In the years and months since the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, public respect for our armed forces has been plummeting toward levels not seen since the end of the American war in Vietnam.
This new wave of skepticism is coming not just from the left, which has long been leery of the military, but also from the right. In a recent Gallup poll, public confidence in the military was still relatively high at 60 percent — much more than any other major public institution — but had declined sharply, especially among Republicans.
Conservatives are expressing concern about more than the collapse of U.S. nation-building efforts in the Middle East. Earlier this summer, the Republican senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama denounced the Pentagon’s leaders as too “woke.” He is now holding up the promotion of hundreds of senior officers, which has left the Marine Corps without a commandant for the first time in 164 years, the Army without a chief and, as of this month, kept Adm. Lisa Franchetti from assuming the top position in the Navy. She would be the first woman in the Navy’s two-and-a-half-century existence to hold the post.
Tuberville and his ilk apparently believe that abortion access and drag shows at military bases have been a corrupting force on our servicemen and women, so it might be helpful to look back at some actual moments of moral and strategic failing in the ranks of the American armed forces to get a sense of perspective. GENERALS AND ADMIRALS, CRIMINALS AND CROOKS: Dishonorable Leadership in the U.S. Military (University of Notre Dame, 399 pp., $38) is subtler than its title indicates. It is actually a thoughtful study of the ways in which power corrupts.
The author, Jeffery J. Matthews, a historian at the University of Puget Sound, depicts recent U.S. Navy leadership as especially bad. In Matthews’s telling, the modern Navy has had three major scandals that involved admirals. He reminds us that in the 1980s, Vice Adm. John Poindexter was in the middle of the Reagan administration’s benighted scheme to facilitate the illicit sale of high-tech weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages held in Lebanon and illegally use the profits to fund an anti-communist insurgency in Nicaragua.
The Navy’s next two episodes were even worse, Matthews suggests, because they involved entire subcultures within the service and showed that, when cleaning house, the Navy deployed investigators not to probe the actions of its top people but to protect them from outside scrutiny. In 1991, there were widespread complaints of sexual abuse at the “Tailhook” convention of naval aviators in Las Vegas. Navy investigators let leadership off the hook. Unsurprisingly, the inquiries were found to be “purposefully inadequate,” Matthews writes, after public pressure forced the Pentagon to look again.
It turns out that the Navy chose not to question any of the more than 30 admirals and Marine Corps generals who had attended the alcohol-soaked gathering. In addition, the Pentagon found that the rear admiral in charge of the Naval Investigative Service didn’t pursue the inquiry seriously, because he did not believe that women should be in the military.
Amazingly, the Navy comes off even worse in Matthews’s account of the “Fat Leonard” scandal. Between 2006 and 2013, dozens of senior naval officers accepted bribes from a Malaysian defense contractor in exchange for overlooking his inflated invoices. Matthews portrays the Navy’s Pacific Fleet as a RICO-ish criminal enterprise.
Leonard Glenn Francis, the contractor for whom the affair is named, even penetrated the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a connection that helped him quash inquiries into his activities. One party he threw in Manila for American Pacific Fleet officers featured a “rotating carousel of prostitutes.”
Ultimately, the bribery scheme cost American taxpayers at least $35 million. Legal cases are still pending, but so far more than 30 Navy officials and contractors have been convicted or pleaded guilty, including one admiral who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for committing federal crimes while on active duty, which is another naval first.
One of the lessons Matthews draws is that the American military tends not to investigate senior officers as vigorously as it does junior ones. Another is that Congress has to get involved to remedy that tendency. The Navy did not take Tailhook seriously until the Senate Armed Services Committee put all its officer promotions on hold.
Of all the top leaders in American history, probably no one got away with breaking rules and disregarding orders as much as Douglas MacArthur. The consensus on him among historians has been that he was indeed insubordinate, but that to survive as a general long enough to defy three presidents — Hoover, F.D.R. and Truman — he had to be pretty effective as a commander.
Not so, James Ellman argues in MACARTHUR RECONSIDERED: General Douglas MacArthur as a Wartime Commander (Stackpole, 277 pp., $29.95). Reviewing MacArthur’s performances in World War II and the Korean War, he concludes that the general was a mediocre commander who lacked interest in details, packed his staff with incompetent bootlickers and often lied in trying to justify his actions.
And, of course, he was quite insubordinate, with an alarming tendency to ignore orders and contradict stated policies. In a charge I hadn’t seen before, Ellman alleges that, while Truman sought détente in the Korean War early in 1951, MacArthur took it upon himself to aggravate relations with China and thus extended the war by two years, a period during which more than 13,000 American soldiers died. Truman fired MacArthur shortly thereafter.
By contrast, Lt. Gen. William Simpson, a more capable Army general of World War II, is hardly known today. So it is good to see the veteran armor officer William Stuart Nance’s COMMANDING PROFESSIONALISM: Simpson, Moore, and the Ninth U.S. Army (University Press of Kentucky, 196 pp., paperback, $30) cast an appreciative light on his style of leadership, which was best displayed during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45.
The lanky Texan commanded a force of 341,000 men and got along with everyone, including Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a man who was arguably the British version of MacArthur and who, Nance writes, “might well have given Patton an aneurysm.” Simpson, low-key and quiet, kept his cool.
To be honest, the resulting look at Simpson’s approach to command style is a bit dull and repetitive. But that may be the point: In war, slow and steady tends to beat fast and flashy. In any case, they’re both better than incompetent, amoral and corrupt.