Ralph Peters, the iconoclastic author and military strategist has been very vocal of late regarding US national security policy and the growth of the global jihadist movement.
A former US Army intelligence officer, he is a prolific and very successful author of over thirty works of both fiction and non-fiction including Endless War: Middle-Eastern Islam vs. Western Civilization. Breitbart’s national security editor Sebastian Gorka spoke to the author about the current threats to the Republic and what should be done about them. Here is the first part of the three-part interview.
BREITBART: Several years ago you wrote a short piece berating the lack of strategic thought by the American officer corps. Why is it that what seems to be the most powerful nation the world has ever seen actually doesn’t think or act strategically?
PETERS: Well, several things have happened and one hardly knows where to begin. There’s a certain correlation between the rise of civilian think-tanks and a decline in military thought. It was a curious thing because, the military of course– especially the Navy, but the Army as well, and in the postwar period for a brief time the Air Force– really dominated strategic thought.
As the think tanks gained power, the strangest phenomenon occurred where those in uniform unaccountably paid more heed to civilians with Ph.Ds than they did to experienced soldiers. And the trend grew stronger and stronger. The military always had a strain of anti-intellectualism that really grew stronger. There was ever less tolerance for eccentricity. I do not speak from personal experience, the military was great to me and I could have stayed in a lot longer, but generally speaking, and no pun intended, there was a greater push for uniformity, not just visually, but in terms of intelligence.
I also think, and it pains me to say this, that as broader opportunities opened up in our society for the best and brightest, fewer of the best and the brightest went into the military. You still got very good people in the officer corps but, for instance, in the 19th century and right into the 20th, there were just fewer opportunities. People went to West Point and the Naval Academy and got engineering degrees and they were often brilliant. They built America, they built the canals, they built the lighthouses, they laid out the highways, they mapped the country.
Now, while we still have very good quality people in the military, it’s actually very difficult to have a sophisticated conversation with our generals, our flag officers. Our senior military can talk about the military itself and about professional sports, but it’s really rare to find one who is well read in the way that, for instance, obviously Patton was well read or many 19th century military figures, or even Marshall. We’ve turned out a range of narrow military specialists, of technicians, rather than broad thinkers. Certainly you need technicians, there’s no question about that, especially in the ‘technical services’, the Navy and the Air Force. I divide it between the Navy and the Air Force, where people support machines, and the Army and the Marines where machines support people as another parenthetical.
The rise of the think-tanks, the decline in the intellectual level of the officer corps, side by side, and then the officer corps got lazy. They were amazingly willing by the 1970s– and even before that, by the 1960s– to abdicate responsibility for their strategic thought to civilians. Now the non-military have a great deal to contribute to strategic thought, but when it comes to how to structure, organize, develop, train, and wield the military, one would think you would want at least military veterans in the lead. So we had all sorts of cockamamie theories come down the road.
BREITBART: Has this abdication of strategic thought by the senior military been compounded in the last 13 years since 9/11? Has there been a politicization of the officer corps as well as growing intellectual laziness?
PETERS: Yes, absolutely.
At the top levels, of course all presidents want a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with whom they can feel comfortable. But beginning with the Rumsfeld ‘reign of terror’ and continuing into the Obama ‘reign of error,’ you see this utter politicization of the top ranks. Politicization, feminization, stress on political correctness, seeking out yes men. Rumsfeld was really, really terrible in the sense that he always wanted generals who were dumber than him. He wanted to know he was smarter than the generals in the room, and he made sure he was. Rumsfeld was brilliant at managing senior generals.
For instance, with poor Pete Schoomaker, a well-meaning and good solider, Rumsfeld gave him a couple little areas to play with as Chief of Staff of the Army. Then Rumsfeld did what he wanted. And certainly the SecDef is senior to the service secretaries and Chairman, but a good SecDef (and a good president) would want intellectually capable men and women of integrity who not only could, but would, be willing to challenge him behind closed doors. And the sense I get is that under Rumsfeld, and now under Obama, they don’t want anybody challenging them, not at all.
There was a key turning point which came with the Neocons pushing so hard for the Iraq war that they essentially shut the military voices out. So we had a war that was designed by people who had never served in uniform. Rumsfeld, who was sort of a fringe Neocon and had briefly served in uniform, actually refused to allow the military to plan for an occupation following the invasion. (For evidence of this startling fact see the Dov Zakheim’s biography . Zakheim was the Pentagon Comptroller during the Second Gulf War. Ed.) This obstruction was really at the behest of the Neocons at the top of national security in the Bush administration because they knew if the military planned for an occupation, the troop numbers would be so high that Congress would never approve it.
I could never qualify as a Neocon, since I don’t have a trust fund, didn’t go to a prep school, don’t have an Ivy League degree, actually served in the military, and am physically fit. Any one of those would disqualify me.
