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William Astore: Generals Behaving Badly

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

He was "an ascetic who... usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness. He is known for operating on a few hours' sleep and for running to and from work while listening to audio books on an iPod... [He has] an encyclopedic, even obsessive, knowledge about the lives of terrorists... [He is] a warrior-scholar, comfortable with diplomats, politicians..." Those were just the descriptions New York Times reporters Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Mazzetti themselves bestowed on General Stanley McChrystal in May 2009 soon after he had been appointed the new U.S. Afghan War commander. They had no trouble finding interviewees saying even more extravagant things. 

He was "the most influential general of his generation," "a celebrated soldier with extensive knowledge of intelligence gathering in both Afghanistan and Iraq... [with a] reputation... so formidable, officials said, that it was difficult to rotate him to another military post" and a "biographer who is keeping his name in lights." That was Bumiller on General (later CIA Director) David Petraeus and, given the press he ordinarily got in Washington, her reportage could almost be considered downbeat. 

For both men, though, those were the glory days when things were going spectacularly. Okay, maybe not in the wars they were directing, but in the personal image-making campaigns both were waging in Washington. What about after both went down in flames and shame, though? Once a "celebrated soldier," it seems, always a celebrated something or other. 

As Bumiller had been on the generals beat in the good times, she evidently ended up on the generals-in-shame beat as well. And you know what? They turn out to be whizzes at shame, too.  In May, she found McChrystal teaching a course on "leadership" at Yale. He was, she reported in a charmingly soft focus piece, a spellbinding professor (willing to go out and drink with his students, just as he had with his military colleagues). Judging by her article, the former "warrior-scholar" had held onto the "scholar" part of the label -- and a knack for (self-)image making, too.  

As for Petraeus, on November 20th, the Times' Scott Shane reported that almost all the main figures in the ever-expanding scandal around him had hired "high-profile, high-priced" image managers. That included the general himself who had, in the past, proved the most celebrated military image-manager of his generation -- until, of course, he managed himself into bed with his "biographer." Petraeus, Shane noted, had hired Robert Barnett, "a superlawyer whose online list of clients begins with the last three presidents. Though he is perhaps best known for negotiating book megadeals for the Washington elite, his focus this time is said to be steering Mr. Petraeus's future career, not his literary life." Curiously, Barnett had represented Stanley McChrystal, too, when the axed war commander sold a memoir in 2010. 

It's rare that a newspaper lays out the mechanics of elite image-making and then so visibly engages in it, but the next day Bumiller weighed in with the first peek behind the scenes at a Petraeus at military dusk. But it wasn't taps playing; it was -- thank you (perhaps) Robert Barnett -- opportunity knocking. The general, reported Bumiller via various unnamed "friends" and "close friends," was dealing with a "furious" wife, but already fielding "offers to teach from four universities, a grab bag of book proposals from publishers in New York, and an interest in speaking and serving on corporate boards." He hadn't, she informed Times' readers, even ruled out becoming a TV news "talking head" like so many of his retired compatriots.

While both men evidently continue to engage in the sort of take-no-prisoners PR campaigning they know how to do best, the rest of us should be blinking in stunned wonder and asking ourselves: Just what are we to make of the decade of military hagiography we've just passed through? What did it mean for two generals to soar to media glory while the wars they commanded landed in the nearest ditch? Someday, historians are going to have a field day with our "embedded" American world in the twilight years of our glory, the celebrated era when, wartime victories having long since faded away, the image of triumph became what really mattered in Washington. In the meantime, TomDispatch regular retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore offers a first take on history and the special dangers lurking in our moment. Tom

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Sucking Up to the Military Brass 
Generals Who Run Amuck, Politicians Who Could Care Less, an "Embedded" Media... And Us 
By William J. Astore

Few things have characterized the post-9/11 American world more than our worshipful embrace of our generals. They've become our heroes, our sports stars, and our celebrities all rolled into one. We can't stop gushing about them. Even after his recent fall from grace, General David Petraeus was still being celebrated by CNN as the best American general since Dwight D. Eisenhower (and let's not forget that Ike commanded the largest amphibious invasion in history and held a fractious coalition together in a total war against Nazi Germany). Before his fall from grace, Afghan War Commander General Stanley McChrystal was similarly lauded as one tough customer, a sort of superman-saint.

Petraeus and McChrystal crashed and burned for the same underlying reason: hubris. McChrystal became cocky and his staff contemptuous of civilian authority ; Petraeus came to think he really could have it all, the super-secret job and the super-sexy mistress. An ideal of selfless service devolved into self-indulgent preening in a wider American culture all-too-eager to raise its star generals into the pantheon of Caesars and Napoleons, and its troops into the halls of Valhalla.

The English used to say of American troops in World War II that they were "overpaid, over-sexed, and over here." Now we're overhyped, oversold, and over there, wherever "there" might happen to be in a constantly shifting, perpetual war on terror.

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In our particular drama, generals may well be the actors who strut and fret their hour upon the stage, but their directors are the national security complex and associated politicians, their producers the military-industrial complex's corporate handlers, and their agents a war-junky media. And we, the audience in the cheap seats, must take some responsibility as well. Even when our military adventures spiral down after a promising opening week, the enthusiastic applause the American public has offered to our celebrity military adventurers and the lack of pressure on the politicians who choose to fund them only serve to keep bullets flying and troops dying.

It's Not That Generals Suck, It's That We Suck Up to Them

Recent scandals involving some of our top brass have one virtue: they've encouraged a smidgeon of debate on things military.  The main problem isn't that our generals suck, though one might indeed come to that conclusion after reading two recent high-profile articles. In the New York Times, Lucian Truscott IV dismissed General Petraeus and similar "strutting military peacocks" as phony heroes in phony wars. What we need, he suggested, is not "imitation generals" like Petraeus, but ruthless nail-spitters like his grandfather, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., of World War II fame.

Tom Ricks, formerly the Washington Post's chief military columnist and himself a fan of Petraeus, was more circumspect if no less critical. In a probing article in the Atlantic, based on his new book, The Generals, he argued that the U.S. military has failed to reward virtuosity and punish deficiency.  Combine an undiscriminating command structure that gives every general a gold star with their constant rotation in and out of command billets and you have a recipe for "a shocking degree of mediocrity" among the Army's top leaders. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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