The Book Club

The General’s Changing Role

Dear Debra,

You’ve captured something in the tone of this book (in the tone of most books, actually) that bugs me: an author’s tendency to 1) take his two or three favorite pet prejudices, 2) mistake them for original “insights,” and 3) bang the living bejesus out of them over the course of way too many pages.

In Clark’s case, the themes aren’t always wrong, but they’re often stale. One of them is that a bombing campaign is a race against time–if an adversary can replace his men and materiel faster than you can kill/destroy them, you’re losing the air war. Just in case we don’t get this point, he repeats it several times. Clark is certainly right that bombing halts are (strategically) a bad idea. In this he shows himself to have well assimilated the lessons of Vietnam, where North Vietnamese Army resupply capability was not taken seriously until well into the Nixon administration, when it was probably too late to win the war.

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But another of Clark’s hobbyhorses shows him to have learned nothing from Vietnam. This is his dismissal of the worst-case scenarios that politicians tend to draw when they’re weighing a military intervention. “Someone could easily imagine the situation in Kosovo turning into a military quagmire like Vietnam,” he writes. “All one had to do was assume the worst at every step along the way.” This is not just light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnelism in theory; it’s an invitation to poorly thought out military adventures (like Kosovo) in practice.

Thank you for quoting that “fancy master’s degrees” passage. My own favorite example of this kind of writing is, “The Air Force was getting rough treatment from some of the desk jockeys and so-called experts back in Washington.” Isn’t Clark the desk jockey par excellence? The desk fetishism starts on the opening page, where Clark sets the scene at his office in Mons, Belgium:

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Notebook in hand, grimacing a little but calm, Brigadier General Pete Chiarelli walked into my office … I swiveled around from the desk to pick up the phone–the unclassified line, lots of nations probably listening in … I looked over at the picture on the wall of the first Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower. I looked down at my desk, the same desk he had used …

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Late in the book, he calls NATO headquarters “my” headquarters. He describes the “impressive E-Ring office” he had at the Pentagon when he worked for the Joint Chiefs, then William Cohen’s E-Ring office, and then (the coup de grace) Dennis Reimer’s:

On the morning of the 20th, I walked down the Pentagon E-Ring hallway to see the Army Chief of Staff, General Dennis Reimer. There is a tradition and reserve about this office that inspires every Army officer who enters it. … This was the office where Army Chief of Staff Carl Vuono had pinned on my first star in 1989.

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He tut-tuts that Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg, by contrast, has an office that is “little more than a cramped closet with a window.” It tells us where his priorities lie.

I’m not going to indulge in the familiar attack on “political generals.” Yes, Clark is one of those, but, as you’ve noted, politics comes with the territory these days. In fact, if war is politics continued by other means, then politicians are going to seek a deeper involvement in military tactics. Military officers’ autonomy on the battlefield has been due partly to their expertise. But it has rested even more on the logistical impossibility of civilian control. That’s changed.

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Clark understands that, in an age of cyber warfare, there’s less need–at least in advanced armies–for military men, as we’ve known them through the millennia. In a war like Kosovo, where there was never a single U.S. infantryman in mortal peril for the whole of the conflict, who needs a tactician? And who needs “inspiring” leaders? And, that being the case, who needs generals? Such questions threaten to upend the whole military class system.

For much of the Clinton administration, the armed forces were the military equivalent of FedEx. The president says he wants X number of cruise missiles fired at a certain country tonight–the general is merely the guy who selects the targets off a computer screen and makes the delivery. Clark draws the opposite class implications. It’s that generals’ old role is fading, yes, but they ought henceforth to be treated as statesmen, not technicians. Apparently no one ever thought to ask him, “Well, who elected you?”

Best,
Chris

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