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.”