The Book Club

What Really Gets a GI’s Goat

Dear Chris,

Your thoughts on the future of warfare and, more to the point, the Gis who actually launch missiles, fire torpedoes, pound ground, and hit the beach are dead on. So much so that I fear for the future of the institution that protects us from those who would do us harm. No one wants to mess with us (directly, anyway) because they’ll lose. The day they stop believing that is the day I open a backyard bomb shelter business and start stockpiling my favorite beer.

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To that end, generals like Clark are problematic as our all-volunteer force faces the future. Given the overpoliticization of today’s soldiers, we’d all have been better off had Sir Clark kept this book, his mind games and coup-counting, to himself. Perhaps the problem is simply that military elites, like sausage-makers, shouldn’t invite you into their world. Did this passage make your skin crawl, too?

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I talked [Jacques Klein, deputy high representative] through a different line of thinking [so they could justify blocking a demonstration]. Isn’t it possible that even in democracies, a permit is required for a rally? And if there is a high probability of trouble, would the permit be issued? Wouldn’t you think that the police uniforms and weapons found Friday may indicate an intent to use the demonstrators as cover for something else, directed at Plavsic? And did you know that Krajisnik has already refused Shinseki’s request that he relocate the rally from the square in front of Plavsic’s headquarters to the stadium outside town? Anyway, if this election is about local governments, is it essential that Krajisnik assemble all his Serb supporters in one place?

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I wonder if he was dangling a shiny watch back and forth in front of Klein’s eyes while he wove that self-justifying incantation. Perhaps it was necessary to block that demonstration, but the average GI reading that passage would be sickened. Not so much by its anti-democratic overtones as by its undignified political weaseling. Why have someone wearing the uniform conducting such business? It ought to be beneath him. Why not work at FedEx, the real one, if it’s all just about permits and paperwork? For this they risk their lives? Are separated from their families? Have to take orders? The loss of the military’s high, clear purpose (defeating communism) was definitely in the mix that drove me and a great many others to separate.

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As we’ve both noted, we must be somewhat sanguine about the dirty hands and high politics of chair-borne military elites. Inescapable and immediate media/civilian oversight is real and takes particular personality types to master. As you suggest, though, that may not be the same personality that inspires troops. However a master he might be behind the scenes (and the number of his enemies speaks to his prowess there), that won’t motivate a unit deployed to a tender box like the Balkans or Somalia. Officers and NCOs in the field have to do that, and it’s getting harder everyday, especially when their troops are reading books like these. The millennia-old ethos of the selfless warrior defending his country is crumbling. Partially, that’s due to increasing selfishness, egotism, complacency, and cowardice. Partially it’s due to our increased range of options and ambivalence about the complexities of international politics. But, on a more prosaic level, its leaders like “look at me!” Clark. In a good economy, in the absence of a direct threat, a person needs a reason to attack a well-defended, enemy-controlled hill. That reason is charismatic leadership, not a thorough knowledge of the Peloponesian Wars, a rolodex that would choke the Sasquatch, and a seven-figure book deal.

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No doubt, Clark flaunts his own self-perceived brilliance and shows off his goodies like a toddler. But the average GI wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with that. Let’s not discount the soldier’s competitive zeal. GIs, especially officers, like to hear about the perks of high office, they like, or at least are impressed by, the pomp and circumstance frothed over some visiting general even as they snicker about it. The military is an exceedingly competitive place, and the privileges of the top dogs are motivating. It’s the colonel toadying for some general who insists on all the ring-kissing; you don’t become a general’s aide or exec, positions that the cream of the crop hotly contest over, by accident. The aides dream up all the protocol requirements, all the while picturing themselves receiving the attention in just a few more promotion cycles if he can keep his sponsor happy. The goodies signal the most ambitious, and hopefully the most talented, on what to aim for. I competed, and won, the position of officer trainee wing commander, the top spot at Officer Training School, if I may risk a Clarkian point of clarification, in part because it came with a perk I desperately wanted–a room in a secluded part of the base that I would no longer have to share. So, GIs don’t begrudge the perks per se. They begrudge the fact that the perks mean so much to him. Soldiers can simply tell how much their leaders care for them and how much they care about their own careers. The more they feel the “statesman” generals are Pentagon/White House/Capitol Hill-attuned than barracks-attuned, the more they put in their paperwork for discharge. Imagine what a staff sergeant or captain coming up on his discharge date thinks as he reads this:  

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[My wife] and I had a walk around the nineteenth-century Chateau Gendebien in Mons that would be our new home. It was a magnificent Flemish-style chateau … set on twenty-three acres with a wide lawn, circular drive, several two-hundred-year-old trees, three greenhouses, five gardeners, a tennis court and newly renovated interior fixtures.

The accessories of the office matched the scale of the house. As SACEUR, I would have my own aircraft … two Blackhawk UH60 helicopters … two armored Mercedes staff cars. We had our own airfield … a brigadier general as executive officer, two aides-de-camp, and a personal office staff of about one hundred people, in addition to the staff at the chateau. …

This name dropper even has to count the trees!!!!! GIs may grumble about the annoyances of genuflecting to rank and political realities, but the grumbling is good-hearted. Until you go too far, and I think Clark does. While his palaces and machinations may impress the hell out of ‘em back on the E Ring, the average GI in the field is polishing up his resume and wishing he still had something to believe in. And the Manpower folks are looking worried.

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