Sunday, June 24, 2007

Judging the Generals, Part II

"As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

--Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, United States Army

Part I of "Judging the Generals" generated an array of feedback, much of which spoke in defense of our senior-most military officers. As I wrote previously, part of me wants to sympathize with the four-stars running the show. They have a tough job. They're involved in a war our military isn't designed to fight, they have been subject to the rule of very bad civilian leadership, and every new guy who steps up into a four-star billet inherits a nightmare that wasn't necessarily of his predecessor's making.

But let's look at a few realities. America, the sole superpower, spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined and yet is bogged down militarily in two third world potholes. If our senior generals and admirals don't bear a large measure of culpability for that, who does?

Revolt of the Light Colonels

Lieutenant Colonel Yingling's Armed Forces Journal article titled "A Failure in Generalship" has grabbed national attention. Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post describes it as "a blistering attack on U.S. generals, saying they have botched the war in Iraq and misled Congress about the situation there."

According to Ricks, Yingling decided to write his article after attending Purple Heart ceremonies for American soldiers. He found it "hard to look them in the eye." In an interview, Yingling stated, "Our generals are not worthy of their soldiers."

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hanley offers a similar perspective in his recent Proceedings article (login required) titled "Now Hear This: Send the Best and the Brightest."

Like Yingling, Hanley decries the "intellectual and moral poverty of senior military leaders." Hanley believes our military education system is largely to blame. "General officers are drawn from the ranks of colonels who have completed one of the senior war colleges." But these war colleges are "less institutions of higher learning" than "finishing schools that measure success by the uniformity of temperament their graduates demonstrably possess."

This educational process, according to Hanley, is in keeping with well-established practices of careerism in the military officer corps. "You advance in the military by making your mind conform to that of your boss," he says. "To express a dissenting view on policy--no matter how beneficent or perceptive--is to risk being regarded as someone who is disloyal in outlook if not in deed."

Tying the educational and practical aspects of officer careerism together, Hanley says that like any bureaucracy, the military…
…encourages its most ambitious members to evaluate policy by the lights of “How does this make my organization look?” rather than “Is it true; is it right?” This outlook infiltrates our war colleges if only because an intelligent, persistently expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo—the wellspring of substantive innovation—will undermine, if not derail, one’s career prospects.

I agree with much of what Yingling and Hanley say about graduate-level military education. Entirely too much of it is driven by the pet theories and doctrines of three and four star officers who have parochial interests in shaping force structure and weapons acquisition programs. This influence also connects to the military industrial complex and to the hawkish, neoconservative think tank world that includes groups like the Project for the New American Century, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

The negative effects of all these influences merged during the now infamous "battle experiment" Millenium Challenge 2002 (MC02), a $250 million war game that simulated U.S. forces liberating a country in the Persian Gulf region from an "evil dictator." The game was designed to "prove" favored military transformational concepts like "network-centric warfare" and "shock and awe."

A funny thing happened on the way to the "mission accomplished" ceremony. The opposition force commander, retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, managed to sink most of the U.S. fleet through use of low-tech weapons and tactics. The game masters called a time out, re-floated the fleet, and resumed the game with restrictions on the opposition force that would ensure a friendly force win.

Not surprisingly, Marine General Peter Pace was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, and was called on by his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, to explain why the war game had to be rigged. "You kill me in the first day and I sit there for the next 13 days doing nothing, or you put me back to life and you get 13 more days' worth of experiment out of me. Which is a better way to do it?" he said.

One could almost buy Pace's line of logic, except for the way the battle experiment proceeded from there. Van Riper was told to turn off his air defenses at times when "blue" air forces were scheduled to attack, and to move his land forces away from beaches where blue forces were scheduled to assault. As war gaming goes, that's moral and intellectual bankruptcy.
And it was exactly that kind of moral and intellectual bankruptcy that brought us to our present condition, with our ship of state bow down in a third world sand dune, and generals like Peter Pace own a large slice of the blame for that. As Tom Ricks wrote:
Many majors and lieutenant colonels have privately expressed anger and frustration with the performance of Gen. Tommy R. Franks, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and other top commanders in the war, calling them slow to grasp the realities of the war and overly optimistic in their assessments.

Now we have General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, telling us how Baghdad is showing "astonishing signs of normalcy" even as American soldiers are killed daily in that nation's capital city. Sorry, but I can't begin to think of describing that situation as any sort of "normalcy," and am frankly astonished that those soldiers' commanding general can.


  1. I have to fully agree with this assessment, it is a sad state of affairs and that initial loss on the 1st day should have brought that particular set of war games to an immediate end while the 'powers that be' scratched their heads and tried to figure out what the hell had just happened to them...

    I hadn't read your article when i wrote a post of mine today but they do bear a striking similarity, and that being the General officers and their lack of 'it', whatever 'it' may be in this so far pretty much failed effort in Iraq...

    From my article: And if our military can’t pacify an area the size of Texas, and completely control an area the size of L.A., we need a NEW CiC and Sec/Def and every General officer in command today needs to be fired for total incompetence, and before anyone is placed in charge of anything we need to do a ’short arms’ inspection and make damn sure they are actually in possession of a set of BALLS…

    The big difference is, this article has the Generals blaming everyone except themselves...

    General: Iraqi Forces May Be Too Weak

    Great post Jeff, and terribly true I am afraid...

