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

U.S. troops in Afghanistan


Jim Lacey

To paraphrase Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let’s fire all the generals.”

This is the basic prescription of military journalist and writer Tom Ricks, who, in his new book, The Generals, blames our lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s and our political leaders’ having lost the ability or willingness to fire failing generals. Unfortunately, many commentators are accepting this formula as true without asking some hard questions, such as: When and for what reasons should a general be fired? Should the Continental Congress, for instance, have sent George Washington into an early retirement after his dismal performance defending New York City? Should Lincoln have cashiered Grant after his less-than-stellar performance at Shiloh, or possibly a bit later, when he wasted six months flailing about in failed attempts to approach Vicksburg? Was General Lee ready for the scrap heap after his early failures in what is now West Virginia?

What about in the 20th century? Should President Wilson have called Pershing home, after he sat idle for over a year before getting into the fight and then, at the start of the great Meuse-Argonne offensive, saw his army mauled and stopped in its tracks? Should Roosevelt or the Joint Chiefs have fired Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher after he delivered so-so results at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and in the process lost one of our three precious carriers and had a second crippled? Of course, if Fletcher had been fired, he would not have been present at Midway, where he smashed the Japanese fleet and changed the course of the war.

And just how should the president, the secretary of defense, or the Joint Chiefs de exactly whom to fire? After the World War II debacle at the Kasserine Pass, a corps commander, General Lloyd Fredenall, was fired. But the Army chief of staff, General George Marshall, could just as easily have found cause to fire Fredenall’s boss — General Eisenhower. I will spare you the list of superiors who could just as easily have been held responsible for setbacks as their fired subordinates. Suffice it to say, it is a long one, and populated with the names of some of our most famous commanders.

Anyone reading Ricks’s previous bestselling book, Fiasco, would surely have walked away believing General Raymond Odierno was a failure. That was certainly Ricks’s assessment then. But two years later, when he published The Gamble, Odierno was apparently transformed and even Ricks was forced to admit that he is one of the heroes in the book. In truth, I believe whatever success we had in Iraq is directly attributable to Odierno’s leadership, and he continues to serve today as the Army chief of staff. We can, therefore, count ourselves lucky that, during our hardest moments in Iraq, Ricks was not responsible for picking which generals should be cashiered.

So what explains the large number of reliefs in earlier wars and their paucity in the past decade of conflict? Mainly, it is a matter of the huge mobilizations required for those earlier wars. During America’s great wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, we created huge armies out of almost nothing. To lead these massed armies, thousands of officers who had never commanded more than a small rifle company were suddenly propelled to the pinnacles of power. Some succeeded brilliantly, typically only after they had endured initial failures. Others were relieved at the first sign of failing. In all likelihood, many of those reliefs were fully deserved. In other cases, one wonders if the nation lost the services of some great commanders because we were too quick to pull the trigger and send some fine officers packing. General William T. Sherman, for instance, was relieved from command early in the Civil War. Only Grant’s intervention pulled him out of obscurity and set him back on the path to proving his worth and his genius for war. Regardless, when you suddenly promote hundreds or thousands of officers far ahead of their current positions, large numbers of them will fail.

But such is not the case in today’s military. Every general officer in Iraq and Afghanistan achieved his rank only after at least two decades, proving his competence and preparing for advancement at each level. Long before they were promoted to the rank of general, our combat commanders had proven themselves as company, battalion, and brigade commanders, a level at which failures are often met with relief. Even after those experiences, almost every general in line to command one of our ten combat divisions still had to serve as assistant division commander for a couple of years before being entrusted with the division. We are not, therefore, thrusting hundreds of generals or even a single general into command who has not spent his entire adult life preparing for the job.