America’s first black presumptive secretary of defense grew up in the same town – Thomasville, GA – as the first black West Point graduate, Henry O. Flipper. I actually took select cadets from my civil rights history class to visit the southwest Georgia city on an academic trip in the summer of 2016. In fact, I vaguely remember the owner and namesake of the local Jack Hadley Black History Museum mentioning that President-elect Biden’s somewhat surprising nominee for Pentagon chief, retired General Lloyd Austin, also hailed from Thomasville. But whereas Flipper was unfairly cashiered out of the U.S. Army in the 1880s – his name finally cleared by Bill Clinton’s 1999 pardon – his fellow West Pointer, Austin, rose to nearly the highest of military heights.
I never met the guy, nor did I serve directly under him on any combat deployments. However, on the publicly available merits, he seems a decidedly successful soldier, with a solid record, and strong enough leadership reputation. Austin’s an apparently brave officer too, having been awarded the Silver Star as the assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division during the 2003 Iraq invasion – though, like nearly all general officers’ valor citations, his is remarkably vague compared to the strict detailed standards required for more junior soldiers (trust me, I’ve painfully written – and rewritten – a few).
He was also known to be far less of a self-promoter than many of his more overt peers – especially in that era of Petraeus PR-generalship. Austin’s been described as a “quiet general” who mostly avoided the limelight, think tank panels, and championing himself on social media. All of which is, on some levels, refreshing.
Still, whilst fully aware of how insufferable and exhausting one can appear when seemingly opposing everyone – Gen. Austin still needs some serious critique and probably shouldn’t be the next US secretary of defense. I can think of three reasons, for starters: safeguarding civilian control of the military, rejecting “revolving door” corruption, and the necessity of expanding beyond the rather circumscribed “choices” presented to the citizenry.
Farewell Civilian Control
On that first not-so-minor point, here we are again with America’s recent waiver-as-a-way-of-life governance pattern. Why even have ethics and interest-conflict laws when Washington brushes them aside as a matter of course? Austin has not been out of the military for the required seven years and would thus need a waiver from Congress to serve as secretary of defense. If he gets it – and no doubt he will – that would make this the second Pentagon chief in just four years to do so, after President Donald Trump appointed General Jim Mattis to the same position.
Which puts me in the awkward position of agreeing with defense insider Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University professor and former Pentagon official. In a recent tweet, Brooks correctly – if for rather too Trump-specific reasons – noted that, “From a civil-military relations perspective, this seems like a terrible idea. Lots of damage during the Trump era. Especially after [Generals] Mattis, Kelly, McMaster, Flynn…. putting a recently retired 4 star, no matter how wonderful, into the top civilian DoD position sends the worst possible message.”
The question is whether Austin’s nomination will face any real pushback on Capitol Hill, particularly from Biden’s own party and his former senate colleagues. Count me less than bullish on the prospect. The first test of that theory, and any lingering principles consistency in the whole town, may pivot on where Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed – himself a West Point graduate and top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee – comes down on the matter.
Recall that Reed was less enthusiastic in approving “Mad Dog” Mattis as Pentagon top dog, promising that this (really!) would be the last time. In 2017, Reed was crystal clear about his concerns, stating “Waiving the [waiver] law should happen no more than once in a generation. Therefore I will not support a waiver for future nominees. It is up to this committee to ensure that the principle of civilian control of the armed forces … remains a defining tenet of our democracy.” Look, I’d love to be pleasantly surprised, but something tells me Jack is really regretting his principled public stand right about now.
Putting the ‘Military’ and ‘Industrial’ in Military-Industrial Complex
The real trouble, as with the entire Biden bunch, is what Gen. Austin did after leaving government. And it’s pretty grotesque. In addition to opening his own strategic consulting firm, within months of retirement Austin joined the board of Raytheon Technologies, a top-tier defense contractor. He also sits on the boards of Nucor (the largest steel producer in the US), Tenet Healthcare, and the Carnegie Corporation. The Endowment for International Peace think tank that’s generously backed by Carnegie receives additional funding from ten separate war-related government and corporate contractor agencies – including United Technologies, which, wouldn’t you know, merged with Raytheon seven months ago.
