War with Iran (10): Militarism, Trust, and Character-Based Voting

Back in 1950, during the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur was famously (“famously”) invited by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to give a speech at one of their annual conventions. Given the exigencies of war, MacArthur was unable to attend, but accepted the invitation and sent the VFW the text–we’d call it a “hard copy”–of his speech. The speech, an instance of saber-rattling of the kind for which MacArthur was famous (and is still admired today, at least by conservatives), flatly, obviously, and  deliberately contradicted the official policy of the U.S. government at the time on Formosa (Taiwan). MacArthur sent it to the VFW as a kind of provocation, and succeeded in his aim, putting Truman in a quandary about how to respond.

On the one hand, MacArthur’s speech flatly contradicted the Truman Administration’s official policy on Formosa, something a military field commander is absolutely not supposed to do. On the other hand, by the time its contents were discovered by Truman, the speech was already in the hands of the VFW and the press, hence physically impossible to withdraw. That left Truman essentially two options. He could either disavow the problematic claims in MacArthur’s speech without ordering MacArthur to do anything, or he could order MacArthur to disavow the speech in its entirety, and then invent a way, ex post facto, to explain the whole episode away as a “mistake” of some kind.

The first option was rejected on the grounds that it made Truman, the civilian commander-in-chief, appear subservient to MacArthur, his military field commander. It was also rejected on the grounds that it seemed to reveal incoherence at the highest levels of the U.S. government itself–which, of course, is what it did reveal. So, in a very early precursor to “cancel culture,” the second option was taken: MacArthur’s speech was literally “canceled.”   Or more precisely, its contents were “withdrawn.” Worth pausing on if you thought that “cancel culture” was created yesterday by a bunch of liberal snowflakes.

The cancellation of MacArthur’s speech solved Truman’s problem in a superficial, immediate way: it allowed the government to be seen as speaking with a single voice, as long as you ignored the fact that MacArthur, Truman’s top military commander, had said what he said, and had then been ordered to pretend that he hadn’t. The press had a field day with the issue, so to speak, but Truman had clever PR men on his payroll who deftly  finessed things. Predictably, the VFW speech was forgotten in the more violent storms that followed. Most people today have forgotten all about it. We remember, perhaps, that Truman eventually relieved MacArthur of command for insubordination, but not the first event in the chain that led to that outcome.*

The MacArthur-Truman controversy is a helpful guide to understanding the military’s recent “mistaken” release of a “draft letter” concerning the presence or departure of U.S. forces from Iraq.** Here is the text of the letter itself. And here’s a lame attempt at “explanation” from CNN:

After some initial suggestion from the Pentagon that the letter was a fake and potentially an Iranian intelligence operation, senior officials then settled on the line that the letter was real, but they had not meant to send it —an “honest mistake” in the words of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. The line the Pentagon is going with is that it was a “poorly worded” draft that meant to suggest the repositioning of U.S. troops rather than their withdrawal, and as CNN puts it, it was “shared with the Iraqi military for the purposes of coordination and was never sent as a formal memorandum.” Someone in the Iraqi military seems to have shared it with the prime minister’s office.

There are essentially two hypotheses in play here. One is that the letter was merely a draft, and its release was just a regrettable mistake. The other is that there is fundamental division within the command structure of the U.S. military and government, along with fundamental incoherence at the policy level, and that the “appeal to error” is a superficial PR attempt to bullshit the American people into thinking otherwise. It’s telling that the letter has already more or less dropped out of view.

There is, as far as I can tell, no conclusive way of deciding between the two hypotheses, and no strictly logical reason to insist on treating them as absolutely exclusive. But if I had to bet on which one was, on the whole, more likely to be true than the other, I’d pick the second: division, incoherence, and bullshit artistry, not error or even incompetence. It simply isn’t credible to think that a letter of this importance was just kinda “floating around the office,” and just happened–whoa, oops–to find its way to its addressee. It’s tempting to make cynical jokes about the magnitude of incompetence and stupidity in our government, but one problem with that approach is that it functions to discount the magnitude of dishonesty, misdirection, and manipulation within it. It makes a big difference whether we’re dealing with bumblers on the model of Inspector Clouseau, or sociopaths on the model of Patrick Bateman. I don’t know about you, but Mike Pompeo reminds more of the latter than the former.

