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Politicians Play General, Generals Play Politics (Part 2)

06.13.2008 | POLITICS

Pitch Bathtub Admirals to prospective readers as if you were trying to interest an agent in representing you.

In the background we see the bizarro world version of historic events: the Cold War, the Tailhook scandal and so on. In some of the promo material I describe the book as a "satire of America's rise to global dominance," and at one level it illustrates how the military-centric U.S. policies led to the mess we're in now, although I cut the book off on the week before 9/11.

Hopefully I portrayed more or less universal personalities and situations. If I worked things right, people who were in the Navy at the time I was will think they know who most of the characters are really supposed to be and they will be wrong.

I worked on the book for quite a long time, and had hoped it would be thought of as the Catch-22 of its generation. It's mostly really funny and pretty sad in some parts, and a whole lot easier to read than Catch-22. If it sells enough copies, or gets picked up by television or the movies, I'll finish the sequel that I now call 2020. 2020 would be the 1984 of its generation.

But I won't have time to write it before the year 2020 if I don't make some money on Admirals because I'll have to take a full-time service job at 7-11 or Burger King to pay some bills. In all modesty, I think that would be a tragic waste of my talents, so I ask all your readers to please, please, please buy a copy of Bathtub Admirals at Amazon or at any other online or brick and mortar bookseller.

How's that for marketing? Pretty pathetic, huh?

No writer can be too proud to beg these days.

Hey, at least I haven't stooped to kissing Don Imus's wrinkled old behind yet. Granted, he hasn't asked me to, and kissing Don's keister doesn't do for you what it used to now that he's on podcast or wherever he went off to. So maybe he hasn't asked me to kiss his bottom yet because he's not such a big deal anymore and he's afraid I'll turn him down. You think?

The initial caps in Jack Hogan's name are the same as yours. Were The Great Big Backfire Raid and The Almost Great Big Train Wreck real incidents and did you play a role in them?

I've noticed over the years that a lot of people use my initials without my express written permission. There doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it. Jack Hogan was the name of the actor who played Private Kirby on the 60s television series Combat starring Vic Morrow as Sergeant Saunders and Rick Jason as Lieutenant Hanley. (Tadadadat, tadat! Tadadadat, dat, dat.) People who worked for me would likely tell you I was far more like Admiral Wild Bill Hitchcock (who I'd really like to play in the movie) than Jack Hogan.

The characters in my book give a lot of the major episodes in their lives names that sound like book or movie titles, which is their way of romanticizing their otherwise often dreary lives by pretending they're the stars in a movie like Top Gun. The Great Big Backfire Raid is a take off on Catch-22's Great Big Siege of Bologna.

The supposedly real incident I based it on allegedly happened shortly before my time. The Great Big Backfire Raid is also a spoof of the climax in Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising. Admirals itself is also, at one level, a lampoon of all military fiction since Homer.

The Great Big Almost Train Wreck and The Rocky Horror Recovery and The Off His Rocker Rendezvous are taken from incidents I personally witnessed and materially participated in, but incidents like them happen all the time. [All the time? To refresh your memory, The Great Big Almost Train Wreck involved the commander of the lead ship of a carrier group halting his boat without alerting the ships behind. -- Ed.]

Are spineless commanding officers like Generals David Petraeus, Tommy Franks, and Richard Myers inevitable in today's military? Is the best we can hope for an Admiral Fallon, who, after a brief moment of clarity, fades back into the woodwork? Does the military career track inevitably corrupt brass?

When I was studying for my master's degree in war we called "inevitable" the "I-word." Studying the history of human wars, it sometimes seems that one logically followed another, and that they were all inevitable. By extension, one can easily conclude that future wars are inevitable, and the Naval War College faculty discouraged that sort of thinking.

Officially, that is. Military academia actually depends on the very assumption that wars are inevitable, and it's that mindset that fuels cockamamie political movements like neoconservatism.

As to whether the pattern applies to the selection of our generals, I'm afraid it does. Petraeus's recent promotion to head of CENTCOM pretty much confirms that yes-men generals are the wave of the future. That Petraeus presided on the Army's latest brigadier (one-star) general board added even further to the momentum.

The signal has been transmitted to the rank and file of the officer corps, and there's no mistaking the message. Shinseki, Fallon: bad. Petraeus: good. I'm quite dismayed. Things have been moving in this direction for a long time, but I never dreamt they'd get this severe. God help the military if McCain is elected, it will get even worse.

