Should Presidents Follow Expert Military Advice?

By | 2017-08-19T10:11:02+00:00 August 17th, 2017|
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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.

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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About the Author:

Angelo Codevilla
Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).