Politicians Play General, Generals Play Politics (Part 1)

06.09.2008 | POLITICS

"I think it was back in a '98 Proceedings [the US Naval Institute magazine] piece where 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." -- Jeff Huber
Those who belittle Scott McClellan for being a day late and a dollar short are missing the point. However faint his whistle, that he blew it at all showed significant growth on the part of a man trained as a parrot. The contortions that coming to terms with the truth must have put McClellan through no doubt built up the torque required to throw his shackles.

The obedience and duty that characterize life in the White House parallel, of course, life in the military, especially for commanding officers. Before the US invaded Iraq, General Eric Shinseki, Army Chief of Staff at the time, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that an occupying force several hundred thousand larger than planned would be needed to stabilize postwar Iraq. While, as is commonly believed, it didn't result in his firing by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, it certainly turned him into a persona non grata on a par with McClellan.

But, also like McClellan, it's more common for military men to speak out after they've retired. Most recently, General Ricardo Sanchez, who was commander of coalition forces in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004 -- the Abu Ghraib glory years -- said, Iraq was a "nightmare with no end in sight" thanks to "incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders."

What's so incompetent about the pep talk related by Sanchez in his book, "Wiser in Battle," that Bush gave his advisors? "Stay the course!" Bush exhorted. "Kill them! Be confident! Prevail!"

But, unlike McClellan, whose book reached the top of the bestseller lists, speaking out can lead to a dead end for a military commander. That's not only true for those still on active duty, but for those retired to whom such an act can put a chill on their prospects for work in the defense industry.

Especially if they make a "career" of it -- like former naval commander Jeff Huber, whose columns criticizing the military and the administration's foreign policy actually run on Military.com's op-ed page, the Passdown. (As well as on his blog, Pen and Sword.)

While in the Navy, Huber was operations officer of Carrier Air Wing Eight and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), and commanding officer of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 124. In his columns, not only doesn't he pussyfoot around, he's great fun to read. For example, in a recent column about McClellan himself, "Y I H+8 Scott McClellan" (get the IM speak?), he writes that despite McClellan's complicitness with the administration's crimes, we should hold our scorn.

Otherwise, we risk distracting ourselves from "the real issue we need to wrap our arms around. Most of the neocons won't go to hell: not because they can think-tank their way past Saint Peter, but because they won't die. They'll just fade into the background until the sun goes down again, and believe you me, when the bad moon rises, they'll be back."

Another, "Losing Vietnam All Over Again," affords us an example of his outlook on our presence in Iraq: "The most delusional meme of post-modern U.S. military culture is that America lost the Vietnam War on the home front. [But] America lost Vietnam half a world away. . . in Southeast Asia, where it fought what has become the template for superpower entanglement in third world wars.

"Yet many of Operation Iraqi Freedom's most avid backers believe. . . that America's military can somehow achieve the 'victory' in Iraq that eluded it in Vietnam if only the public gives it enough opportunity. [They've] asked us for a seemingly endless string of. . . chances to get it right this time, until they sound like sulky children at bedtime who just want 'five more minutes, Mom.'"

Nor does the havoc we're wreaking in Somalia escape his attention. Recently a New York Times article reported that in the course of killing al Qaeda leader Aden Hashi Ayro, "at least four Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from a Navy ship or submarine off the Somali coast had slammed into a small compound of single-story buildings in Dusa Marreb." Likely over a dozen others, including civilians died.

In "Springtime in Somalia," Huber writes: "The NYT's source for that information was an 'American military official in Washington, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation.' Notice how operations these days are 'sensitive' as opposed to 'classified' or 'secret.' One has to wonder how they arrived at a word like 'sensitive' to describe things like cruise missile attacks that kill people. Then again, so many of these missile strikes kill people other than the people they were intended to kill that yeah, I guess American military officials in Washington might get sensitive about that aspect."

Speaking of anonymity, Huber is as rigorous about sources as an old-time newspaper editor carrying the torch for journalistic integrity. For example Asia Times Online recently posted an article by Muhammad Cohen claiming sources told him Bush would strike Iran in August.

