Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The merits of generals in government

As I facetiously said on a number of occasions during my recent abortive run for the Senate, you cannot have too many generals in parliament.

The merits of generals in government

As I facetiously said on a number of occasions during my recent abortive run for the Senate, you cannot have too many generals in parliament.

Looking at developments in the US presidential transition, there will be a fair few retired generals supporting President-elect Trump. These include the national security adviser (LTGEN Michael Flynn), secretary of defense (General James Mattis) and possibly secretary of state (Gen David Petraeus), with rumours also that Trump’s director of national intelligence may be the current National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers.

It is fair to ask whether this is a good thing, particularly because each individual is contentious in their own right, and because the question of how the US exercises all aspects of national power, in particular military power, is of great interest to us all.

My exposure to US generals at the highest level was primarily through the US embassy in Baghdad and as Chief of Operations of the US-dominated Multi-National Force-Iraq in 2004-05. US military experience was pervasive even in the Department of State. Given the friction between State and Defense in the first year of the war, President Bush mandated that the leadership of the US embassy in the Baghdad would have military experience, either as soldiers or as diplomats in war situations. This resulted in a massive change in the effectiveness of the campaign, led by Ambassador John Negroponte (a diplomat in Vietnam during the war) and his Deputy Chief of Mission James Jeffrey (combat experience from Vietnam), as well as in many other junior positions in the embassy. The civil-military relationship changed dramatically.

I found in Iraq that the popular stereotype of hawkish US generals did not exist, and that the attitude of generals in Iraq when I was there contrasted favourably with influential civilian neo-cons in the Bush administration. Very soon after I arrived, during the first battle of Fallujah (April 2004), I came face to face with the quality of US generals. I give a full account of my first visit to the US Marines fighting in Fallujah in my book, ‘Running the War in Iraq’.

The Marines had prepared to stabilize Fallujah using a counterinsurgency approach but the death of three US contractors in Fallujah created a demand from Washington that the Marines bring the murderers to justice. The Marines were totally against this approach and held out against their immediate commander in Iraq and even the US president for days. Finally they were ordered in and exactly what the Marines predicted happened: they could not bring anyone to justice, the entire town rose against them and probably 600 Fallujans were killed. The US and Iraqi leadership then panicked and demanded that the Marines withdraw. Given their sacrifice and the Iraqi casualties, the Marines again refused until they could be replaced with a stabilising force. When I met with their leaders in Camp Fallujah, they had grounds for being bitter over the incompetence of civilian direction of the war. I wrote after the event:

What struck me about this planning session, my first serious operational conference, was the maturity of people’s behaviour. The last two weeks had been a very unsatisfying combat experience in Fallujah for the Marines, who had had many killed and wounded, yet I heard from their commander in Anbar province…a professional, moral and level-headed assessment of the situation and all options. It spanned the big picture and the situation on the ground. There were no stereotypes. The Marine leadership was thoughtful and tactically clever, continually aware of the rights of non-combatants and the impact of the Marines’ actions on the political landscape. There was no whiff of panic, even though the coalition had logistical problems and was fighting across most of southern Iraq. Fuel and electricity were not being delivered to the cities, and even I could see that we were eating into our reserves of certain types of ammunition and fuel. There was no outright anger, although the Marines had grounds to be deeply critical of the direction they had been given, and their righteous indignation was evident but well controlled. It was indeed sober and responsible operational generalship, I thought, as we flew back to Baghdad late in the day.

The operational commander in that meeting was then Major General Jim Mattis, commander of the Marines First Division, now to be nominated as President-elect Trump’s Secretary of Defense. As for Admiral Rogers or General Flynn, I have never meet them but each has a formidable reputation. I have only read a simplistic summary of Mike Flynn’s book and if the worst advice he gives to President Trump is that radical Islam is an international threat that must not be underestimated, and that the politically correct view that we are winning must be questioned, then Trump will benefit from listening to him.

I worked alongside David Petraeus for a year in Iraq when he was building the Iraqi army and we clashed often over how to best protect oil, electricity and rail infrastructure. It was a tactical disagreement and I greatly respected him. Petraeus is well known to the world and has worked at the highest level of US government, interacting as soldier and civilian with most countries that are important to the US. He is more than competent to be the Secretary of State.

Such people are no fools; they talk tough because what they do is tough and they lead soldiers that are required to do hard things.

President Trump will not have a high standard to beat if he is to be compared to the dubious international achievements of President Obama. One source of Obama’s problems was his own (and his administration’s) appalling relations with the military. Trump could fill many of his administration’s positions with the military that Obama sacked or sidelined. A president needs to receive hard-edged advice from his military and from those who understand the use of power, and not just from current military commanders. He must listen to it, balance it against other advice and then act decisively. 

I have often wondered where the world might be if President Bush had picked General Colin Powell as secretary of defense and if Donald Rumsfeld had been secretary of state, rather than vice versa, during the crucial stages of the Iraq war. Powell’s sane advice was ignored and he was frozen out, and the results are there to see. Perhaps it’s true, you cannot have too many generals in an administration, as long as they are in the right place.

Photo: Getty images/Drew Angerer

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