It was bloody and brutal, a true generational struggle, but give them credit. In the end, they won when so many lost.
James Comey was axed. Sean Spicer went down in a heap of ashes. Anthony Scaramucci crashed and burned instantaneously. Reince Priebus hung on for dear life but was finally canned. Seven months in, Steve Bannon got the old heave-ho and soon after, his minion, Sebastian Gorka, was unceremoniously shoved out the White House door. In a downpour of potential conflicts of interest and scandal, Carl Icahn bowed out. Gary Cohn has reportedly been at the edge of resignation. And so it goes in the Trump administration.
Except for the generals. Think of them as the last men standing. They did it. They took the high ground in Washington and held it with remarkable panache. Three of them: National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, secretary of defense and retired Marine general John Mattis, and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, now White House chief of staff, retired Marine general John Kelly stand alone, except for President Trump’s own family members, at the pinnacle of power in Washington.
Those three generals from America’s losing wars are now triumphant. One of them is the ultimate gatekeeper when it comes to who sees the president. All three influence his thoughts and speeches. They are the “civilians” who control the military and American war policy. They, and they alone, have made the president go against his deepest urges, as he admitted in his address to the nation on the war in Afghanistan. (“My original instinct was to pull out and historically I like following my instincts.”) They’ve convinced him to release the military (and the CIA) from significant oversight on how they pursue their wars across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and now the Philippines. They even convinced him to surround their future actions in a penumbra of secrecy.
Their wars, the ones that began almost 16 years ago and just keep morphing and spreading (along with a proliferating assortment of terror groups), are now theirs alone to fight and… well, we’ll get to that. But first let’s step back a moment and think about what’s happened since January.
The Winningest President and the Losingest Generals
The most surprising winner of our era and possibly—to put ourselves fully in the Trumpian spirit—of any era since the first protozoan stalked the Earth entered the Oval Office on January 20th and promptly surrounded himself with a set of generals from America’s failed wars of the post-9/11 era. In other words, the man who repeatedly promised that in his presidency Americans would win to the point of tedium—“We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning, you’re going to come to me and go ‘Please, please, we can’t win anymore’”—promptly chose to elevate the losingest guys in town. If reports are to be believed, he evidently did this because of his military school background, his longstanding crush on Gen. George Patton of World War II fame (or at least the movie version of him), and despite having actively avoided military service himself in the Vietnam years, his weak spot for four stars with tough monikers like “Mad Dog.”
During the election campaign, though a general of his choice led the chants to “lock her up,” Trump himself was surprisingly clear-eyed when it came to the nature of American generalship in the 21st century. As he put it, “Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country.” On coming to power, however, he reached into that rubble to choose his guys. In the years before he ran, he had been no less clear-eyed on the war he just extended in Afghanistan. Of that conflict, he typically tweeted in 2013, “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!”
On the other hand, the careers of his three chosen generals are inextricably linked to America’s losing wars. Then-Colonel H.R. McMaster gained his reputation in 2005 by leading the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment into the Iraqi city of Tal Afar and “liberating” it from Sunni insurgents, while essentially inaugurating the counterinsurgency tactics that would become the heart and soul of Gen. David Petraeus’s 2007 “surge” in Iraq.
Only one small problem: McMaster’s much-publicized “victory,” like so many other American military successes of this era, didn’t last. A year later, Tal Afar was “awash in sectarian violence,” wrote Jon Finer, a Washington Post reporter who accompanied McMaster into that city. It would be among the first Iraqi cities taken by Islamic State militants in 2014 and has only recently been “liberated” (yet again) by the Iraqi military in a US-backed campaign that has left it only partially in rubble, unlike so many other fully rubblized cities in the region. In the Obama years, McMaster would be the leader of a task force in Afghanistan that “sought to root out the rampant corruption that had taken hold” in the American-backed government there, an effort that would prove a dismal failure.
Marine Gen. Mattis led Task Force 58 into southern Afghanistan in the invasion of 2001, establishing the “first conventional US military presence in the country.” He repeated the act in Iraq in 2003, leading the 1st Marine Division in the US invasion of that country. He was involved in the taking of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in 2003; in the fierce fighting for and partial destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004; and, in that same year, the bombing of what turned out to be a wedding party, not insurgents, near the Syrian border. (“How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” was his response to the news.) In 2010, he was made head of US Central Command, overseeing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan until 2013 when he urged the Obama administration to launch a “dead of night” operation to take out an Iranian oil refinery or power plant, his idea of an appropriate response to Iran’s role in Iraq. His proposal was rejected and he was “retired” from his command five months early. In other words, he lost his chance to set off yet another never-ending American war in the Middle East. He is known for his “Mattisisms” like this piece of advice to US Marines in Iraq in 2003: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
Retired Marine general John Kelly was assistant division commander in Iraq under Mattis, who personally promoted him to brigadier general on the battlefield. (Present head of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joe Dunford, was an officer in the same division at the same time and all three reportedly remain friends.) Though Kelly had a second tour of duty in Iraq, he never fought in Afghanistan. Tragically, however, one of his sons (who had also fought in Fallujah in 2004) died there after stepping on an improvised explosive device in 2010.
McMaster was among the earliest figures in the Pentagon to begin speaking of the country’s post-9/11 wars as “generational” (that is, never-ending). In 2014, he said,
“If you think this war against our way of life is over because some of the self-appointed opinion-makers and chattering class grow ‘war weary,’ because they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mistaken. This enemy is dedicated to our destruction. He will fight us for generations, and the conflict will move through various phases as it has since 9/11.”
