Pakistan is not the only place where politicians, judges and bureaucrats are jealous of generals. Real cause of jealousy is not the capacity of generals to rule from behind the curtain. It is the perks and privileges traditionally enjoyed by the top military leadership. Even in places like the US, privileges of generals are far more than those even dreamed of by the civilian rulers, sometimes including the president and the defense secretary. The generals have troops at their disposal; they have personal jets, personal staff, palatial homes and everything else that could inspire heart-burn. The present wave of general-bashing could be a part of a wider scheme to review and revoke the privileges. FBI may have unearthed a scandal of the century, but the conduct of this probe is downright partisan fueling speculations that FBI may have its own motives to cut the generals to size.
According to a report published by The Washington Post, perks and privileges enjoyed by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff included a chef, a personal valet and troops to tend his property whereas his next door neighbor, his boss defense secretary Gates, had none of this. Gates may have been the civilian leader of the world’s largest military, but his position did not come with household staff. So, he often joked, he disposed of his leaves by blowing them onto the chairman’s lawn. He wryly complained to his wife that “Mullen’s got guys over there who are fixing meals for him, and I’m shoving something into the microwave. And I’m his boss.”
Of the many facts that have come to light in the scandal involving former CIA director David H. Petraeus, among the most curious was that during his days as a four-star general, he was once escorted by 28 police motorcycles as he traveled from his Central Command headquarters in Tampa to socialite Jill Kelley’s mansion. Although most of his trips did not involve a presidential-size convoy, the scandal has prompted new scrutiny of the imperial trappings that come with a senior general’s lifestyle.
According to the report, the commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.
The elite regional commanders, equivalent of corps commanders, who preside over large swaths of the planet don’t have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, some of which are configured with beds. Although American generals have long enjoyed many perks — in World War II and in Vietnam, some dined on china set atop linen tablecloths — the amenities afforded to today’s military leaders are more lavish than anyone else in government enjoys, save for the president.
Some retired generals have defended the benefits accorded to their active-duty brethren, noting that many of them work 18-hour days, six to seven days a week. They manage budgets that dwarf those of large multinational companies and are responsible for the lives of thousands of young men and women under their command. Compared with today’s plutocrats, their pay is modest. In 2013, the base salary for a four-star general with at least 38 years of service will be almost $235,000, although federal personnel regulations limit their take-home pay to $179,700. Unlike top civilians in government, top generals also receive free housing and subsidies for food and uniforms. And when they retire, those who have served at least 40 years get an annual pension that is slightly more than active-duty base pay — this year it is $236,650. Several generals noted that perks, such as planes, cars and staff aides, are constrained by hundreds of pages of rules designed to ensure that they are used only for government business.
Those who feel really bad about the generals’ perks should seriously think about sending their scions for military service. The perks are not usurped, these are earned. And it is a matter of cut-throat competition, and not mere bloodline, to reach the top of the ladder. It is a world of competition where your capacity and capability to lead may be exposed. No one, particularly those grumbling about military perks, would be prepared to take the risk.
- Op-Ed Contributor: The Petraeus Effect on Military Marriage (nytimes.com)
- Generals know better: An inside look at the military’s charm schools (stripes.com)