I think it was back in a '98 Proceedings [the US Naval Institute magazine] piece when I joked that we'd evolved to a point where our politicians play general and our generals play politics. A decade later it's no joke any more.

How did you score a column on

It was easy, to rob an expression from Inspector Clouseau. All I had to do was enlist. Milcom's editor Ward Carroll and I were contemporaries. Ward was a Tomcat back-seater and no, before you ask, he's not Buzz Rucci from Bathtub Admirals. I never met Ward while we were on active duty.

Some years back, Ward, who had already published his successful debut novel Punk's War, heard I was working on a novel and called me out of the blue to encourage me to stay at it. Time passed. Ward had seen my blog and asked if I wanted to start submitting things for the Milcom editorial page. I said yes.

Things have worked out pretty well, I think. I still have to chuckle when I see my picture next to right wing yahooligans like Frank Gaffney and Ollie North, neither of whom I'd have a beer with if they were buying and I was broke.

Like yourself, as is apparent from military media like and Joint Force Quarterly, some officers differ with stated military and administration policy. When the likes of Bush and Cheney don't even seem to have read "Foreign Policy for Dummies," that would seem to encourage enlisted personnel, just like said officers, to question the motive for a war, as well as strategy, not to mention tactics. Once they've developed their own opinions, should they continue to follow orders with which they disagree?

Could I have an easier question, please? I honestly don't have a good answer. If enlisted personnel don't follow legal orders, the very fabric of military discipline unravels. It's a bit different in the officer ranks -- the officers' oath doesn't include that bit about obeying the commander in chief. But not that different. You work within the system as best you can, and at some point you decide you can live with it or you have to leave.

Across the top of your blog, Pen and Sword, is blazoned a quote by William Faulkner capable of stopping a web surfer dead in his or her tracks: "Men have been pacifists for every reason under the sun except to avoid danger and fighting." Can you expand on what it means to you?

War is at best a necessary evil. Unnecessary wars are merely evil. Opposing an unnecessary war is an act of bravery. Supporting an unnecessary war is the worst kind of cowardice.

Speaking of unnecessary wars, Bathtub Admirals shows how you became disillusioned with the military. You seem to have gone through the same process with the administration's policies. In fact, your admiration for left-leaning reporters like Gareth Porter and Larisa Alexandrovna, as well as cross-posting to Booman Tribune and Daily Kos, suggest you're sympathetic to progressives.

Often, though, military people who become disillusioned with our nation's foreign policies more often align themselves with libertarians. Is that how you would describe yourself and are you backing Bob Barr or Ron Paul in the presidential race?

Disillusionment is for people who are just start figuring out the truth about Santa Claus in their mid-thirties. If you haven't realized by age eight or nine that the adults are all screwed up, you're behind the power curve. Thanks probably to early life experiences and a youthful appreciation of satirists like Swift, Voltaire, and Twain, I've always known that just about everybody is full of it.

So no, I didn't become disillusioned with the military, I just decided I'd filled my joy quota with them and it was time for a different kind of fun.

As to my political leanings: I wrote recently that Lord Acton did not say, "Power tends to corrupt Republicans." There is no such thing as a centrist venue of ideas anymore, so if you're critical of the Bush administration and its woebegone wars, you're going to land in the progressive camp. The far right, as it has been throughout my lifetime, is a crowd of herding rodents, and not a very pleasant one.

No, I'm not "backing" Paul or Barr, and I'm not a Libertarian. Libertarians are Republicans who don't like having the GOP hit them up for money. Neal Boortz is a Libertarian, for heaven's sake. Shudder.

I'll vote for Obama most likely, but I don't expect him to be, as Gary Trudeau so aptly put it, the first black Jeffnedy. I'm sorry he caught so much flak over the things his pastor said, but like I always caution, that's the kind of thing that happens when you go to church.

I guess that Wright character was pretty extreme, but I don't see him as being any worse than say, Pat Robertson, or the Catholic Bishops who told their followers they'd go to hell if they voted for John Kerry. Wright's a buffoon. Robertson is dangerous. Catholic bishops need to keep their hands out where I can see them.

I'm perfectly comfortable with Barak getting that three AM phone call. I don't think any phone on earth could ring loud enough to wake up John McCain at that hour. Come to think of it, if McCain gets elected, the best thing he could do in any crisis is sleep through it.

In a New York Times article, "Look Who's Tough on Iran Now," on June 1, William Broad explains that the International Atomic Agency, which had heretofore viewed Iran's credibility on its nuclear program as a glass half full, now sees it as not just a glass half-empty, but one rapidly draining.

