Fifty years ago, Americans were embroiled in a bitter and controversial war that divided a nation and cast doubt on their faith in the office of the presidency. We certainly remain drawn to stories of the Vietnam War.
Without question, the American involvement in Vietnam reverberates well beyond the war that ended there in 1975. Perhaps most importantly, the experience demonstrates, then and now, our inflated expectations of generals as superheroes. The conflict created such a crisis of authority for the president that generals emerged as the nation’s new leaders, trusted agents to whom journalists and the public could confidently turn in a time of crisis.
But relying on generals to determine questions of war and peace creates unrealistic — and troubling — expectations for those same generals to craft policy and oversee, unchecked, a military that was intentionally designed to follow the command of a civilian.
“We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done the job, as usual,” said President Donald Trump after an April airstrike on an Islamic State position in Afghanistan. “We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.” Many took comfort from this acknowledgment that he was stepping away from the details of military operations.
But there is a problem here. In this narrative, civilian leadership matters little. Former general David H. Petraeus recently made the astounding claim that Trump’s fitness to serve was “immaterial” because the senior military leaders around him were first-class. Apparently, if the generals are good enough, the civilian commander in chief requires no real presence in American foreign policy.
This is a dangerous way of thinking for all involved. Presidents can’t simply relinquish decisions on war or peace to their generals. As Condoleezza Rice-era State Department counselor Eliot Cohen has persuasively argued, history indicates that grand strategy works best when predicated upon an open and honest dialogue between civilian overseers and their military commanders.
We have entered a moment in our history, however, where we have normalized a strategic dialogue in which only the military voice matters. This should give us all pause. And not simply because many find our current president erratic when it comes to questions of foreign policy.
We cannot simply assume that generals, through their own force of will, can win wars or alter foreign cultures with troop “surges” or magic strategic plans, much as we might want a Hollywood ending.
Gregory A. Daddis is director of the graduate program in War and Society at Chapman University.