“The Bear had once confided to me that Durrell’s ego could fit snugly in the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome but in very few other public places. This runaway megalomania marked him as a blood member of the fraternity of generals. If looks alone could make generals, Durrell would have been a cinch. He was built lean and slim and dark, like a Doberman. A man of breeding and refrigerated intelligence, he ordered his life like a table of logarithms.” – Pat Conroy, The Lords of Discipline
Unlike Conroy’s Durrell…my general was…unshaven…bare- and white-legged in shorts…grubby t-shirt and slovenly…the typical look of man getting his coffee on a Saturday morning. He had the Washington Post in one hand and two dollars in the other…he ordered a simple coffee. I had watched him tie his dog up outside and then come in the coffee shop. I looked no better…I was in shorts and a t-shirt…standing in line to get my morning coffee too. I knew who he was…he had no fucking clue who I was. General (ret.) William L. Nash…he had been my division commander (1st Armored Division “Old Ironsides”) when we had deployed to Bosnia as part of NATO’s peace Implementation Force (IFOR). For a second I wondered if I should say anything…I was caught off guard by a momentary feeling of awe. This man once commanded me…obviously through a long line of subordinates…but still…this man once was my commander.
Since serving under him, I had left the Army and become a professional academic of the worst type…don’t teach…don’t independently publish…I just conduct national and homeland security policy research for Congress…and in my time since leaving the Army I have met (and studied with at the National War College) and become friends with people who are active-duty generals now. I couldn’t fathom why I felt the need to provide any sort of reverence to this retired general getting coffee some Saturday morning on Capitol Hill, DC.
Maybe it was the lingering aftereffects of being institutionalized by the Army for ten years…once you’ve been indoctrinated into the military…shit lingers…even after you leave the service…even after 15 years. It could have been a lifetime of growing up as an Army brat and then a decade of service in uniform…followed by a professional career that rested on the edge of military institutions and operations. My professional career since leaving the Army had been on the fringes of the military…foreign affairs…national and homeland security…terrorism issues…no way one could work in my field and not…at least…be familiar with the military. Maybe it was the American in me to be awed by a man that used to lead troops in combat…we Americans do love our generals.
Americans love military men in general…and generals, specifically, so much that we have elected a shit-load of them to the presidency. How many presidents were generals you ask?…12
- Dwight D. Eisenhower;
- Benjamin Harrison;
- Chester A. Arthur;
- James Garfield;
- Rutherford B. Hayes;
- Ulysses S. Grant;
- Andrew Johnson;
- Franklin Pierce;
- Zachary Taylor;
- William Henry Harrison;
- Andrew Jackson; and
- George Washington.
Matter of fact, we have elected exactly the same number of former generals as we have the number of men who haven’t served in the military at all…12. If you throw in all the presidents with military service…the number of presidents that once wore a uniform of some type is 33. AND before you start lamenting what seems to be a recent trend in electing men with no military experience…you ought to know this: from William Howard Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt (that is 5 presidents) there was no single former military service member elected president.
So maybe it is an American thing to have a fetish for generals. However, like all men…and in the words of Crash Davis in Bull Durham…”…he’s as full of shit as anybody…” generals are just mortal men. It’s true…we can hero worship generals all we want…but they are just men. After General Douglas MacArthur was fired by President Harry Truman (Army colonel, WWI)…MacArthur returned home to parades and adulation as if he was a conquering Caesar. Interestingly enough, the definitive biography on General MacArthur was titled American Caesar. MacArthur was fired for making statements to the press about his disagreements with President Truman on how the Korean War should have been fought. General Stanley McChrystal didn’t receive the same adulation after he was fired though…for the same mistake MacArthur made…by President Barack Obama for criticizing the president’s policy in Afghanistan. General Nash too had made a mistake…his career ended sooner than he wanted. General David Petraeus…a scholar-warrior like General (and now SecDef) James Mattis…also fell from grace. It’s easy to cast stones…especially after we have put these men on pedestals. Our fetish for generals is equally matched by our perverse love of seeing ‘great’ men fail.
General Nash ordered his coffee. I got my coffee. General Nash uses about the same amount of sugar as I do…future diabetic amount. Finally I said ‘fuck it’ in my head…
“General Nash, you don’t know me…but I served under you in Bosnia in 1996.”
To my surprise, General Nash didn’t give me a quick “oh yeah, great” response…instead General Nash started asking me questions about my unit, my thoughts on our deployment, and what I did now. When I informed him of my professional career since leaving the Army…General Nash seemed the one more interested in our conversation and preceded to ask a number of questions related to the current affairs associated with terrorism and homeland security policy. He finally ended the conversation when his dog started barking restlessly…he wished me luck and I said the same to him. His last words to me were “when the dog starts barking I know it’s time to go.” I laughed and said I understood.
The conversation over coffee with my former Army commander…my commanding general…was simple and pleasant. I softly scolded myself for the initial reluctance/awe I had when I first recognized him. Like dads…generals are just men…they’re as full of shit as anybody…but they can be good guys to have a quick conversation with over coffee…until the dog lets you know it is time to go.