The ‘Downton Abbey’ Generals

As Official Washington lusts for a new Cold War all the better to fleece the taxpayers on behalf of the Military-Industrial Complex there are also smaller perks that the powerful prefer, like U.S. generals having enlisted soldiers perform as their personal servants like the wait staff on “Downton Abbey,” notes Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

If there is one refrain that officials at the Department of Defense repeat with dogged persistence, it is that our military is underfunded. DOD testimony to Congress brims over with references to budget cuts. This meme has spread to the point where many in the public think that we spend too little on defense. Republican presidential candidates certainly talk as if they believe it.

This is despite the fact that the Pentagon’s budget has nearly doubled since 9/11. Adjusted for inflation, we are spending substantially more on the military than the average Pentagon budget during the Cold War.


A related complaint is a purported lack of military personnel. As the saying goes, the military is “stretched thin” and has to “do more with less.” Accordingly, several candidates would increase the “end strength” (the congressionally authorized personnel numbers) of the various services.

After hearing this unremitting dirge about military austerity, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Army is soliciting its troops to become full-time aides to generals. What does this involve? According to the Army Times, “duties typically include:

  • Maintaining the general’s uniforms.
  • Planning and executing official military social events.
  • Daily meal preparation, to include menu development, shopping and storing of rations.
  • Administrative requirements and record-keeping of finances.
  • Household management, to include the upkeep of a general’s assigned quarters.
  • Perform other tasks that assist the general in the performance of his or her official duties.”

Translated into plain English, the Army is looking for Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey, with our generals playing the role of the Earl of Grantham. Given that there are around 300 U.S. Army generals, this means that a similar number of enlisted personnel is involved. The equivalent number of soldiers could fill out the combat slots for two full infantry companies, which makes you wonder about the Army’s priorities.

When then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ordered a comprehensive privatization of military logistics in 1992, support functions like Army mess halls were privatized. As a consequence, our military cannot feed itself, and must rely on contractors like Halliburton (of which Cheney, conveniently, was CEO from 1995 to 2000) for meals, including in combat zones. Even what formerly counted as core military functions, like guarding military installations, are now largely privatized. Yet preparing canapés for a dinner party is a core military mission that cannot be privatized.

Does a general, in addition to free lodging not subject to taxation and subsidized food, need a full-time government-supplied servant? If the social whirl in which they engage is so exhausting, perhaps a caterer could supply the eats and booze.

Members of Congress, by the way, are prohibited from using their publicly paid staff for purely personal tasks. Although this rule is sometimes honored more in the breach than the observance, former Congressman Jim Traficant landed in the federal slammer for (among other charges) using his staff to do chores at his home.

Perhaps there is the perception that a general, with a salary limited by statute, needs this perk in view of responsibilities vastly greater than his paycheck. Unfortunately, the image of Cincinnatus, the Roman commander who returned to his plow once victory was won, has faded.

General Robert E. Lee, it is said, lived out his life in near penury, refusing to shill as a product endorser because it would mean cashing in on the blood his men had spilled. George C. Marshall, America’s organizer of victory in World War II, also spent his retirement following the stern code of a soldier in a constitutional republic.

Now the overwhelming drive among general and flag officers is to cash in. As it is with so many congressmen and executive branch officials, their time in office is really just a stepping stone to making a killing.

Just as Robert Rubin and Trent Lott profited beyond the dreams of avarice after leaving government service, General David Petraeus, despite the embarrassing denouement to his career, became a partner at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P., a Wall Street leveraged buyout firm. His previous experience in investment banking is doubtful, but obviously KKR was in the market for a Beltway-connected door opener.

Gen. David Petraeus in a photo with his biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell. (U.S. government photo)

Gen. David Petraeus in a photo with his biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell. (U.S. government photo)

Petraeus is the exception in one respect: about 70 percent of his colleagues end up in the executive suites or board rooms of the very defense contractors they were supposed to have kept honest during their military careers.

