Military leadership helps bring together an America divided

U.S. President Barack Obama, flanked by Defense Secretary Ash Carter (L) and Vice President Joe Biden (2nd L), introduces U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford (2nd R) as his nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington May 5, 2015. Also pictured is U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva (R), Obama's nominee to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - GF10000084856
Editor's note:

The strength of institutions like the nation’s armed forces is one of the most important things holding us together as a nation when so much else is tearing us apart, writes Michael O’Hanlon in USA Today.

On July 31, after a 39-year Air Force career, General Paul J. Selva stepped down as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country’s #2 military officer. At the end of September, General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, will step down from his position and retire as well. It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on their service — and that of so many others in uniform — because the strength of institutions like the nation’s armed forces is one of the most important things holding us together as a nation when so much else is tearing us apart.

These military leaders have made enormous, but generally behind the scenes, contributions to the nation’s defense. Selva has specialized in technology and future warfare. Since the Obama administration’s “third offset” strategy, and now in the Trump years as well, he has been instrumental in reorienting the military towards great-power competition with China and Russia. Dunford has been a remarkable steadying hand at the Pentagon, helping two presidents and several secretaries of defense in crisis management on problems ranging from North Korea to Crimea to Syria and beyond.

The nation has about 40 four-star military officers at any time ; the Pentagon promotes, and retires, roughly a dozen four-star officers every year in the American armed forces. But over the last decade, many of the most notable can be grouped into three retiring “classes” who stepped down from military service at about the same time and who collectively helped shape the nation’s response to a key challenge of the day. Looking back at them helps remind us too of what we have experienced — and learned — as a nation in recent years.

The surge generation

Retiring in 2010/2011. Notably: General David Petraeus, General Stanley McChrystal and Admiral Mike Mullen.

These distinguished Americans were the big names behind the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus emphasized protection of the indigenous population, reform of Iraqi security forces, and development of intelligence networks as overall commander in Iraq from 2007-2008. McChrystal took special forces to a whole new level of intensity and effectiveness, increasing the frequency of raids in the overall war on terror by a factor of ten from previous norms. Both commanded U.S. and NATO forces during the “semi-surge” in Afghanistan as well.  Mullen provided guidance and policy advocacy in Washington throughout, as chairman of the joint chiefs.

These were heady times for a while, especially in Iraq in 2007-2008. But the overall experience was also marked by frustration, setbacks, resignations and outcomes far short of resounding success in either major war. As a nation we learned that even with the best military in history and even with outstanding leaders, the wars of the modern Middle East are not easily won — and are perhaps not worth the cost of all-out intervention, even if they can be won.

The sequestration survivors

Retiring around 2015: Joint Chiefs Chairman General Marty Dempsey, Vice Chairman Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, Army General Ray Odierno and Admiral Jonathan Greenert.

A number of this group of leaders had had important roles in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But in their final military jobs, the “class of 2015” was most notable for helping the Department of Defense (DoD) survive the worst of the budgetary shenanigans of the 2010s that followed passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act: government shutdown, sequestration, continuing resolutions and late budgets.

The last thing a combat-weary military needed in this period was budgets that were consistently several months late, usually lower than previously expected, and always subject to the possibility of indiscriminate “sequestration” cuts. In strategic terms, this period was notable for the transition from the wars of the Middle East to the revival of great-power competition. But arguably, Washington political dynamics were themselves the biggest challenge to the nation’s armed forces during this mid-decade period, and needed to be handled adroitly by senior uniformed leadership.

The great-power competitors

Retiring in 2018/2019.

Then there is General Dunford and General Selva. And a few other notables who have just left the armed forces. General Lori Robinson, the highest-ranking woman in U.S. military history, who retired in 2018 after refocusing NORTHCOM  on the North Korean threat during the dangerous days of 2017. General Vincent Brooks, who also retired last year, after commanding U.S. and South Korean forces on the Korean peninsula itself through the “fire and fury” days of 2017. General Tony Thomas and General Joseph Votel, who at Special Operations Command and Central Command continued the fight against al Qaeda and ISIS with fewer resources and smaller military footprints than before, and who both retired this year. Admiral Harry Harris at Indo-Pacific Command and General Curtis Scaparotti at European Command, who applied the Trump Administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy to theaters near China and Russia, and who retired in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Of course, the above men and women are all mortal human beings, and we cannot expect the military to solve all our problems or get everything right. Before the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, we floundered badly in both places (for many reasons, admittedly, and not just tactical military ones), and we still struggle in the latter mission. Defeating ISIS territorially in Syria did not create stability in that country. And right now, on the strategy and budget front, the Air Force and Navy both have unrealistic expectations to grow their force structure by about 25%, which would likely require sustained annual real growth of 3 to 5 percent in DoD budgets for years — yet the Trump administration’s own projections call for flat budgets in the future. War plans for dealing with limited conflicts with Russia and China may not be sufficiently nuanced, risking dangerous escalation. The list goes on.

Still, as two more very fine top military officers ride off into the sunset this summer, it is worth pausing to remember that America’s democracy survives periods like the current one in part because of the strength of our non-political institutions that perform their jobs quietly, steadily and professionally — despite the cacophony around them.