Richard Reeves

What Is the Role of the Military?

BOSTON -- In an obituary of Alexander Haig, The New York Times wrote: "He was a rare American breed: a political general."

Not rare enough, I'd say. Haig, intelligent, unpredictable and thin-skinned, was a key figure in what a political general named Dwight Eisenhower might have called "a military-governmental complex." Perhaps that is fitting. After all, our first president was the greatest of our generals, George Washington. He was followed by 11 more president generals: Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and Eisenhower.

Looking at that list, it is obvious that the political viability of generals declined after the Civil War generation passed on. Haig and others, most recently another former commanding general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Wesley Clark, ran unsuccessfully for the White House. Both Haig and Clark, talented men, were characterized as "volatile" by those who worked with them. "Volatile" was a polite word for "crazy."

But they were not crazy. They were just generals, not used to having their judgment or knowledgeability questioned -- by anyone. They could not handle argument or criticism. Real politicians can; they can thrive in lives that are often an endless series of small humiliations.

Haig, in fact, was a significant example of the military men who worked their way into the higher levels of democratic government by practicing the military arts of duty, honor, country -- deference, unthinking loyalty and discretion. Haig was, in fact, only a colonel when he was called into the Nixon White House in 1969 to serve as a military assistant to a new national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. A West Point graduate and decorated Vietnam veteran, he had created the career path that was followed by other military men, most notably Gen. Colin Powell and Adm. John Poindexter.

After his service on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff during the Korean war, Haig, obviously among the Army's best and brightest, was assigned to the Pentagon as a deputy special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Then he went to Vietnam as a brigade commander.

Coming home he was assigned the White House assistant job and, in time, succeeded Kissinger as national security adviser. Those were almost unbelievably nasty times, with the military spying on the National Security Council. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer, sent a young Navy typist to deliver each day copies of the papers he saw and the contents of Kissinger's and Haig's wastebaskets to the Pentagon.

When Watergate finally destroyed the strong men of the Nixon White House, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Haig, then vice chief of staff of the Army, was called back to replace Haldeman as White House chief of staff. By all accounts, he served the country with honor in the final days of the Nixon administration, holding together the fractured administration until Nixon resigned.

With Nixon's backing, Haig was appointed secretary of State in 1981 by a new Republican president, Ronald Reagan. He lasted only 17 months, ruining himself by going on television wild-eyed and declaring he was in charge of the White House when Reagan was wounded by a would-be assassin.

More important, it was during Haig's rise and fall that civilian government turned more and more to the military for manpower. And in those years, particularly after Kissinger was gone, power and money shifted steadily from the State Department and diplomacy to the Defense Department and military solutions to political problems. At the same time, the ending of a civilian draft by Nixon inevitably separated the military from most of the rest of society.

It did not start with Haig, of course. President Kennedy had elevated Gen. Maxwell Taylor to high levels of politics and diplomacy. In fact, Kennedy saw the military as the new agents of civilian government itself, saying in a commencement speech at West Point in 1962: "Whether it is Vietnam or Laos or in Thailand ... Whatever your position, you will need to know and understand not only the foreign policy of the U.S. but the foreign policy of all countries scattered around the world ... You will be involved in economic judgments which most economists would hesitate to make."

The year before, the commencement speaker, Gen. MacArthur, a man who had wanted to be president, delivered the opposite message: "Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable -- it is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication."

Recent history -- watching bright and dedicated young officers try to build civil societies in Iraq and Afghanistan -- makes you wonder if MacArthur, a political general if there ever was one, may have been right all along.

More like Richard Reeves