Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who was an adviser to the deputy secretary of defense. He lectures on wargaming and alternative analysis at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.
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When American officers are selected to the rank of brigadier general or rear admiral, they are sent to a variety of "charm school" courses designed to teach them how to operate in the rarefied atmosphere of high command. Such courses are designed to remind them of the importance of civilian control of the military and that they are merely advisers in foreign policy matters.
But as they reach higher rank over the years, spending decades in a bubble of staff members who tell them what they want to hear, some forget that advice. Since 2018, as the State Department has been hollowed out by an exodus of experts, the trend has become more pronounced.
History provides several examples of what happens when generals try to play foreign policy kings, perhaps best demonstrated by the Von Schlieffen Plan.
During the years between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, the German General Staff concocted a war plan for its next conflict. Most of the planning was directed by its chief of the General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen. What came to be known as the Von Schlieffen plan went far beyond an operational concept. The political execution of it would virtually ensure a general European war because it called for the violation of neutral Belgium. This peacetime plan had elements of grand strategic political significance that reached far beyond the military paygrade of general officers. It was also a very flawed operational concept.
The plan worked in war games on paper, but men and horses could not stand up to the road marches called for in the grand design. Worse still, it got Germany involved in a disastrous two-front conflict that eventually doomed the regime that it was designed to protect. Von Schlieffen created his plan virtually without civilian adult supervision after Kaiser Wilhelm fired Germany's greatest statesman, Otto von Bismarck, as chancellor. The peacetime plan doomed wartime Germany.
The recent disturbing trend toward allowing military flag officers to make decisions with strategic and foreign policy consequences devoid of civilian oversight was highlighted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley's infamous calls to his Chinese counterpart in which he assured the leader of a foreign military with strategic nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States that we would not attack. He also reportedly told joint force commanders not to obey orders from the president without checking with him first. That goes beyond the type of insubordination that got Gen. Douglas MacArthur fired during the Korean War.
Milley is not a commander. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he is merely the military adviser to the civilian chain of command. Before his first call, he apparently notified the then-secretary of defense of what he was going to do rather than ask permission. In the second instance, he acted unilaterally. This constituted a very dangerous precedent.
Then, there is the case of Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, who commands the Air Mobility Command (AMC), which replaced the Military Airlift Command. He recently sent out a memo to his entire command telling his people that he had a gut feeling that we will be at war with China within the next two years and urging them to be ready. There are a few disturbing things about this. First, AMC is the military equivalent of an airline. It delivers people and things to various military installations in war and peace. Combat readiness for a specific conflict is not its primary concern.
The general also advises his troops to fire their weapons regularly. I personally do not expect Chinese hordes to be trying to hijack AMC aircraft, but there is nothing wrong with asking military personnel to be proficient with their weapons. What did bother me was that the general emphasized taking headshots. This violates every precept of military marksmanship.
Most disturbing, however, is that the general was not just out of his lane strategically and tactically; he was driving cross country. Such statements should be coordinated with both the Departments of Defense and State when made by a four-star flag officer.
Finally, we come to the commandant of the Marine Corps, who has spent his time in office transforming the nation's worldwide combat force-in-readiness into a service specifically concentrated on a war with China in a given geographic area: the South China Sea. He did this based on some service-specific classified war games that have been contradicted by independent joint games. The commandant did this in a vacuum against the advice of nearly every former four-star Marine Corps general, most former commandants, and every living Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient.
China's military strategists must be scratching their heads. We have one senior American military leader assuring them that they need not fear attack and two others rushing headlong into preparations for war specifically directed at them. They could be forgiven for asking, "Can't any of those guys over there play this game?"
In the wake of World War I, French Premier Georges Clemenceau advised the French people that war is too important to be left to the generals. Unfortunately, no American politicians are asking if the same might not be said of peace.