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First Principles

Our Republic Is Under Attack from the Admirals and Generals

James Mattis and William McRaven’s comments reveal the anti-republican nature common to the modern military officer. Freedom-loving people should take note.


- October 20th, 2019
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Retired Admiral William McRaven’s recent opinion column in the New York Times is one of several recent indicators of how anti-republican (note the small “r”) our military leadership has become.

First, as Brandon J. Weichert so ably pointed out in these pages the other day, the military’s pathetic conduct in response to a predictable and appropriate withdrawal from northern Syria indicates that it, along with the foreign policy establishment, has no real respect for the authority of an elected chief executive. Compliance with orders from the president, as far as they are concerned, appears to depend more or less on how much that president agrees with and submits to the judgment of the ruling class

Our forces were so unprepared to leave their temporary mission in Syria that the best they could do was leave dick drawings for Russians who would take over the abandoned American camps. Despite having a new model military, we should probably not expect that our soldiers are above penis drawings given how skilled and artistic our pilots are who can draw them in the sky. Leaving phallic symbols for one’s enemy is as old as Rome after all, so who are we to complain? 

But is it too much to ask that American soldiers at least know how to destroy their positions when abandoning them? It isn’t as if leaving Syria should have been a surprise to commanders on the ground.

Then former Secretary of Defense James Mattis decided to confirm Trump’s supposed comment that Mattis “is the most overrated general in history” by rolling out a series of awkward jokes at the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. That he attempted to be funny or that he mocked the president is less a problem than the content of his jokes, which reveal how trumped up the credentials of supposedly smart and noble military men too often are. 

Despite his intellect, Mattis’s jokes were rather pathetic—the type that only someone harboring malice toward Trump could find funny. What’s more, they revealed a sort of defensive hubris foreign to honest and noble men. As someone remarked on social media, “months of sniping and passive-aggressive bitching at Trump and he finally gets smacked in the face. His response is to allude to his ‘victories’ and how he ‘earned his spurs on the battlefield.’ Imagine playing a serious leadership role in the last 20 years of our foreign policy in the Middle East and patting yourself on the back.”

Using “Principles” as a Punchline

Then there is McRaven. In his New York Times piece and subsequent TV interviews, he made two points. First, Trump is destroying our republic by undermining the confidence of patriotic professionals in the military and intelligence community, attacking the press, doing things that are bad for foreign allies. Second, Trump is merely “a transactional president” who is somehow deficient because he believes he is to be concerned only with what is good for us, and that he doesn’t understand that we are “a nation of values” and we fight not just to defend ourselves, but “because it is the right thing to do.” 

Standing on his service record and his experience having “fought a lot of America’s enemies,” McRaven delivered these lines with a certain finality, as if there was no possibility of a counterargument. He was sure to use the word principles, mention the Constitution, and describe us as “a nation of laws.” How any of these things connected to his main points wasn’t quite clear, but McRaven is confident they do, and we ought to believe him because he served honorably in the military, or something.

McRaven’s blather stands in stark contrast to the fine words of Attorney General Bill Barr delivered recently at Notre Dame. There one can find a coherent argument. McRaven, on the other hand, is a sophist who seems to think rhetoric is about slapping clichés and phrases together and delivering them in a loud, clear voice. 

While McRaven presents an impressive veneer, to be sure, his empty lines about values and his incoherent view of the purpose of government are reminiscent of what Barr was talking about when he said that “we hear much today about our humane values. But, in the final analysis, what undergirds these values? What commands our adherence to them? What we call ‘values’ today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.”

At the Front Rank of the Praetorian Guard

Mattis’s and McRaven’s comments reveal the anti-republican nature common to the modern military officer. Freedom-loving people should take note. Both of them, despite sterling reputations and no shortage of degrees, can hardly put together a coherent thought. They utter plenty of words that sound like they might be important while managing to say nothing at all. Neither is honest enough to have any humility about their failures (indeed, neither seem even to be aware that their professional legacies are marred by a great deal of failure). 

McRaven’s understanding of a republic clearly includes the belief that expertise trumps the will of the people, and his understanding of the Constitution and law seems completely detached from an awareness that all political power flows from the consent of the governed. Both Mattis and McRaven seem to care more about foreigners and abstract “values” than protecting Americans, as if securing the rights of the governed is not the primary purpose of government and defending Americans above foreigners is a not moral duty of government agents.

Both of them stand on the empty credentials of expertise and professionalism promoted by the progressive worldview; both of them claim to be apolitical, nonpartisan, patriotic experts; and both of them believe we ought to listen to them because “they served,” no matter how fruitless their service was to us or how profitable it has been to them. 

It should be obvious to everyone by now that these military men are, in fact, representative of the “nonpartisan, patriotic professionals” in government, and that their nonpartisanship means “agreeable to the Left,” their patriotism includes more love for foreign peoples than for their own country and countrymen, and their professionalism includes hardly any competence at all. It should be manifest that those who choose to fight and kill for money and a career are not necessarily the noble men we pretend they are, and that they can just as easily be guided by self-interest and the interest of their faction, the military-intelligence-industrial-academic-political complex, as any other bureaucrat. That this faction is part of a larger D.C. establishment faction should also be obvious. 

They are not just now turning toward praetorianism; they are the Praetorian Guard’s front rank. They are not just now behaving like a junta; they think they are one. 

In fact, there is nothing republican about those in the upper echelons of our modern military, and their anti-republican nature should be plain to see. And it should not really surprise us. We created a military power greater than any in human history, with more money, more people, and more raw power than anyone has ever seen, and we lavish praise on it and worship its members as if they are infallible. This is a recipe for a ruling faction if ever there was one. 

Perhaps we should revisit the warnings from America’s Founders about the dangers of standing armies and professional soldiers to republican government.

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