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Angered Over the Whiff of US Troop Withdrawals, Now the Generals Speak Up?

Let's review the boundless hypocrisy of just a few of the most prominent voices crowing against the Syria withdrawal. 

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visits FOX News Channel’s "The Story with Martha MacCallum" on September 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visits FOX News Channel’s "The Story with Martha MacCallum" on September 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Now they’ve decided to speak out! For years, I’ve published searing critiques of America’s senior generals and admirals for their failure to speak out publicly against U.S. foreign policy and warmongering. Specifically, I’ve argued that it’s their duty to loudly dissent, and if necessary resign, in opposition to the nation’s ongoing, ill-advised, illegal and unwinnable forever wars.

Now, in a rather dark bit of irony, the — mostly retired — generals have turned my advice on its head. In unprecedented numbers, a litany of prominent military leaders have recently spoken out. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen to do so in the name of continuing perpetual war — specifically in Syria. The target of their criticism, of course, is Donald Trump, whose clumsy withdrawal (and partial redeployment) of a modest number of soldiers from northeast Syria has led the military establishment to declare rhetorical war on the president.

In doing so, the generals haven’t just violated their purported core principles of nonpartisanship, but they have shown their true colors as unabashed militarists in a rare wave of public defiance.  That they’re doing so to prolong an unsanctioned war with a muddled and dubious mission is dangerous, scary, and hypocritical — a serious threat to the republic.

What’s crazy is that Trump isn’t even consistently antiwar. He’s only reshuffled the troops to Iraq and infused even more into Saudi Arabia. He’s even suggested that he may keep some in Syria to protect (or seize) oil fields.

Nevertheless, even the hint of deescalation in a single theater of a region-wide endless war has sparked an unparalleled, even hysterical, outcry from former senior military officers intent on maintaining the hyper-interventionist status quo. And why not?  The failed “war on terror” has defined their careers; it’s all they know. It doesn’t hurt the generals’ pocketbooks either to maintain the forever wars — a huge percentage have gone to work on the corporate boards of various defense contractors right after retirement, earning cool six- and seven-digit salaries in the process. (Notice that’s never mentioned on the mainstream cable networks when these generals receive endless airtime, as if working for an arms-dealing corporation with a pecuniary interest in perennial war isn’t itself a highly political act.)

These self-righteous and obsessively self-described “apolitical” generals have demonstrated that’s only the case until a president even modestly, if inconsistently, removes troops from just one unsanctioned (by Congress) — and thus unconstitutional — war.  Let’s review the boundless hypocrisy of just a few of the most prominent voices crowing against the Syria withdrawal.  There’s Army General Joseph Votel, a recent commander of all troops in the greater Middle East. He took to the pages of The Atlantic to assert that “abandoning” the Syrian Kurds will “severely damage American credibility and reliability.”

He claims to be genuinely worried about a potential ethnic cleansing or genocide of those Kurds.  Funny — while he commanded the very pilots and intelligence analysts who abetted and enabled the Saudi terror war on Yemen, he apparently felt no moral compunction to speak out. That U.S.-backed war has actually, not potentially, caused the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and killed more than 100,000 civilians from another ethnic minority, the Yemeni Houthis, including the starvation deaths of at least 85,000 children. Spare us the moralizing, Joe!

Then there’s that media darling, “Saint” Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary and venerated Marine Corps general. “Mad Dog” has been, until now, the paragon of the insincere “apolitical military professional.” Trump’s detractors have even criticized Mattis for not openly attacking his former boss in a newly released memoir. Now Mattis is blazing away with both barrels. Maybe he just couldn’t swallow Trump’s recent exaggerated assertion that the “warrior monk” is the “world’s most overrated general.” Lost in Trump’s absurd hyperbole, and Mattis’ admittedly clever responsive quip — “I earned my spurs on the battlefield … Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor” — is the fact that the former general is overrated.

That’s demonstrable both strategically — he’s yet to win a war or advise a commander-in-chief that a mission was ill-advised and impossible — and morally. Though normally viewed as a man, first and foremost, of integrity, his record demonstrates the opposite. Remember, Mattis chose to resign as Trump’s defense secretary not because of his military’s support for a slow-boiling Yemeni genocide, which he defended before Congress, but because the president merely hinted at a modest troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. Apparently that was too much for Mattis. More telling is that Mattis didn’t resign or speak out over the Pentagon’s conduct of undeclared and unsanctioned wars– in Yemen, Syria, Libya and West Africa under his watch. This, despite having proudly taken an oath to defend the Constitution, which quite clearly mandates just such congressional approval before “his” troops are sent to kill and die.

How about good old David Petraeus, the former Iraq and Afghan War commander, disgraced CIA director and “hero” of the Bush II and Obama years. This character, wildly lacking in any sense of self-awareness, has also decided to decry Trump’s Syria policy and alleged Ukraine-gate violations in recent weeks. Riddle me this: just who is Petraeus, a convicted criminal who shared classified information with his mistress whilst serving as CIA chief, to utter a word about whistleblowers, scandal or the president’s shady activity? That a man like “King David” gets a millisecond of air time is proof of media failure of the highest degree.

Also lost in the canonization of these retired general officers is the inconvenient fact that they are way out of step with the opinions of rank-and-file soldiers and veterans. After all, in a remarkable turnaround among a demographic that’s long tilted in a conservative direction, a series of polls this summer indicated that nearly two-thirds of post-9/11 vets say they believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military engagement in Syria “were not worth it.”

So, does all of this senior military dissent add up to an actual coup? That’s probably an exaggeration, but one worth considering. Not every putsch requires tanks in the streets or political assassination. Current and former national security officials can undermine civilian leadership or topple a government without overt or violent upheaval. Today’s chorus of angry, anti-Trump, pro-forever-war generals clearly don’t rise to the level of outright treason, but their unanimity and reflexive hawkishness do demonstrate that the National Security State is imbued with immense power and a political agenda.

On the other hand, those veterans who publicly dissent against these wars and clamor for adherence to constitutional war-making procedures they are, unlike the adulated generals, viciously pilloried. To question generals and oppose endless war is a risky endeavor. Just ask Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a serving Army major and Iraq war veteran making a longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton, who regularly (and accurately) criticized Trump’s conspiratorial thinking, recently advanced her own absurd theory that Gabbard is a “Russian asset.” Pot, meet kettle.

Of course, this preposterous charge is no laughing matter. Clinton has legitimately accused Gabbard, without a shred of evidence, of treason — a crime punishable by death, given that the Hawaii congresswoman still serves in the military. Gabbard ought to sue Clinton for libel. That Gabbard has been repeatedly defamed by the likes of Clinton and The New York Times proves that despite the veneer of vacuous hyper-adulation of veterans, one’s uniform and combat record won’t save him or her from a smear campaign. There are serious limits to even combat veterans’ antiwar dissent.

As for the generals, maybe someday (but don’t hold your breath) this generation of sycophantic military leaders will at last produce a new Smedley Butler. He was a Marine Corps major general who served for decades, twice won the Medal of Honor and then became an outspoken antiwar activist– willing to dissent against today’s wars. Unlike the interwar era, when Butler was a genuine celebrity speaker, expect that if such a general does step forward, today’s mainstream media will ignore or silence him. All the while, the troopers the current crew of hypocritical, failed generals once commanded, “their boys,” will continue to die in perpetuity.

Danny Sjursen

Danny Sjursen

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

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