Friday, June 25, 2010

Comparing Generals

When General Petraeus sat for his 2007 confirmation hearing, I couldn’t help but be curious about the huge collection of ribbons on his uniform. Most of the Vietnam veterans must be retired by now and for a professional warrior there hasn’t been much war going on since then. I wondered what all those ribbons could be.

A quick scan of his military awards list told me that they were mostly the kind of awards commonly given to a fast track soldier on the rise—pretty, but of modest substance. I suppose the accumulation of a chest full of ribbons is necessary for a high ranking military commander, lest the soldiers he commands look in askance and wonder what the heck the dude has done.

I thought a side-by-side comparison of General Petraeus with another General of the same rank from the WWII period might be interesting.

Each general has 9-rows of ribbons; I didn’t count each individual award but would estimate the total to be about the same. One general has a command pilot wing and the other has an infantry badge of some kind along with a jump badge and a helicopter assault badge pinned below the ribbons. LeMay’s career spanned 37-years. Petraeus has been a soldier for 36-years. Both rose to the 4-star rank.

O.K., so far, so good. However, as always, the devil is in the details. Just listing the names and descriptions of all those ribbons would cause anyone’s eyes to glaze over. But it would be instructive to take a brief look at their respective careers.

LeMay joined the Army Air Corps in 1928. He had been retired from the Air Force about 9-years when Petraeus graduated from West Point in 1974 —a retirement that was forced by LeMay’s rigorous disagreements with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Presidents Kennedy & Johnson. General LeMay was a consummate warrior and couldn’t stand the Ivy League, by-the-numbers statistical approach to command furthered by McNamara. LeMay had flown the missions over Germany during WWII, while the Harvard educated McNamara, then a captain, had worked in the AAF’s statistical office charged with pouring over the bombing results and making statistical reports. LeMay’s strident nature was lampooned in the press of the sixties, depicted in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command, and lampooned again in the film Dr. Strangelove.

General LeMay’s service included the award (3-times) of the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Silver Star, and a host of other combat awards along with some of the inevitable political awards for high command. His command pilot wing indicates that he had flown over 2000 hours and held air command positions. He led the legendary Eighth Air Force mission to Schweinfurt-Regensburg in 1943, commanded the 20th Army Air Force B-29 raids on Japan in 1945; commanded the 1948 Berlin Airlift; commanded the Strategic Air Command (SAC) from its inception; was Chief of Staff United States Air Force during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and accomplished most of this before General Petraeus was born.

General Petraeus graduated from West Point in 1974 and was assigned to Italy (Note: Vietnam was then still a hot zone!) and similar assignments during the 1970’s; he was an academic earning his PhD and a general’s Aide-de-Camp during the 1980’s; as a battalion commander in the 1990s he suffered a chest wound in Kentucky when a soldier tripped and accidentally discharged his rifle, he then went on to command Operation “Uphold Democracy,” a 6-month exercise to help stabilize Haiti after a Haitian coup, followed by several Executive Assistant posts in Washington which rounded out his 1990’s service; since 2000 he has seen some service in Bosnia, broke his ass (sorry…his pelvis) on a parachute jump, and continued his work as a modern military manager as he successfully led the “surge” in Iraq.

So, there you have it. Some chests full of ribbons are different than other chests full of ribbons. The devil is in the details and each person is a prisoner of sorts, to his time slot in history.



Anonymous said...

I was not an officer, though had realistic hopes for an OCS appointment after VN if I could return healthy. Our West Point honor grad lieutenant was and is a wonder for his greatness and continued friendship. Same for our Battalion Commander, as I knew him well, running patrols for him and I was nearby when he lost his legs. I also knew Westmoreland in passing...I was a soldier he visited 3 times to ask me to speak to him candidly of my views, complaints, "anything at all." I got to ride door gunner for him for about an hour one afternoon as well. It was a nice honor. Guys around us respected Gen Westmoreland.

Probably less than a dozen people have ever asked me about my war stories. Though when they have I have felt I’d rather not discuss how medals get distributed. It is a trap, because one cannot talk of the tackiness, self-serving, unwarranted, close proximity to a handy type writer without it appearing as sour grapes! Many a tongue would do the verse, "if you cannot say something good, then say nothing at all." So if we sing the same song it will always be the same chorus.

Though I would most approve of matter of fact medals...did the thing get the thing, bias absent, less archaic. I witnessed some guys refuse medals due to the hypocrisy of them, and some refuse just to be gracious. And then there is a point man I knew (sorry, not me) who was a runner up for running point. He was hit 3 different times, one deforming his right forearm...he healed each time and came right back later to run point again, and again.

Often a radio message would come in that one of us is due a medal of this or that type because of a significant recent accomplishment. Sick way to do it...never did my eyes see them going where they were deserved, but rather to those who 'took' (taken farther -- back). I think that point man did not take. Everyone was too over traveled and exhausted, filthy, hungry, and thirsty to care. The "mile long stare" applies.

Salty said...

Our Vietnam experiences were varied. Some of us served on the ground, some in the air, some offshore...many of us were close enough to draw "combat pay" -- about $65/mo. if I recall correctly. I was offshore providing NGFS, but close enough to hear the ground fire pop-pop-popping, see the flares go up at dusk, and see the tracers flying in both directions many evenings.

Those times were most thought provoking. I'm sitting on a large fantail trunnion after dinner, freshly showered, clean clothes, holding a hot cup of coffee watching the fireworks show a mile or two away over on the beach, and thinking, "there but for the grace of God go I." Everyone aboard got a gallantry medal for being there; however, I didn't discover having received the award until over 30-years had passed and I requested my medals from BUPERS. I don't recall feeling gallant. PS