(Photo: The U.S. Army / Flickr)It is remarkable what a sex scandal can do in Washington. This one is especially juicy because it concerns a retired military general who had obtained almost god-like status in military, media and national security circles. Gen. David Petraeus is still getting quite a pass in the press because of his self-promoted "stellar" reputation. I have dealt with generals for years, and I can tell you that Petraeus isn’t the one that we should be worried about – it is the generals who buy our weapons and, for years and years, help perpetuate a permanent war economy, who should concern us.
This current general corps has a deep grip on the US Treasury and has often been instrumental in buying weapons that don’t work well in combat and then allowing their fellow travelers in perpetual spending, the defense companies, to fix their own mistakes for even more profit. Yet these generals labor is relative obscurity except in the eyes of people who follow the mind-numbing world of weapons procurement, those who have endured anesthetizing hearings where generals openly tell mistruths about weapons to members of Congress, who just nod their head in approval rather than risk questioning a general with stars blazing on his shoulders and a flotilla of staff lined up next to him.
These generals makes sure that they ticket-punch their way though the system, never taking large risks on behalf of the troops who have to use their equipment, hiding the mistakes and overruns until the next guy can take over, making sure that that they please the right members of Congress during pleasant but obfuscating trips to see the weapons that don’t work. Most importantly, they make warm and fuzzy alliances with the defense companies for the all important post-retirement jobs on the companies’ boards of directors, or set up their own consulting firms to milk out high consulting retainers from all the contractors, not just a few. The whole military procurement system is set up to benefit:
- The defense companies, who get passes on their big mistakes and huge overruns.
- The generals and their upper officer corps, who will retire on to pleasant and lucrative jobs to supplement their measly officer retirement, which reaches as high as $230,000 a year for a four-star general.
- Members of Congress who can parlay big defense jobs to their districts while ironically boasting about the flawed weapons being made in their state.
So, what about the troops and the taxpayers who get screwed with ill-conceived weapons that continue to suck out the majority of the discretionary part of the federal budget?
Every once in a while, the taxpayers get a hint of this shellacking when a story about expenses such as a $435 hammer or a $7,600 coffee brewer slips through the tightly controlled news image of the Pentagon. There is some outrage; sometimes it is big enough to help cause the politicians to agree to a defense budget freeze, such as in the middle of the Reagan defense buildup in the 1980s. And sometimes, like now, the chinks in the supposedly infallible armor of the top generals reveal the closed and comfy world they live in, funded by our weapons procurement system while our troops went without basics like boots and even food after the Iraq War battles.
As I have written in this column before, this system also greatly affects something that is much more important than weapons; it causes a cynicism and despair among the lower ranks of officers who really would like their work for the service they love to have meaning, and they see what they have to do to advance and join this special world of the upper officer corps. Most of the true warriors and military reformers will tell you that if you want to make your military work in battle, the emphasis needs to be "people first," and that doesn’t mean your top officers; it means the people who actually have to fight the battles.
I have a lot of stories about this problem from my travels in Pentagonland over the years, but two struck me the most with regard to how this system crushes innovation and initiative while promoting the worship of upper officers. I have been privileged to work with some of the most inspiring enlisted men and officers when I was researching my book on Iraq and Afghanistan war private contractors. I remember interviewing one of them, who will remain nameless because I still have hope that he will somehow make general some day. I told him, after he had returned from the invasion of Iraq, about how we were finding troops out in the desert in Iraq who were rationing food and water and didn’t even know for several months that President Bush had declared, "Mission accomplished."
I found that this was happening because the logistics contractor for that war, KBR, had decided that it was too risky and complicated to get trucks out past the safe base to these far-flung troops, and that was one of the problems of putting your logistics on a private company in a war zone – they are civilians who can just say no. We also talked about how the colonels and generals responsible for these troops were sitting at this main base, literally made from one of Saddam’s palaces, with marble swimming pools. They were being served desserts prepared by a pastry chef and soft ice cream from KBR, making sure that the upper officer corps could say that, as far as they knew, the troops were getting great treatment from this contractor.
My young officer didn’t debate or question what we were finding because he found some of the same problems during the Iraq invasion, but he turned bright red, and the usually intense but polite officer hissed through his teeth in fury that he knew of this general officer corps and their failures toward their men in the field. He then firmly claimed that it was a group that he never wanted to join; he had utter contempt for their behavior. This made me despondent for the future of our officer corps because I knew that this brilliant young officer was just the type that should make general but probably won’t, because he won’t play that game.
Years earlier, I was asked to come to Alabama and give a speech in front of 400 officers who were in training at the Air Force military procurement school. I was to debate a two-star general about procurement. This was in the 1980s at the height of the spare parts scandals that I helped to expose, and I had recently had a young airman and a lower Air Force officer testify to Congress about their finding outrageously overpriced spare parts, including the now infamous $7,600 coffee brewer on the C-5 cargo plane. Even though my young airman was supposed to be protected by the Congress, I was concerned about his career when he insisted that he did not want to be in the shadows, but instead, wanted to take the risk of testifying while still in the service because he believed in the system.
We worked on getting the public and the Congress to understand that these overpriced spares showed a systematic overpricing in general, and members of the public, who can’t decide what a C-5 and other weapons should cost, got a glimpse into the extent of overpricing via items they could identify with. As my mentor Ernest Fitzgerald said at the time, these spare parts were priced like the rest of the parts of the plane and the public should see that these overpriced parts were actually the whole aircraft, "just flying in close formation." The public was exceptionally angry over these spare-parts horror stories.
