OPINION: Proud and dishonourable generals —Brian Cloughley
It seems that honesty doesn’t pay, career-wise. The last US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, asked for 10,000 more troops than seemed suitable for White House policy. He was sacked and replaced by General McChrystal
The famous and eventually infamous American General Douglas MacArthur imagined that he had won the Second World War in the Pacific single-handedly and was much given to public declamation. He loved an audience and it didn’t matter much who the audience was, provided they revered MacArthur, which most Americans did for a very long time.
When he was US Theatre Commander in the Pacific, and thus chief of United Nations troops fighting the war in Korea in the early Fifties, he disobeyed his president, whom he despised.
President Truman, arguably one of the twentieth century’s most effective American leaders, and probably one of the two least dishonest (the other being Jimmy Carter, although Truman did have a history), experienced gross insubordination from the increasingly grandiose MacArthur, but had to bear with his unruly general because of MacArthur’s vast and potent public relations machine. But eventually he sacked him.
MacArthur didn’t deploy only troops, he deployed public relations spin doctors (although they weren’t called that, then) to bolster his reputation and denigrate anyone who might dare to criticise the vain, conceited, arrogant, supercilious *** that he became.
A British officer in MacArthur’s headquarters in 1943, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Wilkinson (of the British Secret Service, whose private papers are fascinating), reported on him as being “shrewd, selfish, proud, remote, highly strung and vastly vain. He has imagination, self-confidence, physical courage and charm, but no humour about himself, no regard for truth, and is unaware of these defects. He mistakes his emotions and ambitions for principles. With moral depth, he would be a great man; as it is he is a near miss which may be worse than a mile.”
That colourful and accurate description of MacArthur may be relevant to more modern generals, American and British, in their floundering in Afghanistan, but it is not that aspect — “vain, no sense of humour, no regard for truth” — that draws the attention. Rather it is the employment of the public relations weapon, a la MacArthur, that is interesting.
Because to attention-seeking generals the enemy is the public: they are the targets who must be neutralised or, preferably, made supporters. (The British General Montgomery, he of mega-vanity and no sense of humour, knew this well, and even proposed that domestic public relations be made a Principle of War.)
Take the recent most prominent American and British crop of senior officers who comment about their national shambles in Afghanistan. Not an impressive bunch — but noisy, PR-wise.
When an army is about to be committed to a campaign, the government (of whatever country) tells it what it wants to be done. It gives — or should give — clear guidance about the mission. Then the army chief goes away and has his staff come up with a plan. If he has a problem with government guidance he requests clarification. Then his plan gives precise numbers and types of troops, aircraft and so forth necessary to carry out the government’s orders.
If the list presented by the military chief is not agreed then he has only two courses open to him. He can resign, on the grounds that his painstaking professional conclusion has been ignored and thus that pursuit of military action on any other basis will fail. Or he can carry on dishonourably in the knowledge that he is committing his soldiers to conflict for which, in his expert judgement, they are inadequate in numbers to achieve the government’s mission.
Now guess what every US and British senior officer has done in recent years when presented with government refusal to allow him the number of soldiers he says he needs to carry out the orders of that government.
Resignation? Not a hope.
But when they retire they leap into print and preach about the lousiness of the people who sent them off to war with inadequate resources in manpower and equipment.
Take the British General Dannat who retired in August from being army chief and then declared that the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown “vetoed a vital troop reinforcement in Afghanistan to save money.” Why did Dannat not resign when Brown refused his advice and declare publicly that the British government was behaving despicably?
Dannat now says that his army was fighting with “at least part of one arm tied behind their back.” What a contemptible admission. The British prime minister stated on July 13 that “I have been assured by commanders...at the top of the armed services that we have the manpower we need for current operations.” Someone is lying.
If Dannat committed his soldiers to war knowing that they were not being deployed in the required strength or with essential support then he is a dishonourable charlatan.
But it seems that honesty doesn’t pay, career-wise. The last US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, asked for 10,000 more troops than seemed suitable for White House policy. He was sacked and replaced by General McChrystal.
McChrystal: he of the McChrystal Ball of Prediction, the new shining light commander in Afghanistan who submitted a report on the conflict to his government and then stood back while it was carefully leaked to selected reporters. He didn’t tell his government, so the leakers say, how many more troops he wants — but further leaks indicated that he wants 45,000 of them. It is utterly astounding that what he wrote was so quickly in the media. He stated that “Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it,” which is a win-win and lily-livered position for any general to take. A true descendant of MacArthur.
Why isn’t McChrystal honest? Why doesn’t he say to his government (without leaking it to the media) that “I need X number of troops. Give me them or I can’t complete the Mission you have given me?” And then, if the government won’t agree, he should resign, with honour.
Pakistan is fortunate in having an army commander whose Yes is Yes and whose No is No.
The writer can be found on the web at Brian Cloughley