As my sensibilities have evolved, I have come to a newfound respect for life. I go out of my way to protect any of the creatures I encounter on the farm. I constantly preach to leave the snakes alone due to that human tendency to want to eradicate them all.
My pets have been the springboard of this new sensibility. Our daily ritual consists of a four-mile walk with all of our dogs and even some neighbor dogs. This motley group of animals ranges from Heinz 57 mutts to pedigreed German shepherds. They literally wait on me the entire day just to go on this one-hour walk.
After starting this ritual, it became apparent that I had one problem: The dogs do what dogs do. They chase anything that runs. For the most part, the squirrels, rabbits and deer have no difficulty escaping the pack. The bemused cattle waddle off or stare blankly at the yelping dogs. Initially, I tried to control their behavior, but gave up, as it was too much effort. They rarely caught much. Besides, these animals exude such joy when they get to run about on the ranch, and that makes me smile.
But not all creatures are equipped with the speed of a deer, the furry cuteness and quickness of a squirrel, or the personality of a dog. The armadillo lacks all these attributes.
With its limitation comes a bony exterior that most predators wisely avoid; however, that does not apply to German shepherds, and that is the rub. A German shepherd can catch and dispatch an armadillo, which my two German shepherds have often done.
At first I tried to fight their instincts. That effort became more focused when I saw the damage done to the dogs’ teeth, mainly their canines, and priced what it would cost to have those teeth fixed: $3,000 to $4,000 per tooth. After a while, the damage to the teeth had been done, and they seemed so proud of themselves as they carried their bloody catch back to the front porch. Once again I was defeated by my dogs’ behavior. Of course, I rooted for the armadillo, but instinct told the armadillo to flee. It was its nature.
Moral and constitutional authority
This finally brings us to the military generals. I instinctively like people in the military. They are the protectors of our country and our freedoms. They often put themselves in harm’s way. They have special knowledge that their training, education and experience provides, that most of us don’t have. Plus, they are polite, in control, patriotic and often possess a gentility not often present in contemporary society.
But these attributes don’t give them special wisdom over when, why or with whom our country should fight. Civilian control, of the war-making decisions, was wisely established in our Constitution. The military is an instrumentality to be used by our country consistent with the role of Congress to declare and fund wars and the president to execute those wars. We are the masters and they are the frothing, barking dogs pulling at the chain to attack. Only we have the moral and constitutional authority to make the call when to release the dogs of war. It is wise to seek their counsel, but their view of the world must be tempered because it has limitations.
Proof of this limitation is found in the comments of retired U.S. Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales:
The only way the United States can have any effect in this region and turn the tide is to start killing Russians … killing so many Russians that even Putin’s media can’t hide the fact that Russians are returning to the motherland in body bags. But, given the [small] amount of support we’ve given to the Ukrainians, given the ability of the Ukrainians themselves to counter-attack against these, what? 12,000 Russians camped in their country … sadly that’s not likely to happen.
The general’s comments completely neglect any sense of the complexities of the Ukrainian challenge. My point is not to argue the merits of our role in that conflict, although I find much of the rationale dubious. What the general shows is a complete lack of understanding of where this conflict is occurring. It is not in Berlin, or Vietnam, or Cuba. This conflict is in the middle of what was once the Soviet Union. Ukraine is an independent country that has a large number of Russians and has deep practical and historical ties to the Ukrainians. This conflict is being played out next to the new real border of Russia.
Russia has deep psychological scars from the Second World War, when it lost 27 million people, soldiers and civilians. The U.S. by comparison lost 400,000 soldiers. The Russians have real security interests in a conflict on their own border. They have a living memory of being invaded. The General seems unable to comprehend the Russian sensitivity to a conflict played out on their front porch.
Gen. Scales may be completely unrepresentative of the military brass, but I doubt it. Generals see threats everywhere. They become inherently steeped in the assumptions of their times. Past adversaries become new adversaries even when the wars are won. All conflicts are viewed through the prisms of World War II and the Cold War. A Hitler or a Stalin rules every country. When faced with such madmen, every option must be considered in the grab bag of tactics and strategy. No weapon system is too expensive, unneeded or obsolete. More importantly, a general can’t see the humanity of the group he opposes. They must necessarily be dehumanized. He objectifies the enemy because it makes it easier to deal with the carnage of war.
‘Wars require warriors, not poets’
Generals are not built to constantly second guess the morality of the overall mission, nor would you want them to be excessively sensitive. Wars require warriors, not poets. This, of course, does not waive their obligation to conduct their troops honorably on the battlefield. But a general cannot go around constantly wringing his hands about whether his country has committed him to a just cause. He fights because he is told to fight. Imagining an unjustifiable war is not in a general’s mentality. He can never accept that his side could actually be wrong-headed or duplicitous.
As Gen. Scales demonstrates, generals can also be unnecessarily bombastic when dealing with geopolitical tensions. Calmly talking about human beings being killed and sent back in body bags is callous and seems unnecessarily provocative. As Gen. Scales found out, it wasn’t received well in Russia. He was unaware that his interview would be broadcast in Russia. But we really can’t fault the General, because just as the dogs chase the armadillo, and the armadillo flees — it is his nature.
So, what can we really learn from the limits of generals? It certainly isn’t that we don’t need them. A general’s lack of historical context or pervasive single mindedness doesn’t suggest there is an advantage in being vulnerable, even if we have caused or contributed to a conflict. We want our children to be safe and our country to be protected. The right of true self-defense doesn’t have to be abandoned. Generals are our SOBs, and we need them.
What Gen. Scales really demonstrates is that the military is a blunt object, often led by blunt men, doing a nasty business.
As Jack Nicholson’s character Nathan Jessup said in the movie A Few Good Men:
You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? … Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives … You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.
As powerful as Nathan Jessup’s words may resonate, we do have a right to question the manner in which that freedom is provided, as our Constitution guarantees that right. The ability to question the morality of a war is what separates our democracy from tyranny. The military’s very presence is an invitation to be used. If a scalpel is needed to fix a problem, the Generals are always ready to use a hammer. It is their nature.
We need generals to fight wars and speak bluntly. We need them on those walls. But while a general’s nature may be necessary, it is not imbued with any more wisdom or clarity when it comes to picking a worthy and moral mission. That is our mission and our responsibility.