America has always had a love affair with its generals. It started at the founding of the republic with George Washington and continued with (among others) Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. These military men shared something in common: They were winning generals. Washington in the Revolution; Jackson in the War of 1812; Taylor in the Mexican-American War; Grant in the Civil War; and Ike, of course, in World War II. Americans have always loved a hero in uniform—when he wins.
Yet 21st-century America is witnessing a new and revolutionary moment: the elevation of losing generals to the highest offices in the land. Retired Marine Corps general James “Mad Dog” Mattis, known as a tough-talking “warrior-monk,” will soon be the nation’s secretary of defense. He’ll be joined by a real mad dog, retired Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn as President-elect Donald Trump’s national-security adviser. Leading the Department of Homeland Security will be recently retired general John Kelly, another no-nonsense Marine. And even though he wasn’t selected, retired Army general David Petraeus was seriously considered for secretary of state, further proof of Trump’s starry-eyed fascination with the brass of our losing wars. Generals who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan to anything but victory—pyrrhic ones don’t count—are again being empowered. This time, it’s as “civilian” advisers to Trump, a business tycoon whose military knowledge begins and ends with his invocation of two World War II generals, George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, as his all-time favorite military leaders.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider those choices. Patton was a skilled commander of armored forces at the divisional and corps level, but lacked the political acumen and temperament to succeed at higher levels of command during World War II. MacArthur, notoriously vainglorious and—does this ring a bell?—completely narcissistic, was fired by President Harry Truman for insubordination during the Korean War. And yet these are the generals Trump professes to admire most. Not Omar Bradley, known as the GI’s general; not Dwight Eisenhower, the man who led the D-Day invasion in 1944; and not, most of all, George C. Marshall, a giant of a man and the architect of military victory in World War II, who did indeed make a remarkably smooth transition to civilian service both as secretary of state and defense after the war.