U.S. Army Sergeant: “Are They Going To Kill Me Today?”

Ed Raymond

This line comes from the diary of Army Sergeant Adam Schumann from David Finkel’s book “Thank You For Your Service” about veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Schuman is asking this question about his enemies in the streets of Baghdad, but in the end of his combat tours he could be asking the same question about our military leaders, the generals and admirals.
   The evidence is overwhelming that most military leaders are still fighting the last wars they participated in when young. It was surprising to me when I was changing duty stations as a Marine Corps officer in the 1950s that the first question asked me by enlisted grunts at new posts was whether I was a “90-day wonder” or “Academy.” I was a “90-day wonder” because I was a Marine Corps reserve who graduated from a public college instead of the Naval Academy, where most Navy and Marine officers come from.
I had gone to MC Reserve summer training each year while in college and then graduated from Officer’s Candidate School (OCS) after 90 days of intensive schooling at Quantico, Virginia. I asked enlisted in my platoon why they asked the question. The answer surprised me: “90-day wonders” had common sense and knew how to treat men under them. “Academy” types had too much military book-learning, had too little empathy for those in their command, and were always seeking promotion. In other words, academy types got you killed faster.

Wilfred Owen: “If You Could Hear, At Every Jolt, The Blood Come Gargling From The Froth-Corrupted Lungs...”

The best example of generals fighting the last war occurred at the battle of the Somme in WW I after the invention of the water-cooled machinegun. Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, commander of British forces in Europe, at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, sent thousands of British soldiers out of the trenches and “over the top” with 70 pounds of equipment on their backs to capture enemy territory. German machineguns on the front scythed them down like a combine in ripe wheat. At the end of the day, Britain lost 19,240 men killed and 40,000 wounded in less than 12 hours. In that “Big Push,” as it was called by the generals, the British Army in four and a half months of fighting gained only six miles of territory while losing 400,000 men.
Because of the rapid development of mass-killing automatic weapons, particularly machineguns and artillery, before the big war, casualty totals were horrendous. Generals were still using huge masses of men to march into the guns as they did in the 19th century. But in this war, the guns were firing hundreds of rounds a minute at men lined up like vertical dominoes. It was the first war where metal dog tags were used to attempt to track and count casualties.

General Beauvoir de Lisle: “A Magnificent Display Of Trained And Disciplined Valor”

In WW I, 70 million men were inducted into military forces and 45 million of them were killed or wounded. Millions suffered from “battle fatigue,” today’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The British Empire lost 1.1 million dead and many millions wounded. A startling statistic: For every hour of the war, 230 servicemen were killed. The first day of the battle of the Somme remains the deadliest day in military history, only exceeded by the civilian deaths at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and perhaps the 25,000 killed in an air raid on Dresden, Germany, in WW II.
What did the generals of the time think about the Somme? Major General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle of the British Army: “It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valor, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.” It was really a terrible display of ignorance of history, arrogance, deadly military tactics, and rank stupidity.
The English poet Wilfred Owen in “Dulce et Decorum Est” summed up war:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and right to die for your country”).”
English writer G.K. Chesterton also put this in perspective: “My country, right or wrong,” is the moral equivalent of “my mother, drunk or sober.”

The Five O’Clock Follies And The Military Mind

As an adolescent during WW II, I read the war stories of Ernie Pyle and learned a lot about the real military from the cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s scruffy soldiers Willie and Joe. I remember making an aircraft carrier and airplanes out of cardboard and playing war. In the last 50 years of wars, I have learned to respect the military opinions of Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post and of Chris Hedges, a correspondent who has covered wars from El Salvador to Afghanistan. Both have written extensively on the competence or lack thereof of our general class.
Chris Hedges in his article “The Menace of the Military Mind” published on Feb. 3, 2014, concisely summarizes the hazards of political generals replacing military generals in leadership positions: “Most institutions... promote mediocrities, those whose primary strengths are knowing where power lies, being subservient to the centers of power and never letting morality get in the way of one’s career. The military is the worst in this respect.... Whether at Parris Island [Marine boot camp where I spent two lovely summers] or West Point, you are trained not to think but to obey. What amazes me about the military is how stupid and bovine its senior officers are. Those with brains and the willingness to use them seem to be pushed out long before they can rise to the senior-officer ranks. The many Army generals I met over the years not only lacked the most rudimentary creativity and independence of thought but nearly always saw the press, as well as an informed public, as impinging on their love of order, regimentation, unwavering obedience to authority and single-minded use of force to solve complex problems.”

