Churchill: Generals Aren't Always Right

In his slim book on Churchill, Paul Johnson unearthed a highly instructive quotation to highlight the foundation of some of Churchill’s greatest strengths as a wartime leader: He didn’t worship, defer to, and otherwise treat military men as the Oracle at Delphi and Solomon combined.

Churchill, Johnson notes

benefited from a change of national opinion toward the relative trustworthiness of politicians and service leaders – “frocks and brass hats,” to use the phrase of his youth. In the first World War, reverence for brass hats and dislike of frocks made it almost impossible for the government, even under Lloyd George at his apotheosis, to conduct the war efficiently.

I.e., sack the generals. Johnson continues with Churchill’s own words: “As Churchill put it: “The foolish doctrine was preached to the public through innumerable agencies that generals and admirals must be right on war matters and civilians of all kinds must be wrong ….”

Get where I’m going with this?

“Because the Pentagon, because Gen. Petraeus, didn’t approve of Obama’s troop cuts in Afghanistan, these cuts must be wrong”: That’s the conventional wisdom across the Right, including neocons, other conservatives, mainstream GOP, Fox News, and many if not all of the Republican presidential candidates. This tendency to endorse absolutely everything “our commanders on the ground” tell us has been the rule for years. It seems less to represent political agreement than outright deference to what is perceived as a higher authority.

Personally, I think Obama’s decision is wrong for other reasons — namely, because his cuts represent no reversal or acknowledgement of our destructive and failed Bush-Obama policy of nation-building in the umma. But the larger point is that we are not supposed to be run by a junta. Generals are fallible. The record of this current crop is, at best, charitably speaking, on a good day, mixed. To have relied solely on their counsel to this alarming and unquestioning extent for so long has short-circuited and short-changed our duties as citizens — and prolonged two wasteful, costly wars.

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