Should Presidents Follow Expert Military Advice?

The question arises because of widespread allegations that President Donald Trump should be constrained, somehow, to bend his foreign and defense policy to the advice of Generals Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly, with whom he has surrounded himself. The answer transcends current controversies.

In 1862-64, the press had styled General George McClellan, “the young Napoleon,” and vilified Abraham Lincoln for spurning him. But Lincoln proved to know better than McClellan and nearly every other general of his time. In 1951, General Douglas MacArthur wanted to win the Korean war by breaking the alliance between China and North Korea militarily. President Harry Truman and his advisers thought it best to settle for stalemate. Today North Korea, still China’s pawn, threatens us with nukes. One need not elaborate examples to show the anodyne point that military experts should be followed only insofar as they are right.

But the question, especially as it bears on today’s controversies, transcends individuals. What should happen when the regnant military expertise itself is wrong? Who is to judge that?

The examples are gripping. At the start of World War I, universally accepted military wisdom had not moved beyond the Napoleonic Wars, only modified by the logistics of the American Civil War and Bismarck’s campaigns: victory would be won by masses of infantry charging with rifles and bayonets. It took millions of casualties for France’s Philippe Petain, and then others, to acknowledge that numbers are less important than concentrated firepower: “Fire kills,” he said. Hence that wisdom changed to emphasize support by artillery and tanks. But the notion of frontal assault remained.

Few grasped the possibilities and imperatives of rapid maneuver against lightly held enemy positions. Winston Churchill did, as did Charles De Gaulle, as well as Erich von Manstein on the other side. The British and French governments did not listen to the unconventional. Hitler did. Hence the disasters of 1939-42.

In 1942, the majority of American generals agreed with Stalin’s request that Roosevelt invade France forthwith. That venture’s likely failure would have strengthened Hitler. Roosevelt listened to Churchill’ advice to “go for the soft underbelly,” and invaded North Africa. Similarly, the Navy wanted to plow straight through the Pacific, Japan’s network of bases notwithstanding. Roosevelt listened instead to MacArthur, who destroyed that network by attacking its lightly defended surroundings.

align=”right” It is no accident that the Department of Defense’s official lexicon has no entry for the word “victory.”

The quality of the expertise that today’s senior American military bring to their tasks is as arguably dysfunctional as any that has ever been; forged as it has been in the series of America’s wars that began in Vietnam as well as by the U.S. ruling class’s ingrained prejudices.

It is no accident that the Department of Defense’s official lexicon has no entry for the word “victory.” Nor is it incidental that neither generals and admirals any more than privates and seamen can explain what difference their success in any given operation will make to America. That is because, ever since the Korean War’s latter half, U.S. military operations have not been designed to make a difference for America, never mind to achieve any victory. Officers have risen to the highest ranks with a focus on tactics and operations—never on strategy. They have risen, also, with a focus on their post-military careers in industry or think tanks.

Hence, while it is all too true that today’s generals know better than anyone how the War On Terror (or whatever one may call it) is fought, it is just as clear that they have no idea about how it may be fought to achieve results different from the ones that have been achieved over the past sixteen years. Similarly, for nearly a generation, the generals have had a front-row seat as China’s covert (but mostly overt) alliance with North Korea has diminished U.S. military influence in the Pacific. I am not aware of any suggestion that has come from any military institution, or War College about how that may be reversed. Today, as North Korea threatens the United States with ICBMs, the head of the Missile Defense Agency can promise only defense of Guam “for the very near future.” Surely, senior generals know that it is longstanding U.S. policy not to place any obstacle in the way of Chinese or Russian missiles heading for America. Yet no U.S. Flag Officer has suggested changing that.

The American people are not happy with wars without end, or with being vulnerable. That is one reason why they elected Trump and are likely to elect similarly minded successors. Insofar as any president is happy with the senior military’s mindset and results, as well as with the current course of events, he should heed their advice. Otherwise, he should fire them.

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16 responses to “Should Presidents Follow Expert Military Advice?

  • In Vietnam as well as in Korea the Generals wanted victory. In each case a political minded president either settled for a stalemate or in the case of Vietnam a withdrawal with out victory.

