I'm sure you still remember them. The president regularly called them "my generals." They were, he claimed, from "central casting" and there were three of them: retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, who was first appointed secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and then White House chief of staff; Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who became the president's national security advisor; and last (but hardly least) retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, whom Trump particularly adored for his nickname "Mad Dog" and appointed as secretary of defense. Of him, the president said, "If I'm doing a movie, I pick you, General Mattis, who's doing really well."
They were referred to in Washington and in the media more generally as "the adults in the room," indicating what most observers (as well as insiders) seemed to think about the president -- that he was, in effect, the impulsive, unpredictable, self-obsessed toddler in that same room. All of them had been commanders in the very conflicts that Donald Trump had labeled "ridiculous Endless Wars" and were distinctly hawkish and uncritical of those same wars (like the rest of the U.S. high command). It was even rumored that, as "adults," Kelly and Mattis had made a private pact not to be out of the country at the same time for fear of what might happen in their absence. By the end of 2018, of course, all three were gone. "My generals" were no more, but the toddler remained.
As TomDispatch regular, West Point graduate (class of 2005), and retired Army Major Danny Sjursen explains in remarkable detail today, while the president finally tossed "his" generals in the nearest trash can, the "adults" (and you do have to keep that word in quotation marks) didn't, in fact, leave the toddler alone in the Oval Office. They simply militarized and de-militarized at the same time. In fact, one class from West Point, that of 1986, from which both Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo graduated, is essentially everywhere in a distinctly militarized (if still officially civilian) and wildly hawkish Washington in the Trumpian moment. Tom
"Courage Never Quits"?
The Price of Power and West Point's Class of 1986
By Danny Sjursen
Every West Point class votes on an official motto. Most are then inscribed on their class rings. Hence, the pejorative West Point label "ring knocker." (As legend has it, at military meetings a West Pointer "need only knock his large ring on the table and all Pointers present are obliged to rally to his point of view.") Last August, the class of 2023 announced theirs: "Freedom Is Not Free." Mine from the class of 2005 was "Keeping Freedom Alive." Each class takes pride in its motto and, at least theoretically, aspires to live according to its sentiments, while championing the accomplishments of fellow graduates.
But some cohorts do stand out. Take the class of 1986 ("Courage Never Quits"). As it happens, both Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are members of that very class, as are a surprisingly wide range of influential leaders in Congress, corporate America, the Pentagon, the defense industry, lobbying firms, Big Pharma, high-end financial services, and even security-consulting firms. Still, given their striking hawkishness on the subject of American war-making, Esper and Pompeo rise above the rest. Even in a pandemic, they are as good as their class motto. When it comes to this country's wars, neither of them ever quits.
Once upon a time, retired Lieutenant General Douglas Lute (Class of '75), a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and a senior commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, taught both Esper and Pompeo in his West Point social sciences class. However, it was Pompeo, the class of '86 valedictorian, whom Lute singled out for praise, remembering him as "a very strong student -- fastidious, deliberate." Of course, as the Afghanistan Papers, released by the Washington Post late last year, so starkly revealed, Lute told an interviewer that, like so many U.S. officials, he "didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking in Afghanistan." Though at one point he was President George W. Bush's "Afghan war czar," the general never expressed such doubts publicly and his record of dissent is hardly an impressive one. Still, on one point at least, Lute was on target: Esper and Pompeo are smart and that's what worries me (as in the phrase "too smart for their own good").
Esper, a former Raytheon lobbyist, had particularly hawkish views on Russia and China before he ever took over at the Pentagon and he wasn't alone when it came to the urge to continue America's wars. Pompeo, then a congressman, exhibited a striking pre-Trump-era foreign policy pugnacity, particularly vis-à-vis the Islamic world. It has since solidified into a veritable obsession with toppling the Iranian regime.
Their militarized obsessions have recently taken striking form in two ways: the secretary of defense instructed U.S. commanders to prepare plans to escalate combat against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, an order the mission's senior leader there, Lieutenant General Robert "Pat" White, reportedly resisted; meanwhile, the secretary of state evidently is eager to convince President Trump to use the Covid-19 pandemic, now devastating Iran, to bomb that country and further strangle it with sanctions. Worse yet, Pompeo might be just cunning enough to convince his ill-informed, insecure boss (so open to clever flattery) that war is the answer.
The militarism of both men matters greatly, but they hardly pilot the ship of state alone, any more than Trump does (whatever he thinks). Would that it were the case. Sadly, even if voters threw them all out, the disease runs much deeper than them. Enter the rest of the illustrative class of '86.
As it happens, Pompeo's and Esper's classmates permeate the deeper structure of imperial America. And let's admit it, they are, by the numbers, an impressive crew. As another '86 alumnus, Congressman Mark Green (R-TN), bragged on the House floor in 2019, "My class [has] produced 18 general officers... 22-plus presidents and CEOs of major corporations... two state legislators... [and] three judges," as well as "at least four deans and chancellors of universities." He closed his remarks by exclaiming, "Courage never quits, '86!"
However, for all his gushing, Green's list conceals much. It illuminates neither the mechanics nor the motives of his illustrious classmates; that is, what they're actually doing and why. Many are key players in a corporate-military machine bent on, and reliant on, endless war for profit and professional advancement. A brief look at key '86ers offers insight into President Dwight D. Eisenhower's military-industrial complex in 2020 -- and it should take your breath away.
The West Point Mafia
The core group of '86 grads cheekily refer to themselves as "the West Point mafia." And for some, that's an uplifting thought. Take Joe DePinto, CEO of 7-Eleven. He says that he's "someone who sleeps better at night knowing that those guys are in the positions they're in." Of course, he's an '86 grad, too.
Back when I called the academy home, we branded such self-important cadets "toolbags." More than a decade later, when I taught there, I found my students still using the term. Face facts, however: those "toolbags," thick as thieves today, now run the show in Washington (and despite their busy schedules, they still find time to socialize as a group).
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