Remember when Donald Trump took so much flak – rightfully – for appointing a veritable Raytheon lobbyist plant, Mark Esper, to run the Pentagon? Think most of those same critics will raise so much as a peep about Raytheon’s more racially-diverse Esper facsimile fronting the imperial legions? After all, Esper may have been a founding member of Trump’s “West Point Mafia,” but he left the military many years before, and ranks below, Gen. Austin. In that sense, whatever their political instincts – and my money Austin’s are slightly more sensible – the new nominee’s background is actually more problematic since it raises both corporate corruption and civil-military alarm bells. Because the bottom line is this: Austin literally puts the military and industrial into military-industrial complex!
Too bad intellectual and ethical consistency is so hopelessly out of fashion in these peculiar times. Bear with me now. Austin could be the greatest guy in the universe, right? Maybe he is; maybe he isn’t. But even assuming that he otherwise is, why does the man retire, then choose to scurry off to serve on a cornucopia of war industry, big Pharma, and strategic consulting boards? Are such star-laden superstars just dying to become walking clichés?
Which raises the last troubling concern about Gen. Austin’s nomination: un-circumscribing the ever circumscribed options on the civil-military menu. I mean, it’s not as though his $230,000+ pension (with full, lifetime healthcare coverage to boot) isn’t ample enough. Or that he couldn’t earn additional cash after retirement in less ethically questionable ways. Yet that’s just what he did; just as almost all of them do.
Well, not all exactly: Lt. Gen. Dan Bolger, who was also a highly touted combat officer and hardly some hippie – but did write the refreshingly honest book, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars – is just such an exception. The two generals are essentially peers and cut their teeth commanding in the same wars. In fact, Bolger served directly under Austin in Iraq during 2008-09. The difference is that after the army, Bolger only augments his slightly less lucrative pension by teaching history – as he did at West Point during the late 1980s – at North Carolina State University. I’d take the interest-conflict-free – and basically “qualified” by all the same merits – Bolger as defense secretary any day, at least by comparison.
Frankly, I’m beyond frustrated that We the People are repeatedly told that we’ve no choice but to accept options circumscribed by the rules of the cult-like “qualification” game that the uber-wealthy and war industry-invested elites invented, and get to define. We deserve better. We can do better. There are better men and women available … if anyone bothered to ask them.
As a final aside, consider what may on the surface seem a petty “insider” point – though I stand by its instructiveness in my anecdotal but significant sample size of experience. Austin was a tactical officer when assigned back at West Point as a mid-career officer – as so many well-regarded officers are, or seek to be. When he took the assignment he, like most others, probably had a choice. That he picked – or was only accepted for – the “TAC” over academic department faculty route (which, full disclosure, I selected), meant Austin was more responsible for inspecting sock drawers and meting-out disciplinary tours than any serious intellectual broadening, scholarship, or teaching experience.
That’s no small thing to my old tribe. While there’ve been real militarists, monsters, and just plain jerks to come out of West Point’s academic departments – Petraeus and Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster come to mind – in my assessment, most TAC-types were less intellectually curious or inclined to challenge prevailing assumptions (with some exceptions). Don’t take just my word for it. “He just doesn’t knock your socks off,” a former defense official close to the Biden transition team told Politico – “I just don’t see him as an independent thinker.”
None of that bodes well in crisis times – think pandemic, climate catastrophe, and reprised Cold War nuclear madness – that demand system-shaking visionaries, not company men. Unfortunately, the company man’s president may have just nominated the first black one.
Unfortunately, criticism of the Austin nomination will fall on mostly deaf ears – considered mainly the purview of radical lefty intransigents and the conspiracy minded. “Give it a rest!” Many will essentially retort. “Is there anyone you’d be satisfied with?” And then there’s the “woke” and historic diversity angle: “What, so you don’t want to finally see a black defense secretary?” Such questions are so framed as if there aren’t any qualified black candidates who don’t work for the war industry and won’t require what’s supposed to be a once-in-a-generation exception to civil primacy in an ostensible republic.
This all strikes me as dangerous – an identity politics initially grounded in substantive and historic needs for rebalance, but since co-opted by corporate militarists. As a result, these hyper-rich war-profiteers have substituted cosmetic for systemic change, and instructed their bought-and-sold media mouthpieces to tell the people they’d better – in fact, that they already do and have all along – like it.
Meanwhile the war machine, and the empire, churns along – racking up profits and black and brown body counts along the way. That a black man might helm the horrendous monster is, in these “modern” times of ours, an obscenity that’s absolutely American.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen