Celebrity Generals

Jason Sigger argues that our current civil-military crisis is fundamentally a problem with the civilian class, arguing, in part:

Armchair Generalist: Cult of Personality

It’s not the generals and commanders who are hungering for power trips and who enjoy the celebrity. I’m sure many of them find it a real pain in the ass, after the first initial rushes of star power.

I’m not so sure.  Let me begin with a few gross generalizations:

All successful people are narcissists to a certain degree.  You have to be to want to be in charge. You have to be in order to have the ability to project confidence at all times, which is an important element of success and an attribute of successful leaders. Indeed, I would argue that many people in leadership positions — in business and politics at least — are borderline sociopaths.

But there are people who revel in pulling levers, hidden amid the rushes, and those who seek the limelight, sometimes without any actual real influence.

Effective civil-military relations requires the ability to keep and promote those narcissists with all the charisma and ambition of a successful politician but with the discretion of a Swiss banker.  It is a tremendously hard line to walk.

But the point is, the reason that most generals have shunned and continue to shun the limelight is that we have had in place a system that rewarded that sort of self-abnegation.  As a practically matter, however, military leaders are pulled from a pool that is at exceptionally high risk of glorying in the sort of attention now available to high ranking officers.  All that has to happen to change the character of this select body is a small change in the broader incentive structure.

It should be pretty damn clear to any ambitious field grade officer that one path to pinning on 3 or more stars is to become a media darling.  The incentives have already shifted, and unless we shift them back we’re going to see more Petraeuses not less.

Hopefully the McChrystal affair will serve as a shot across the bow of this trend. But I am not so sure.  McChrystal’s problem wasn’t that he cultivated the limelight.  It was that he was terrible at it.  He may have been a fine soldier and leader, but he couldn’t keep his damn foot out of his mouth. He liked the celebrity.  He would not have cooperated with an endless series of insipid puff pieces about his sleeping, eating, and exercise habits had he not.  But he was just inept in terms of public/media relations. I think a lot of ambitious GOs out there are saying to themselves that they could handle it better than he did.

5 comments to Celebrity Generals

  • “He liked the celebrity. He would not have cooperated with an endless series of insipid puff pieces about his sleeping, eating, and exercise habits had he not.”

    I still say that was just goofy reporting. When I was a lowly Company-grade Officer I didn’t get nearly as much sleep as him, eat nearly the quality of food that he did, nor was my physical activity as easy as a 5-10 mile jaunt in appropriate running attire. Had it been, then my deployments would have been much easier and I would have returned home in better condition. My experiences are not likely much different than most others. M4 must have seen that story reported and wondered, “why is this such a big deal?”

  • JasonSigger

    “All successful people are narcissists to a certain degree.” With respect, I disagree (not surprisingly, I suppose). Yes, we have all run into those senior military officers who are prima donas, divas, whatever, who think it’s all about them. Maybe at the 3- and 4-star level, it gets to rival celebrity status, due to the rarified atmosphere at that level, but there are a lot of colonels, captains, and 1- and 2-stars who haven’t hit the Peter Principle, who are there to do the job well inside of the Beltway and then get back to real fighting in the field. I really, really don’t see active duty, senior officers pining for the limelight, although I am sure some are saying that they could have done better than McChrystal. That’s not a high bar, though.
    I think you miss the point of my article, in that (in my view) it’s the CIVILIANS who are the narcissists, especially the political appointees, who know they have a limited time to impress their boss with some new whizbang project before the administration changes and they’re out again. Military doesn’t worry like that. So it’s the civilians who are either promoting some half-baked idea or (worse yet) just endorsing whatever their staff tells them to do (which might include some sharp military action officer) without a careful study of policy options and real development of strategy. That’s where the breakdown in civil-military relations happens, when the civilians aren’t leading the way they should and the military is forced to step up and do something, in the absence of leadership.

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