Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Judging the Generals, Part III

"The CEO managers started taking over from the warrior leaders during the Korean War… The "slick and quick" replaced the warriors who knew how to win wars and inspire soldiers because they'd spent most of their careers down in the dirt learning their trade the hard, old- fashioned way. Instead, with the Perfumed Princes, connections and the right punches on the career ticket have become more important than troop leading skills and inspiring soldiers by example and tough love. "

--David H. Hackworth

General David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, recently noted that Baghdad is showing "astonishing signs of normalcy" even as American troops are killed in that city on a regular basis. Petraeus staged the now infamous outdoor market shopping spree that featured Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and a hundred of their best heavily armed friends.

In a recent publicity stunt, Petraeus put reporters in a helicopter and flew them over soccer games taking place in Baghdad neighborhoods. I'm sorry: I can't help but think these sporting events were staged, that the U.S. military provided stadium security, and that the games concluded moments after the "fly by."

Boy Genius

During his confirmation hearing to become America's four-star commander in Iraq, Petraeus was sold as the "brilliant" officer who had literally written the book--the Army field manual--on counter-insurgency operations.

And yet, his critics, according to Rod Norland of Newsweek, consider him a "perfumed prince" who advanced from one staff job to another as an efficient "courtier" to the four-stars and "rankle at his capacity for self-promotion and public relations."

It may be that Petraeus possesses substance as well as show, but it's doubtful that he can walk on water. Come mid-September, Petraeus has to give Congress a report on the progress of the "surge" in Iraq. Nobody seriously thinks the escalation is producing decisive results in Iraq. We can expect Petraeus to point to his "soccer success" and try to buy more time and funding from the legislature.

Petraeus's number two man, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, said in May that the surge needs to last until spring of 2008. It will be interesting to see if Congress has the patience to wait that long on an Army general's say so.

Wearing the Collar

The Iraq war has been an embarrassing one for the U.S. Army. This is the kind of war it is supposed to carry. The Marines assist on the ground, certainly, and the Navy and Air Force supply fire and logistics support. But invading and occupying another country is supposed to be the Army's stock in trade, and they have not delivered the goods.

This less than sterling performance was not the fault of the rank and file. Granted, the Army generals had help from above--largely in the person of Donald Rumsfeld--in mismanaging the war. But Iraq was, by and large, an Army show. It shouldn't be too surprising that General John Abizaid was replaced as Central Command (CENTCOM) chief by Navy Admiral William Fallon even though two land wars rage in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, and that another admiral, Mike Mullen, was chosen to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over anyone the Army had to offer. Army Generals aren't real popular with civilian leadership these days. They're not too popular in the Army, either.

Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post recently wrote that:
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.

Some younger officers have stated privately that more generals should have been taken to task for their handling of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, news of which broke in 2004. The young officers also note that the Army's elaborate "lessons learned" process does not criticize generals and that no generals in Iraq have been replaced for poor battlefield performance, a contrast to other U.S. wars.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ricks has been working the Pentagon beat for decades. If he says the Army's rank and file has had it, it's had it.

The criticism one hears most often is that the Army's promotion system has created a general community of "mild-mannered team players," but in all fairness to the Army, this has been said of the general and flag communities of all the armed services. Still, the Army is the service in the spotlight these days, and their star wearers have not looked good.

The Army's unenviable role as top goat could change in a heartbeat, however. Just let something flare up with Iran and watch what happens when a B-2 stealth bomber goes down over Tehran, and hear the outrage when a Cold War era anti-ship missile pickles off in the hangar bay of an aircraft carrier, or a World War II vintage torpedo sinks an amphibious ship full of Marines. We'll have a whole new set of dogs wearing the collar then, by golly.

Pavlov's Dogs of War

The question everyone should be asking of all the generals and admirals is "what good are you doing?" For decades, the armed services have justified their bloated budgets by wrapping themselves in the "defending America" mantra. But where were they on 9/11? We also hear talk about "defending America's interests overseas," but whose interests are we defending in Iraq and Afghanistan? Exxon-Mobil's?

The force structure we have today looks very much like the one we had in World War II: armor, artillery, infantry, carriers, surface combatants, submarines, fighters, bombers, etc. We spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined to maintain a force that can fight a war that nobody's going to fight with us. Why should they? We've proven our capacity to be soundly defeated by asymmetrical forces. Why buy a tank when a car bomb will do the trick? Why build capital ships when you can take out a guided missile destroyer with a rubber dinghy full of explosives?

