Hard line politicians and moderate generals

There is a very interesting article in The Economist about the tensions that exist, in Israel, between “army leaders” [who, in the 1980s] “infuriated the politicians by insisting that “there is no military solution …” and that only diplomatic means could end” unconventional (or asymmetrical) attacks against Israel. The article notes that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, “who ended his own military career as a special-forces officer in his early 20s, has long seen senior career officers as part of the “leftist” elites who hamper his governments.

This may seem counterintuitive to many but it is part of a long tradition of professional soldiers who want to avoid wars and some politicians, almost invariably those without experience at the senior levels of command, who want to test their strategic mettle. Consider, for example, the very real, battles between Winston Churchill, who wanted “action,” preferable daring, exciting action, now!, and his admirals and generals who were all too aware of the need to build up their forces. Or consider how John F Kennedy, a man whose personal bravery was not in question, surrounded himself with like minded young men who were more interested in testing “how” power could be used than in considering its consequences.


President Kennedy ignored the advice of e.g. President Eisenhower and listened to (far) lesser lights (like General Maxwell Taylor) on the issue of Viet Nam. Perhaps the best example is General George Marshall, arguably the “greatest” general of the modern age, who looked well beyond the military “tool” and saw how to prevent further wars, not through the kinds of (generally impractical and failure prone) mechanisms that the United Nations advocated, and still advocates, today, but, rather, through the American action, based on Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.” Marshall was fortunate in serving a president who shared his aversion to war.

The Israeli generals, who have direct responsibility for the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers and who feel the weight of the deaths of young Palestinian “fighters,” too, are somewhat reluctant warriors who want to try to use the “better angels” of Israeli society rather then force of arms. Their political masters ~ and the Israeli generals do respect the ultimate authority of elected politicians ~ see things differently. They, as The Economist notes, have rejected any criticism of Israeli’s current, tough methods. It’s a fine line: Israeli public opinion wants the government to be tough but, equally, Israelis, who have conscription, are all too well aware of the personal costs of battle.

I was never a general and I understand that my own views are, on the surface, contradictory:

  • I want a strong, AAA+ military that will, in my guesstimation, cost us 2% of GDP, so, I suppose, I’m a hawk; but
  • I want us out of, for example, the Middle East/West Asia mess. Does that make me a dove or just a realist?

I agree, as I said in Army.ca, with David Goldman (who writes in the Asia Times as  Spengler) that the ongoing wars in North Africa, the Middle East and South West Asia are more likely to look like the Thirty Years War (1616-48) than, say, any of the nice, short and relatively bloodless Arab-Israeli wars. I also agree that the very best the US led West might be able to do is to contain the situation and manage the explosions as something akin to a “controlled burn,” rather than as several raging forest fires. That’s why I support bombing Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS ~ sometimes killing is the best answer ~ and prime-minister-justin-trudeau-speaks-with-reporters-during-awhy I worry about sending  more “trainers” into combat and supporting the Kurds. Quite simply I am 100% certain that none of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping, David Cameron or Vladimir Putin knows what’s going on in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, and if they don’t know then you can bet the house and your first born child on the fact, the very real fact, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t know anything about the situations either. And who can blame him, or them? As I have said before: the situations are hideously complex and we have few friends over there ~ it’s all rather like the infamous circular firing squad …

… the best way to make peace, in that particular situation, is to let the locals sort it out in their own way with our interventions being limited to only that which is necessary to prevent either a massive conflagration or barbarism.

There are many voices screaming for Prime Minister Trudeau to get out there and kill someone and, I repeat, sometimes, sadly, killing is the right, the best, the only answer to a few problems. But I’m willing to bet that most of the people screaming loudest have never word a uniform. I am not opposed to sending Canadians into harm’s way if it will achieve something that is in Canada’s interests. I am not opposed to taking Canadian casualties if our vital interests are at stake. I am opposed to doing things, killing people or avoiding combat, just to score a few, cheap, political points. I believe that Conservatives were and Liberals are guilty of doing the latter. Our military is, or should be, a policy tool, not a political prop.

Admirals and generals are, ultimately, servants of the governments we elect. In our liberal, democratic system it is elected politicians who make the hard choices and then it is up to the military to put the requisite force behind them. But admirals and generals (even old retired colonels) have valid moral and strategic views, too, and their voices are worth hearing, even when they are not in accord with the views of the government of the day.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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