My Turn, Roger Barbee: Nothing good can come from ‘grilling’ of general

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 18, 2022

“Former President Donald Trump’s allies in Congress are planning to use congressional investigations to put the spotlight on one of his most prominent critics — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley — should Republicans take control of the House in November’s midterms, say six people familiar with the plans.”

The above paragraph from NBC news on Sept. 14, causes me to remember another report of a Congressional “grilling” as told by Wallace Stegner in his book “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West).”

Major Powell had been working on an irrigation survey to help in the settlement of western land and better ensure success for its agricultural needs in the arid region beyond the 100th meridian. In his appearances before the House Appropriations Committee in June and July of 1890 he tried to explain to the senators how his topographical survey would enhance irrigation in the arid west. He was “grilled” by members of the committee, but Senators Moody of South Dakota and Stewart of Nevada were especially hostile toward Major Powell and his charts and proofs. In the end, the committee shot down Powell’s maps that helped define the best ways of irrigation and relied on “natural conditions and natural enterprise” to manage water in such an arid region. In the June meeting of the committee, Senator Moody said: “Of course I have got a great respect for scientifically educated gentlemen, and I am always very much interested in their researches and all that, but you cannot satisfy an ordinary man by any theoretical scheme or by any science… One man can see in the ground no farther than another, unless there is a hole in it.”

The arid lands would be opened for homesteaders and the issue of water would be resolved by natural factors. Major Powell could take his maps and studies away.

The history of water and our West is not a pretty one. Major Powell called water in that region liquid gold, and while no one knows what would have happened had our government heeded his maps and knowledge, we know that the controllers of the arid region west of the 100th meridian established what we now see as, questionable at best, poor water controls. And the ache continues today. The “natural conditions and natural enterprise” of the 1890 House Appropriations Committee has failed, and that may a lesson for any Republican officials who are eager to “grill” Gen. Milley.

First of all, “grilling” someone is a doubtful strategy for acquiring information and knowledge which can be used to move our nation forward. I watched the grilling of a former secretary of state and still wonder what good all that energy and effort achieved for our country. Interrupting and berating a witness, in my view, never achieves anything positive and useful, just as the 1890 committee did. It ignored an expert and in Stegner’s words, “the ambitious, the venal, the acquisitive, the myth-bound West … insisted on running into the future like a streetcar on a gravel road.”

The 1890 senators did not have or want to have, the knowledge of Powell, and any senators of today do not know or understand the military as does Gen. Milley. He is a professional who has spent his career in the service of our nation. He did not rise to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by being anything but stellar. Senators who have an ax to grind with Gen. Milley may interrupt him, twist information, or outright lie, but none that I know of are good enough to “grill him.”

If the Republicans win the mid-term elections and call Gen. Milley to testify, I hope that the elected leaders will take the opportunity and learn from him. I hope whatever they resolve will help our nation move forward and be better in the future. I hope they do not repeat the mistakes of the 1890 House Appropriations Committee. And, if Gen. Milley is called to testify, I remind him of this adage, “Your superiors won’t hurt you, and your inferiors can’t.”