The General in His Labyrinth

Generally speaking, generals obey political power. At least in most Western countries. And this isn’t by accident. It is a complicated story, with ups and downs, advances and retreats, clarity and doubts. In nations founded with the sword it was necessary often to maintain a strong and permanent military force. In some of these places the military contributed to the poor treatment of the people. The generals gave into temptation by intervening in the political process: reigning, guarding the kingdom, helping to reign. This was called “praetorianism” because of the similarity to the Imperial Guard, who were able to enthrone and dethrone Caesars, in decadent Rome.

In other cases — especially in the “developing world” — the military, as the only coherent and organized force of the society, were the vanguards of the development and modernization. On a less positive note, the generals transitioned to civilian life as owners and managers of companies, continuing their social influence through other ways.

Of course, things are different in the United States. The tradition is to have a professional army that must, at least in the 20th century, submit threefold: to the president as a supreme commander, to the defense secretary as master strategist and to the Congress as the owner of the military budget and the policy oversight body.

Given this information, the ridicule of Washington’s policy makers — from the “embarrassed” Obama to “clown stuck in time” Jim Jones, from “nobody” Joe Biden to other various “incompetents” — by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of U.S. forces in the Afghanistan, couldn’t pass in silence.

McChrystal was a case of clear and easy dismissal. As chief operating officer, he accumulated failures and fantasies for applying the unrepeatable lessons learned in Iraq for the Afghanistan campaign.

His substitute, Gen. David Petraeus, despite being blamed, in part, for the failures as head of Central Command, is known for fixing dire situations. In the Afghan charade, he will have to prepare an honorable retreat in 2011 and explain to his officers that Kabul is not Baghdad, the Taliban are neither the Saddamists nor al-Qaeda and Pakistan is not Iran.

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