    Politicians seem to think that victory is simply stating that “we won” and then walking away from the battle (ala Obama). They do not grasp the concept that the enemy gets a vote on who won.

    All military people hate going into battle without a clear cut strategy, but our politicians, most of whom have never served, get to decide when we fight and when we quit.

    In World War II through Korea we had a draft which ensured that all men who attained the age of 18 were given the “opportunity” to serve the country. The result of which meant that most of our politicians had served for at lest two years and had an idea of what war was like. They also understood victory as opposed to simply saying “we won”.

    It should be a prerequisite for any person running for public office to have served for at lest two years. Oh I can hear them crying about how unfair that would be. Half the country would join them in crying that it is unfair to have to serve the nation.

    We have fallen very far…

  • Actually, Hitler didn’t embrace the new ideas. The book “The Blitzkrieg Legend” shows this.

  • This seems to be a case of credentialism v.s. a track record of actually accomplishing things.

  • wow. This is the type of gibberish I would expect to find on Daily Kos. Shallow, preening, weaves half truths with over simplifications and obfuscations.

    And just what is this “official DoD “lexicon?” I was in the military 25 years and never heard of such a thing. The author of this piece may, however, want to familiarize himself with the considerable resources and teaching places like the Naval War College devote to topics like “victory.”

  • “Should Presidents Follow Expert Military Advice?”

    Well, let’s pose the question: Would the “Expert Military Advice” have included President Trump telling the fat NoKo kid that he was fixing to be cooked to a cinder???

    You know, President Trump’s unequivocal statement that got the fat NoKo kib back in his sandbox.

  • When it comes to military matters, the president would do well to listen to military leaders. The author raises some points that are disputable. For one thing, Lincoln drug on the Civil War and got hundreds of thousands killed when it could have ended much sooner. Who’s to say what would have happened had the invasion of France taken place in 1942 instead of an invasion of Sicily and subsequent Italian Campaign that the Allies never won. As for Truman and MacArthur, remember what happened in Asia after we failed to subdue the North Koreans. On the other hand, generals are not good at governing. Ike succeeded because he was a military politician. Bear in mind that hthe role of the e never saw combat in his entire military career in which he was a staff officers. It’s well known that he was George Marshall’s second choice to command the European Theater. He became commander by default after General Frank Andrews died in an unfortunate airplane crash in Iceland. God only knows what JFK and LBJ were doing in Vietnam. JFK seems to have wanted to win the war with military advisors while Johnson just wanted to be president.

    I am concerned about Donald Trump putting so many generals, and mostly Marine generals at that, in high positions in his government. There was a good reason for the statute prohibiting military retirees from becoming Secretary of Defense.

    • There is so much cross breeding between field grade officers and the Washington Establishment that there is no difference between them when they reach the Pentagon. That’s the real problem. They don’t bring different views to the table, only the same ones backed up by the experience of executing those views in the past.

      For example, McMaster is credited with success in Tel Afar Iraq. What he doesn’t internalize is that Tel Afar, being under ISIS rule today, is another mark that the mission failed. McMaster’s mission was a failure, even if his tiny role in it was successful. He continues to propose that his mission can succeed because his small role was successful. Respectfully, the mission was a failure, but by pouring enough resources at it we can pretend that it is successful for short periods of time. Naturally, two people are happy with this. First the people who preside over the “success” and secondly the people that do the resourcing.

      In a years time the Afghan problem will be as unsolvable as it is today. Who will be fired? Who will take the blame for wasting 50 billion dollars and however many lives? The president will owe the nation an answer next year.

    • If you ask me, the problem with Civil War strategy wasn’t Lincoln — It was Buchanan. the mere prospect of secession is treason — an constitutional amendment, not an ad hoc secession convention (essentially attended by an elite minority of some 1000 people) is the only way to do it.

      Surely it would have been feasible to board every train to South Carolina with Union garrisons, and answer questions later about Southern governors’ objections.

      That’s strategy.

