In the movie “A Few Good Men” the rookie JAG lawyer played by Tom Cruise cleverly exploits his own lack of military experience and bearing by using it to provoke a deep contempt in the crusty general played by Jack Nicholson. In response to Cruise’s skillful baiting, Nicholson explodes in an on-the-witness-chair meltdown that leaves him sputtering futilely and blurting out the critical evidence of his own misconduct.
“A Few Good Men” is not the only Hollywood movie that ends with a similar meltdown of a military “bad-guy” at the hands of a quintessentially liberal journalist/attorney/citizen (one who invariably has only “the truth” on his or her side). Kirk Douglas, Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster, George C. Scott and a bunch of other A-list actors have all played the heavy in this particular bit over the years.
And amazingly, in real life as well, exactly the same thing has happened… let’s see…….um, well, gee, when you get down to it – Never. Not once. Not in this bloody universe. Not even close.
On the contrary, military men testifying before Congress invariably come off better then their interrogators – William Westmorland, Oliver North and now General Petraeus never even break a sweat while the legislators questioning them probe and thrust haphazardly like rookie public defenders who misplaced their case notes and are bluffing their way through a cross-examination, hoping the cop they are questioning will suddenly develop amnesia or some other miracle will fall in their lap.
Now the truth is that everybody knows perfectly well that this is the way it always works out in real life and everybody — not just communications specialists — knows exactly why.
It’s not just the uniform, although that’s profoundly important. A military career obviously suggests a vast range of admirable messages about the person and his values – patriotism, self-discipline, bravery, technical mastery, cool-headedness, a commitment to something larger then money (Politicians, in contrast, generally embody…. Oh never mind).
But even more important, a high-ranking military officer testifying before Congress is presenting something more then just a particular viewpoint or opinion. He is outlining a military strategy – a coherent plan that includes the goals and objectives being sought, the general plan for achieving them and the results of technical analyses and feasibility studies drawn from a whole series of sub-fields – logistics, transportation, force structure, intelligence, and many others.
It is simply not possible for a congressperson or senator to convincingly challenge the validity of a complex, integrated package like this with a series of individual lawyer-like questions or campaign talking points. In fact, the only way to convincingly challenge a proposed military strategy is by presenting an alternative strategy that is equally comprehensive and coherent. Probing questions that might seem incisive or revelatory when asked of a witness in a courtroom inevitably come across as simply “carping” or “nitpicking” when they are addressed to a military officer presenting a military strategy.
Once again, everyone – not just communications specialists – knows this perfectly well and also knows the obvious conclusion. The problem is that many Democrats don’t want to face the implications.
But let’s bite the bullet and state the conclusion that — from a communications point of view — is inescapable.
The only type of Democratic spokesperson who has a fighting chance of successfully going head to head with a high-ranking military officer in an argument about military strategy is another military officer. Yeah sure, there are a handful of civilian politicians like Sam Nunn who can hold their own in an argument with a general, but you can count guys like that on the fingers of one thumb. For the typical Democratic politician, in contrast, a contest like that is more like dropping a cocker spaniel into a cage with an anaconda and wondering who’ll swallow who.
There are, of course, two main problems that impede the Democrats from looking to the military for an advocate of their world-view – many Democrats don’t want to frame their views in terms of military strategy and the vast majority of military men don’t want to frame their views in terms of Democratic Party policy.
Both of these problems, however, can be overcome.
For Democrats, even those strongly in favor of withdrawal from Iraq, the key is to recognize a seemingly paradoxical reality – that the fact that one favors withdrawal from Iraq does not mean one has less need of the highest quality military strategy – on the contrary it means one needs it even more. After all, blundering into an ambush does not require any great military expertise. Extracting ones’ troops under adverse conditions and redeploying them successfully, on the other hand, most certainly does (this is why Rommel is generally considered one of military history’s great commanders while Custer is not).
The need for a top-quality Democratic military strategy is particularly urgent in the current case of Iraq. A convincing Democratic alternative cannot simply be a “pack all the bags – let’s go home” disengagement from the Middle East; it must be a coherent alternative approach that combines an intelligent mixture of complex military redeployments with simultaneous political initiatives in a whole series of areas and countries. The military aspect of this strategy will actually have to be exquisitely well designed and executed to adequately protect our troops, maintain our diplomatic commitments and protect our legitimate interests even as we disengage from the fools’ errand of acting as Iraq’s unpaid neighborhood police force in the middle of their bitter and protracted civil war.
At the same time the 40 year alliance of the military and the Republican Party is now significantly unraveling. At both the junior staff level and among active duty and retired high-ranking officers there are now an increasing number who recognize that a Democratic administration might actually support the urgently needed rebuilding and reconstruction of the American military more effectively then the Republicans – particularly as long as the latter are committed to a debilitating open-ended occupation of Iraq regardless of what damage it does to our military readiness and overall force quality.
For this to work, both sides will have to swallow hard and accept some things they’d rather not. But both pro-withdrawal Democrats and fed-up military officers have a profound stake in moving beyond the current status quo.
On a practical level, to effectively present a convincing Democratic alternative to the Bush/Petraeus strategy to the American people, there are three things that any communications specialist would ideally want to have at his or her disposal:
1. A respected former military officer to act as a spokesman for the Democratic Party on military issues. This would be the person Democrats would want to use to respond to presentations like Petraeus testimony last week and who would act as the Democrats general “go-to” guy for the media on military strategy.
2. A Military Advisory Council – a group of military men and women who could provide an ongoing analysis and translation of the Democrats less pugnacious approach to international affairs into the language and concepts of conventional military strategy.
3. A document – “A Democratic Military and Political Strategy for Combating Global Terrorism”. This should be sufficiently detailed to clearly indicate the differences between the Democratic and Republican approaches and sufficiently specific to allow Democratic politicians to meaningfully describe it to voters as “the Democrats’ alternative strategy”. The military sections of this document should be drafted by individuals with recognized and respected reputations and expertise in military affairs.
A lot of Dems will not want to go down this particular road, reflexively feeling that military thinking must inevitably be bellicose and hyperaggressive. But it isn’t really true. Just look at Wesley Clark’s excerpt from his new book in this Sunday’s Washington Post. In this regard, it’s not the specific points he makes that are key, it’s the demonstration the article provides that it is possible to make entirely reasoned and intelligent “liberal” foreign policy arguments and proposals using the language and conceptual framework of military strategy.
Many Dems still won’t want to go this route. Maybe, they’ll hope, we can win the next exchange when a military figure testifies before Congress without having to change anything basic in our approach.
Sure, and maybe a Cocker Spaniel will kick the crap out of an Anaconda next time the two go head to head together. I figure the odds are just about the same.