"In the annals of role reversal, the switch by the United Nations' atomic sleuths in Vienna and the American intelligence community has been striking. Having long taken a back seat to the Bush administration in publicly challenging Iran's nuclear program, the global inspectors last week moved into the driver's seat, demanding that Tehran come clean.

"Just how far did Tehran get toward designing a bomb before the program was halted? That question could transform the debate over what to do about Iran, particularly because it is being posed now by an international agency that retains high credibility overseas, something the Bush administration lost long ago."

There seem to be two camps: One, Iran is developing nuclear weapons and they must be stopped, period. Two, Iran ceased to develop nuclear weapons before it had a viable design. Is there a middle way between denying Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons and insisting, as the administration does, that Iran cease and desist even though we're not reciprocating with substantive disarmament on our part? (In the process, dishonoring the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.)

Yes, we've been leaning on the UN and the IAEA for a long time to conform to our narrative on Iran. I've always thought that was job one for John Bolton and I think it's the same deal with his successor Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad has better manners than Bolton, but never forget that he's a neocon thug too. Think of him as Bolton with a clean shave and fresh underwear and maybe not so much of a penchant for upscale gentlemen's clubs.

The Bush Iran policy is, I'm convinced, specifically designed to make sure diplomacy doesn't work. The UN non-proliferation treaty grants Iran an "inalienable right" to pursue nuclear technologies for peaceful energy purposes. We're telling them we won't even talk to them unless they give up that right. We've made them an offer they can't accept. [Editor's emphasis]

I can't tell you for sure that the Iranians don't have nuclear weapons ambitions, but they don't if they're as smart as I think they are. A fistful of nukes, if they had them, would be little more than a self-targeting doomsday machine. Most of their people live in about eight cities.

If they ever use a nuke on anyone else, the retaliation, either by us or by the Israelis, would be the virtual end of the Persian race. The American Christian right may be crazy enough to drive off a cliff like that, but I doubt the Iranians are. Persian civilization dates back to around 4000 BC, so those folks aren't prone to self-destruction.

The Soviets started building Iran's first nuclear reactor in September 2002 and the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranians says they suspended their nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. Whatever kind of nuclear weapons program they had, if they had one at all, had to be the kind a couple of Revolutionary Guard colonels drew on a bar napkin at the Fort Farsi Officer's Club.

The real jackpot of their nuclear program would be a viable nuclear energy industry. That would (will) give them the kind of international political leverage that a couple of bombs in their wallet never could. That would give Iran and its senior partners Russia and China a significant share of the control of the future of the global energy market, and Dick and Dubya's pals at Mobil/Exxon and in the Arab oil producing countries could go fish.

Finally, left to their own devices, progressives tend to be more energized by domestic than foreign policy. Is it true -- to indulge in a shameless generalization -- that progressives are weak on national security?

I don't buy the line about liberals or progressives or whatever we call Democrats these days being weak on security or defense or whatever we call war these days. The twentieth century was the era of Democrat wars, and the wartime commanders in chief were Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK and LBJ.

Of the GOPers, Ike gave us the military industrial complex before he condemned it on his way out the door and Nixon got in the White House by promising to end Vietnam but never quite did. Reagan's role in the Cold War is way, way overrated. I refer to that obliquely in Admirals. We'd really already beaten the Soviets, maybe as far back as the Cuban missile crisis. When Reagan came along, they were like the boiling frog that's still conscious but already three quarters cooked.

Reagan's high point as commander in chief was that circle entertainment [Thanks for the euphemism, Jeff. -- Ed.] in Beirut where he got a bunch of Marines whacked for no good reason. And young Mr. Bush kicked off the New American Century by becoming the first U.S. president to lose two wars, so please don't tell me the GOP is the "strong on defense" party. The warmonger party, yes. The military industrial complex party, yes. The keeping America safe party, no. The "support the troops" party, no.

The GOP does, however, have the neocon think tank network behind it, and those people, of course, want war at all costs. In fact, the more their wars cost, the better they like it: the better to bust up the New Deal with. And the think tank network is plugged into the Big Brother Broadcast: talk radio, FOX News, National Review, The Weekly Standard, etc.

The left has nothing like that at all, and as I said earlier, there is no center any more. You're with the crazies in the basement or you're against them. Unless you go along with buying two billion dollar stealth bombers to fight adolescent suicide bombers, you're weak on security.

Thanks, Jeff! We'll see you on the Passdown at or at Pen and Sword.

Part 1

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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