Firing Generals
When is a general to blame? And even if he is, should he be fired?

U.S. troops in Afghanistan


Jim Lacey

Moreover, at their primary duty — fighting and winning battles and wars — these leaders do not fail. At the small-scale tactical level of war, no U.S. Army or Marine unit has experienced battlefield defeat in seven decades. At the higher operational level of war — large battles and campaigns — American forces have not suffered a defeat in over 150 years. When it comes to engaging with and destroying the enemy, U.S. military leaders have no peers. As was repeatedly demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, when an enemy force pits itself against an Army or Marine unit, its time left on this earth can be measured in minutes.

So why were our operations in Iraq not a total success, and why can’t we seem to deliver the coup de grâce to a rag-tag Taliban army? The reasons are many. Amongst them is that most of our senior leaders have spent a lifetime preparing to fight major battles. And when the time came to do that — during the 21-day march from Kuwait to Baghdad, for example — they performed magnificently. But afterwards, when the insurgency began, they were taken by surprise. No general had foreseen it, and few, if any, had intellectually prepared themselves for this new kind of war. It took time to adapt, and even then only the most mentally flexible of our generals ever cleared the intellectual hurdles. In fact, I was told by one of our top commanders: “There are only 50 generals we trust to come over here, and they are on a constant rotation.” Once you take out the generals whose specialties precluded them from regularly entering the war zone, there remain several hundred generals who were not sent to Iraq or Afghanistan because they were deemed to be not up to the task. The truth of the matter is that a general who may be perfectly fit for high command in a conventional war might be incapable of ever developing the skill set required for a counterinsurgency fight. Even Napoleon, arguably the greatest battlefield commander in history, never found a solution to the insurgency his troops encountered in Spain. The point, though, is that the U.S. military spared itself from having to relieve a lot of commanders by simply not sending anyone not deemed capable into the war zone.

So what then, if our best and brightest were in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounts for our lack of strategic success? To comprehend the answer, one must understand that the military is an instrument of political policy, or as Clausewitz put it: “War is an extension of politics by other means.” Thus, generals take their orders from politicians — and it is right that they do so. By 2006, our generals knew how to win in both Iraq and Afghanistan; all they required was the resources to do so and the time (winning a counterinsurgency always takes time). Instead, from 2008 on, resources began to dwindle, and commanders were told to start heading for the exits. Regardless of whether this was the right policy, it does explain the ultimate result.

The U.S. military was never beaten on the battlefield. But as a Vietnamese general replied when a similar observation was made about our war in Vietnam: “True, but irrelevant.” Whatever the final outcome in Iraq or Afghanistan, one thing is certain: It also was not decided on the battlefield. Regardless of how many generals were or were not fired, the end result was always likely to be the same. For in a counterinsurgency nothing is more important than the political will to persist. This does not mean that the decisions to leave Iraq and Afghanistan are necessarily wrong, as the United States has many other interests of rising concern. Only time will tell if the decision to reset our national and military priorities is the right one. But anyone who believes firing a few generals is the answer to all our strategic problems is missing the bigger policy picture.

Still, the temptation to fire a general or two is always present. One is reminded of the unfortunate Admiral John Byng, who, in 1756, was handed an impossible mission. Despite a lack of support from London, Byng bravely went out and fought the inconclusive Battle of Minorca against a French fleet. Afterward, he faced court martial. Byng was acquitted of the charge of cowardice, but found guilty of not having “done his utmost.” For that he was sentenced to death by firing squad. Voltaire later commented in Candide: “It is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others.”

If firing a general from time to time had the same salutary effects that Byng’s execution had on British naval officers, who from that point on distinguished themselves through a culture of ultra-aggressiveness — think Nelson at Trafalgar — one might say that it would be of some benefit. Still, one wonders how we are going to get better battlefield commanders than we now have. Do you fire a coach who has never lost a game? The question policymakers have to ask themselves is why do we suffer so many strategic setbacks when our military has for many decades accomplished every task assigned to it. Maybe we need to expend more time examining our policy choices and less trying to find more Byngs to blame.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Moment of Battle. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.