Five Generals and a Baby
James Mattis – Secretary of Defense, General, US Marines (4 Star). Final military command – US Central Command
John Kelly – Chief of Staff, General of US Marines (4 Star). Final military command – US Southern Command
Joseph Dunford – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General, US Marines (4 Star) – still in service – prior command, Commandant US Marine Corps
H.R. McMasters – National Security Advisor, Lt. General, US Army (3 Star). Still in service- prior command, Army Capabilities Integration Center
Michael Flynn – Fired National Security Advisor, Lt. General in US Army (3 Star) – final military command – Director, Defense Intelligence Agency
Donald J Trump – President of United States, attended New York Military Academy as high school. Captain of A Company NYMA his senior year, was transferred to Admin Staff when hazing occurred under his command. 5 deferments from Vietnam Draft, never in US military
As the nuclear showdown between North Korea and the United States grows more intense, risking a war that could result in millions of casualties, two leaders are “nose to nose.” Trump and Kim are facing each other across the Pacific Ocean, determining the fate of the Pacific rim. It’s not Churchill and Hitler, it’s not Kennedy and Khruschev, it’s not even Bush and Hussein. Kim is a farcical character, a child dictator who would be funny except for the strength of the North Korean armed forces, ranked 23rd in the world, with fully 25% of the population in military service. Oh, and he has nuclear weapons and 10,000 artillery tubes pointed a Seoul, South Korea, population over 20 million.
The problem is, Trump “ain’t no Jack Kennedy” either. He had decided to meet Kim’s bluster with braggadocio of his own, quoting video games as he promises “fire and fury” against North Korea. Trump has the most powerful military in the world, but so far has shown that he doesn’t believe Theodore Roosevelt was right: instead of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” Trump is yelling loudly.
Trump has shown, through his decidedly short political career, that he is enamored with the military. His trusted foreign policy advisor, Lt. General Michael Flynn, was so important that Trump was willing to accept his lying to the Vice President and conducting private foreign policy as long as he could keep Flynn’s advice. With Flynn gone, former cadet captain Trump has surrounded himself with more generals. While we hope that these are the “best and the brightest” the military has to offer, it should be a concern that these leaders, all steeped in the traditions of US military service, may be the only voices he is hearing.
This is not to fault Mattis, Dunford, Kelly and McMasters. Not only are they the best of the best, they also are some of the “outliers” of military command. Mattis is known as the “Warrior Monk,” dedicated to his service, and willing to think “outside the box.” Dunford, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is a former subordinate of Mattis, and noted for his dedication. McMasters jump started his career by writing a book about the flaws in the military command system in Vietnam, and earned a PhD at University of North Carolina. And Kelly, a man who has made the ultimate sacrifice (he has a son buried in Arlington National Cemetery, an Afghanistan casualty,) is another noted for his intellectual approach, with master degree’s from the National Defense University and Georgetown. While they are all brilliant military minds, they also have lived lives filtered through military thought and process, which like any profession, creates a structured way of problem solving.
These are the men advising President Trump, and while Mattis and Kelly are technically now civilians, this is exactly the kind of concern George Washington had when he turned down the Presidency of the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War. He was afraid that as the conquering general, leader of the American Army, he would begin a national tradition of following “the man on the white horse.”
During the Kennedy Administration, one of the hardest lessons that former Naval Lt. John F. Kennedy had to learn was not to completely trust “the Generals.” This first became apparent early in his Presidency. The Bay of Pigs was the US sponsored insurgent invasion of Cuba. Part of the decision making process going into the operation was the agreement that US forces would not be directly involved. The flawed plans failed almost immediately, and the attack collapsed on the beach. As the invasion failed the Joint Chiefs of Staff demanded that the US Air Force bring in air cover to protect the beachhead. Kennedy faced his Generals demanding action, and the reality that a US invasion of Cuba (as US involvement would certainly be seen) could trigger a Soviet response in Germany, perhaps triggering World War III.
Kennedy left the invasion force alone, and they were killed or captured on the beach. He grew to take a critical view of the military, resulting in his willingness to look beyond military options during the Cuban missile crisis two years later. In that, he avoided a nuclear war with the Soviets.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis it was UN ambassador, former Governor of Illinois and two-time Democratic candidate for President Adlai Stevenson who stood up to the generals. When a pre-emptive attack on Cuba was the leading strategy in discussion, Stevenson said to the World War II veteran President, “now I know how Tojo felt before Pearl Harbor.” The statement resonated with Kennedy, and he began to search for other options to avoid all-out war.
As Trump continues to ratchet up the tension with North Korea, now threatening even greater destruction if the North Koreans should attempt to strike Guam, where are the non-military voices proposing solutions? Tillerson and Haley don’t seen to have any influence in Trump World, while Bannon, Gorka and Miller have even more warped views.
We can only hope that either the Generals themselves, or calmer voices that we don’t know about, are suggesting alternatives to Trump. Otherwise this governing “baby” is only getting advice filtered through lives of military thought and process.