Andrew Bacevich Weighs-In on Trump’s Appointment of Generals to His Cabinet


Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich is an historian of international relations, security studies, and military history.  He is a former Colonel in the United States Army and he is an emeritus professor at Boston University.  He is also a prolific writer and, in my opinion, one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.

Bacevich is troubled by Donald Trump’s decision to appoint generals to high-ranking cabinet positions.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Commonweal: “American Junta.”

First, in contrast to, say, Marshall or Eisenhower, this latest crop of generals to occupy the upper rungs of the national security apparatus includes no one who has actually won a war. True, they have gained vast experience in the management of armed conflict, as their stacks of campaign ribbons and personal decorations testify. But if the ultimate measure of generalship is victory, they have come up short. As Trump himself once remarked, they haven’t “done the job.” So we may wonder what exactly qualifies these particular generals for the various offices to which they are about to lay claim.  

Second, and more importantly, even as he surrounds himself with generals, Trump himself—in contrast to the several presidents mentioned above—gives little evidence of possessing even a rudimentary grasp of the precepts and practices that govern the American civil-military tradition.

That tradition rests on two pillars. The first is the principle of civilian control, which the commander-in-chief asserts. The second is the military professional ethic, to which members of the officer corps subscribe. Yet here too, the president has a role to play, by respecting and therefore helping to sustain the code of “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Adherence to principle and ethic are necessarily imperfect. Some amount of tension between the two is inevitable. But together, they apportion authority and responsibility, establish boundaries, and define distinct but complementary spheres of action. In so doing, they function as twin sentinels guarding against the possibility of the nation with the world’s most powerful military succumbing to praetorian rule.

Whether Trump actually understands the American civil-military compact is an open question.  So too is his willingness to abide by its provisions. Indeed, to judge by statements he made during the presidential campaign, Trump is either ignorant of established practice or simply disdains it.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “Andrew Bacevich Weighs-In on Trump’s Appointment of Generals to His Cabinet

  1. Pace Bacevich, we DID win in Iraq after the surge. Further, the specter of “generals” warrants a closer examination of just who these particular generals are.

    Serving together in Iraq, Generals Mattis and Kelly learned the same lesson. “In places in our area of responsibility where things were not going well, and violence was up, it was almost always because US commanders were being too kinetic,” Kelly told me in an interview. “If you go into a situation like that with a kinetic attitude, you’re acting as a hammer and suddenly everything looks like a nail.”

    As the commander of 1st Marine Division in Iraq, Mattis famously popularized its motto “no better friend, no worse enemy.” He also had Middle East experts offer his Marines cultural sensitivity training. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Mattis instructed his troops that “Whenever you show anger or disgust toward civilians, it’s a victory for al-Qaeda and other insurgents,” and “Every time you wave at an Iraqi civilian, al-Qaeda rolls over in its grave.”

    As the former chief intelligence officer for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Flynn wrote a controversial article criticizing the intelligence community for focusing too narrowly on targeting insurgents and terrorists, and not enough on understanding the broader cultural context of the conflict. He also pushed back on the Obama administration’s narrative that killing Osama bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants had “decimated” Al Qaeda.

    If this group of veteran combat leaders belie cigar-chomping stereotypes, their wartime experiences have made them hyper-attuned to growing threats now confronting the United States, an array of challenges that is arguably more complex and varied than at any time since World War II.


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