In "Another False Iran Alarm," Huber responds: "The 'source,' according to Cohen, is 'a retired U.S. career diplomat and former assistant secretary of state still active in the foreign affairs community, speaking anonymously.' What seems to make the source so reliable, in Cohen's estimation, is that he or she is 'echoing other reports that have surfaced in the media in the United States recently.' . . . That's the new journalistic litmus test for veracity all right, but Cohen's the first writer I've heard come right out and admit it."

Written in the same trenchant tone as his column at Military.com, military analyst Jeff Huber's first novel, Bathtub Admirals, has just been published by Kunati. Publishers Weekly calls it a "profane parody."

When we meet protagonist Jack Hogan, he's been appointed assistant navigator to a aircraft carrier, the USS Constellation. He already made his reputation -- as a world-class tactician in "The Great Big Backfire Raid." The American carrier group in the Pacific with which he was serving caught wind that the head admiral of the Soviet navy ordered its Backfire bombers out on a practice run against the group.

Tasked, along with other junior officers, to create a response, Hogan's plan was chosen. It called for using an attack submarine, hundreds of miles ahead of the carrier battle group, to broadcast radar and radio signals simulating the activities of the group.

Goaded to target the sub instead of the carrier group, the Backfires were met by a massive launch of American naval planes that, if necessary, could shoot air-to-air missiles at the Backfires who backed off. Hogan's scheme proved a single carrier wing could wipe out Russia's entire Pacific Naval Air Force as soon as it ventured from Soviet airspace.

He enhances his reputation while assistant navigator on the "Connie" during an exercise in the Aleutians. Admiral Bull Palsy, in command of the ship leading the formation, decides to do a "bottom blow" of one of his boilers without informing the ships behind him and stops his dead in the water. We'll leave the details for the reader to discover on his or her own how Hogan prevents "The Almost Great Big Train Wreck."

You can be forgiven for wondering why you should read a military spoof that's set during peacetime instead of the Afghanistan or Iraq war. In fact, it reveals patterns of behavior that have been festering in the military for decades, but have now hardened. Such as rewarding officers who either place their ambition above their commands or, incompetent, rely on others to pull them out of fixes while they keep their focus on advancing their careers.

This is seconded in a passage from Laila al-Arian and Chris Hedges's new book, "Collateral Damage," as excerpted at Tom Dispatch: "The senior officers, protected in heavily fortified compounds, rarely experienced combat. They sent their troops on futile missions in the quest to be awarded Combat Infantry Badges. This recognition, [conscientious objector Sgt. Camilo] Mejía noted, 'was essential to their further progress up the officer ranks.'" Bathtub Admirals is filled with self-serving characters that we identify with ease, like Admiral Fix Felon and Senator Ex-Prisoner-of-War, and those we can't, like Senator Tailhook (Kay Bailey Hutchison?).

Not only does Huber have a sure ear for military-speak, he takes great pains to explain it terminology, such as how the counterintuitive deck system on a naval ship work. Meanwhile, the wit on display in his columns is allowed to run riot in his book.

For example, "If we can't have a real war, we need to play war, so the sandbox generals and bathtub admirals can fight among themselves over who get to control the toy soldiers and ships and airplanes." In response to a naval tactic, a character responds, "How very Sun Tzu."

Bathtub Admirals also ventures into the realm of Catch 22's logical irrationality. A captain and his aide are discussing Admiral Wild Bill Hitchcock's demand for a red phone directly connected to the president of the United States.

The captain: "One might reasonably assume that a red phone would be red, but it might not be. After all, 'red phone,' that's really just a euphemism, isn't it? Meant to describe the function of the phone, something one uses in emergencies, not necessarily the actual color of the phone. . . . Suppose their red phones only come in green or black or what."

Aide: "Maybe you could explain that to Admiral Hitchcock, sir."

The captain, after making a "low frequency, feral-sounding survival noise": "I'm not entirely certain Admiral Hitchock would understand."

In part 2, we engage Military.com columnist Jeff Huber in a wide-ranging discussion that begins with his new novel, Bathtub Admirals.

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