Republicans love to talk about deferring to the generals, as if there is some long and hallowed tradition in this country of letting the generals do pretty much whatever they please while the civilian authorities defer to their wishes. There isn’t. There is no such tradition. There has never been such a tradition.
Generals command the troops and fight the wars but command authority rests ultimately with civilian authority: the President of the United States as commander in chief of the armed forces according to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution.
This is how the Founding Fathers intended it. This is how the United States has always operated, and one of the many reasons the United States has not turned into a military dictatorship as have so many other democracies. These lessons have been forgotten by the Republicans, who, having already sold our country to wealthy corporations, now intend to hand what’s left of it over to the army to sort out.
Look at a recent example from Mitt Romney back in June:
“I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.”
Herman Cain has also said he would defer to the generals based on the insufficiency of his own knowledge and experience. The question then becomes, should he be running at all? Is a vote for Cain a vote for military dictatorship? Don’t we elect presidents to make those hard decisions?
And Herman Cain is wrong: politics do matter, as do economics and many other factors, every bit as much as conditions on the ground. War is not a thing in itself; it has never been a thing in itself. As Prussian military theorist von Clausewitz wrote in words as true today as when he wrote them, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” In other words, war achieves political aims. It is not generals who determine those aims, but in a democracy, a civilian government.
You don’t have to look far back into American history to see examples of this relationship and how it works. It was Congress that determined Washington should defend New York whatever the conditions on the ground, because New York was a political and economic objective, however indefensible to a British invasion force that could land anywhere along the coast. Washington did not have carte blanche to fight the Revolution in any way he saw fit. Washington understood this. It is for good reason he was compared to Cincinnatus, the famous Roman farmer who, like Washington, having saved his country, surrendered his powers and went back to the farm.
Republicans, for all their talk about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, really don’t get it. Let’s take another example – the American Civil War. Look at Abraham Lincoln. Afflicted with his chosen commander of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan, knowing what he wanted and needed and not clueless himself with regards to military matters, Lincoln was forced to override the general’s concern for the conditions on the ground and give him several hard kicks in the posterior to get him moving.
Lincoln wanted him to fight. He wanted him to take the war to the enemy. But McClellan felt Lincoln should defer to him, not the other way around. Lincoln, not one to suffer fools, quickly disabused him of the true nature of things and found somebody else. And when he didn’t do the job, he found yet another commander of the Army of the Potomac until he eventually was forced to bring Ulysses S. Grant in from the Western Theater to take charge. Grant was the guy he was looking for in the first place. Grant was willing to do precisely what Lincoln demanded: attack and end the rebellion.
If Lincoln had deferred to his generals, we might still be fighting the Civil War and the Army of the Potomac might still be parked along the banks of that river, and the south would still be full of slaves.
To take a more recent example, look at World War II. Here we have Franklin D. Roosevelt as the civilian command authority. Roosevelt listens to the advice of his generals but as his generals and he both know, the final decision rests with him. If the generals had had their way, the United States would have conducted a cross-channel attack into France in 1943 or even 42. But Roosevelt as commander in chief had to look at the bigger picture: he had to worry about the Pacific as well, American public opinion, our relations with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and a number of other factors, including shipping. In concert with Winston Churchill, he overrode these wishes and directed instead that an invasion of French North Africa be conducted in the fall of 1942, followed (when again the generals would have preferred France) and invasion of Sicily and Italy in ’43, postponing the cross channel attack until 1944.
Left to their own devices, the generals would have likely drawn American forces into a savage beating on the beaches of France and prolonged the war, if not ending it in Hitler’s favor.
Turn to Korea. Here we have Harry S. Truman, successor to FDR, acting as commander in chief and General Douglas MacArthur conducting the war against communist forces in Korea. MacArthur like many generals did not concern himself with the bigger picture. He wanted to win his war and he wanted to fight his war his way. He was dismissive of communist China, even believing he needed to and more mistakenly, would be able to strike into China with impunity. Truman disagreed and did not allow it. MacArthur did not think China would intervene – it did, with near catastrophic results. MacArthur wanted to deal with China by dropping bombs on them – atomic bombs – and said it should be his decision, not the president’s, and said he would destroy China unless it surrendered. MacArthur had forgotten – if he ever cared – how things work in the United States. Truman had not forgotten, and he recalled MacArthur and brought him home where a Congressional hearing came to the conclusion he had disobeyed the president and violated the Constitution.
Left to his own devices, that is to say, had Truman deferred to his general, MacArthur would have started a nuclear war with China which had every likelihood of bringing the Soviet Union, also well armed with nukes, into the fray.
Take the example of Vietnam, where General William Westmoreland directed operations between 1964 and 1968. Westmoreland was the man on the ground, who should have had the best grasp of conditions on the ground. Instead, he had no idea how to conduct an asymmetrical war in the terrain least suited to a conventional army like our own. Westmoreland settled on dictated by his chosen strategy of a “war of attrition” – wearing the enemy down by killing so many of them that they would have to make peace. This strategy revolved around such things as “body counts” and “search and destroy” missions- ordering units into the jungle to attack whatever they found, simply to kill as many enemy as they could, never quite realizing that the enemy only fought if the enemy wanted to be found and then on their ground and on their terms. As our own body counts rose Westmoreland kept asking for more and more American troops with which to fight this war, eventually asking himself out of a job when it was realized we were no closer to victory than when we started even while Westmoreland was telling President Lyndon Johnson that “time was on our side.”
Had President Johnson deferred to his general, we might still be in Vietnam. Westmoreland never understood the type of war he was fighting, saying during his tenure in Vietnam that the answer to insurgency is “Firepower.” Even after the debacle of the Tet Offensive he was sounding like General McClellan of a hundred years earlier, saying, “I see no requirement to change our strategy.” Well, the President did and it’s quite possible that had Westmoreland not bungled things so badly already South Vietnam’s eventual fate might have been reversed.
In the Republican debates, only Ron Paul has given the right answer: “I wouldn’t wait for the generals. I’m the Commander in Chief.” Ron Paul understands that conditions on the ground are not the only factors in determining national policy. As he said, “I make the decisions. I tell the generals what to do.”
BINGO. Mitt Romney and every other Republican candidate promises to “defer to the generals” but if history has shown us anything, we don’t want to defer to the generals. That is putting it backwards, for it is the generals who must defer to the civilian authorities over them. Just as war serves diplomacy, the generals serve civilians.
Naturally, the civilian command authority will at times be more or less competent, just as will be the generals. The debacle in Iraq in 2003 is a prime example of this, with President Bush having no clear idea of what he was doing or what he was trying to accomplish beyond taking down Saddam Hussein’s regime. This made it rather difficult for his generals to function, or to react to the facts on the ground. His squandering of dearly successes in Afghanistan is another clear example of what can go wrong when civilian authorities “shoot from the hip” without any clear goals in mind.
But none of that changes the fact that it is with the president ultimate authority rests. He can take the advice of his generals but he is not obligated to go along with it, and no such tradition exists, as I have attempted to demonstrate here. As often as not, deferring to the generals is the wrong decision to make, because the generals do not have all the facts. The generals do not and must not shape national policy.