According to a 2011 Bloomberg News article, “The top 10 U.S. defense contractors have 30 retired senior officers or former national secu­rity officials serving on their boards. Press releases issued by those companies since 2008 announced the hiring of almost two dozen prominent flag officers or senior officials as high-ranking execu­tives.” The article also states that senior executives at the largest U.S. defense contractors are paid from $1 million to $11 million a year.

Beyond the fact that the Army, if we believe its doomsaying about its budget, can’t spare valuable active-duty personnel for a frivolous activity, and that generals are not exactly underpaid, there is something degrading about the whole business. The tradition of military commanders being fawned over by uniformed servants is a hangover from the feudal-aristocratic tradition of Europe, when officers were noblemen and the troops were considered, in the testimony of the Duke of Wellington, “the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink.”

It is hardly fitting for a democratic republic to think of generals as nobility or of soldiers as servants. It’s time to end this silly anachronism.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees. His new book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, appeared January 5, 2016.

10 comments for “The ‘Downton Abbey’ Generals

  1. bobzz
    February 18, 2016 at 17:17

    According to a USA Today article, 8/17/2010: “Soldiers, sailors and Marines received average compensation of $122,263 per person in 2009, up from $58,545 in 2000…$70,168 in pay and $52,095 in benefits—includes the value of housing, medical care, pensions, hazardous duty incentives, enlistment bonuses and combat pay in war zones.”
    “You have to have a good compensation package if you want to recruit and retain the best people,” Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez says.”
    “Killeen, Texas, home of the Army’s Fort Hood is today more affluent than Austin, the state capital and university town 60 miles away.”

    Have no idea what it would be today. It seems our youngsters are not volunteering so much as being recruited for a dangerous game of American roulette.

    • Jacob
      February 21, 2016 at 21:54

      “‘Killeen, Texas, home of the Army’s Fort Hood is today more affluent than Austin, the state capital and university town 60 miles away.'”

      According to, the per-capita income in Killeen, Texas is $19, 810 and the median household income is $44,799. The reported amounts may vary by different sources. These numbers signify that Killeen is a relatively low-income area, typical of local economies that depend on the presence of a military base.

  2. whiteyward
    February 18, 2016 at 09:21

    The all volunteer military has left the USA with a huge bloated officers corps. Thousands of bases all staffed with officers just waiting for retirement. The enlisted are exhausted with repeat oil wars so they do not stick around like the officers.

  3. JCC
    February 18, 2016 at 00:25

    I ate Haliburton meals as a contractor in Iraq. They were absolute shit and couldn’t hold a candle to the meals I ate when I was in the Service back in the early 80’s.

    I’m surprised the Generals aren’t hiring contractors for these positions, maybe they should be calling Haliburton and pay Haliburton a cool $250K to $300K contacting fee per man for the privilege.

  4. John N
    February 17, 2016 at 14:28

    A quick Google sessions reveals:

    Today’s U.S. Navy: 285 active duty ships, 216 admirals

    Maybe our more basic problem is that we have too many admirals and generals.

    Way too many….

  5. John Buquoi
    February 16, 2016 at 21:39

    tropic lightning, củ chi base

    ankle deep in the mud
    of a malarial peanut farm
    scraped from ancient jungle
    now rome plowed clear,
    agent oranged,
    poisoned, defoliated deep,
    the division troops,
    the 11-bravos, ‘grunts’
    are tented in fetid favelas
    of rotting surplus canvas
    from korea, world war two,
    (now blue hazed in mary jane)
    to endure beyond combat
    the heat, the bugs, the rats,
    the endless monsoon
    and the most inelegant
    mess chow mélange
    slung to steel trays
    by much better fed,
    sloven, sweat-soaked
    sous chefs du jour

