Donald Trump has followed Barack Obama’s example by naming three retired generals to key cabinet positions: Michael Flynn to head the NSC, James Mattis to Defense, and John Kelly to Homeland Security. Flynn comes from the Army, the other two are Marines.
Some pundits purport to be concerned about “too many” generals, raising the issue of civilian control of the military. I’m not very concerned (disclosure: we’re a military family. Two of our sons served in the Marine Corps, and our daughter worked for military commanders, including Stanley McChrystal and Flynn, in Iraq and Afghanistan). I think the Marine Corps may be the best organization in America, and I believe that most of those who criticize the military appointments don’t know as much as they should about the composition of our armed forces. Most writers/pundits/broadcasters I talk to think that our soldiers are marginal losers, who probably entered the military because they couldn’t find anything “better” to do.
They are also inclined to believe that military leaders are less educated than the intellectual elite. Many don’t know that all our commissioned military officers have college degrees, and most of them have done post-graduate study at top colleges and universities. Trump’s three nominees are cultured, well read, and thoughtful. They are certainly more deeply engaged, intellectually and emotionally, than most of the civilians headed for cabinet slots. They know all about political correctness, for example, in very concrete ways, because the armed forces are the laboratories in which the PC theories of gender equality are most intensively tested. When Marine officers debate whether women should serve in infantry units, it’s not just academic; people will live or die based on the decision.
Nonetheless, it’s hard for many pundits, including those who are most highly esteemed, to credit the military for independent thought. Dana Priest, who has twice won a Pulitzer Prize, credits (or blames) me with being the source of Flynn’s views of Islam:
After he left the DIA “he [Gen. Flynn] hooked up with Michael Ledeen, a well-known conspiracy theorist who has very radical views of Islam, and Mike Flynn accepted those views and took them as his own.
Not that Flynn didn’t have years of direct experience with radical Muslims throughout the Middle East. Nor could she be bothered with talking to me about my “conspiracy theories.”
As for culture, General Mattis is reputed to have a library of upwards of six thousand books, and to carry the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius in his briefcase. How many civilian cabinet officers today can match that?
The worriers also fear an authoritarian bent among the generals, as if military commanders do not welcome differing views of the best strategy. General Flynn has been explicitly accused of demanding total agreement from his underlings, a preposterous thing to say about a man who was legendary for seeking out a great variety of views up and down his chain of command.
Finally, the worriers seem to accept the stereotype of military leaders as robotic, insensitive killers, lacking the humanity to guide our nation. Have they read General Kelly’s words when his son was killed in combat?
“We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war,” Kelly wrote in an email. “The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others.”
No wonder Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wanted Kelly in his office.
And no wonder Donald Trump wants such remarkable men atop his national security team.