When the debate started at this Air Force school, I realized that I was a young female debating a general in his territory, so I kept it polite and procurement wonky. I could sense that the group of these officers in the auditorium was curious to what "the enemy" was saying. At one point, the general, who was very puffed up about himself, went into an explanation of a phony Air Force plan to solve the spares problem. I used documents to dispassionately take apart the plan and show it to be classic Department of Defense (DoD) damage control.
He grew furious at my questioning his program, but instead of attacking me, he began to attack the young airman. He named him and where he was working and then said that he checked on this young airman who was "hiding behind Dina Rasor’s and Barbara Boxer’s skirts." (Boxer, a California Democrat and now a senator, was a House representative at the time.) He said that the young airman was lazy and, now, pampered, so that he didn’t have to take the tough morning shifts because he didn’t like to be in the cold. The general claimed the airman went to Congress because he could not cut it in the Air Force system.
None of this was true, and I really could not believe that this general was denigrating an airman in front of 400 officers who might someday be his boss. I chided the general for picking on an airman in this safe audience, and furthermore, when he was not present to defend himself. I told the general he did not show any discretion or principle by trashing a young man to these officers to avoid answering to his failed procurement system.
I didn’t expect anyone to applaud, but I was struck by the giant sucking sound that arose as the whole room inhaled. I could tell that many, if not most, of these officers never heard someone answer a general in that way unless he outranked him. We finished the debate somewhat cordially, but the general was so mad that I thought steam would come out of his head, or that perhaps his head would explode. He quickly stomped off the stage.
Most of the officers purposely avoided me after the event, but two of them marched up to me before I could even leave the stage and began to verbally berate me that I could not address a general in this manner. It was somewhat amusing but also maddening, so I pointed to my shoulders and said: "I am a civilian. He works for me, and I have the equivalent of five starts on my shoulders." They were angry, but we discussed the civilian world, mostly on bad terms, and they left. But when I got to the parking lot in the dark to get into my rental car, three of these officers had waited for me to surreptitiously tell me that I did the right thing. They told me that they didn’t have respect for many of their upper officers, especially in the area of procurement, and that I went a long way to teach the group about command and respect for the troops that you lead. I remember thinking what a risk these officers did in even speaking to me, and I now wish I had gotten their names because I bet that most, if not all of them, never became generals.
I have written dozens of columns about the failures of our weapons procurement system and our ever-burgeoning defense budget. I have also written about the corrupting influence of that money to our real warfighting efforts. And I have written several columns exclusively focused on the general officer corps and their disgraceful post-retirement enrichment (much of it has been complied into a Truthout Reader e-book.) I have offered several suggestions for change, some small steps, some bold steps that normally would not resonate in a climate that worships generals and believes that is the same as supporting our troops.
But General Petraeus with his wandering eye and this story of scandal that reads like a military version of the television show "Dallas" may have made a big enough chink in the generals’ armor with the public and Congress. So, I will suggest it again in hopes that we realize that generals should not take their rank, retirement pay and reputation outside the military to civilian government jobs or defense contractors jobs unless they actually resign from their service, which would require them to give up the rank and pay. Instead, these officers usually just go to retired status, get retirement pay and, unknown to the public, are not actually considered out of the military and can be called back into service.
President Obama had the distinction of firing several generals during wartime, a feat that has not been done since President Truman. Maybe the president and his administration are tired of the general officer corps trying to manipulate strategy with public leaks to denigrate the president’s decision-making, but Obama also may also tire of this same general officer corps leaking to the media to protect their weapons money and the ever-rising defense budget. Their leaks are mainly done by their "retired" generals doing pundit media work predicting the apocalypse if any DoD budget is cut. They are exceptionally shrill about the sequestration numbers despite charts that show we are still at Vietnam-level war footing or higher.
So, I once again put out a tough solution, but based on my experience, nothing will change in the general officer corps or make them realize that you are serious. If you let them work for defense contractors when they leave the military, they have to give up their keys to the general club, their vaunted titles and their very generous taxpayer-funded pensions. It is the solution I put forth in a previous column:
My reform solution for the general officer corps requires them to make a choice. If they want to go work for or invest money in a defense contractor, they must give up their title of general and lose their military retirement pay and perks. If they think it is unfair because they earned the retirement and the military rank, they can keep to a higher calling and work in some other civilian industry, as many generals did after World War II. (See my January article on the corruption of the general officer corps.) If the generals still want to work on military issues and strategy, they can go work for one of the myriad of nonprofit organizations that look at military issues or oversight, as long as they strictly stay away from any lobbying efforts with the DoD or the Congress. They also cannot go work for a nonprofit organization that accepts contributions from defense contractors unless they give up their rank and pensions. They should also not be allowed to fill a civilian political office in the DoD because of the necessary authority of civilian rule and they are still considered military. These rules would not be subject to any type of executive or Congressional waivers.
If the generals realize what they would have to forfeit to go work for a defense contractor, they may decide to stick to the higher calling and drive the contractors to deliver what is best for the troops, not for their retirement.
I now believe that these generals also could be used for civilian jobs, but only with exceptional cases, and the same solution of losing their right to be called a general and the salary. General Petraeus was collecting his $230,000 pension and getting around $180,000 for being CIA director while he was foolishly charming a younger woman doing his biography. Reforming the system with hard choices may at least start to change the motives of our general officer corps by changing their access to the incentives of titles and money.