The Afghanistan aftermath drama is underway, featured center stage in the always-intense theater known as the United States Congress. Generals Mark Milley and Kenneth McKenzie, respectively chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of the U.S. Central Command, testified before Congress on Sept. 28.
Each had recommended leaving a residual security contingent in Afghanistan after withdrawal of U.S. and other forces. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, another military professional, reinforced the testimony. This is important given the rapid, sweeping Taliban victory.
Additionally, Milley is quoted by name in several new books about the Trump administration, including one coauthored by the ubiquitous Bob Woodward of Watergate revelation fame. Columnist Peggy Noonan provides details in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal.
All of this raises important questions about behavior of senior military officers. This in turn reintroduces General George C. Marshall. People regularly referred to Marshall as “a dedicated public servant,” a term no longer in vogue.
As chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Marshall did essential work to get a dangerously unprepared America at least partially ready for World War II, and then led the mammoth organizational effort required for victory. He later served as secretary of state and secretary of defense during the trying post-war years, when the Cold War and Korean War both began.
Marshall longed to lead the Normandy invasion, but that mission went to his protégé Dwight Eisenhower. FDR considered Marshall indispensable in his existing role and stated publicly he could not go to sleep at night if the general were out of the country. Ever the good soldier, Marshall apparently never directly pressed his desire with the president. Roosevelt shrewdly, skillfully finessed the matter. Marshall did his duty, consistently focused on the nation’s interests, not his own.
Along with extraordinary executive ability, Marshall demonstrated great diplomatic and political skill. Following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Army surrounded American forces in the Philippines under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, intensely disliked and mistrusted by fellow officers and more widely in Washington. President Roosevelt nevertheless did not want this prominent individual to become a Japanese prisoner and ordered his evacuation to Australia.
Marshall followed up carefully to ensure that media and public, at home and abroad, knew that this was not MacArthur’s decision, and that the government of Australia provided a supportive and warm welcome. The ultimate professional, he never let personal opinion of MacArthur interfere. The ultimate executive, he devoted the time necessary for operational success.
We rarely discuss Marshall today, reflecting in part his notable modesty, which stands out in Washington anytime. Marshall himself put very little personal information in the public record, and never wrote memoirs.
Doubtless, he feared in part inadvertently revealing classified and personality matters about those years best kept private. In addition – incredibly from a contemporary perspective – the record is clear he felt that patriotic citizens should not benefit financially from government office.
For Marshall, public service was literally just that. Fortunately, Forrest Pogue authored a masterful comprehensive biography of this monumental leader.
Paul Volcker, who as head of the Federal Reserve broke the back of devastating stagflation later in the 20th century, is a more recent example of great competence, dedication and modesty. There are others.
General Milley qualifies as dedicated public servant. However, his public revelations while still in uniform constitute a grave error.
Learn More: Forrest C. Pogue, “George C. Marshall”