Throughout history generals have been revered and celebrated—some to an almost godlike status—understandable to some degree. Their accomplishments on the battlefield were at times the difference between a civilization’s survival or extinction. And in America, they are one of the finest products we have produced—smart, disciplined, and principled. Loyalty beyond reproach and an almost divine air about them that exemplifies the very best in us—service before self.
Yet, with all these impeccable characteristics, we are seeing very plainly why presidents should not appoint them to politically sensitive positions. For those who believe in and live by a code of honor, selflessness, and loyalty, politics can be a foreign country. For example, take honor, in politics it is almost an oxymoron. And Selflessness, it is merely a campaign slogan too soon forgotten. However, loyalty even though may be considered a common thread between politics and the military, carries with it one subtle difference—a difference misunderstood by President Trump. Loyalty in the military is not to any one person but to a higher cause—duty, honor, country.
Because of this, the President and his generals were on an inevitable collision course.
Why the misunderstanding? What made it so difficult for these generals to adapt to their positions? And what would so strongly shape their beliefs that they would question a president and risk losing their jobs?
As young officers, like us all, today’s core of senior generals grew up in a post-Vietnam Cold War environment. After WII, the U.S. embarked on a massive buildup of our military—actually, a reduction from wartime force sizes but substantially larger than pre-War numbers. The Soviet Union made its stance in eastern Europe and the clash of civilizations began—the Cold War. The bitter rivalry created a heated and scary bi-polar political world. Chess-like moves around the globe pitted opposing ideologies creating unfortunate conflicts and tragedy.
The Soviet threat and communism were real and in the eyes of America, required a large military presence to oppose it. This lasted for decades but reached a climax in the 70s and 80s when many of these generals were just cutting their military teeth. Most were what we call “Fulda Gap” babies—Fulda Gap being the expected initial battleground in Germany between NATO and Soviet forces—it was where WIII would begin. Alliances on both sides were paramount to each defense but also critical in maintaining a common deterrent for peace.
But there is more, the Cold War was not the only significant event that shaped these generals
The post-Vietnam era also left an indelible impression on our country and the military. America was sickened by our involvement in Vietnam and people were searching for answers—the bullseye was placed right on the military’s forehead. Funding was cut, equipment eroded and so too did their credibility and aura—a bad period for the military and anyone who grew up in it remembers it well. Then along came Ronald Reagan to the rescue, outspending the Soviets and eventually forcing a collapse of its economic and communist system. The result was that by the beginning of the 90s, the world witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rewards of a rebuilt American military–validated through an impressive display of military capability during the Gulf War. As far as the defense department was concerned, it was back in business.
Not so fast!
The military may have impressed the world with its display of smart weapons destroying Iraqi targets, but the strategic impact of the Soviet collapse created a threat vacuum for the U.S.–the Pentagon was panicking. Its main nemesis was no longer a threat and no longer did we need the alliances or forces it had spent decades building up–remember the great political scientist at the time, Francis Fukuyama, declaring, “The end of history as such,” “the evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Another rescue was in order—and little did America know that it would come in the form of one of the most devastating security breaches on U.S. soil. A spoiled Islamic radicalized son of a multi-millionaire in the Middle East put America in his crosshairs and the rest is history. Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist attack on America ironically saved the military from severe force reductions. It even allowed NATO to reinvent itself in Afghanistan and save the alliance. However, what was unexpected was a protracted and costly conflict that continues to this day.
New alliances, a different threat and a different way of fighting emerged—everything changed, and the military changed with it. A new set of coalitions and partnerships evolved, and these generals were right in the middle of it. In fact, Mattis was the CENTCOM commander in the Middle East from 2010-2013 instrumental in building and sustaining key coalition partners. LTG McMasters (Trumps’ former National Security Advisor) was a protege of Gen Petraeus, assisting in reinventing the military to properly battle insurgents—thus saving us from disaster in Iraq. New ways of fighting, coalition partners, and drinking tea with tribal leaders became the new way of doing business.
This is the world our generals grew up in. It shaped their beliefs, ideas, and principles. Early alliances like NATO and later coalitions like ISAF in Afghanistan or Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria, heavily influenced the way they see the world. As a matter of fact, many of these generals believe that a chain of Middle East alliances will build a lasting and impregnable rampart in the Middle East to protect the U.S. and its global interests. And even more troubling is that many inside the Pentagon consider the conflict in the Middle East a strategic threat to America, making these coalitions and alliances critical to the defense of our nation. This view is what got our generals in trouble.
What is a strategic threat? And if it is in question how do we justify a budget for it?
The answer is easy, we create threats larger than they are. Just to explain, a strategic threat is any threat that challenges the very survival of America. Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and North Korea, none of which is—or was—a strategic threat or threat to our survival. There is only one strategic threat today and that is Russia. Its thousands of nuclear warheads pointed our way is the only challenge to our survival—and ironically, the Pentagon woefully underbudgets. For all the rhetoric in the Department of Defense about the primary objective of the U.S. military, which is defending the homeland, the priorities in their budget do not support that objective—our homeland defense is painfully misaligned and under-budgeted.
Why? Because it makes justifying the size of our military forces problematic—in other words, the goal of any military Service Chief is to stay big—at any cost!
For years, I fought these dysfunctional battles inside the Pentagon, trying to get planners to understand that defending our borders should be our priority, as is stated in the President’s National Security Strategy. The fight against ISIS in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan are important and North Korea and Iran need to be in check, but the efforts and cost should be burden shared across coalitions and alliances, not overburdened by the U.S. What our generals and so many others struggle to understand is that President Trump believes this is wrong and questions the prudence and disproportion of our involvement. And regardless of your loyalties, one cannot argue its merit.
Protecting U.S. interests are paramount and should be pursued but not at America’s expense. The President supports this, preaches it and detailed it in his recent National Security Strategy. In the President’s eyes, the United States cannot police the world—or should. He has stated this view repeatedly for many years. There should be no surprises. And no matter your background or influence, when the boss says to take the hill, take it! Don’t let your past or an outdated military culture affect your role. Any appointee who does not see this security rearrangement is doomed for failure and replacement.
And a message to any general who wants to work for him, politics are brutal and at times the devil on your shoulder, but is the reality of working in government. There’s a new sheriff in town who believes in America first, last, and always. As a deputized servant, know your boss, heed his words, and above all be loyal to his cause—not debate their policy on the world stage.