More to the point perhaps: why keep around a bunch of generals and admirals whose main purpose seems to be maintaining a costly but obsolete military industrial complex?

Read Parts I and II of "Judging the Generals" at Pen and Sword.


  1. MajGen Smedley Butler USMC had a few things to say about protecting American interests.

  2. This 3 part series is useful & very interesting.

    My opinion may be complementary & is not meant to be contrary.

    Finding, discovering, surfacing, developing, etc., a brilliant & successful general or admiral is as random as electing a great president of the USA or assigning a first-rate corporate CEO.

    Within the military hierarchy, & recognizing the actual "Peter Principle," experienced Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps & Coast Guard leaders should be well aware that an outstanding soldier, sailor, airman, marine, or coast guardsman is a rare find, even from a cohort of many thousands of enlisted personnel.

    So, too, with the officers of all the services. When Bu$hKorp took over & began their distinctive processes of mal-administration, there were about 1,250 generals & admirals; now down to about 900. That is a very small group from which to expect a Bradley, Halsey, Arnold, Smith or Bertholf to emerge. From such few people, it is most likely that B+ quality administrators will "float" to the top.

    It is also important to note that Dwight Eisenhower & George Marshall were not mud & blood experienced combat soldiers, Ernest King never commanded a warship in combat & Henry Arnold flew one combat mission in an aircraft.

  3. Tim,

    I'm glad to see Smedley getting so much recognition lately.


    Excellent points. Thanks for stopping by and posting.

  4. The question everyone should be asking of all the generals and admirals is "what good are you doing?"

    - Jeff

    Of course, the question everyone should be asking is, "What good is our policy doing?" You know, that policy of the civilian leadership whose execution the military is tasked with? This is the fundamental question that gets lost, and remains unanswered, when the focus is on two-, three-, and four-star performance. People demand to know, "Who f*cked up my perfectly good war?" rather than, "Who's atrocious idea was this?"

    Which brings me to another point: To call it a war is to glorify it. That war was over in weeks. Since then it has been an armed nation building exercise. A policing and reconstruction endeavor. A wholesale civil and political overhaul. A work of social re-engineering in the midst of multiple insurgencies and an irreversible national unraveling. What need have you of a Patton or a Grant were one readily available?

    It's not even a "shitty little war," as my dad refers to them. It's a shitty little state building exercise. Like the Balkans, only with body bags. The Balkans caused a revolt within the same military, leading many to embrace candidate Bush who expressly rejected such interminable and ambiguous military endeavors. ("Help is on the way!" HA HA. The joke was on us.)

    If the policy was unwise to begin with; if the strategy was supremely goofy and in all ways counterproductive; if the intervention itself was contrary to any objectively-understood national interest, no general was going to be able to salvage it.

    Petraeus said, upon taking the job, that "there is no military solution" in Iraq. About that, he is correct. Unfortunately it is he, rather than Crocker, that the admin has chosen as the face of their Mulligan in Mesopotamia.

    What I hold against some of the generals is their willing perpetuation of a mission that, despite the heroic and steadfast efforts of so many, cannot succeed.

  5. Jacob Freeze10:45 PM

    Hey Commander...
    I've been following your series about the Generals with interest at DailyKos. I wrote a diary on approximately the same subject at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/6/24/4170/56455

    I'm think of posting again on a related subject, and it would be very very useful to me if you have the time to send some feedback, either at DailyKos or my email jacobfreeze at gmail.com

    I only became aware of your excellent series after someone mentioned it in a post, and I might not have written on something so close to the same subject if I had known you were already on top of it.

    I see a lot of the Army through the lens of Jack Pershing, who has been a hero in my family for three generations. So my perspective strongly tilts in that direction.

    Congratulations on your excellent series!

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Jacob.

    Trish, I like "Mulligan in Mesopotamia." Is it more like a tripe Mulligan?

    Good point about Crocker and Petraeus.


  7. You know, I've never had tripe, stewed, fried, or otherwise. I hear it's quite good, however, properly prepared, and bears no resemblance to the unforgettable and far less pleasnat taste of a sh*t sandwich.

    Now, there might be an as-yet-undiscovered culinary trick to rendering the latter tasty (Giulliani, for instance, is running on a platform of Better Nation Building For the 21st Century, God help him) but for those who have had it any number of ways, it is a garbage disposal, not an Emeril, that is called for.

  8. Anonymous1:14 PM

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