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Monday, December 3, 2012
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There’s an interesting article in the November 2012 Atlantic mag about the inept military leadership provided by today’s Army generals (“General Failure” by Thomas E. Ricks). Mr. Ricks suggests that today’s Army high command should be more aggressive in replacing generals who aren’t getting results on the battlefield — as the Army did quite frequently during WW2. He presents a well-detailed, well-documented argument to support his contentions, with various examples of ineffective military leadership in the recent Iraqi and Afghanistan campaigns. (Interestingly, Ricks does not mention Harry Truman’s dismissal of General MacArthur; but I will do so here, to point out that political leaders also got involved in firing the top-dog soldiers. Arguably, MacArthur’s sins were different, not on the battlefield but in the political arena; but good generals need to know how to play the political game just as effectively as they can calculate artillery positions).

Ironically, this article came out just a few weeks before former General David Petraeus (as CIA Director) was sacked for marital infidelity. In the article, Mr. Ricks cites General Petraeus as one of the few good generals the Army had seen in the Iraq and Afghanistan battles of the past decade. Recall that in WW2, the golden age of general “relief” according to Ricks, it was well known that many of the top brass were having extramarital affairs. But so long as they were winning battles, everyone involved was content to look the other way.

Mr. Ricks does not deal with the fact that the world of political and military leadership is quite different today than it was back in the 1940s. Information technology has propelled a 24-hour news cycle, and the press and public is now privy to much information that once went unseen. That sounds great, but perhaps the public now knows TOO much. If the Army chiefs and Congress and the White House were to go back to their old ways of aggressively firing and replacing battlefield generals, guess who would insist in joining the party? Yes, the New York Times and NBC and NPR and Fox News and CNN, etc.

Do we really want our generals looking over their shoulders at the press mikes and video cameras whenever they make decisions about putting young lives in the line of fire for the sake of national security? Or when they need some human tenderness in the midst of a hellish campaign far from home? Perhaps it is for the best, or at least understandable, that the high command today tries to insulate our battlefield generals more than in olden times.

Mr. Ricks also contends that our generals today get away with weak strategic thinking because the Army has become very effective on the tactical level. Ricks says “consider a US military at the other extreme — tactically mediocre and manned with unmotivated troops . . . it is hard to imagine the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan [then] being allowed to meander for years without serious strategic review and direction. Yet meander they did . . . unless something changes at the top, it is not hard to see our future wars devolving into similarly rudderless messes, held together by [motivated and tactically excellent] rank-and-file troops, who bear the heaviest cost.”

Actually, if Mr. Ricks were willing to turn a few pages in the history books, he could well imagine the “tactically mediocre and unmotivated” situation. This very accurately describes the state of the United States military during most of the Civil War. In the first year of the Civil War, it became apparent that the Confederacy got the best generals and officers, and that its ill-equipped troops fought with much more passion than the guys in blue did. Despite excruciating political pressure on President Lincoln (go see Spielberg’s Lincoln if you haven’t yet) and much press coverage (aided by the information technology innovation of the day, i.e. the telegraph), the Union’s military campaign to end the secession was indeed “allowed to meander for years without serious strategic review and direction”.

There isn’t much evidence (that I am aware of) regarding aggressive “relief” of unsuccessful line generals by the Union during the Civil War. There were many Union generals, such as Maj. General Benjamin Butler, who had strong political ties and thus were untouchable for too long. On the highest level, though, President Lincoln did eventually learn how to fire his top generals for lack of cooperation and proper direction (McClellan) or incompetence (Burnside, Hooker). And after four bloody and terrible years, Lincoln finally found the guys he needed to put Bobby Lee out of business in Virginia (though not in any hurry). I.e., the emergence of Grant, Sheridan, and to a limited degree, Meade (a good tactician who saved the Union at Gettysburg, but not much of a strategist). By early 1864, it was also fairly clear that Union commanders such as Sherman and Thomas, following on the early victories of Grant, were shutting down Bragg, Johnston, Pemberton and Hood in the far southern and western stretches of the Confederacy.

Oh, speaking of general relief — recall that Jefferson Davis relieved General Johnston with John Bell Hood in 1864, a move later judged to be a general disaster.

So, I’m not so sure that there is any easy answer to the problem of Army generals who “don’t seem to get it”, as in Vietnam and Iraq. The churning that Mr. Ricks urges occurs mostly on the political level, not on the part of a wise council of gray-haired former battle commanders. Perhaps there was an exception to that rule during WW2, given the difficulties of extensive press coverage and Presidential oversight of distant battlefields in the 1940s; but in today’s hyper-connected media-driven world, everything is public and political. And politics is a messy and inexact process, messier still in a democratic / free-speech system like ours.

The “solution” to the “general problem” in the 21st Century is probably going to look more like the Civil War (and WW1) than WW2. I.e, it will involve a lot of hit-or-miss efforts, a frustrating Darwinian process through which the most able (both strategically and tactically) will eventually winnow their way to the top (hopefully). In some instances (e.g. the “Cold War” nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union of the 60’s and 70’s, and the 1991 Iraq invasion of Kuwait) we will have the right generals in the right spots; in others we won’t (Vietnam). But in most military confrontations, it will be a mix, as in Korea and Iraq 2 and Afghanistan, plus the on-going “war on terrorism” with its covert operations and drone-strikes.