Their focus was strictly on getting their war without understanding basic things– such as, when you take down a country’s government, you’re going to be there for at least a few months– so Rumsfeld personally cut MP brigades from the troop deployment list. When we got to Baghdad, what did we need? We needed MP brigades.
By late 2002, early 2003, the military’s advice was not desired, not even tolerated. So that was a crucial turning point where unelected officials and civilians with no military experience designed a war. The one thing the military can do well, one of the things, is to plan and plan. And they forbade them to plan, the option of planning– not the option, the duty– of planning. And when you’re going to a war you can hope for the best, but you absolutely plan for the worse. As a nation, we didn’t.
BREITBART: But now we don’t have the Neocons, so let’s talk about what’s going on with regards to the firestorm around the world today. What do you respond to those who say one of the big problems is that now we not only have a political elite that has no military experience, but a leadership which really isn’t interested in foreign affairs or the military, with at the top a Commander-in-Chief who is a product of the insular political machine that is Chicago?
PETERS: Well, yes, certainly they came to office with zero interest in international affairs except for a few pet projects and with the naiveté to believe that the president, President Obama, through sheer charm and force of personality, could change the world.
is classic evidence. The new political elite came with a very negative view of the United States, very much formed by the likes of Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, that entire milieu. So as you heard in speech after speech from the President, America wasn’t the solution. The United States of America was the problem, or at least part of the problem.
This is a group that is very uncomfortable with the idea of American leadership, made up of people inculcated with the belief that all cultures are equal – except that we may be less equal than others – and that there’s a virtue in all developing cultures, or underdeveloped cultures. This is combined with an utter lack of appreciation of the brutality that exists in most of the rest of the world.
Additionally elements of the President’s personal biography clouded his judgment terribly: the fact that he always claimed how well he knew Islam, that he lived in Indonesia, in Java, a few years and attended school there. But Islam is at its absolutely most benign in Indonesia, except for the odd case of Aceh, on the extreme western tip of Java, which has been Arab-influenced since the Middle Ages. I’ve been there, I’ve done a research project there, and compared to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, or Iran, it’s completely different. In a nation of 225-230 million Muslims, you had a few hundred terrorists. Just run the numbers, we’ve had more native-born terrorists in the United States if you include White Supremacists, etc.
So those that make up the administration were distinctly unequipped for this role. They didn’t understand history, didn’t understand foreign affairs. They came to office with a very strong domestic agenda and that’s what they wanted to concentrate on. They regarded foreign affairs as a nuisance–something that, well, you just have to deal with sometimes. And also, they came to the office with a very strong, not just anti-militarist, but anti-military bias.
A classic example among many is their handling of the Private Bergdahl case. For five years since he walked off his post, I’ve been scratching my head and other body parts wondering why they were so intent on shielding this person, of covering for him when the evidence from the start was overwhelming that he deserted. Then you get all the way to the Rose Garden debacle with his parents, and just the other day, driving home from Fox, it hit me. It’s really very simple, flash of the obvious. The people in the administration understand, given their worldview, why someone would desert from the military. They just don’t understand why somebody would join the military. And if you look at their overall actions – and you know, I never blame a conspiracy for anything that can be explained by incompetence – but they really have tried to use the military as a tool of social engineering, essentially to neuter the military. And the generals and admirals have not resisted in any meaningful way. To circle back to what I argue about regarding the intellectual decline of the officer corps, about 30 years ago something bad happened, with the best intentions, something akin to the military equivalent of the Great Society. You started getting these “official” reading lists.
BREITBART: Yes, I was about to ask you about things like “The Commandant’s Reading List” and so on.
PETERS: The problem with the idea that the head of a service annually mandates a list of books his officers should read is that you have all the officers reading the same books! So the range of knowledge, of intellectual depth, is narrowed down even further.
Added to that, you have this ongoing vogue for management books. Management is a subset of leadership, not the other way around, and the notion that the military can learn to fight wars by studying how Microsoft developed a given program is absolutely ludicrous. It’s not that we shouldn’t be willing to learn from all sources, but you have people narrowing the field down too much. They’re reading about World War II, Vietnam, Korea, maybe the Civil War, but virtually nothing about deep history and past wars, nothing about other civilizations and cultures. As a result we have created an often narrow-minded and insular officer corps, since the goal of the reading program was to get everyone on the same sheet of music and, unfortunately, they succeeded.
A good sign that I’ve seen, though, is a lot of mid-grade officers are now self-organizing. There are more and more informal groups being created, study groups at the War Colleges, for example. The students are organizing off campus or among themselves, the officers are trading ideas, because I think there’s a lot of frustration with the current leadership. We have a leadership that appears to lack moral courage and intellectually deficient Titans on the battlefield become mice when they get to Washington. And right now since Jim Mattis retired (Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis USMC, former Commander US Central Command, Eds.), I’m not sure who’s sticking up for the grunts.