What Today’s Army Officers Can Learn From George Washington

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For some officers Vietnam touches a still-raw nerve, as Middleton wrote in his essay “Vietnam and the Military Mind.” He says that officers just entering the senior ranks today complain of not having been given a freer hand in Southeast Asia, an argument that makes us at least vaguely mindful of General MacArthur’s conflict with President Truman during the Korean War. “It still rankles,” declares Middleton, “when they recall the incomprehension of military realities,” as the soldiers see it, “on the part of the civilian leadership,” including Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. As one officer confided to Middleton, the civilians had “no military background” that would have helped them “understand the situation.” But if the politicians lacked the military background, Middleton wonders whether the military had the political background.

Whether or not Middleton is right about the convictions of men entering the upper echelons, it is essential for officers in the modern army to comprehend fully the nation’s civil-military heritage.

IF GEORGE WASHINGTON fathomed this truism, so did another commander in chief with a frosty exterior, George C. Marshall. Working in the 1930s with the Illinois National Guard and the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps—assignments narrow-minded soldiers would have scorned as being dead-end—Marshall managed to profit handsomely. He understood that American generals in time of war would always lead armies essentially civilian in character, controlled by civilian leadership in the White House and in Congress, and that two-way communication was imperative for military and civilian authorities alike.

 

To ensure such interaction, perhaps it would be helpful if we could require every general to serve a term in Congress or on the White House staff, and insist that the most influential national political figures on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch direct a field army. But since the ideal is never the reality and since the military will continue to receive its lumps from civilians from time to time, where are we left? For one thing, we must not forget that the military probably suffers no more abuse than other sectors of government—and since Vietnam, even less: less than the President, the Con- gress, and the Supreme Court. Washington, for example, received far more slings and arrows as President than he did as general, and so did Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower.

If, like George Washington, our military leaders can learn to grasp the big picture, they can understand criticism from the public, even if they disagree and think it unfair. Without criticism from the outside, there is likely to be only minimal change or improvement in human institutions; and to be free of criticism is to live in a society without freedom. As General Washington once said, we are all in it together: “We should all be considered Congress, Army, &c. as one people, embarked in one Cause, in one interest; acting on the same principle and to the same End.”