In 1999 I wrote a very strong plea for the correct use of political-military officers. Military officers who can add their military expertise to complicated foreign policy issues are a tremendous asset. This is particularly vital in the mostly low intensity wars we have been fighting for the past few decades. The article is article below
The Political-Military Army Officer: Soldier Scholar or Cocktail Commando
But as we have seen there always a downside to this when political-military officers ( pol-mil) forget the mil and go wild on the pol. T.E. Lawrence is a good example of this; An asset of extraordinary value leading the Arab tribes against the Turks but a difficult burden when his blind support of Feisal bin Hussein Ali AL -Hashemi, and his Arab tribes and his machinations to install him king of Syria.
The LTC Alexander Vindman, case exemplifies my point. Vindman, a fuctionary in the National Security Council, by virtue of his position, had considerable power to do damage but not much to do any good. One can argue the morality issue, but as an officer he can object to what he considers an unlawful order, but in this case he was given no order. As the “impeachment inquiry” drags on the only salient points I have seen so far is hard ball politics, and military officers should not become involved. It only diminishes the image of the military. In my article above I did sound a cautionary note as below.
“The result of too little time in the “real” Army is evidenced by some officers who spend a great deal of their career within political-military upper echelons and often identify with their colleagues; in seeking acceptance, they try to become one of them in outlook, which is of no value to either side of the equation. Over the years I have known some who, having spent years in civilian clothes, tend to absorb the culture of their organization and the reason they are there, i.e., to provide a military voice to the process of making decisions is negated. The last thing needed is another echo.”
I recall an incident from my time in the Pentagon that had I been the Vindman type I could have achieved my 15 minutes of fame. While working in Army Intelligence I was made aware of communications, intercepted in Paris between a senior aide to President Carter with aides of the Ayatollah Khomeini which seemingly considered a deal to hand over the Shah of Iran, who at that time was in the U.S. for medical treatment. The quid pro quo was continued Iranian relationship with the U.S,
The idea of that was morally repugnant to me and the person who shared it with me, but we were professional officers and we kept our noses out of politics. Neither of us had much respect for the Carter regime. Had we gone to the media we would have momentary fame ( At least in some of the conservative Press.) and then shortly thereafter rightly cast out onto the dust bin of history.
Over the years, since I wrote the article above, there has been an explosion of military folks, especially the big shots, getting their asses entwined in politics and by doing so, in my not so humble opinion, vastly diminishing their military reputation. It seems to be an inevitable evolution that happens when military leaders, primarily of flag officer rank , become quasi celebrities, get lionized in the Press, especially by journalists of a somewhat leftist bent. They immediately begin to believe their own press releases and transfer their knowledge to politics, anthropology and a host of other fields.They become very conscious of their public image and legacy. Unfortunately this can lead to untoward events. Getting too close to your biographer can be fatal, particularly if she is winsome lass.
Of course when an officer retires he is free to speak his mind, but it is my considered opinion, based on a lot of history, that top level flag officers, lieutenant general and above, even when retired, should keep their opinions confined to military matters. If they really care about the military as much as they claim, they should keep their lips zipped.
This problem is particularly aggravated by relatively lower ranking officers assuming roles far beyond their pay grade, not even in military matters, (which they should at times) but not in politics in which they are totally out of their element. But as a member of the upper level bureaucracy, with bosses who are indifferent, or weak ,or scared of reining in subordinates, these pumped up military officers ( they all seem to take on rather pompous attitudes ) can do a great deal of harm. (I think of Oliver North in this respect). Mostly, however they erode the reputation of the military. Having spent all these years in the Middle East I have seen first hand what happens to countries where the military becomes enmeshed in ideologies, politics, and commerce. The country is weakened and the military is destroyed.
No doubt these officers, in their minds, believe they are “saving the country” ( as apparently one recently did) or with their new found Middle Eastern expertise, saving the country from an impending war with Iran, or even saving the president from himself, or most grievously, one four star who recently adjudged himself able to look into the hearts of a man and see evil. Like supreme court judges who evolve, these senior intellectualized military leaders ascend from the knuckle dragging status they are usually initially assigned by the “informed Press” to find a warm embrace within academia and the liberal press. These officers find the heady atmosphere intoxicating and for a short time bask in the glow. Alas and alack they often find the glow wears off rather quickly and they must resort to finding a job in industry again. In the process many of us who do not agree with the exalted visions they claim for themselves, write them off as just another idol with feet of clay. No great problem there. However, much more sadly, the military as an institution has been tarnished and its pristine image- among those who care for it the most- has been irretrievably harmed.
