Silence of the Generals

Alone_US_SoldierDuring the Vietnam War, America’s general officers developed a bad reputation for hovering above the fight in helicopters, calling the shots from a safe distance but never truly involved when the chips were down.  They may have been calling the shots, but they weren’t leading.

This past week, as veteran pensions have come under assault, many of this generation’s veterans find themselves asking  where are the Generals, Admirals, and Secretaries responsible for safeguarding the interests of our nation’s fighting forces?  The current budget debacle exposes a dark and — to those who retain a perspective of decency and common sense  — a shocking reality of the way our modern system works.  In standing silent as the pensions of its own service members are burglarized, senior military leaders believe they’re doing their jobs. Apparently believing that saving a few billion dollars and being rid of the agony of sequestration is worth any price, they’ve sat silent this week as veterans and families have weathered the reality of broken promises.  Focusing on their actions rather than their past words about the importance of taking care of people, it becomes clear no one should listen to the current crop of generals on the subject of pension and disability reform, compensation, or any other issue impacting what happens to fighting men and women after they’ve done their duty.  These leaders, for whatever reason, don’t seem to care about that.  They care about getting operational results, and as their tacit dormancy this week reflects, see personnel compensation as something standing between them and the weapons and programs they deem operationally necessary.

Nothing against them, but just a word to wise: service chiefs and secretaries do not speak for veterans. They are interested in winning the next war, and don’t have any concern or focus beyond that. They might argue — if they spoke freely — that this is appropriate; that it isn’t their job to care about anything else.

But this raises a critical question: whose job is it to ensure promises to our veterans are kept?  Who fights for them in the halls of Congress?  Whose job is it to speak out when the manifestly wrong thing is about to happen? At the moment, conditions seem to have placed the Joint Chiefs in a dilemma where they have no choice but to see veterans and their pensions as nuisances, given that our system forces them to decide between shiny new weapons (which also have powerful lobbies) and individual people (who have no lobby at all, and don’t even get to speak freely for themselves so long as they wear a uniform).  This is a dangerous moment, because no one knows what a series of broken promises will do to the health and future vitality of the All-Volunteer Force, and military senior leaders are not playing their normal role of making sure important questions are entertained before far-reaching, strategically consequential legislation is pushed through.

Make no mistake: many budgeteers inside the pentagon *want* the $6B they stand to get from the House budget provision burglarizing veteran pensions. Perversely, even many mid-level active duty officers want it, to fund the missions they’re charged with carrying out  . . . unconcerned in the present moment about the $120k they won’t get in retirement and aloof to how $80k less might feel to a retired enlisted family. They want rid of sequestration at any cost — badly enough to acquiesce to the mangling of promises in order to be delivered from the agony of sequestration and its oppressive impact. But there is no acceptable rationalization for this kind of mentality. It is a reflection of the structural elimination of morality from the way DoD does business . . . it’s always a question of problem-solving, which is concerned with “how” to do a thing rather than “if” doing a thing is right, just, wise, or moral in the first place.

There are many who seek reform of the military pension system, and this is not an invalid objective. But this isn’t real reform. This is fast-buck artistry. Reform means sitting down and deliberately re-drawing the system while keeping covenants with those who already signed on and did their duty. I don’t know of a single active or veteran service member who isn’t open to reform, but not the kind that entails budgeteers walking out the back door with sacks of pension cash.

Today’s lesson: take the perspectives of generals and admirals on the subject of taking care of people with a huge grain of salt.  Talk is cheap.  But now that the chips are down, these “leaders” are conspicuously absent.

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