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Generals Are Playing Vital Civilian Role Now

This article originally appeared in the AJC on August 12, 2017

By Teresa Tomlinson

Progressives from around the country are uncharacteristically applauding the placement of military generals within the Trump Administration. Tweets and posts note tongue-in-check sentiments such as: “I never thought I would say this, but can we get even more generals in the White House?” or “Any chance of a military coup?”

Citizens who typically reject the mixing of the military and the civilian government with the same ferocity as they reject the mixing of church and state have changed their tune. President Donald Trump, it seems, is so erratic and seemingly immune to normal checks and balances that even traditional skeptics are calmed by career military officers — Generals Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly — being placed in the president’s inner circle and reportedly being given broad authority to act.

It is not the directive nature of a general’s rank and power in the face of chaos that is providing the comfort. It is the sense, sadly, that they actually know more about the proper role and function of government than most all the rest of us.

Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is one of four Commanding Generals that I have had the good fortune to see in action at the Ft. Benning Maneuver Center of Excellence in Columbus, Georgia, where I serve as Mayor. Ft. Benning houses the Army Infantry, Armor, Airborne and Ranger Schools. Commanding Generals do a two-year stint at Ft. Benning and thereafter most receive a third star and an impressive new assignment. Yet, my comments here are not limited to the Commanding Generals or even Army officers. You will see the traits I relay here in almost all high-ranking officers from each branch of service.

Most military officers are Renaissance men and women. Because of our country’s dictates of civilian government, they are indoctrinated to the separation of the military and governance. They are magnificently conversant in international affairs and the core building blocks of community and government. They are educated, well read, and aware of broad cultural, economic, and social issues. They study and master leadership. They know their military expertise and, though they wish it were deferred to more often, they dutifully adhere to the principles of our civilian-ruled Republic because they believe in it and have offered to die for it. They are the type of people you want with you when headed into a trek or challenge.

The more officers you know, the prouder you would be — with some notable exceptions. I remember one general who, in the face of rank gender bias leveled against the newly elected, first female mayor of Columbus, Georgia, dramatically showed old-minded civilian men how to be statesmen and how to respect elected leadership. I recall a general telling me a moving recount of his first foray into battle – the insightful, even poetic, impressions of a then-young man. There was yet another general who selflessly joined in a battle to save a small, women’s college in Virginia because he honors smart, well-prepared women leaders. These officers are truly extraordinary people.

We have never needed these generals more, and yet the fact that we have never needed them more is a disturbing realization of where we are in this country. We have so atrophied the civic muscle of civilians that only military officers it seems understand our government, its importance and how it should run. We have so relegated our understanding of government to politics and propaganda that few civilian statesmen exist. The fact that our military officers, and not our elected officials, are trying to pull us away from the hate of trans-gender bigotry and derisive anti-global nationalism is a testament to how far we have fallen as a nation of would-be leaders. Long ago, we civilians drank anti-government Kool-Aid and as a result put too many who actually do hate government in charge of running it. Interestingly, it turns out their hatred of government is based on their lack of understanding of how it works and, voila, we have people who do not understand government running it. Our response to this 30 plus-year anti-government journey is to wring our hands at the misfortune of a poorly run, ineffective government and ask: how did we get here?

Be glad that we have such capable, respectable generals to call upon in our time of need. Be concerned that we have to rely on generals to help run our civilian executive branch. I would bet they, too, share the concern that it has come to this.


Teresa Pike Tomlinson is the nonpartisan mayor of the Columbus, Georgia, Consolidated Government. Now in her second term, she was first elected in 2010.

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