, Newburyport, MA

January 30, 2014

Generally speaking

As I See It
John Burciaga

---- — Americans, encumbered with a love of all things military and the notion that those in uniform can do no wrong, quickly forget the sins of the most higher-ups, the generals: the Petraeuses and McChrystals and their ilk.

Pride went before their fall, but it’s all a ho-hum, let’s-move-on matter. But generals do matter: They are the point-people for the one at the top, the ones tasked to carry out orders from the commander in chief. When they fail to do so, their boss gets the blame.

One who could have said no was Colin Powell, when George W surprised him, in a high-level meeting, of his intentions to invade Iraq: “Are ya with me, Colin?” What a time to find out; but like a good soldier, Powell, a career, top-ranking military man, knew better than anyone who was Boss, and had little choice but to say yes — then was obliged to pitch Bush’s Cheney-inspired, bogus “weapons of mass destruction” charges at the U.N. Colin’s big mistake: Had he resigned, he could have become president.

Others in our history let down their prez by not following orders, like the flamboyant MacArthur who disobeyed, got canned, then considered a run against his boss, Truman. Sadly, out of uniform and sans corncob pipe, he was just another balding old man whose reach exceeded his grasp.

Think of McClellan, who could have ended the Civil War but wouldn’t let his superior forces do it — and upon replacement, pre-figured MacArthur by challenging Lincoln politically. Lincoln by that time desperately needed a victory, and Joe Hooker boasted he’d take down the Rebs at Chancellorsville, saying God would have to have mercy on Gen. Lee, because he, Hooker, would not. Imagine his surprise when, outnumbered two to one, Lee kicked Joe’s sorry ass, and Lincoln trudged on in his search for someone who could fight. Too bad that when Meade won at Gettysburg, he let Lee’s shattered forces escape to fight again.

When the draft was instituted, people saw the war not as one to save the union, but to free slaves, and in the New York City riots that ensued, blacks were shot, burned and hanged.

Abe, friendless even in his own party, was caricatured in the press as an ape, monkey, baboon and orangutan, and most of all, weak. He knew McClellan could win the election, and kept changing generals with no success until, at the witching hour, Vicksburg victor, Grant, moved on Richmond and Sherman did the rest. McClellan, if president, would have negotiated peace with the Confederacy and we would have become a two-nation mid-continent.

Scrub all those Civil War names and replace them with those who’ve let down Obama and the story would look the same. Like Lincoln, he’s been let down by his “generals,” both in and out of uniform. Bob Gates’ recent book, “Duty,” useful to Fox News and its cherry-picking analysis of any information, actually reveals Obama as the most independent thinker of recent presidents, able to question advice and revise policies— you know, the kind we used to say we wished we had. Gates has largely been given a pass for dishing on his nation’s leaders in time of war. Known as a Mr. Weepy when announcing casualties while defense secretary, one wonders if his own guilt for being part of the system tempted him to throw others under the bus.

When he became president, Lincoln was known mostly for his debates with Douglas. Laden at the get-go with civil war, he was quickly deemed impotent and vacillating — a more apt description of his generals. But one writer noted that he only appeared non-aggressive: in truth, more like a wire that would not snap, holding together both government and people.

Lincoln and Obama are much alike, especially in their perceived alienation from those who elected them. It is ironic that a failed website, where Obama again was let down by departmental “generals,” and which soon will be a non-issue, has damaged him the most.

A Buddhist saying is that the bamboo is an exemplar of strength — not by brute toughness but its ability to bend without breaking. Obama is such an example. Or, if you will, the wire holding us together through this terrible era.

And like Lincoln, someday he will be considered great.


John Burciaga of Newburyport writes on politics and social issues.