Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Generals

To misquote SpongeBob "First thing we do is fire all the Generals" 

This is the basic prescription of military journalist and writer Tom Ricks, who, in his new book, The Generals, blames our lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s and our political leaders’ having lost the ability or willingness to fire failing generals. Unfortunately, many commentators are accepting this formula as true without asking some hard questions, such as: When and for what reasons should a general be fired?

 Should the Continental Congress, for instance, have sent George Washington into an early retirement after his dismal performance defending New York City? Should Lincoln have cashiered Grant after his less-than-stellar performance at Shiloh, or possibly a bit later, when he wasted six months flailing about in failed attempts to approach Vicksburg? Was General Lee ready for the scrap heap after his early failures in what is now West Virginia? 

Should President Wilson have called Pershing home, after he sat idle for over a year before getting into the fight and then, at the start of the great Meuse-Argonne offensive, saw his army mauled and stopped in its tracks? 

Should Roosevelt or the Joint Chiefs have fired Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher after he delivered so-so results at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and in the process lost one of our three precious carriers and had a second crippled? Of course, if Fletcher had been fired, he would not have been present at Midway, where he smashed the Japanese fleet and changed the course of the war.

After the World War II debacle at the Kasserine Pass, a corps commander, General Lloyd Fredenall, was fired. But the Army chief of staff, General George Marshall, could just as easily have found cause to fire Fredenall’s boss — General Eisenhower. I will spare you the list of superiors who could just as easily have been held responsible for setbacks as their fired subordinates. Suffice it to say, it is a long one, and populated with the names of some of our most famous commanders

So what explains the large number of reliefs in earlier wars and their paucity in the past decade of conflict? Mainly, it is a matter of the huge mobilizations required for those earlier wars. During America’s great wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, we created huge armies out of almost nothing.  

But such is not the case in today’s military. Every general officer in Iraq and Afghanistan achieved his rank only after at least two decades, proving his competence and preparing for advancement at each level. Long before they were promoted to the rank of general, our combat commanders had proven themselves as company, battalion, and brigade commanders, a level at which failures are often met with relief. Even after those experiences, almost every general in line to command one of our ten combat divisions still had to serve as assistant division commander for a couple of years before being entrusted with the division.

As Clausewitz put it: “War is an extension of politics by other means.” Thus, generals take their orders from politicians — and it is right that they do so. By 2006, our generals knew how to win in both Iraq and Afghanistan; all they required was the resources to do so and the time (winning a counterinsurgency always takes time). Instead, from 2008 on, resources began to dwindle, and commanders were told to start heading for the exits. Regardless of whether this was the right policy, it does explain the ultimate result.

Pic - "The Generals"