Sunday, October 28, 2012

Why Doesn't America Fire Generals?

Reporter Tom Ricks investigates a major change in the US military since World War II: a strange reluctance to hold generals responsible for the combat performance of their men, and to reward those who succeed and fire those who fail. In World War II, dismissing or re-assigning officers who failed was almost routine:
Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders.
Ricks describes the history of the 90th Infantry Division, which in the summer of 1944 went through three commanders in a matter of months; Omar Bradley told the third, "We’re going to make that division go, if we’ve got to can every senior officer in it." They pretty much did. Partly as a result, the 90th eventually emerged as a highly effective fighting force.

But not any more:
Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars—each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history—and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . .

Many Americans remember the Iraq War as a string of mistakes by the Bush administration—from overestimating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to underestimating the difficulty of occupying the country. While that perception is correct, it hardly tells the entire story. In 2007, Philip Zelikow, who had been the State Department’s counselor as the war in Iraq descended into chaos, told me, “I think the situation is worse than people realize, and the problems are primarily with the military.” Discussing American generalship in Iraq over the course of the war, he added: “I don’t think people realized how bad this was … The American people believe the problem is, the civilians didn’t listen to the generals. This is very unhealthy for the Army.” The U.S. Army in Iraq, Zelikow said, reminded him of the French army before World War I: “The military is venerated. It is the inheritor of Napoleon. The general is decorated with gold braid—but there’s no ‘there’ there. There is an aversion to deep thinking.”
Look back to the Civil War, and note how many generals Lincoln went through before he found one who could beat Robert E. Lee. And beating Lee, given the North's great superiority in every sort of resource, was not really that hard of a problem, certainly easier for a traditional military mind than defeating the Taliban. It cannot be said enough that commanding an army in combat is very, very hard. The few men who excel at it are remembered for as long as the record lasts, the great heroes of their age -- Alexander, Hannibal, Napoleon. For an army to assume, as the US military now seems to assume, that every competent peacetime officer is up to the job is absolute madness.

Part of the problem, as Ricks notes, is the political vacuum within which these wars were fought. Nobody in the Bush administration had a clear idea of what we were doing in either Afghanistan or Iraq, so it was hard to know which officers were accomplishing the mission. But the bureaucratic attitude of the Army has become a major obstacle to our actually winning wars, and there should be a major rethink of our approach to combat command.

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