  2. The first thing we do, let's kill all the generals.

    Understandably, there's a lot of that going around.

    Sooner or later, however, we will realize that not only have our efforts been badly misdirected, but that the instrument chosen was the wrong one.

    As Pat Lang recently wrote:

    "The takfiri jihadis ARE a menace, but they are a menace best dealt with by stealth and guile."

    And having pretty well exhausted the military upon the rock of Iraq, what else 're ya gonna do?

  3. ...and the Rumsfeld legacy lives on. The effects of He Who Brought the Army's Generals to Heel by firing Shinseki & White will be felt for many years - at a cost of thousands of lives and billions of treasure.

  4. This assessment is right on the mark. The problems of careerism and groupthink have plagued the Army since before WWII. "Teaching the solution" should be no more than a guide.

    I'm not sure great tacticians make good generals, just as good salesmen usually aren't good sales managers.

    True story: The German staff school created a system in which the commander and his chief of staff both wrote operational plans separately. Sometimes a third officer also wrote one. The pans were then compared, and the best parts of each chosen.

    It seems to me American flag officers get promoted because they're great politicians, and that's not the best way to do business.

    Maybe we should go to the Lincoln system; you keep firing generals until you find on that can win.

  5. Funny you should mention the Lincoln system, Lurch. I've been plodding through Sandburg's two volume version of Lincoln's life, and just got to the part where Lincoln made Grant CG of the Army of the Potomac.

    Something interesting happened shortly after Grant's take over. The DC Union unit, under Fremont, I think, drove off a rebel offensive. Everybody wanted to pursue the retreating rebel force. However: Fremont didn't feel he had authority to make such a decision, Halleck (I think), Army COS, didn't think he had command authority to give the order, Grant, the actual commander, was out of touch, and Lincoln had promised Grant not to but in and give direct operational orders.

    So the rebs got away.

    LIke I often say, it's all about command and control.

  6. "It seems to me American flag officers get promoted because they're great politicians..."

    It's a political job. Some political talent is called for. (And politics have an out-size role in the stage-managed affairs that are contemporary military campaigns.) As at every other level, there are good ones and bad ones and fair ones. Some hopelessly out of their element in a given position; some in just the right place at the right time; some making do.

    I always come back to the conclusion that under the circumstances, good generalship could have mitigated but not averted disaster. (Mitigation eludes us still.) The military was given, by its civilian leadership, a war-fighting strategy that was bound to fail in the main.

    And speaking of that war-fighting strategy, where's Rumsfeld?

    Fallen off the face of the earth. I don't suspect we'll ever hear from him again.

  7. I oughta add: When their war-fighting strategy began to fail, the admin started, in earnest, dictating tactics, directly to commanders in the field.

  8. If you haven't read Juan Cole's latest, "Baquba can't be held by Iraqi troops: Bednarak," do.

  9. Thanks for the steer to Cole, Trish.


  10. semper fubar8:00 AM

    As a civilian from the outside looking in, the entire military/defense operation looks to be just a money-sucking enterprise, which serves very little -- perhaps no -- real function in defending the nation against foreign enemies. (Certainly that's true for the last 60 years)

    So, it doesn't surprise me in the least to hear that the real purpose of $250 milliion war games is to ... have more war games.

  11. Cdr. Huber,

    Once upon a time, the officer corps was largely preserve of America's untitled aristocracy. Names like Patton, R. E. Lee, and MacArthur Sr. and Jr. come to mind. Patton was sufficiently well off that he bought equipment for his unit when the War Department didn't come through; obviously he never had to worry about his retirement gig or paycheck.

    To what degree do you think that this unwillingness to take risks / look uncomfortable facts in the eye is due to the purging of this aristocratic undercurrent and populating the officer corps with graduates of state schools in the 50s and particularly 60s?

  12. As an alumnus of both the Naval Postgraduate School and the Naval War College, I believe that we cannot blame the schools for how the flag officers turn out. There is such a thing as independent thought and the military-based graduate schools are supposed to be a tool only. I agree with Jeff's assessment that flags today don't seem to be very strong and leadership is lacking but I believe it is because those senior officers who have true leadership potential get to a point where they can't stand the ass-kissing and/or toeing the party line. They retire or resign and go on to better things worth their intellect. As far as I'm concerned, this has been a serious loss for all military services and they need to look at why retention doesn't work so well among the hot officers. I'm not talking about FITREPs either. I'm talking about observation and true knowledge that an officer can perform. I retired because I was always a straight-shooter and knew that this was never going to work, particularly in this administration. What the military-based graduate schools did for me was to give me knowledge so that I could make an accurate assessment on this cluster f**k of a war. More than anything, this has frustrated the hell out of me.

    My paternal grandmother used to say, "It's born in you. You either have it or you don't." Some of today's flags were never born with "it" (right stuff, integrity, independent thought, etc.)

  13. Once again, great discussion, gang. S.C. I'm not sure having a military aristocracy was such a good thing either. And the truth be told, to a great extent, we still have one.


    I'm not entirely certain the military education system is entirely to blame either. Got it or don't? That may be.

  14. Bluto6:18 AM

    The parallels between Millenium Challenge 2002 and the Japanese pre-Midway wargaming exercise are striking - even down to the re-floating of a sunken fleet carrier. Suggest the same kind of hubris was at work in both.

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