I was once told that the title phrase I have used here is an oxymoron. I am beginning to believe it is. The determination of those folks in uniform to use their deadly toys to “win” wars that no longer can have winners and simply breed new enemies is marginally stupid. It is not that surprising, however, when we consider the narrow minds that control a military organization that is focused entirely on one thing: fighting a war. No doubt, these people are sincere, not to say zealous. And that’s the problem, especially when the Commander In Chief they answer to seems to be intimidated by the uniform and willing to go along with pretty much any plan they come up with. History has taught us to be more circumspect.
During its infancy our nation was struggling to come to grips with the difficult problems of self-government. After the British were defeated and the states had ratified the Constitution, George Washington was the leader of a nation that was struggling to find its way in a confusing world without a road map. There were as yet no political parties, but there was a wide variety of groups who all thought they knew the best way to do things. The two major groups were led by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. The former was concerned that the country maintain its republican principles and never again allow itself to be governed by a despot. The latter had aspirations to great power and a disarming fondness for things English. There was every reason to believe that Alexander Hamilton wanted to restore the monarchy, because he saw the republic as a nation of rabble who had no idea how to do the right thing. The battles in print between Jefferson (and his friend Madison) and Hamilton make interesting reading. But what is most interesting is the fact that on nearly every key decision that came up in Washington’s cabinet the president sided with Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson, his Secretary of State, was repeatedly left wondering what went wrong.
It’s not that Washington didn’t have confidence in Jefferson. On the contrary. But Hamilton was his aide-de-camp during the revolutionary war and as a close military friend he had Washington’s ear, and was clearly his fair-haired boy. When there was an uproar in Western Pennsylvania — later called the “Whiskey Rebellion” — Washington promoted Hamilton to the rank of General and put him in charge of a force of 15,000 men to quell the disturbance. This showed poor judgment on Washington’s part and led both Jefferson and Madison to worry that the appointment was a sign of senility on Washington’s part. Both men were horrified: this was a nation founded on the principle of no standing army and here was one in their own back yard — lead by a man who had lofty aspirations and limitless ambition — and who regarded Julius Caesar as the greatest man who ever lived! Both Jefferson and Madison were convinced that this was the first step toward a counter-revolution, like the one they had recently witnessed in France. As it turned out, they were wrong — barely.
But the close association between the two military men, Washington and Hamilton, at a time when Washington stated publicly that he didn’t entirely trust the military mind, is worth noting. Clearly, Washington, who was one of the greatest presidents in our country’s history, allowed his judgment to be colored by his close association with the man he went to war with. One can understand it, but one can also worry that the military mind has its biases and does not always see things clearly. Dwight Eisenhower knew this first-hand when, as President, he presciently warned us about the military-industrial complex and famously said “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”
thank you, always, for the history refreshers; you have a natural way of presenting past and present so that we can see a bit more clearly why things often go wrong. z
Thanks, Z. Dana’s comment attempts to set the record straight about Hamilton. There are obviously two schools of thought there!
Hugh, having recently read Ron Chernow’s major biography of Hamilton – written about a decade ago – I have been persuaded that the fears of his wanting to reinstate a monarchy were greatly overblown by his political opponents, many of them envious of this 25-year-old wunderkind who rose so quickly to a position of power. Same with his thoughts about the military — he saw the young U.S. as very vulnerable yet to renewed attacks by the British (which proved to be true in 1812) and distrusted the Jeffersonian love affair with the French Revolution. Jefferson and Madison thought that was because Hamilton wanted the French monarchy restored, but Hamilton early on foresaw that the French, unlike the U.S., were too disorganized and their revolution would collapse into chaos. Which it did. After the end of the U.S. Revolution, the American military dwindled to scraps. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton did a great many things — pretty much created an economy and banking system out of thin air — but also boosted spending on the Navy and Army and invented the forerunner to the Coast Guard, largely because the British and French still had large military presences on North American soil.
Washington trusted Hamilton’s advice because it was so often right, while Jefferson was, at least during that period, a pouting kind of bumbler who often took his pen and simply abandoned his cabinet duties and went home. It is also interesting that Jefferson, the advocate for small government and an agrarian sort of society, did what most presidents do when they actually get in office: increase the size of government and, in this case, literally increase the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase! Had Hamilton done that, they’d have had his head.
Chernow’s biography, using a lot of Hamilton’s letters — and Jefferson’s and Madison’s (plus those of the very thin-skinned Adams) — does a convincing job of showing a Hamilton who was probably the second-most important of the Founding Fathers, after Washington. I believe he had a stronger, deeper, more creative intellect that Jefferson or Madison but was mistreated after his death by those men and Adams, all of whom pretty much sought to bury his memory and distort his intent. The guy was brilliant, and, yes, had a good-sized ego (which of the founders didn’t? !), but was often viewed as an outsider (Adams even called him a Creole or bastard) because of the circumstances of his birth in the West Indies.
