Too many generals don't know best

Sunday November 4, 2012


One of the political catch phrases, mostly used aggressively by Republicans and defensively by Democrats, is the innumerable variations of "We'll let the generals on the ground determine that." The inference to be drawn from this catch phrase is that our generals and admirals always know what they are doing and all our military operations are perfectly planned and even better executed.

We've been in Afghanistan for a dozen years and it is expected that when we pull out at the end of 2014 the result will be chaos if the tribal leaders think they have a chance to reap billions of dollars which the Karzai family has done in the past six years. Of course, Karzai got most of those billions from the United States, but that tie will be damaged if not completely void.

Top gun of the 529 generals and admirals who offered to counsel Mitt Romney on military matters during his campaign was retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the 2001 invasion of Iraq. Franks was a controversial figure during his career and afterwards, so he has his admirers and detractors.

The most recent commentator on his career and aftermath is Thomas E. Ricks, who won a Pulitzer Prize while reporting for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Ricks has an article in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine titled "Gen eral Failure," and in it he dissects the careers of several generals, ranging from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult," writ es Ricks, "and many seasoned officers fail at it. In World War II American officers were typically 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.

"In the wars of the past decade," Ricks continues, "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 is an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." Ricks cites the exception of Gen. David Pe trae us, our current CIA chief, who achieved positive results in both Iraq and Afghanistan before returning to civilian life.

"In World War II," writes Ricks, "the firing of a general was seen as a sign that the system was working as planned. Yet now, in the rare instances when it does occur, relief tends to be seen, especially inside the Army, as a sign that the system has somehow failed. Why has relief become so rare and our military leadership rank so sclerotic?" Ricks feels that the "small wars" we have been fighting -- Korea, Vietnam and Iraq -- became increasingly unpopular as they seemed to go on forever to no particular purpose.

"Firing generals," he says, "seemed to send a signal to the public that the war was going poorly." He also believes that in the 1950s the military became more "corporate, less tolerant of the maverick and more likely to favor conformist organization men. The art of combat pursuit was lost and a cover your ass mentality took hold." Ricks acknowledges that the Army rebuilt itself at the end of the Vietnam War and learned to live with a force that was all voluntary.


He also thinks that the stubbornly blank vision of the Bush administration caused a host of military mistakes that were exacerbated by generals who were not mentally prepared for the problems that came their way. The troops were most professional in what they encountered, but the higher commanders were not. He cites both Franks and his successor, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, as mediocre leaders who botched military operations and civilian control.

If it weren't for the capability of the troops and junior officers, one concludes, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might have gone completely down the tube. But unless something is done about the generals, we will never again be as mighty as we once were and now claim to be.

Willard Mitt Romney during his campaign used as a major point that the military should have $2 billion added to their budget. Throwing in money won't help. Throwing out generals might.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle


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