Bottom line — despite the good intent of people like Thomas Ricks to make the military more effective, war is always going to be a nasty, chaotic, and wasteful enterprise. There is no way to make it well-managed, efficient and predictable. Perhaps Mr. Ricks is right that our military has gone too far in protecting its battle commanders from scrutiny; perhaps the philosophy of “relief with a second chance” should be applied more often. Mr. Ricks cites three instances of initially incompetent battle leadership in WW2, where the generals involved were given second chances and eventually did make valuable contributions.

Even in the Civil War, the ‘second chance’ philosophy worked in at least one instance, i.e. regarding General Ambrose Burnside (check out his picture; yes, the world “sideburns” comes from his last name!). Recall that in 1862 Burnside was chosen by Lincoln to lead the Union Army once the President finally decided that McClellan was not giving 100% to the Union cause (such as Mr. Lincoln would define that cause; obviously McClellan had his own ideas on what “the cause” was). A few months later, Burnside led the Union to disaster at Fredricksburg. He was quickly and ironically replaced with “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who led the boys in blue to an even worse disaster at Chancellorsville. Then came George Meade, something of an improvement, but not the right guy to be top dog. And of course, Lincoln finally found his man in Ulysses S. Grant. (The press today would have a field day with Grant’s boozing habits).

But Burnside stayed in the Army and continued to fight. And he fought successfully at Knoxville in late 1863, lifting the Confederate siege of that city despite its being led by one of the best Confederate Generals, “Old Pete” Longstreet. Of course, Burnside went on to further disrepute for the 1864 Petersburg Crater incident. But arguably, the Union’s failure at the Crater was at least in part caused by General Meade, who stopped the planned Union charge following the explosion because Burnside had planned to use an African-American regiment. The element of surprise, the key point of the crater operation, was thus squandered. Burnside took the blame and was relieved, while Meade stayed on. (Another unfavorable example of “general relief”).

Would Burnside have even been allowed to have continued on at Knoxville under today’s hyper-hyped-up press environment? Would there ever be second chances for beaten generals if we expand (and thus digitally democratize) the process of relieving and replacing our battle commanders? I very much like Mr. Ricks’ article, but I believe that the realities of war leadership in a democratic state in the 21st century are a good bit more complicated than he makes them out to be. Ditto for the whole idea of getting involved in wars. We do need to find better ways to select and develop our military leaders. But regardless of how that goes, things will always get very messy and unfortunate once the opening shots are fired.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:42 pm      

  1. Jim, I don’t know if it’s just me or what; but I think I would rephrase this question/problem or issue (can’t quite put a name to it) somewhat. I’d make it both more broad and yet more specific. But I am willing to admit that maybe it’s just how I see things, that I’m not really looking at things the way you (or the author of the article) are. Anyway. . .

    What bothers me about all these scandals these days (Petraeus is just the latest) is this: Is the person’s personal life important in how he/she functions in his/her professional life? For instance, I think of General Petraeus you mention; I can also think of Bill Clinton and his impeachment and attempt by Congress to get him out of office. There are many others, e.g., John Edwards comes to mind as another case. Then there are several other less well-known individuals with their own similar cases, several of them members of Congress or holding other offices. Their names don’t come to mind quickly here; how soon we forget.

    Then I think of John Kennedy whose dalliances with women have become well known long after the fact of those who were involved have been dead. Another was FDR. Even when their private lives became public, long after their lives were over, most people reacted in a “so what” manner. There definitely was *not* the sense of scandal that rages these days when someone like Petraeus or Bill Clinton are found out.

    I find myself asking: Why was it that Kennedy and FDR (for only two) could do a great job (well as we see so far) and still have their private lives remain private. It seems to me it was because the media chose not to splash everything across the headlines and hype up the proclivities of these individuals. In fact it’s been said that Kennedy’s private life was “off limits” to the press, as must have been the case with FDR too. What has changed in our society that makes the same kind of living so scandalous when a mere 40 or 50 years ago nobody mentioned it? (I say a “mere” 40 or 50 years as it was well within my own lifetime and thus seems to be “only” that long ago.) True, 2 or 3 generations have passed. But are those generations *better* morally than the ones 40 or 50 years ago? If I had to guess, I’d think they’re about the same morally.

    Yes, I can see your point that if a general is not doing a good job, he should be thrown out of the job immediately. Yet it seems that in the past “not doing a good job” has not really been a cause for dismissal. But let the man (it’s been men so far it seems) have a mistress or even a long series of one night stands and be found out, and the country is outraged. I also wonder what would happen should a woman achieve a high office and be found to have an affair. Would the outrage be the same?

    It would seem to me that the outrage should be rather the “not doing a good job” so as to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of military personnel and not whether or not he has had a woman on the side. And this holds for not only generals but other offices. Yes, of course, the pretense with Clinton was that he lied and covered up his affair. Yet the gasp of outrage that seemed to swell through the ranks of those who had power to impeach him seemed somehow to enrage some of the very men (again it seems it was men more than women) who themselves were carrying on with a woman on the side (so to say).

    I find myself wondering if the outrage is more a matter of “I better make sure I don’t get caught myself” more than anything else. Or it’s a pure and simple political attempt to remove an opponent from office—-a “now we got ya” kind of thing.

    I am not disagreeing at all or in any way with the problem of those who don’t do their job well and cost the lives of so many men (all of whom are on a lower level of rank). What I am wondering about is: Why are incompetents kept in office as long as they do not offend the mores of those who have the power to remove them? At least this is how I see this question. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 4, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

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