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Don’t Hold All Generals to the Petraeus Standard

Posted on July 2 2010 1:00 pm
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Marine Corps Lieutenant General Chesty Puller was one of America’s greatest military leaders. But because he was rough around the edges and politically incorrect, it is doubtful that he could have survived in today’s military.

By a vote of 99-0, the Senate has unanimously confirmed General David Petraeus as the commanding general of American forces in Afghanistan. This is not surprising because the politicians now all love Petraeus, and for two reasons.

First, he is a great military leader who won a war (in Iraq) for them — and not just any war, but a war that was once thought to be unwinnable. Second, Petraeus doesn’t embarrass the pols or cause them problems. He is, quite literally, a political general — and I mean that in the best sense of the term. I mean he understands well the contours and fault lines in American politics, and studiously avoids tripping over them.

This is good for the politicians; however, I am not so sure that it is also good for the American people. If, after all, our military leaders are afraid to speak openly and candidly to the public because they feel beholden to the politicians,  our democracy will suffer. American self-government, remember, requires an informed and educated citizenry.

Sure, the generals work for the president and the congress, but they should always remember that they also work for us, the taxpayers.Yet, all too many of them do not, I’m afraid. They fail to realize that engaging the public dialogue is an integral part of their job description and professional responsibilities. It is, in fact, a big reason why they have been entrusted with general officer’s stars and command billets.

I’m not suggesting that Petraeus has been less than candid or forthright. In truth, he has been quite communicative. But he is an atypical general with rarified skill sets that are anything but commonplace. Is it really fair or right, then, to expect all of our nation’s top warriors to be political generals?

I don’t think so. And yet, that seems now to be the standard or expectation. Thus a less politically adroit general like Stanley McChrystal gets unceremoniously bounced and criticized, whereas a skilled politician like Petraeus gets promoted and praised.

But where would this standard have left warriors like Generals George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Chesty Puller? Would our political class sanction such men today? Based on what’s transpired in recent years, I rather doubt it. And yet, Patton, MacArthur and Puller surely rank among the three greatest military leaders ever to walk the face of the earth.

Be grateful that America produces men like David Petraeus  on the one hand, and men like Patton, MacArthur and Puller on the other. And don’t demand that all of our military leaders meet a PC standard which is often inimical to military success and military greatness.

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