Two lessons here.

One is that it seems plausible to think that what we’re seeing here is a sort of inverse of the MacArthur-Truman episode. MacArthur had contradicted Truman’s policy in order to pursue a more bellicose one in the Far East. I suspect that our field commanders in Iraq are doing the reverse: they’re contradicting the Trump Administration’s policy because they grasp the precariousness of their situation and favor a withdrawal. A single brigade (or its functional equivalent) exposed to enemy missile attack is simply not in a favorable strategic situation vis-a-vis its adversaries, especially since the Iraqi parliament has withdrawn its support for the American military presence.

In short, the American field command in Iraq seems to want out, and one way to signal this is to write and send a letter to the Iraqis with quasi-official status that discusses the logistics of getting out. If this ends up being true, and Washington demands that they stay in defiance both of the Iraqis and the American field command itself, Washington is sending many of these men and women to completely pointless deaths. Only time will tell if this hypothesis ends up being true. But the best way to falsify it is to withdraw. Better that the hypothesis be rendered unprovable than that it be confirmed.

Second: Readers of this blog are probably familiar by now with my obsession over the issue of character-based voting. One persistent question that comes up in the debate is the relationship between character and policy: is there good evidence, it’s wondered, of a connection between character and policy? You can ransack the social science literature and never get a straight answer. But whether you do or you don’t, the practical issue remains: is it rational to vote on matters of character, even under conditions of uncertainty about the truth-value of the propositions required to demonstrate a connection between character and policy?

Well, consider the situation we’re in, and consider where we’re headed. All presidents, and I suppose all politicians lie. People lie. But this president lies so much that he strikes me as less trustworthy than the sworn enemies of the United States. I’ve already explicitly said that I trust the word of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, more than I trust that of Donald Trump or Mike Pompeo. And I’m doubling down on it now.

The purely intuitive connection between honesty, trustworthiness, and policy should suffice to demonstrate the rationality of character-based voting in this context, and of taking character to be a proxy for governance. If we can’t trust our leaders at all, we can’t judge what they say or do; if we can’t judge their speech or actions, we have no basis for judging them at all. If we can’t judge the persons enacting the policies, we can’t judge the policies: we’re deprived of access to the reasoning for and justifications of those policies. Deprived of this capacity for judgment, and particularly of moral judgment, we’re forced either to take our leaders on faith, or to tune them out altogether, or to resist them primarily in the name of the restoration of trust. The first option leads to a political version of fideism, the second to a political version of quietism. The third licenses a character-based politics.

Fideism and quietism are not going to work as resistance to an unjustified war. But rest assured that some combination of fideism and quietism is the response desired by those who want to wage such a war. As long as the American people take our psychopathic leaders on faith, or sit around making excuses for their own apathy or inaction, the Trump Administration has a green light to do as it pleases. You don’t have to be an area studies expert or a military strategist to figure out that you’re being lied to about matters of life and death. If you’re in that position, it should be sufficient to vote for honesty as against mendacity, and minimal decency as against the spectacle unfolding before us. You don’t need to sail the seven seas to pull that off. But you have to do something, even if something just means turning on your computer, clicking a few buttons, and hitting “send.”

*I rely here on H.W. Brands, The General Versus the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, chs. 18-20.

**The situation here is analogous to the one involving the controversy over Zola versus Hallmark, discussed here a few weeks ago.

3 thoughts on “War with Iran (10): Militarism, Trust, and Character-Based Voting

  1. “But if I had to bet on which one was, on the whole, more likely to be true than the other, I’d pick the first”

    Did you mean “the second”?


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