In short, you could hardly pick three men more viscerally connected to the American way of war, less capable of seriously reassessing what they have lived through, or more fully identified with the failures of the war on terror, especially the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it comes to the “rubble” of American generalship in these years, Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly would certainly be at the top of anyone’s list.
Think of them, in fact, as the ultimate survivors of a system that at its upper levels is not known, even in the best of times, for promoting original, outside-the-box thinkers. They are, in other words, the ultimate four-star conformists because that’s the character trait you need to make it to generalship in the US military. (Original thinkers and critics never seem to make it past the rank of colonel.)
And as their “new” Trump-era Afghan policy indicates, when faced with their wars and what to do about them, their answer is invariably some version of more of the same (with the usual, by-now-predictable results).
All Hail the Generals!
Now, let’s take one more step back from the situation at hand, lest you imagine that President Trump’s acts, when it comes to those generals, are unique to our time. Yes, two retired generals and one still active in posts previously (with the rarest of exceptions) reserved for civilians do represent something new in American history. Still, this Trumpian moment should be seen as the culmination of, not a departure from, the policies of the two previous administrations.
In these years, America’s generals have failed everywhere except in one place, and that just happens to be the only place that truly matters. Call Afghanistan a “stalemate” as often as you want, but almost 16 years after the US military loosed the power of “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” (aka “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known”), the Taliban are ascendant in that benighted land and that’s the definition of failure, no matter how you tote things up. Those generals have indeed been losers in that country, as they and others have been in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and someday undoubtedly Syria (no matter what immediate victories they might chalk up). In only one place did their generalship work effectively; in only one place have they truly succeeded; in only one place could they now conceivably proclaim “victory at last!”
That place is, of course, Washington, DC, where they are indeed the last men standing and, in Trumpian terms, absolute winners.
In Washington, their generalship has been anything but rubble. It’s always been another kind of more—more of whatever they wanted, from money to surges to ever-greater power and authority. In Washington, they’ve been the winners ever since President George W. Bush launched his Global War on Terror.
What they couldn’t do in Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli, or anywhere else across the Greater Middle East and Africa, they’ve done impressively in our nation’s capital. In years when they unsuccessfully brought the full power of the greatest arsenal on the planet to bear on enemies whose weaponry cost the price of a pizza, they continued to rake in billions of dollars in Washington. In fact, it’s reasonable to argue that the losing conflicts in the war on terror were necessary prerequisites for the winning budgetary battles in that city. Those never-ending conflicts—and a more generalized (no pun intended) fear of (Islamic) terrorism heavily promoted by the national security state—have driven funding success to staggering levels in the nation’s capital, perhaps the single issue on which Republicans and Democrats have seen eye to eye in this period.
In this context, Donald Trump’s decision to surround himself with “his” generals has simply brought this reality more fully into focus. He’s made it clear why the term “deep state,” often used by critics of American war and national security policies, inadequately describes the situation in Washington in this century. That term brings up images of a hidden state-within-a-state that controls the rest of the government in some conspiratorial fashion. The reality in Washington today is nothing like that. Despite both its trove of secrets and its desire to cast a shadow of secrecy over government operations, the national security state hasn’t exactly been lurking in the shadows in these years.
In Washington, whatever the Constitution may say about civilian control of the military, the generals—at least at present—control the civilians and the deep state has become the all-too-visible state. In this context, one thing is clear, whether you’re talking about the country’s panoply of “intelligence” agencies or the Pentagon, failure is the new success.
And for all of this, one thing continues to be essential: those “generational struggles” in distant lands. If you want to see how this works in a nutshell, consider a single line from a recent piece on the Afghan War by New York Times reporter Rod Nordland. “Even before the president’s [Afghan] speech, the American military and Afghan leaders were laying long-term plans,” Nordland points out and, in that context, adds in passing, “The American military has a $6.5-billion plan to make the Afghan air force self-sufficient and end its over-reliance on American air power by 2023.”
Think for a moment about just that relatively modest part (a mere $6.5 billion!) of the US military’s latest plans for a more-of-the-same future in Afghanistan. As a start, we’re already talking about six more years of a war that began in October 2001, was essentially an extension of a previous conflict fought there from 1979 to 1989, and is already the longest war in American history. In other words, the idea of a “generational struggle” there is anything but an exaggeration.
Recall as well that, in January 2008, US Brig. Gen. Jay Lindell, then-commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force in Afghanistan, was projecting an eight-year US plan that would leave the Afghan air force fully staffed, supplied, trained, and “self-sufficient” by 2015. (In 2015, Rod Nordland would check out that air force and find it in a “woeful state” of near ruin.)
So in 2023, if that full $6.5 billion is indeed invested in—perhaps the more fitting phrase might be squandered on—the Afghan air force, one thing is a given: It will not be “self-sufficient.” After all, 16 years later with not $6.5 billion but more than $65 billion appropriated by Congress and spent on the training of the Afghan security forces, they are now taking terrible casualties, experiencing horrendous desertion rates, filled with “ghost” personnel, and anything but self-sufficient. Why imagine something different for that country’s air force $6.5 billion and six years later?
In America’s war on terror, such things should be considered tales foretold, even as the losing generals of those losing wars strut their stuff in Washington. Elsewhere on the planet, the US military’s plans for 2020, 2023, and beyond will undoubtedly be yet more landmarks on a highway to failure. Only in Washington do such plans invariably work out. Only in Washington does more of the same turn out to be the ultimate formula for success. Our losing wars, it seems, are a necessary backdrop for the ultimate winning war in our nation’s capital. So all hail America’s generals, mission accomplished!