Anyway, a slight digression. I do fully agree with your assessment that we must not cede too much authority from civilian leadership to the military. (As wrong as they were in their judgment that Hamilton wanted to use the military for some sort of power grab, Jefferson and Madison were right about the dangers of such a move in general). And so were Washington and Eisenhower in their farewell addresses: we head down a dangerous path when we become a military-dominated system.
(Sorry about the long-winded defense of Hamilton: Chernow’s biography was so impressive and detailed, I still find myself mulling all it said weeks after I finished the book. 🙂 )
Thanks, Dana. It’s always good to get another perspective. I suspect the truth about Hamilton lies somewhere between your view and mine. But the key point, as you saw, is that the military mind can be extremely narrow — as can all minds — and focused exclusively on technique (how do we win this war?) so as to lost sight of the larger picture. We must beware giving them too much say in international politics.
Hugh, great post. Dana, good comments. I think this shows how hard our infant democracy and republic was to form. It happened over years of trials and tribulations. We look at Iraq, which has nowhere near the kind of thinkers as these men were and recognize that it does take time. With all that said, Hugh’s points referencing DDE are dead on. I would go one step further – we seem to be much better at prosecuting a war than maintaining and nation building. In Iraq, we went in with too few troops and did not stabilize the country. That haunted us until the surge, which was what should have done in the first place. To say it a different way, we are good at killing people and destroying things and not so good at restoring order. To me that is where the intelligence part comes in. Thanks Hugh. BTG
All great comments. From another perspective, the military is a closed off social unit. When we sometimes say we need to think outside the box, there is no outside for the military to think about. There are strict limits, strict walls to their world, and there is never any stepping over the line. Thats what they do, and thats why in certain, limited situations, they can do it so well.
As diplomats, or planners for the future, or creating something such as a democracy, they fail miserably. Thats not their job, their world is very clear, black and white, no grey tones.
As far as Obama’s relationship with the military, I agree completely. I think he has been intimidated on many fronts in Washington, none more so than the military and the CIA.
Another great post.
Thanks, Barney. I do worry that Obama is letting the military call many of the shots — certainly regarding the drones. I dare say the brass drool every time they think of a weapon that can kill with no danger of one of “ours” going down. They ignore all the innocent people, including at least one American citizen, who are also killed.
Collateral Damage has become an accepted norm. I may be the only person on the planet who feels this way, but I never was a fan of General Petraeus, and think he misled this country, and especially Obama.
Hugh, I think you are probably right on Hamilton — in that the deeper truths are probably somewhere in the middle of your view and mine. I don’t think he was quite the bogeyman that Jefferson, Madison made him out to be, but he certainly was ambitious and could just — through his intelligence and force of will (he’d crank out a 30,000-word memo (!) in a week — stomp over his political opponents. It wasn’t the best way to be a politician, and definitely fed the fears and rumors that he was pro-monarchy (which his papers and even things he wrote then reveal he definitely was not). Part of it was that he was not an original landed aristocrat or Boston Brahman so there was a constant need to prove himself. But then, as now, there were fierce political rivalries and almost as soon as peace settled in, there became partisanship and with that the art of misinformation became a helluva art: Think about this — instead of the paid minions of today spreading half-truths on the Internet, you had these great minds like Hamilton’s, Jefferson’s, Madison’s, Monroe’s, Franklin’s doing the writing themselves! They all had magnificent positive qualities, certainly, but when it turned to political character assassination those same qualities could be just as brilliant when deployed. They wrote and wrote and wrote, especially from 1796 (after Washington’s second inauguration) onward, sometimes with classic Roman pseudonyms. Merciless, making today’s doofus political aides and PACs — though highly-paid — look like mere amateurs. Hamilton and Jefferson each started their own newspapers to be official organs of the Federalists and Republicans, respectively. Like Fox News, only with geniuses at the top!
BTG: Terrific insight on Iraq. I have said this to friends at different times when it’s come to Iraq or the Arab Spring — democracy does not happen in two weeks or two years. It took America long decades to evolve the forms of its democracy — there were 11 years between the Declaration of Independence and the creation of the Constitution alone, plus many internal battles (both philosophical and bloody) and our great Civil War, 80+ years after the revolution. Even with the rapid growth of telecommunications and travel today, one should be realistic about how quickly a fully formed democratic society can develop in nations with absolutely no tradition of democracy and, as you said, without the leaders like America had at its outset. There were regional and economic factions, certainly, in America before, during and after the Revolution (you could already see the battle lines for the Civil War being drawn in the 1780s), but not 50 or 60 factions of equal strength like there seem to be in some of the Arab nations.
Hugh: You are a master. You have stirred great debate, constructive debate! Today is like being in an online classroom! It is a terrific reminder that the world is not black and white, but a huge spectrum of gray. We need great leaders, patience and a better informed citizenry in a world like this. More minds, in other words, and fewer guns, fewer weapons of war, and a defense-contractor industry that serves the public will, does not shape it.
Amen to that!