Only Six Out Of Sixty Might Be Competent To Fight A War

After the Vietnam War, a Marine Corps commandant (a four-star general in command of all Marines) was asked how many of the 60 Marine generals he headed “could competently fight a battle.” After a quick review, the commandant said, “Maybe six.” During my tour of duty I was lucky to have one of the six. Lt. General Lewis “Chesty” B. Puller is still the most decorated Marine in history. In wars from Haiti to Korea for 27 of his very active 37 years, Chesty earned 14 major combat decorations, including five Navy Crosses, the award just below the Congressional Medal of Honor. Chesty never made commandant. One reason was that he didn’t look like Army General William Westmoreland, a Greek god who was consistently incompetent directing the Vietnam War. His Saigon press conferences about the progress of the war were called “The Five O’Clock Follies” by both press and troops.
Chesty was 5’6” and always looked like he just had finished chow hall mess duty. The only Marine to rise from private to general, his excellent treatment of his troops was legendary in the Corps. One time in the field he told us officers, “If I catch any officer eating before his men have finished, he will end up a recruiter in Billings, Montana.” But Chesty didn’t make commandant because he always spoke truth to power. He just scared the hell out of any politicians he met. He often told us, “War is hell. If a politician asks you to go to war, say OK. But tell him I will fight it my way. I’m going to kill everybody in sight and then politicians can come and sort it out.” Chesty had learned the hard way about “insurgency wars” where the enemy did not wear a uniform and you could be killed by an eight-year-old girl or an eighty-year-old widow. Chesty’s men followed him through hell and back.

Making Battle Field Decisions Is Extremely Difficult

William Lind in his article “Rank Incompetence” writes of military officer incompetence: “Why is military incompetence so widespread at higher levels? Nowhere does our vast, multi-billion dollar military education system teach military judgment. Above the rank of captain, military ability plays essentially no role in determining who gets promoted.... America’s military did not fail in Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan because its budget was too small... nor that its privates and sergeants screwed up. Too many generals have proven militarily incompetent. A serious country should do something about that.” The Greek Aristotle observed, “War is pursued for peace. Its pursuit requires a unique blend of intelligence, courage and physical and personal strengths, not the mere appearance of such either physically or in speech.”
Five years ago a young Army veteran of Iraq emailed about why I had used the term “pissants” for combat veterans in a column. One of my favorite Republicans, Richard Armitage, a former naval officer and deputy assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush, used the term “pissants” to describe warmongering conservatives who have never served in uniform. I thought the term also wonderfully described the enlisted who really fight our wars, so this was my response to him: “I was discharged at the end of my tour serving as commander of a Marine rifle company long before you were born. Nixon got rid of the draft so all his rich friends could stay home and make money while ‘volunteers’ would fight their wars. Actually you are way too young to even have experienced draftees in war. Believe me, if CEOs’ and senators’ sons and daughters had been drafted to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan we would not be there now. Too much political and military stupidity would turn draftees off.”
“In Vietnam we attacked the hill during the day, took it, and then gave it back to the Cong at night. People get really pissed when they see friends die in the same spot day after day. The pissants finally rose up and said, ‘Hell no, we’re not going up the hill today.’ Volunteers, joining the Army because they are poor and looking for a job, wouldn’t object. How many Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and MIT graduates fought by your side? How many sons of GM and Ford executives fought by your side? How many sons of Wall Street bankers fought by your side? How many sons of country club members fought by your side? Every able-bodied person should want to fight for our country, regardless of wealth—and should have their ass drafted when necessary so poor pissants don’t have to serve six tours climbing the mountains of Afghanistan and other terrible places. Take some time and study how draftees affect a war and then you will understand ‘pissant.’” End of sermon.

Sergeant Chuck Hegel Of The Defense Department And His Generals

Vietnam vet and Secretary of Defense Sergeant Chuck Hegel probably has as much faith in generals as I do. Westmoreland was always fighting the previous war—but he sure looked great in camos. The generals during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were always going through revolving doors. General Tommy Franks, close friend of the Bushes, had no idea how many troops it would take to hold Iraq. Iraqis are still using ammo bought by Saddam Hussein to blow each other up after using Saddam’s stuff to blow up thousands of our troops with IEDs. Why didn’t we find the ammo dumps and blow them up in 2003? Ask Franks.
In Afghanistan we had a constantly changing cast of generals. General Stanley McCrystal ate only one meal a day, ran five miles in the morning, slept only four hours a night, and thought he was a Roman consul. A general like that could get a private killed quick. Then we had General David Petraeus, the beloved of his mistress and George W. Bush, and the guru of insurgency wars—which we have always lost. Since Vietnam we have spent $17 trillion on losing wars. Now I’m so mad I have to write about more Pentagon madness soon.