    in the commanding
    general’s mess
    nestled in officer country’s
    manicured, suburban
    emerald otherworld
    of putting green lawns
    and air conditioned luxury
    command staff trailers,
    privacy fenced and gated,
    guarded against the envy
    and anger of their own troops,
    obsequious white smocked
    young soldiers bow and serve
    at white linened tables,
    the lobster, shrimp,
    filet mignon, prime rib,
    and cabernet, then light cigars
    for the general and his staff,
    fresh from the social stress
    and bourboned branch
    of the pre-meal open bar

    the general’s waitstaff,
    chosen from among
    his troops in the field
    found to have performed
    meritoriously and
    deemed most worthy
    of his boon reward assigned
    as favored staff garçons,
    replace departed predecessors,
    out of favor late unworthies,
    who have displeased,
    or just not measured up
    to command expectations
    as proper table servants
    and been banished back,
    re-condemned to combat units
    where their punishment,
    up to and including
    even death itself,
    will be delivered by
    the unpampered enemy

    -excerpted from ‘snapshots from the edge of a war’
    – john buquoi

  6. Erik
    February 16, 2016 at 21:27

    The same problem exists among the Supreme Court clerks, largely effeminate boys who know nothing, chosen to flatter if not sexually service the tyrants. They see the right wing imperative and throw out petitions for certiorari (to accept cases for review) based on nothing but anti-constitutional prejudice. Not surprising that the fake “justices” did their pretty boys a favor on gay rights.

    I know this from direct experience: those who doubt this must check their facts.

    Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore lampoons such an office boy of the admiralty:
    “I polished those doorknobs so carefully,
    that now I am an admiral in the King’s Navy!”
    The knobs in question were not on doors.

    The same was done in promoting Souter from a mere clerk to Supreme Court judge. No doubt he had too many secrets of the judges to be denied the highest recommendations.

    And no doubt he had the qualifications of the SCOTUS clerk I dealt with recently on two cases, who was so obtuse and unrelenting in making false objections to correct type sizes, proven to him and the SCOTUS clerks’ boss by receipts and measurements several times, that they had to be threatened with being sued for fraud in the Court of Federal Claims, before they would accept that the petitions were formatted correctly. They did not know basic arithmetic, let alone law, and were either demanding bribes or demonstrating that their skills lay solely in getting their hands into the judges’ pants if not their pockets.

    Those who feel outraged must direct your outrage at the real situation.

  7. Zachary Smith
    February 16, 2016 at 19:36

    Yet preparing canapés for a dinner party is a core military mission that cannot be privatized.

    Sure it could, but that would mean that the General would have to go out and hire somebody who wasn’t basically a helpless personal slave. A person who he would have to pay a normal wage, with overtime and vacations and the rest.

    This is just awful. But since it is totally under the radar of 99.9 percent of US citizens, it’s going to happen. Soon the lazy star-studded bastards will have more free time for ass-kissing and back-stabbing in their make-work jobs.

  8. Brad Owen
    February 16, 2016 at 16:52

    Now how far away are we from Generals (or Admirals) vying for “The Emperor’s Throne” supported by their private armies (or the Admirals’ Marines) of Legionaires? Is there a genuine Cincinnatus among them? Looking at the “Clown Slap-Fight” of the GOP, this couldn’t be any worse. Let’s just let a good old Army-Navy football game settle the issue. Oh how I wish FDR’s New Deal alphabet agencies prevailed in the post-war forties, over the Military-Industrial-Nat’l Security Complex.

    • Procopius
      February 19, 2016 at 09:30

      I don’t foresee Praetorianism in our future. Unlike Roman military commanders, modern generals do not develop loyalty in their troops. In the Roman legions each general had a responsibility to provide for the time when his soldiers would be too old to fight, and this gave him the chance to make them promises of a comfortable retirement if they followed him without question. Our modern generals mostly have the same attitude as the CEOs of the companies they corruptly support. They despise the soldiers who serve under they and make no effort to earn their respect or loyalty.

Comments are closed.