Old Secretaries of Defense Never Die, They Just Write Bestselling Memoirs
...Oh sorry, I dozed off. What was I saying?
Something about old soldiers?
Anyway, here was the eye-popping quote that everyone picked up and highlighted from Gates’s address: “But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
“Have his head examined”: strong words indeed, not to say strong advice for his successor! As quoted, it did sound like a late-in-term awakening on America’s wars. After all, the Secretary of Defense had to know that it would be the money paragraph, the one reporters would carry off, in a speech significantly about other matters.
Quoted by itself, it also had to seem like a mix of a mea culpa, a j’accuse aimed at his former boss, President George W. Bush, and his predecessor Rumsfeld, and a never-again statement about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he’s been overseeing since 2006 and, in the case of Afghanistan, expanding since 2008.
Those four words from MacArthur seem to tell the only tale worth telling. Supreme Commander, southwest Pacific area, during World War II, “emperor” of occupied Japan, and commander of United Nations forces in the Korean War until cashiered by President Harry Truman, MacArthur later urged President John F. Kennedy not to get involved in a “land war on mainland Asia”—that is, in Vietnam.
As Christian Science Monitor reporter Brad Knickerbocker typically wrote, Gates’s “recollection of Gen. MacArthur’s famous warning—given to President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as the US buildup in Vietnam was beginning—was a sober message for the young men and women about to become the next generation of US military commanders.” Gates, in other words, was citing a “famous” example of how MacArthur used his hard-won experience in a terrible, stalemated war in Asia to try to stop another disastrous war a decade later. A flattering analogy, one might say.
There's only one problem: it just wasn’t so. MacArthur’s “famous warning” came not in 1961 but in 1950. As Michael D. Pearlman explains in his book Truman & MacArthur: Politics, Policy, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown, MacArthur made that comment soon after North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. He believed they were only conducting a “reconnaissance-in-force.” On June 26, 1950, MacArthur, writes Pearlman, “was ‘astonished’ to receive directions to resist the invader. ‘I don’t believe it. I can’t understand it.’ John Foster Dulles, who favored a prompt military response, recorded him saying that anyone thinking of throwing American forces into the breech ‘ought to have his head examined.’ ”
MacArthur’s urge, then, was prospective, not retrospective—a gut reaction that has, in the last decades, Gates’s decades, been notably absent in Washington. There’s no way of knowing whether this was clear to Gates or his speechwriter, but under the circumstances it was an odder phrase to quote than the reporters covering his address imagined, for it highlighted an essential problem with Gates and the rest of Washington’s global wrecking crew. For them, the idea of going in has seldom been an alien one. It’s going in the wrong way that bothers them—and the problem (as Gates essentially admitted in his speech) is that you only know it’s the wrong way afterwards.
That striking quote of his, read in the context of his full speech, leaves a somewhat different taste behind. Even the assumed prohibition against future Iraq- and Afghan-style wars is more cryptic than you might imagine. The best Gates can do is this: “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq—invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country—may be low.” Low, but not evidently nil in a world where all options always remain “on the table.”
Of course, his real focus at West Point was on quite a different kind of conflict. He was there, in a sense, on a business trip to the future as the deliverer of prospective bad news to the future officers of the US Army. Their leaders, he wanted to tell them, were about to lose an intra-service struggle for the fruits of the still-growing but increasingly embattled Pentagon budget in economically fierce times.
In terms of future funding, and so future war-fighting, their service, he was there to tell them, was not well positioned. “The Army,” he said, “also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the US military are primarily naval and air engagements—whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.”
(Note to journalists in a collapsing industry: it’s not often that a long-gone beat comes back, but that’s the case here. In the 1950s, the services fought bitterly for shares of a far more limited military budget. In fact, for a funds-starved Army in the early 1960s, Vietnam was, in budgetary terms, its breakout moment. Now, budgetary war in Washington, missing-in-action for decades, is back, so the Secretary of Defense insisted.)
At West Point, but not at the Air Force Academy, think of Gates, then, as the Grim Reaper of military careers, telling the cadets that their future wouldn’t be in giant, never-to-be-used tank forces and that he was worried about just how they would indeed be employed. As if to emphasize his point, on the very same day, another fading warrior, retiring Army Chief of Staff General George W. Casey Jr., was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, even though dreaming of a future “sipping Coronas [and] watching sunsets on the beach in Scituate [Massachusetts].” There, he was to give his own valedictory to the Association of the US Army and the “defense industry,” while making a most un-Gatesian plea for that same pot of gold.
Wielding an infamous Vietnam-era phrase, the general worried that unnamed government types already “think they see the light at the end of the Afghanistan tunnel” and so were clamoring to cut the Army’s budget, even though the United States remains in an “era of persistent conflict.” He then issued this warning:
A Nation weary of war, struggling to get its domestic economy going again, looks to cash in on a “Peace Dividend” and drastically cut back on defense. But, we've seen time and again that a “Peace Dividend” is, at best, a mirage and, at worst, a danger to the long-term security of our Country, our allies and our interests.... [W]e simply cannot afford to dismantle this incredible Army that we have so painstakingly built over the past decade.