The United States has always had a love affair with certain generals. George Washington, of course, was immensely popular, and thirteen US presidents were generals before they were president.
But prior to the Second World War, generals as a group were not revered or treated with any particular veneration or respect. In fact, in the nineteenth century, full-time US military officers were often treated with suspicion and contempt. While state militia officers were regarded as indispensable night watchmen who preserved order, the full-time government employees who served in the federal military were often derided as lazy and otherwise unemployable.
But now those days are long gone.
In recent decades, active generals and retired generals have grown into a group of politically influential technocrats who can be regularly seen on evening news programs and are habitually feted and promoted as incorruptible patriots. They are fawned over by media organizations while being paid enormous pensions. Moreover, upon retirement they are able to turn their former government employment into lucrative positions on corporate boards and throughout the private sector.
The immense deference and trust placed in the opinions and alleged expertise of these men is far beyond what is warranted. Like all technocrats—whether we’re talking Supreme Court justices or public health bureaucrats—the generals have their own interests and their own agendas.
This was recently highlighted by the president’s new public feud with some generals.
At a Labor Day press conference Trump averred:
“The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t, because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
It’s always difficult to guess Trump’s motivations and earnestness when he makes statements such as this, but the statement itself isn’t wrong. The generals—retired and not— are often deeply enmeshed with weapons manufacturers and tech firms that rely on Pentagon spending.
The Generals’ Unimpressive Record
It’s difficult to see why the nation’s generals enjoy such a stellar reputation. The US military establishment has lost every major military endeavor since 1945 and has been shown to be fiscally inept at a level that could only be described as criminal indifference.