that this contempt affects a small minority of veterans—frustration, to which everyone is entitled, is a different story—while indifference exists within the vast majority of civilians. But this oversimplification captures a dynamic between those who served in the Forever War and those who didn’t. Both the veneration and the distrust/disinterest emerge from the widening gulf between servicemembers and civilians. That divide has a material basis: the all-volunteer military, a reform designed to prevent another Vietnam. Instead, it created a new American social class, one ironically suited to waging more Vietnams.
While military service is a generational heritage for some families, the class truly exists for those who make the military their careers, which means, in the main, officers. The vast majority of Forever-War veteran contempt for civilians in my earshot has come from officers, active or retired. (Again, frustration is a different story; frustration can be channeled away from contempt by disciplined people.) My “Warrior” nomenclature here generally refers to officers. I use Warrior/Civilian, despite the cringe of “Warrior,” instead of Soldier/Civilian because “soldier” conjures up an image of an enlisted person rather than an officer. A portion of this praetorian class, particularly within its upper echelons, identifies with and shares the resentments of conservative elites whose claims to represent the military’s interests are central to their political identities.
Perhaps the most caustic expression of these officers’ contempt has come from John Kelly, who was Donald Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security and then White House chief of staff. In a Veterans Day 2010 speech in St. Louis, which I dwell on in REIGN OF TERROR, then-Marine Maj. Gen. Kelly sneered that “America’s civilian and military protectors… hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs, and even their lives.”
The post-9/11 social compact entailed the concession that it might be possible to oppose a war, provided the Civilian continued to provide visible public respect for servicemembers. Kelly argued that such distinctions were untenable. Rejecting an endless war (“it will not end until the extremists understand that we as a people will never lose our faith or our courage...”) was breaking faith with the Troops, a serious social offense in post-9/11 America. “[I]f anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service,” Kelly declared, “and not support the cause for which they fight—America's survival—then they are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their lives, but, more importantly, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to the nation.”
This was a thing that someone actually said, and that someone would go on to brutalize Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike and then implement within the Department of Homeland Security a policy of kidnapping. Kelly explained in 2017 that the kidnapping was to “deter” childrens’ parents from migrating. They were coming to an America that had earlier destabilized their countries, but Kelly didn’t mention that. Seven years earlier, in St. Louis, Kelly insisted about the Forever War, “We did not start this fight.” History must begin with American victimhood in order to ensure American blamelessness. In Kelly’s telling, it was war opponents who were “rationalizing away something in their lives.”
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At the time, extremely few people paid Kelly’s speech much attention, let alone took him seriously. It had come days after Kelly’s own son, Marine Lt. Robert Kelly, died on patrol in Sangin during the Afghanistan surge. Perhaps if they had shown Kelly the respect of presuming he meant what he said, that he was expressing his authentic sentiments about the Warrior and the Civilian, Kelly might not have been given the opportunity to brutalize Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike or implement within the Department of Homeland Security a policy of kidnapping. Instead, today, elements of the right continue to dig Kelly’s speech.
KELLY’S TRUMP ADMINISTRATION COLLEAGUE H.R. McMaster, a retired Army three-star general, recently meditated on similar themes in a Veterans’ Day Wall Street Journal op-ed. He wasn’t nearly as vicious as Kelly, but his contempt was as prominent.
The “catastrophe in Afghanistan” was, appropriately for Veterans’ Day, on McMaster’s mind. But by “catastrophe,” McMaster didn’t mean a 20-year quagmire. He meant the end of a 20-year quagmire. The “humiliating surrender” to the Taliban was the result of nothing so much as a “lack of commitment to win a war.” Among the wages of such weakness of the will is the risk of “eroding trust between servicemen and -women and their civilian and military leaders.”
McMaster has no end of disregard for “three presidents in a row” who bear responsibility for an insufficient commitment to the Afghanistan war. (The president who launched a war that failed from jump gets a pass.) But, like Kelly, McMaster’s contempt is not just a contempt for civilian elites. “It became typical for citizens to profess support for the troops but not the war,” McMaster writes. “That sentiment was preferable to the derision directed at veterans who fought under difficult conditions in Vietnam. But American warriors won’t long trust a society that doesn’t believe in what the nation is fighting for—as they kill others and risk their own lives.” In McMaster’s telling, it’s society’s fault that the U.S. lost the war, and not the fault of, say, someone who was an architect of a 2017 surge to nowhere.
It never occurs to McMaster that the real breach of trust might be when generals and policymakers like him order servicemembers to fight, kill and potentially die for definitionally-endless objectives like, in his words, “ensuring that Afghanistan never again [becomes] a haven for jihadist terrorists.” McMaster used to understand that point. He evidently never thought it could apply to him exactly as much as it applied to the Vietnam-era Joint Chiefs. It’s always someone else’s Dereliction of Duty.
