War Stories

The Grunt vs. the Flyboy

The real reason for Wesley Clark’s ill-advised comments about John McCain’s military record.

Wesley Clark 

There are two explanations for Gen. Wesley Clark’s politically tin-eared remark about Sen. John McCain last Sunday.

First, Clark is politically tin-eared. Remember his 2004 presidential campaign?

Second, and more fundamental, Clark was an Army infantry commander during the Vietnam War while McCain was a Navy aviator. As a rule, the grunts hated the flyboys.

Here, as a reminder, is what Clark said when asked about the Republican presidential candidate on the June 29 episode of CBS’s Face the Nation:

I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces as a prisoner of war.

That was where Clark should have zipped his lips. But, as if he couldn’t hold back some raging impulse, he went on:

He hasn’t held executive responsibility. … I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.

In a sense, of course, Clark is right. There’s nothing about flying a plane—or, for that matter, driving a tank or shooting a rifle—that indicates a talent for high office. But if the retired general wanted to be on the team and possibly in the Cabinet of Sen. Barack Obama—who also has never held an executive position and was, on that very day, fending off accusations of insufficient patriotism—he should have known that it’s best not to wander this turf.

My guess is that we have heard the last of Clark as an Obama surrogate. The next time Obama’s campaign passes around a list of national-security advisers, Clark’s name won’t be on it. But as we say farewell, let us consider the professional passions that animated his faux pas in order to improve our understanding not only of Gen. Clark but also of rivalries that still beset the armed forces.

In 1967, Navy Lt. Commander John McCain was flying A-4E Skyhawk attack planes off the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier. He was on his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam when an air-defense battery shot him out of the sky. He crashed into Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake (where a statue of him was erected, in celebration of the event) and was held prisoner for the next five years.

In 1970, Army Capt. Wes Clark was commanding A Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, of the 1st Infantry Division (“the Big Red One”), when a Viet Cong soldier shot him four times. Though seriously wounded, he ordered his men to fight back, and they won the skirmish. Clark was hospitalized and awarded a Silver Star.

You might think that Clark would feel a warm comradeship with McCain, having fought the same war and faced death from the guns of the same enemy. A retired Army general who also commanded a company in Vietnam and has known Clark for many years told me that, in one sense, he couldn’t understand why Clark would say such a thing. “The nightmare of every soldier over there was that we’d get captured,” he said. “We all thought that would be worse than getting killed.”

Yet, in another sense, the retired general understands Clark’s comments all too well. “The soldier’s attitude toward Navy aviators, Marine aviators, and Air Force aviators,” this retired general said, “was that they flew their missions, then went back to the officers’ club for a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep, while we ate scraps and huddled under a tree in the jungle.”

Air Force and Navy commanders at the time had no interest in using their planes to provide close air support to troops on the ground. Their main missions were air superiority (shooting down enemy planes in air-to-air combat) and deep interdiction (bombing targets deep behind enemy lines). The grunts had to rely on artillery and the Army’s own helicopters, which were easy to shoot down from the ground. (Under a 1947 interservice treaty on roles and missions, the Army was not allowed to build fixed-wing combat aircraft. *) Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tried to press the Joint Chiefs of Staff to assign some airplanes to provide cover for the troops. The most they could muster was a handful of Navy A-1s, which were briefly taken out of mothballs for that purpose.

Interservice rivalries are not nearly as fierce as they once were. One reason is the Goldwater-Nichols reform of 1986, which among other things required officers to serve on a “joint” (i.e., multiservice) command before getting promoted to general. Another has been the experience of the past two decades’ wars, especially the ongoing Iraq war, in which the services have conducted joint operations to an unprecedented degree. Finally, the military budgets have lately been large enough for everybody to get what they’ve wanted: There hasn’t been much need for rivalry.

Still, tensions persist. Some soldiers and Marines resent the Air Force and Navy for shouldering so light a burden in Iraq, bearing only 4 percent of the fatalities and 2 percent of the injuries in this war. (See chart below.)

Last month, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired the top two Air Force officials—the secretary and the chief of staff, the latter a four-star general—the official reason was loose security at nuclear-weapons facilities. But the real reason was Gates’ frustration that they weren’t pulling their weight in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had long complained that the Air Force wasn’t deploying its “unmanned aerial vehicles” efficiently enough. (These camera-carrying UAVs, which have provided invaluable intelligence, are controlled by joysticks back at the base, not by a pilot in the cockpit, so some Air Force officers have been unenthusiastic about using them.) In an unusually rebellious move, backed by Gates, the Army has started to build and deploy its own reconnaissance aircraft.

Gates was also furious when Air Force generals publicly challenged his decision to halt production of the F-22 stealth fighter-attack plane. More than 100 of the planes are in the field, but they have never been used in combat. They are rationalized as necessary for a possible future war against China—an attitude that Gates lambasted in a speech as “next war-itis.”

Some Air Force officials privately protest the insinuations and note that Gates has surrounded himself with Army generals—most notably Gen. Peter Chiarelli, his very intelligent senior military assistant—but no air officers. They have a point, but the main point here is that interservice tensions drive much of what goes on in the minds of military personnel.

And that may explain what was going on in the mind of Clark on Sunday morning. In his case, the institutional resentments may have been stiffened by personal ones. McCain, as he noted, has never held a position of command. Clark, on the other hand, has held many—not just as a company commander in Vietnam and at Fort Knox but also as the supreme allied commander in Europe and, in that capacity, as the commander of the air war in Kosovo. And yet in his bid for the presidency, Clark barely made it past the New Hampshire primaries, while McCain—this fighter pilot and war prisoner—is one of the two finalists to become the ultimate commander, the commander in chief.

Life, the Army man might have been thinking, just isn’t fair.

* Correction, July 7, 2008: This article originally stated that a 1947 interservice treaty barred the Army from building all fixed-wing aircraft. The treaty only barred the Army from building fixed-wing aircraft with combat roles. (Return to the corrected sentence.)