  • Oh dear. The deeper the President digs himself, the more Codevilla must gyrate to apologize his hero. It was one thing when the foe were radical leftist Alinsky cultists. But now, the military? By the end of the year, Codevilla will be explaining why apple pie is a threat to the American way of life, and how motherhood is fundamentally opposed to Western Civilization.

  • My word. Looks like Codevilla’s question has an answer: Trump has no choice but to follow expert military advice, because the military experts are the only ones left. Apart from von Gorka – he’s some kind of knight, isn’t he.

    • yep a Ukrainian Neo Nazi kind of a knight. The one thing that Trump could do right and leave that cesspool and drain on American resources and of course now he will agree with the galactic ally incompetent military

  • As Tom Franks said it best. In the military a private gets fired for losing a rifle but a general never ever gets fired for losing a war. Been a long time since Marshall showed how it is done. Now it all about careers .

  • The article is right. Since 1947 the military’s record has been abysmal in the performance of its missions.

    But the problem in the White House is not because people are of the “military” it is because they are part of neocon networks and thinking. They do not want to define American interests in the way Trump and his electorate does. First, make America safe, two, make America rich.

    Everything else is a cost overrun and runs counter to objective number 2.

    The awaited troop increase and additional 50 billion dollars per year is 100% guaranteed to fail and 100% guaranteed to be “cautiously” evaluated as a “victory” whenever it is reviewed.

    Trump doesn’t need to discredit this kind of strategic analysis, it is guaranteed to discredit itself.

  • Might differ somewhat with the author’s idea of successful alternative military strategies. The ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ was a disaster of attrition for Allies under fire in mountain passes by snipers and triple-A. Hitler failed many times to either act on or solicit sound advice, notably not encouraging Rommel to make assaults upon Iraq and eventually the caucuses, or to move as directly as possible on Moscow in his eastern campaign (which was badly delayed by eight weeks).

    The issue with Afghanistan as in Vietnam is whether the war strategy is unduly hampered by diplomacy. We appear to be bending over backwards to legitimize a government in Kabul which has limited scope. Should we not have built up the Northern Alliance instead, and anticipated some collaborative aspects with Russia?

    If Alexander the Great could make a trek all the way from Macedonia to Afghanistan, would not a “Long March” or “March on Atlanta” have some attraction to the populace? Getting rid of warlords sounds doable, except we have been making outreach to the Taliban as far back as the eighties.

    Speaking of warlords, the ‘undiplomatic’ Narendra Modi is waging war on the cash economy by way of modernization. Installation of an electronic economy is the sure way to eliminate the levers of graft, bribery and blackmail from the warlords’ bag of tricks.

    Presumably we are fighting a culture war in Afghanistan, and not making an expensive exercise to prove love diplomacy conquers all.

  • Mr. Codevilla is mistaken when he writes, “In 1862-64, the press had styled General George McClellan, “the young Napoleon,” and vilified Abraham Lincoln for spurning him. But Lincoln proved to know better than McClellan and nearly every other general of his time.” McClellan was right in transporting his army to the James River by sea in 1862 and in his opinion that the right approach to Richmond was via the James River. When Grant came east in early 1864 to take command of the Union armies, his initial idea was to transport his army to the James River by sea and proceed against Confederate communications from there. Lincoln appears to have talked him out of that idea. The result was the Overland Campaign, in which Grant lost at least 55,000 men to get to the James, which he could have reached by sea at no cost at all. Lincoln also meddled in Sherman’s campaign, denying him ten or twenty thousand men he was relying on to start with; Honest Abe sent them up Louisiana’s Red River to pinch some cotton and they were nearly all captured there. Some scholars think Sherman might have ended the war much sooner had those men been in his army at the start of the 1864 campaign.

  • When Pres. Trump asks his barber or the White House chef (but especially that barber) to do surgery on his children or wife when they are sick, I will believe that Pres. Trump should not trust military leaders on military matters. The fact that he chose one for essentially a political job, running the White House staff, is a matter of concern, but so far Mr. Kelly (he’s a civilian now, right?) seems to be getting it right, while the president himself continues to be the bull in the china shop who destroys the ceramics and then blames others for the shards lying on the floor.

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