“If leaders send men and women into battle without dedicating themselves to achieving a worthy outcome, who will step forward to volunteer for military service?” McMaster wonders. “Who will offer to endure hardship, take risk and make sacrifices?” The answer is familiar to anyone who’s asked enlisted troops: those who need money, whether for college, vocational instruction or any other way out of bleak circumstances. This is known as the Poverty Draft.
MCMASTER’S PATH WAS DIFFERENT. He’s a West Point graduate—which means that he attended the institution where the Army cultivates its future leadership; and it also means his parents didn’t pay tuition. While not all military officers by a long shot come from the service academies, the officer corps is, in aggregate, distinct from the enlisted men and women it commands.
To stay with the Army for a moment, according to the Pentagon’s most recent demographics report, 20.8 percent of white people in the active-duty Army are officers, or one in five; while 11.2 percent of Black people in the active-duty Army are officers, or one in 11. While these statistics vary by service, across the joint force, 89.5 percent of one-to-four star generals and admirals—the senior military leadership—are white.
The report doesn’t provide statistics that could be used in a breakdown by class, but the closest rough proxy is education level. Only 7.7 percent of active-duty enlisted personnel have a bachelor’s degree; 45 percent of officers do; 40.2 percent have an additional degree. (This figure counts warrant officers—who are technical specialists and don’t necessarily require a degree—as officers, which might be dipping the percentages down.) Some of that is obvious, given that recruiters target high school students, while the service academies and programs like ROTC turn college graduates into officers.
But that’s another way of saying that the services design structures to produce an educated officer corps; and education is largely a function of class, which in America is highly racialized. (It’s worth remembering that there are exceptions to these rules. Kelly enlisted in the Marines out of high school and earned a commission through Officer Candidate School.) A veteran friend also points out that for college graduates, enlisting instead of joining the officer corps carries with it student loan forgiveness—“in other words, more Poverty Draft.”
When you embed with the military—certainly this was my experience in Iraq and Afghanistan—you learn that the officers will bullshit you a tremendous amount. The company and platoon sergeants will bullshit you, but they tend to bullshit you less.The officers will talk a great deal about the wisdom, verve and necessity of their plans. The junior enlisted personnel who have to implement those plans will ask you to explain how any of it adds up to anything at all, because aren’t you a journalist, and doesn’t that mean you understand things like this?
The disconnection of generals and admirals – remember the statistic about nine out of ten of them being white – has consequences. It was conspicuous, I wrote last year, that McMaster kept his mouth shut while other retired generals denounced Trump’s dalliance with using the military to mow down Black Lives Matter protesters. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, McMaster, without elaboration, accuses the Defense Department of “promot[ing] postmodernist theories that undermine the warrior ethos and valorize victimhood.” Behold the Lion of Tal Afar, now sounding racist dog whistles on right-wing editorial pages, even after MAGA portrayed him as a puppet of the International Jew.
MIKE FLYNN DOESN’T DOG WHISTLE. While McMaster is merely embittered, his predecessor as Trump’s national security adviser, another retired Army three-star—one who owed his commission as an officer to ROTC rather than West Point like McMaster—is graduating from insurrectionist to theocrat.
Flynn went from blaming 9/11 on Islam—see the final third of REIGN OF TERROR—to advocating for the military to overturn the 2020 election and re-install Trump as president to asking a Stop The Steal rally the night before the insurrection if it was prepared to “bleed.” Flynn’s latest disgrace is his recent comment that “If we are going to have one nation under God—which we must—we have to have one religion.” And all these years the Flynns of the world told us it was Muslim theocrats who were out to subvert the Constitution.
There is a lot going on with Mike Flynn that seems very particular to Mike Flynn. But it is worth remembering that Flynn would never have been within field-goal range of power had the Forever Wars not brought him to prominence. The culture of the Forever Wars encouraged people like Flynn, McMaster and Kelly to think of themselves as embodiments of the republic, more American than other Americans. Flynn, an extreme case, shows that contempt for such Insufficient Americans merges easily with justifying acts of violence against them. Kelly and McMaster both talked about the War on Terror as what McMaster called “a modern-day frontier between barbarism and civilization.” Flynn, at least, sees that frontier running through the United States and not only beyond it.
We are not going to resolve or even reframe civilian-military divides in one edition of a newsletter. But there’s a broader structural dynamic that needs to be addressed now that we are 50 or so years into the all-volunteer military. You only generate a praetorian class if you desire, possess, and/or seek to retain an empire. As long as U.S. elites insist on remaining globally preeminent, they will plunge their volunteer military into ever-more-violent crucibles divorced from the daily concerns of Americans. With those crucibles will come resentment of callow Civilians from some elements of the officer corps, likely those who stay in uniform longer and rise higher. From them will come more Kellys, McMasters and Flynns.
But we don’t have to have an empire.
LET’S JUST TAKE NEXT WEEK OFF. It’s about to be Thanksgiving. People didn’t really get to spend Thanksgiving with their loved ones last year. We can all live with not having a newsletter about awful things during a joyous time.