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Mortal After All, The Shine Comes Off Military Brass

Looks like our adulation got a bit out of hand

A welcome fallout from the Petraeus affair is that voices have come forth suggesting that we not idolize our military leaders quite so unreservedly. Unlike

the opprobrium heaped by some misguided elements on those who fought in Vietnam, we have honored the troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan deservedly this time around. But there are those that say we have taken this too far.

Their criticism is not of units who have done the hard and hazardous work of our two wars — frontline units from brigade level on down are generally credited with adapting well to these insurgency wars and getting done the job assigned to them. Our mistake, say a number of military commentators, is to adore the generals along with them. Paul Yingling, for one, now retired but then a U.S. Army colonel who served three tours in Iraq, wrote a widely cited 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal titled “A Failure in Generalship” that called for an overhaul in the general corps for its failure to anticipate the insurgency. He made the point that a private who loses his rifle is punished more than a general who loses his part of a war.

Thomas Ricks, a Pulitzer-winning Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, now with a defense policy think tank, levels his critique at what he calls the “culture of mediocrity” that has set in among the leadership ranks. In his 2006 book “Fiasco” about the Iraq war, Ricks took one after another of its commanding generals to task for their failure to understand what the troops faced and for allowing the insurgency to develop and metastasize into a long war costly of so many lives. And little has been accomplished in Afghanistan after America’s longest war, our objectives now reduced to simply trying to train the Afghan security forces to fend for themselves.


Yet, as Ricks and others point out, the generals have been rotated in and out of these theaters with none held accountable for their failures. In an article in The Atlantic, Ricks recounts how generals in World War II Europe were routinely fired and replaced if they didn’t deliver, and says that “the firing of a general was seen as a sign that the system was working as planned”. Not so now. Only two were ever removed from command in the eleven years of post-9/11 conflicts, but both — and Adm. William Fallon and Gen. Gen. Stanley McChrystal — for disparaging comments to journalists about Bush and Obama administration policy, not for performance as commanders.

Ricks says Gen. Tommy Franks failed twice over, first by letting bin Laden escape from Tora Bora by repeatedly refusing a CIA request for a Ranger battalion to seal the passes. Yet, because it was his turn, he was nonetheless given the command in the invasion of Iraq, where he gave no thought to the aftermath of the military strike and what might develop when a country of contentious sects is set free by the removal of a dictator and his regime. Ricks quotes from his memoir: “I knew the President and Don Rumsfeld would back me up,so I felt free to pass the message along to the bureaucracy beneath them: You pay attention to the day after and I’ll pay attention to the day of”. He departed and left no plan for governance for his successor, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.

In fairness, it took proconsul J. Paul Bremer to make the fiasco a certainty by cashiering the Iraqi army and cutting the Baathist administrative ranks so deeply that no one knew how to turn on the lights. But Sanchez, who Ricks calls “a mediocre officer placed in an impossible situation”, micromanaged subordinate officers without troubling to learn what was unique about Iraq and its war and continued without a strategy. With no unified plan, divisions operated their own way. Under Sanchez, thousands were swept into detention centers and left to rot, and the interrogation policies he approved allowed Abu Ghraib to happen.

Sanchez was succeeded by Gen. George Casey, a four-star. He instituted a review of combat units by a pair of counterinsurgency experts and did develop a plan. But it was to shut down outposts in the towns and pull the troops back into large bases from which they conducted sweeps by day and door-to-door raids at night. This was the exact opposite of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine of small units living with the people that had successfully calmed Mosul and would inform Petraeus’s re-writing — literally — of the book on counterinsurgency (which, put into practice in Afghanistan, has worked no better than "hearts and minds" in Vietnam).

Ricks’ point is that none of these generals was fired for allowing an insurgent war to rage out of control and last for years. Quite the contrary is the example of Sanchez, who should have been relieved of duty according to one study, yet who complained bitterly that he was not elevated to four stars.

Critics of the military culture say that instead of a rigorous process that holds the generals accountable — considering that lives are at risk under their command — a culture has developed at the top that leaves poor performers in place until their rotation comes up and promotes the good with the bad simply for putting in time.

bloat at the top

Former defense secretary Robert Gates concurred. He moved in 2010 to eliminate 50 general and flag officer slots in order to trim what he called “a top-heavy hierarchy” consisting of 950 officers in those ranks. There were no less than 40 four-star generals and 150 three-stars, leaving one to wonder what they all do, other than cost taxpayers enormous sums, especially when considering the generous pensions and health benefits paid forever after retirement.

Gates, quoted in Stars & Stripes made that point, saying, “Apart from meeting genuine war-related needs, we have also ... a situation where personnel of higher and higher rank are assigned to do things that could reasonably be handled by personnel of lower rank".

