Dismantling The Warrior Fetish

Five star

On Monday, ADM Mike Mullen told a crowd at the National Defense University that he was concerned about the civil-military "disconnect" - that the military was in danger of being out of touch with the American public, who appears disinterested in defense affairs. This recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal made me wonder if Mullen (and other military leaders) are aware of just how much that "disconnect" is self-induced. In this op-ed, two former veterans and directors of Vets for Freedom (the right-wing version of VetVoice) call for awarding GEN David Petraeus a fifth star - because he's been just an awesome leader.

The U.S. war against terrorism is now the longest war in U.S. history, and Gen. Petraeus has clearly distinguished himself as a leader worthy of the rank held by Gens. MacArthur, Marshall and Nimitz. A promotion would properly honor his service—and it would also honor the troops he leads and has led. Today's soldiers have fought as valiantly as any in American history, and they deserve recognition of their leaders. Congressional approval of a fifth star would demonstrate the nation's commitment to their mission.

Gen. Petraeus is also a soldier-statesmen who works with foreign diplomats and generals in hot spots across the globe. The prestige that would come with a fifth star would help the U.S. in its negotiations with neighboring states—and show the enemies of freedom that we are fully committed to the war against terrorism.

It has been more than half a century since a U.S. general was awarded a fifth star. David Petraeus's generalship has spanned 11 years, three presidents and seven Congresses. It is time to promote him to "General of the Army" and award him a fifth star. Our military deserves it, and he has certainly earned it.

Now, let's state up front that Petraeus is a very smart, talented military officer. He didn't get four stars by sitting on his ass or by being a sycophant. He's had a distinguished military career and led the 101st Infantry Division (Airborne) through Iraq in 2003, quietly observing "How will this end?" He is certainly a personable character, which has led many Republican pundits to suggest his candidacy for president in 2012 (something I believe he will wisely decline, understanding his own limitations).

But inflating his achievements really isn't doing anyone any good. His leadership in developing FM 3-24, "Counterinsurgency" has both ardent admirers and detractors, but it hardly was the "blueprint" for Teh Surge that "saved Iraq from the brink of calamity." One might question if US forces in Afghanistan follow its dictums at all, considering the heavy use of airpower and failure of "population-centric" operations to stabilize the region. Iraq's civil conflicts are certainly not over, the borders with Iran and Syria are still leaking, so I guess it depends what you call "normalcy in Iraq" that the authors of the op-ed attribute to Petraeus.

Let's get past the authors' inflated sense of Petraeus' accomplishments. Is there a case for giving him a fifth star, something that hasn't happened since GEN Omar Bradley in 1950? I really don't see it. As Zenpundit points out in this discussion, most of the five-star general/flag officers served in World War 2. That was an epic, world-wide conflict where politics and protocol had just as much to do with awarding a fifth star as did competency. It's not as if Petraeus needs a fifth star to command forces in Afghanistan. Why should he outrank his "boss" at CENTCOM? He's not leading the War on Terror across the entire globe, unless that's his next assignment after he leaves Afghanistan. And to be clear, it's far from evident that he's "winning" in Afghanistan, when he's one of the first to note how this conflict is going to take many years more to finish (if that).

Others have suggested Petraeus receive a fifth star as if this will focus more support and resources behind the conflict in Afghanistan. But here's the thing, there really is no other military priority, other than defending the homeland, that gets more attention. Even forces in Korea get short-shrifted in any discussion of military resources. Other than the failing economy, there's no other civil priority that is ahead of defense. It's a ridiculous suggestion, and to be clear, Petraeus isn't looking for this attention. It's the longings of a small percentage of misguided former military officers who think this will make a difference.

But let me make one last point here. Our military leaders have, over the past decade, frequently used the term "warriors" when referring to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. They seem to think that our citizen-soldiers need to be fluffed up before going into battle, and using this term will somehow embolden them on the battlefield. They also like to capitalize the words "Soldiers" and "Airmen" along with Marines in official documents and speeches, thinking that this will demonstrate how exceptional our military is compared to other nations' armed forces. It's a mistake (we're actually pretty mediocre). It helps enable this "civil-military disconnect" to which Mullen has referred.

We need to help the military off their high step and remind them that, once the guns stop firing (and one day, gods willing, they will), the service members get to come back to society and rejoin the public. Certainly, as Ray in the UK has pointed out, serving in the military or police permanently changes your life perspective. For those who have been in harms way, life has a different feel than the average joe (or jane). That doesn't mean you are outside of society, though, and we shouldn't support a "warrior fetish" that increases the distance between those who have served and those who are protected. Just as MAJ Dick Winters and so many others did after World War 2, it's perfectly acceptable to come home and quietly rejoin society as our citizen-soldiers have always done.

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