Last week, Professor Stephen Saideman, who is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University and also the Director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network and, therefore, someone whose views on military matters and, especially, the issue of civilian control of the military, matter, was quite critical of President-elect Biden’s decision to appoint recently retired General Lloyd Austin to be his Secretary of Defence. Professor Saideman was not the only critic, but, in good social media style, he is amongst the most vociferous:
His comments got me to thinking …
I, broadly and generally (pun intended) share his views, I believe that Brooke Claxton, whose military experience “topped out” as a non-commissioned officer, an artillery battery sergeant major in the First World War, was one of Canada’s few really first rate defence ministers, while top generals, including General (ret’d) Andrew McNaughton and Major General (ret’d) George Pearkes, who won the Victoria Cross for the most extraordinary courage in battle, were, to be charitable, pedestrian, as is (and I’m being really charitable now) Harjit Sajjan.
There were exception that prove every rule of course. The Duke of Wellington brought a finely honed mix of strategic and tactical “vision” and some good commons sense to both war and politics ~ he had that Gretzky thing I discussed just the other day: he skated to where the puck was going rather to where it had been ~ and the great American General George C Marshal was, in almost every respect, sui generis, an exceptional man in all things.
Digression: Canada has produced some first rate military leaders but, in 1945, for example, of it’s three (arguably) best leaders …
… one was driven into retirement (and exile) by the worst enemy that the Canadian Armed Forces faced and still faces, today, raging careerism and professional jealousy; one retired because he never intended to be a career soldier; and one stayed on, briefly, to help with the “transition to peace” in 1945/46/47. Those who remained were, despite distinguished service, not the “ne plus ultra” for which the county might have hoped …
… one was the raging careerist whose less than stellar wartime service allowed him to subvert both his boss and his rival; another was an adequate but less than great commander; and the third, while a stellar officer who made a significant contribution to the allied victory, only planned to manage the transition to peace. None, except Jones, was a truly bad officer ~ Jones was toxic and a disgrace to his uniform and country ~ but most reflected what was, and remains, the Canadian Armed Forces greatest weakness: careerism.
Getting to Professor Saideman’s key argument, which I take to be that recently retired GOFOs (General and Flag Officers) are too close to the uniformed establishment and not yet civilian enough to be, properly, able and even willing to assert civilian control of the military, I broadly agree. Despite the high esteem in which I hold General (ret’d) James Mattis as both a soldier and as a man, I agree that he was a less than stellar SecDef ~ although it’s hard to see how anyone could have done a really good job so long as Donald J Trump was President of the United States.
I know very little about General Austin. His résumé is fine but I cannot see anything that makes him exceptional. I’m guessing that there must be something in his service as the US military commander in Iraq (2010) and as Commander Central Command (2013-16), during the Obama administration, that causes President-elect Biden to respect and trust him. Although he was the US Army’s Vice Chief of Staff and although he sits on the boards of some major corporations, I see nothing that indicates that he has what is needed to bend the uniformed military establishment, much less the “military-industrial complex” to the new president’s will, as Brooke Claxton did for Louis St Laurent in the late 1940s.
What Claxton did, imposing the government’s will on a sometimes reluctant and often recalcitrant military, is one of a defence minister’s/secretary’s primary duties. The government needs to listen, carefully, to professional military advice but, finally, its is the political will which must prevail.
I got to know quite a few admirals and generals in a 35+ years military career: many Canadians, some Brits, a few Americas and some others. Only a handful were less than bright; even fewer were lazy ~ the senior ranks of allied armed forces seem quite full of Type A personalities ~ but fewer still seemed to have the sort of broad, strategic vision that good ministers ~ I’m thinking of e.g. John Manley ~ and top level civil servants like David Dodge, Bob Fowler and Kevin Lynch displayed. That doesn’t make them poor military leaders, it just means, generally speaking, that Professor Saideman is right and they might not be especially good defence ministers/secretaries.