I usually go back into Middle Eastern history for lessons unlearned and one popped right out of an older book I am reading…Arabic Political Memoirs and other Studies by Elie Kedourie. Published by Cass in 1974. One particular short chapter caught my eye, called “Wavell and Iraq.”
Field Marshall Lord Percival Wavell, commander of all Middle East forces, including those in Iraq in 1941, was an extraordinarily gifted military commander. In fact General Rommel opined that he ” showed a touch of genius,”. He has served in the second Boer war, and was wounded in WWI. Wavell had spent a good part of his life in the Middle East, including time spent with General Allenby ‘s force in Palestine and Syria. He was popular with his troops and officers and a man of congenial disposition. He was as gallant an officer as the British could field and was known as a “Soldier-scholar.” Unfortunately Churchill wrongly assumed he was not quite the right stuff and replaced him with Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck.
Wavell was appointed commander-in-Chief. Middle East in 1939 and held that position for two years. Prior to that time as commander of the British troops in Palestine he showed his cautious inclinations and his unfortunate plunge into the murky socio-political world of the Arab world. He refused to send his troops into a mosque to arrest the Hajj Husseini , Grand Mufti Of Jerusalem, for fear it would inflame the Arab world. The Grand Mufti, later safe in Berlin, would give no end of grief to the British, both during the war and post WWII. As an analyst on the Nazi- Arab connections in World War II, Jeffrey Herf wrote, ” …..the Mufti played a central role in the cultural fusion of European with Islamic traditions of Jew – hatred.” His vitriolic broadcasts against the Jews and British were a constant problem for the British trying to win “Arab hearts and minds.”
Wavell also refused to proclaim martial law in Palestine as he saw it as simply provoking more violence. He, like the vast majority of the British academics, opposed Zionism and were basically pro-Arab. He refused Churchill’s request to arm the Jewish settlers in Palestine as it would unduly provoke the Arabs.
Alie Kedourie wrote, “There has grown a whole literature in English about British policy in in the Middle East since the world War, which is irredeemably mediocre, the mediocrity of which resides primarily in the fact that it attributes to the conflict between Zionists and Arabs as exorbitant importance in explaining the tangled and tortuous relations between Arab States in this period, as well as every reverse to the British position in the Middle East and its ultimate and total ruin.”
This mind set has in no way diminished, as it permeates the State Department, and has recently found a secure home in mainstream journalism. One need only go back to the 9/11 report and the academic interpretation of it to find that support of Israel was claimed as a major reason for the attack and as one of the reasons for Muslim animosity toward the Americans. American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have become famous ( notorious?) spouting these ideas. I’m sorry to say that Mearsheimer is a West Point graduate, but happy to say he served in the Air force, not the Army, and only for the required 5 Years.
As I have written before, a good part of this ideological mind set was the absorption of the Toynbean philosophy as embedded in the British political and military circles of the era. Kedourie termed it the “Chatham House version,” the mindset inculcated in the ruling elite, scholarly, and military circles of Britain, especially the idea of a monolithic Arab world beset with problems engendered by Western colonialism. It wasn’t that Wavell was pro-Arab. That was not the problem. As Churchill wrote, Most British generals were anti Zionist . The problem was that he viewed the Arabs as a unitary, rigid people of narrow views. According to one British writer, a former American commander of CENTCOM, who was one of the smartest generals I ever listened to (extremely articulate and charismatic) was fixated on the idea of “Arab honor,” and that our use of the term “Shock and awe” violated their sense of honor in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These superficial ideas of the Arab culture frequently drives our policies in the Middle East.