Many promising officers with the knowledge of combat command — captains, majors — are leaving the military because they see the bureaucracy of the generals that lies ahead, blocking advancement on merit.

parting ways

The volunteer military has created a class apart from the rest of society. Less than 1% of Americans join the military. Part of our unreserved praise perhaps stems from being glad for what they are doing so that we don’t have to. Time quoted a lieutenant general who called the military “a family business”, and reported that those in the military who have a sibling or relative in the service is on the rise. Nearly 100,000 are married to another service member. There are now only a few states that have military bases, owing to closings and consolidations, and that has abetted the separation from the rest of society. In the other states, one might seldom or never see a soldier — nor do they see much of us. That leads that 1% to have a disdainful view of the rest of us, prompting Gates to say to the cadets at West Point,

“ It is off-putting to hear, albeit anecdotally, comments that suggest that [the] military is to some degree separate and even superior from the society, the country, it is sworn to protect ... There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the majority of the people they have sworn to defend.”

All of which has created a warrior caste apart from us and with leadership free to concentrate of its own perpetuation and less subject to civilian oversight by our politicians, who reverentially praise and defer to the military lest they be be accused of criticizing our troops. So we have a huge and — for many of them — untouchable defense budget which has made it self-fulfilling that we are in a state of “permanent war”, as Andrew Bacevich calls it in the subtitle of his book, “Washington Rules”.

Bacevich, a retired West Point colonel and Vietnam veteran with a Ph.D. from Princeton and a professor first at Johns Hopkins and now at Boston University, is a sharp critic who has written extensively about what has become of our military. The “military industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned us of (apparently “congressional” was also in the original phrase, but Ike decided that was impolitic) has led to our over-reliance on military power and the “national security apparatus”, says Bacevich

(who appeared on the News Hour, asked to comment on the Petraeus affair). "The credo summons the United States — and the United States alone — to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world", which well describes the neo-conservative group that pressed for invading Iraq. Attempting to police the world with little contributed by other beneficiary nations is not sustainable for a nation submerged in debt, the colonel warns.

But the generals hold us captive as the great corporate military machine goes rolling along.

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4 Comments for “Mortal After All, The Shine Comes Off Military Brass”

  1. Kevin Connolly

    I recently read Thomas Rick’s book and thought it was well written and thoughtful.
    It described a key flaw in today’s military, the lack of accountability at the most senior level. His standard for comparison was George Marshall and the way he managed the officer corps. The volunteer Army is a conundrum for the USA. The draft during Vietnam caused much consternation and so the Army opted for an all volunteer force. I was a young officer recently returned from Vietnam when this transition took place. I commanded troops in West Germany who were part of that initial volunteer force. The Army today has excellent enlisted men, NCO’s and junior officers and they have carried the brunt of the wars in Afghanistan and Irag just as they did in Vietnam. It is a very professional force and that is the problem with returning to a draft. Will we have the same level of excellence? The military’s relationship with society has always been a point of discussion. It is incumbent upon the senior leadership in the military to reinforce the role of the military and it’s relationship to society so we do not have the mindset of a separate warrior class. As the person mentioned in his comments, I am proud to have served my country and do not need to be thanked. It was a privilege and an honor. My son served in Iraq and I am proud of him.

    • I actually remember something even more important. As far as my reading goes back to the Civil War, President Lincoln would give a General an opportunity. If he failed he was replaced. General Ambrose Burnside made a fatal blunder, when he had a chance to capture a overwhelming Confederate Army, yet didn’t act to seize the moment. A few decades later, General George Patton had gotten into trouble by slapping a soldier suffering from PTSD, yet just a year later, the Allies made a HUGE blunder in the winter of 1944, which gave Patton his time to shine with his race with his command to save the Allies in what we now call “The Battle of the Bulge”.
      I know the person I served under may just want to enjoy a peaceful retirement, but my current favorite General is Colin Powell. This General is about results. It used to be that military officers who did well, eventually became President. Washington, Jackson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush, all we’re in the military.

  2. While this article is welcome, it doesn’t go far enough. As Colonel Jones implied in the previous comment, the separation of our citizenry from our soldiery has essentially allowed our citizens to thank us for our service at the check-out line of the local supermarket but otherwise live in complete ignorance of what we actually do in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

    The vast majority of our journalistic class, lacking the wisdom of a former grunt who knows that officers are not, in fact infallible, has been bought off by junkets to our war zones and the credulous reporting of Petraeus’ thin legacy of achievement that followed his disgrace reflects this.

    Let’s bring back the draft, on the one hand, but on the other let’s do something equally important: let’s put our wars on the budget, so that Congress and the Executive Branch can’t blithely vote war funding off-budget while keeping Americans uninformed about the true costs of war.

  3. Reginald Jones, Col., USAF (Ret)

    “The volunteer military has created a class apart from the rest of society. Less than 1% of Americans join the military. Part of our unreserved praise perhaps stems from being glad for what they are doing so that we don’t have to.”

    I am in complete agreement with this essay, especially the quote above. I cannot remember how many times I have been “thanked” for my service. This “thank you” comment offends me so much that, now, I always respond by saying: “Your thank you is not necessary. My service was heartfelt and I am grateful and honored to have had the opportunity to serve my country”.

    The USA needs to reinstate the draft and the officer corps must relearn the philosophy that military service is not a “career”; it is a “profession”. In fact, at one time in the past we called regular service “The Profession of Arms”.

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