It’s been widely observed that President Donald Trump seems really to respect “his” generals. He’s had generals in high positions since taking office. And by naming recently retired Marine Corps General John Kelly to be his chief of staff, making him, ostensibly, his closest advisor, the president sealed the deal. Not since the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a retired five-star general, have senior military officers been so empowered in what is, after all, a civilian government. In the United States of America, the military is supposed to implement policies set by civilians, not the other way around.
Trump’s military cadre is dominated by four top officials: Kelly; Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general; National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, a Lieutenant General still serving in the army; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, another Marine general. Dunford’s role necessarily is filled by military. But the other three slots are not. Normally they are filled by civilians.
Trump’s own military experience was confined to his early and middle adolescence: his parents sent him to a military boarding school, New York Military Academy, when he was 13. So, while he never served in the armed forces, it’s plausible that during his years as a young cadet Trump developed an enduring fascination with, and fondness for men in uniform. Moreover, the president seems greatly to admire tough guys of any kind – and no one tougher than men who know war. So though there seems on the surface a disjuncture between Trump’s own undisciplined and even unruly nature, and the exceedingly high level of discipline that characterizes senior military leaders, in fact the “axis of adults,” the generals, have becalmed not only the president, but everyone else as well. The president himself might be a loose cannon, but the generals, we presume, are not. So we leave it to them to protect him, and us, from his own worst impulses.
In ordinary times, the American people might be puzzled or even alarmed by so many generals in so many high places. But, these are not ordinary times and Trump is no ordinary president. Which is precisely why so many us believe that “adult” supervision is required. Supervision of the commander in chief by men who, on paper certainly, are his subordinates. Telling is our faith that they have what it takes. Telling is our belief that they are up to the task. Telling is our trust that they can be counted on to do the right thing.
Which raises the question of why – why are America’s senior military leaders more reassuring than unsettling? Why, even when they play political parts, as opposed to military ones, are we relieved to see them in position? Because as a group they are better equipped to exercise leadership than anyone else in America. Because as a group they are better prepared to assume leadership roles than anyone else in America. Because as a group they are better educated and trained for leadership than anyone else in America. Because as a group they better than anyone else in America are socialized to understand that leadership development is development lifelong.
Americans trust military leaders more than any other leaders – by far. In 2016 Pew reported that more than 75 % of Americans surveyed said they trusted military leaders either a “great deal” or a “fair amount.” This is in strong contrast even to religious leaders, who get similarly positive ratings from only 53% of Americans.
This is not good. In fact, it’s a sad commentary on how low is our regard for leaders in sectors other than the military. It’s especially sad because it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason in the world military leadership education and training should be so strikingly superior to leadership education and training elsewhere in America. We have the capacity to change this – to improve leadership education and training for everyone. All we need is the will.*
*For an elaboration of this argument, see my forthcoming book, Professionalizing Leadership (Oxford University Press, early 2018).