As the “golden Square” of pro-Nazi Iraqi army officers seized power in Baghdad, Wavell tenaciously tried to forestall British intervention in Iraq. Again, he and the British ambassador tried to assure Churchill that all was well and there was no need to intervene. Wavell wanted to negotiate with the coup leader General Rashid Ali al Kailani, and was assured by Rashid that Iraq would uphold all obligations to the British…all the while he was permitting German fighter aircraft to land in Baghdad. Wavell greatly over-estimated the fighting power of the Iraqi army, assuming that the advance of the British would unite the Iraqis against his small force, telling the War Office that the British could advance no further than Basra. Again, the old bugaboo of widespread Arab rebellion was the main fear of Wavell, ,beseeching Churchill to avoid “major conflict with the Arabs.” Nevertheless, Churchill, who correctly observed that the only thing that mattered was strength and power, and who the Arabs perceived as the winner. Churchill had to continually urge Wavell to push on from Basra, as Wavell sent a stream of messages back reminding the Imperial staff of the disastrous Mesopotamian campaign in WWI.
Under constant pressure from Churchill, a small force called the “Habforce” was formed from scratch British units in Iraq and pushed the Iraqi army back as they mostly fled from a decisive encounter. There was very little enthusiasm among the Iraqi population to support the Iraqi army, and many Shi’a and Kurds supported the British. Ultimately, The British deployed two Indian divisions to Iraq and the Rashid Ali al Kailani’s regime collapsed almost immediately. There was no uprising in the Arab world. Haj Husseini made his way to Berlin where he was warmly welcomed, later serving as the Mufti for the Waffen SS 13th Mountain Division of Muslim Croats, and the Free Arabian Legion, Neither was of much fighting ability except to terrorize Serb and Jews but they did have considerable propaganda value.
There was one final, and for many, fatal error in Wavel’s judgement. He believed that British troops entering Baghdad would arouse the Arab population to great heights of violence, and to maintain the fiction that the Iraqis were self governing, he kept the British troops standing for two days behind the gates of Baghdad while mobs of thugs, including police and some Iraqi military, surged through the city, raping, killing, and looting, mostly Jews and Jewish businesses, a violent episode termed a Farhud.
At the time Wavell was fighting five different campaigns with a greatly under strength forces but while understanding his problems it seems even more problematic why he spent so much time interfering in a country Iraq ? He was under tremendous pressure from Churchill and the Commander in Chief, India, Field Marshal Auchinleck, Wavells’ immediate boss. There is much to sympathize with in his defense. Particularly as he was occupied fighting campaigns in 5 different regions. And he had particular animus about Iraq. As he wrote, ” I always disliked Iraq- the country, the people, and the military commitment…..” as Field Marshal Auckinleck believed, Wavell’s procrastination was not based on military considerations but rather political ones.
I remember in my military era, politics was strictly avoided. I did not even vote till I was a Lt. Col. and most officers of my era were totally outside the political circuses.. I don’t think our republic, or us officers, suffered because of it. Today it seems that high ranking officers take on all sorts of political hues and in the process make asses of themselves. They seem to glory in the idea that somehow in their ascent to the top they have attended enough academic conferences, read enough books on the Pentagon reading list to qualify as Middle East experts, etc. The problem is they learn just enough to become dangerous.
Today I find too many “celebrity” generals and admirals have absorbed an academic viewpoint that the Arabs are too frivolous and fickle to bother with, except for diplomatic niceties, and that we should, somehow, mend fences with the Iranians and accept the fact that they are the emerging power in the Middle East. With enough mea culpas for assisting in dumping Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh ( not a nice guy BTW) and abject apologies for supporting the Shah, perhaps we could obtain a few kind words from President Hassan Rouhani or Prophet Mohammed’s Vicar on Earth, the Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Seriously?
Those who understand the way despots and religious fanatics ( sincere or frauds) operate in the Middle East know that the Iranians will not cease aggressive Persian imperialism until stopped dead on the battlefield. That battle fields will be in the capitols of the West as well as the towns and deserts of the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
The action and feisal photos were taken from an excellent little book, Iraq1941: the Battles for Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad. Published by Osprey Press. The photo of Haj Husseini and Hitler is from the book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World
avoiding a war with Iran or ininMiddle Eastern affaairs
Well written and insightful as always Tex.
Thanks Curt and all the best to you
Thanks much Curt. Always appreciate hearing from my RSC folks…. have a great Christmas