- You’re not as good as you think you are
Chances are you think that you’re pretty great. After all, you must have had a lot of stellar evaluations to get where you are today. Your staff laughs at all of your jokes, soldiers seem to perk up when you’re around, and everyone is eagerly scribbling notes in their greenbooks whenever you decide to shower a meeting with your wisdom. You seem way more competent and in control than those bozos in Washington, so why shouldn’t you be in charge?
Because of course you’re not really in charge. You’re the leadership equivalent of Homer Simpson at the nuclear power plant, sipping coffee at the switchboard while a dangerous and complex machine hums all around you. Ask yourself this painful question: if someone replaced you in your office with a mannequin, how many mission-critical tasks would your organization fail?
Unless you are sitting in JSOC killing bad dudes every day, chances are that nobody below the brigade level would even notice if you took the day off. You could promote a sack of potatoes to command PACOM and nothing would change – there are too many hard-working professionals below you and too many national leaders above you to let that theater suffer a critical failure. If you matter, you matter in the abstract: long-range plans, organizational culture, that sort of thing.
But honestly, how much of your time is chewed up deciding stuff that doesn’t matter, or directing your staff to change “happy” to “glad” on every policy memo? How many decisive operations that changed the course of a war have you overseen? Are you that once-in-a-generation visionary leader, that Caesar or Alexander, ready to use military success as lever to achieve historic greatness? Or are you just a high-ranking government bureaucrat who happens to wear an unusual suit to work? Not that there’s anything wrong with bureaucrats, but you don’t see anyone in the Department of Agriculture who thinks they’re qualified to become president just because of their day job.
- You live in a bubble
You spend your day surrounded by subordinates whose promotion and continued employment depends on how well they please you. While this is true in many high-level positions, because of the insular nature of the military you probably never face any serious criticism of your ideas, your conduct, or your policies. You, quite frankly, are soft. While I might not like Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell, they wake up every morning and put on a suit of emotional armor because they know that they are going to get hammered every single day by extremely intelligent, well-funded, and determined opponents. Modern politicians are battle-hardened in a way that you simply aren’t.
We haven’t had a general win the presidency since 1956, and that was Eisenhower. Hard truth: you’re no Eisenhower. MacArthur tried to run for president and flamed out in the primary because it turned out that the moment that the conversation moved away from defense policy he knew next to nothing about actually running a country. Alexander Haig tried running in the 1988 Republican primary and finished with less than 1% in Iowa. When Wesley Clark ran in 2004 Democratic primary, the only state he won was Oklahoma (which Bush won by a crushing 20 point margin in the general election anyway).
You would be rightly offended if someone without a day’s worth of military experience walked into your office and said that they wanted to be your replacement. Guess what? Politicians think the same thing when generals talk about politics. I remember sitting through a briefing with Charles Jacoby where he went off on a tangent talking about the Constitution and thought to myself “Jesus, has this guy even read the Constitution?” If you have no idea how a caucus works, or how super PACs work, or what Duverger’s Law is, then do us all a favor and stay home during election season.
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