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Nights of the generals page 2
The Petraeus scandal may be little compared to what plagues the U.S. military

Date published: 11/18/2012


Nor does it figure to do the U.S. military any good. At present, the armed forces are the institution Americans trust most. In a Gallup poll in June, 75 percent of respondents expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military--which beat the police by 19 points, the church by 31, and newspapers by 50. During the last 21 years, the military has averaged a Gallup high-confidence rating of over 70 percent, never falling below 60. No other U.S. institution--not even sainted "small business"--can match it.


Yet this is an aberration. For most of the nation's history, the armed forces were unvenerated. Until Blackjack Pershing's troopers chased the American-killing bandit Pancho Villa around Mexico in 1916, the military was seen as a last-resort tool of foreign policy, not as the earthly version of St. Michael the Archangel. But thereafter, notes historian T. Harry Williams, American forces would "move with boldness against the power that was deemed evil." Transferred from individuals to ideologies, this rectifying spirit finally came to ruin in Vietnam. But it has since returned--one pretext for most recent conflicts has been that Tyrant X evilly "murders his own people"--as has popular esteem for America's warriors. But historically the public mood is fragile.

The Petraeus affair is a chip in the china of that mood--as is news that an Airborne general is being tried for sexual assault. Recall, too, that Mr. Petraeus' predecessor in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was sacked for shooting off his mouth to that hallowed martial journal, Rolling Stone. And Gen. Allen is on the bubble. But here's the graver question: Do these sorry doings (admitted or alleged) spring from a culture of non-accountability for dismal professional performance in the highest aeries of the military structure?

In an article titled "The Shocking Decline of Army Leadership" in the current Atlantic, Thomas Ricks notes that while inferior generals were frequently sacked during World War II, in recent decades "relief of generals has become so rare that a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war."

Mr. Ricks claims, for example, that Gen. Tommy Franks, while able enough leading the invasion of Saddam's Iraq, never foresaw the vicious insurgency aborning or entertained creative ways to damp it. His successor, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, failed to adapt to the new kind of war. Tens of thousands of Iraqis--and thousands of coalition forces--died in three years of civil strife before Gen. Petraeus arrived with the counterinsurgency antidote. So, were the bumblers cashiered? Hardly. Gen. Franks went on to run U.S. Central Command, while Gen. Sanchez groused in his memoirs that he never received an extra star for his hapless service in Iraq.

In the U.S. Army's general officer corps, writes Mr. Ricks, mediocrities are rewarded for time served, not battlefield outcomes. The recent scandals are bad, but they may signal laxities much worse for the nation.

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