Such criticism comes as welcome relief after nearly a decade worth of hagiography that marched into our lives alongside Petraeus (once known sardonically among some Army colleagues as "King David" or in the media as the one man who could "save" Iraq) and McChrystal (a "one of a kind," "battle-hardened" Spartan ascetic, according to a glowing 60 Minutes profile in September 2009). But it doesn't go nearly far enough.
Generals behaving badly aren't the heart of the problem, only a symptom of the rot. The recent peccadilloes of Petraeus et al. are a reminder that these men never were the unbesmirched "heroes" so many imagined them to be. They were always the product of a military-industrial complex deeply invested in war, abetted by a media as in bed with them as Paula Broadwell, and a cheerleading citizenry that came to worship all things military even as it went about its otherwise unwarlike business.
Pruning a few bad apples from the upper branches of the military tree is going to do little enough when the rot extends to root and branch. Required is more radical surgery if America is to avoid ongoing debilitating conflicts and the disintegration of our democracy.
Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy
A simple first step toward radical surgery would certainly involve cutting the number of generals and admirals at least in half.
America's military is astonishingly top heavy, with 945 generals and admirals on active duty as of March 2012. That's one flag-rank officer for every 1,500 officers and enlisted personnel. With one general for every 1,000 airmen, the Air Force is the worst offender, but the Navy and Army aren't far behind. For example, the Army has 10 active-duty divisions -- and 109 major generals to command them. Between September 2001 and April 2011, the military actually added another 93 generals and admirals to its ranks (including 37 of the three- or four-star variety). The glut extends to the ranks of full colonel (or, in the Navy, captain). The Air Force has roughly 100 active-duty combat wings -- and 3,712 colonels to command them. The Navy has 285 ships -- and 3,335 captains to command them. Indeed, today's Navy has nearly as many admirals (245 as of March 2012) as ships.
Any high-ranking officer worth his or her salt wants to command, but this glut has contributed to their rapid rotation in and out of command -- five Afghan war commanders in five years, for instance -- disrupting any hopes for command continuity. The situation also breeds cutthroat competition for prestige slots and allows patterns of me-first careerism to flourish.
Such a dynamic leads to mediocrity rather than excellence. Yet one area in which the brass does excel is fighting to preserve their bloated slots, despite regular efforts by civilian secretaries of defense to trim them.
Still, such pruning isn't faintly enough. A 50% cut may seem unkind, but don't spend your time worrying about demobbed generals queuing up for unemployment checks. Clutching their six-figure pensions, most of them would undoubtedly speed through the Pentagon's golden revolving door onto the corporate boards of, or into consultancies with, various armaments manufacturers and influence peddlers, as 70% of three- and four-star retirees have in fact done in recent years.
Even a 50% cut would still leave approximately 470 active-duty generals and admirals to cheer on. Perhaps they should be formed into their own beribboned battalion and sent to war. Heck, the Spartans held the Persians off at Thermopylae with a mere 300 fighters. Nearly 500 pissed-off generals and admirals might just be the shock troops needed to "surge" again in Afghanistan.
Of Proconsuls, Imperators, and the End of Democracy
In Roman times, a proconsul was a military ruler of imperial territories, a man with privileges as sweeping as his powers. Today's four-star generals and admirals -- there are 38 of them -- often have equivalent powers, and the perks to go with them. Executive jets on call. Large retinues. Personal servants. Private chefs.
Such power and privilege corrupts. It leads to General Petraeus, then head of Central Command, being escorted to a private party in Florida by a 28-cop motorcade. It leads to General William Ward, the head of U.S. Africa Command, spending lavishly and so abusing his position that he was demoted and forced into retirement. It leads to generals being so disconnected from their troops that they think nothing of sending a trove of flirtatious emails to a starry-eyed socialite.
Disturbing as their personal behavior may be, the real problem is that America's four-star proconsuls are far more powerful than our civilian ambassadors and foreign service members. Whether in Afghanistan, Africa, or Washington, the military controls the lion's share of the money and resources. That, in turn, means its proconsuls end up dictating foreign policy based on a timeless golden rule: "he who has the gold makes the rules."
Think of those proconsuls as the prodigal sons of a sprawling American empire. In their fiefdoms, vast sums of money can be squandered or simply go missing, as can vast quantities of weapons. Recall those pallets of hundred dollar bills that magically disappeared in Iraq (to the tune of $18 billion). Or the magical disappearance of 190,000 AK-47s and pistols in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, representing 30% of the weapons the U.S. provided to Iraqi security forces. Or the tens of thousands of assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers provided to Afghan security forces that magically disappeared in 2009 and 2010.
Such scandals in U.S. war zones should surprise no one. After all, noting that the Pentagon couldn't account for $2.3 trillion (yes -- that's trillion) in spending, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared a war on waste. Good intentions, bad timing. The declaration came on September 10, 2001. A global war on terror followed, further engorging the military-industrial-homeland-security-intelligence complex with nearly a trillion dollars a year for the next decade, while it morphed into the blob that ate Washington.