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The Moral Equivalency of Generals and Armadillos – Part II

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This finally brings us to the Generals.  I instinctively like people in the military.  They are the protectors of our country and our freedoms.  They often put themselves in harms way.  They have special knowledge that their training, education, and experience provides, that most of us don’t have.  Plus they are polite, in control, patriotic, and often possess a gentility not often present in contemporary society.

But these attributes don’t give them special wisdom over when, why, or with whom our country should fight.  Civilian control, of the war making decisions, was wisely established in our Constitution.  The military is an instrumentality to be used by our country consistent with the role of Congress to declare and fund wars, and the President to execute those wars. We are the masters and they are the frothing, barking dogs pulling at the chain to attack.  Only we have the moral and constitutional authority to make the call when to release the dogs of war. It is wise to seek their counsel, but their view of the world must be tempered because it has limitations.

Proof of this limitation is found in the comments of Retired U.S. Major General Robert H. Scales.  In an interview concerning the Ukrainian conflict the General stated,

“The only way the United States can have any effect in this region and
turn the tide,” Mr. Scales said, “is to start killing Russians … killing so
many Russians that even Putin’s media can’t hide the fact that
Russians are returning to the motherland in body bags. But, given the
[small] amount of support we’ve given to the Ukrainians, given the
ability of the Ukrainians themselves to counter-attack against these,
what? 12,000 Russians camped in their country…sadly that’s not
likely to happen.”

The General’s comments completely neglect any sense of the complexities of the Ukrainian challenge.  My point is not to argue the merits of our role in that conflict, although I find much of the rationale dubious.  What the general shows is a complete lack of understanding of where this conflict is occurring.  It is not in Berlin, or Vietnam, or Cuba.  This conflict is in the middle of what was once the Soviet Union.  Ukraine is an independent country that has a large number of Russians and has deep practical and historical ties to the Ukrainians. This conflict is being played out next to the new real border of Russia.

 Major General Robert H. Scales, Retired

Major General Robert H. Scales, Retired

Russia has deep psychological scars from the Second World War when it lost 27 million people, soldiers and civilians.  The U.S. by comparison lost 400,000 soldiers.  The Russians have real security interests in a conflict on their own border.  They have a living memory of being invaded.  The General seems unable to comprehend the Russian sensitivity to a conflict played out on their front porch.

General Scales may be completely unrepresentative of the military brass.  But I doubt it. Generals see threats everywhere. They become inherently steeped in the assumptions of their times.  Past adversaries become new adversaries even when the wars are won.  All conflicts are viewed through the prism of World War II and the Cold War.  A Hitler or a Stalin rules every country.  When faced with such madmen, every option must be considered in the grab bag of tactics and strategy.  No weapon system is too expensive, unneeded, or obsolete.  More importantly, a General can’t see the humanity of the group he opposes.  They must necessarily be dehumanized.  He objectifies the enemy because it makes it easier to deal with the carnage of war.

 Eternal Enemies Russia and America?

Eternal Enemies Russia and America?

Generals are not built to constantly second guess the morality of the overall mission, nor would you want them to be excessively sensitive.  Wars require warriors, not poets.  This of course, does not waive their obligation to conduct their troops honorably on the battlefield.  But a general cannot go around constantly wringing his hands about whether his country has committed him to a just cause.  He fights because he is told to fight.  Imagining an unjustifiable war is not in a general’s mentality.  He can never accept that his side could actually be wrong-headed or duplicitous.

As General Scales demonstrates, generals can also be unnecessarily bombastic when dealing with geopolitical tensions.  Calmly talking about human beings being killed and sent back in body bags is callous and seems unnecessarily provocative.  As General Scales found out, it wasn’t received well in Russia.  He was unaware that his interview would be broadcast in Russia.  But we really can’t fault the General, because just as the dogs chase the armadillo, and the armadillo flees, it is his nature.


So what can we really learn from the limits of Generals.  It certainly isn’t that we don’t need them. A General’s lack of historical context or single mindedness, doesn’t suggest there is an advantage in being vulnerable, even if we have caused or contributed to a conflict.  We want our children to be safe and our country to be protected.  The right of true self-defense doesn’t have to be abandoned.  Generals are our SOB’s and we need them.  What General Scales really demonstrates is that the military is a blunt object, often led by blunt men, doing a nasty business.  As Jack Nicholson’s character Nathan Jessup said in the movie A Few Good Men:

“You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And
those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it?… Who’s
gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? And my existence, while grotesque and
incomprehensible to you, saves lives…You don’t want the truth. Because deep
down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You
need me on that wall.

We use words like honor, code, loyalty…we use these words as the backbone
to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have
neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and
sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the
manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said thank you and went on
your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post.”

 Tom Cruise’s Character cross-examining Jack Nicholson's character in the movie A Few Good Men

Tom Cruise’s Character cross-examining Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie A Few Good Men

As powerful as Nathan Jessup’s words may resonate, we do have a right to question the manner in which that freedom is provided, as our Constitution guarantees that right.  The ability to question the morality of a war is what separates our democracy from tyranny. The military’s very presence is an invitation to be used.  If a scalpel is needed to fix a problem, the Generals are always ready to use a hammer.  It is their nature.  We need Generals to fight wars, and speak bluntly.   We need them on those walls.  But while a General’s nature may be necessary, it is not imbued with any more wisdom, or clarity when it comes to picking a worthy and moral mission.  That is our mission and our responsibility.


Original Publication: http://nondoc.com/2016/02/20/of-armadillos-and-generals/

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