General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has concluded that generals do not live up to the standards they demand of others. According to the New York Times, “Under General Dempsey’s plan, teams of inspectors will observe and review the procedures . . . in effect for all generals. He said he would be subject to the same rules.”
Those new rules would seem to require an assessment of Dempsey’s own performance last September, when he decided not to respond with force to the terrorist attack in Benghazi for ten hours, although our ambassador to Libya was declared missing during the first hour of the assault and two former SEALs died in the tenth hour. Why did Dempsey choose to do nothing?
The military has conducted hundreds of assessments for battles throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. At the platoon level, an “After Action” critique is required whenever there are American fatalities. But at the highest level, there has been no military After Action assessment about Benghazi.
The fight at the U.S. consulate waxed and waned for ten hours. Yet during that time, the Marine Force Recon unit on Sigonella Air Base, 500 miles away, was never deployed and not one F-16 or F-18 was dispatched. Granted, Force Recon and fighter aircraft weren’t on alert and did not appear on the Pentagon’s official list of “hostage rescue forces.” But they were one phone call away, and no general asked for them. Ten hours provided adequate time for a range of ad hoc responses. Commanders are expected to adapt in battle.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said, “We have repeatedly stated that . . . our forces were unable to reach it in time to intervene to stop the attacks.” That is true only if the Pentagon is incapable of improvising. If you see people in a burning house, you do your best to help immediately; you don’t wait for the fire department to respond in a normal manner. If called upon, the Marines on Sigonella would have gathered whoever was on hand and piled into one of a dozen military planes parked at the base. The Benghazi airport 90 minutes away was secure; CIA operatives were standing on the runway, because they had improvised by hiring a plane and flying in from the embassy in Tripoli, 400 miles away. A fighter jet could have refueled at that airport, with the CIA providing cover. Instead, the military ordered four Special Operations soldiers at the Tripoli embassy not to fly to Benghazi and join the CIA team.
The military did nothing, except send a drone to watch the action. Defense Secretary Panetta later offered the excuse, “You can’t willy-nilly send F-16s there and blow the hell out of place. . . . You have to have good intelligence.” As a civilian, Mr. Panetta probably didn’t know that 99 percent of air sorties over Afghanistan never drop a single bomb. General Dempsey, however, knew it was standard procedure to roar menacingly over the heads of mobs, while not “blowing the hell out of them.” A show of air power does have a deterrent effect and is routinely employed.
A mortar shell killed two Americans during the tenth hour of the fight. A mortar tube can be detected from the air. The decision whether to then bomb should have resided with a pilot on-station — not back in Washington. As for the alleged lack of “good intelligence,” three U.S. operations centers were watching real-time video and talking by cell phone with those under attack. Surely that comprises “good intelligence.”
Dempsey’s predecessor as chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, co-chaired an assessment for the State Department. Mullen conveniently inserted a one-sentence judgment about the Pentagon, asserting the military could not do anything. Yet most generals would relieve a company commander who possessed intelligence for ten hours and did nothing. This appearance of a rigid standard for the grunt and a lax standard for generals is precisely what General Dempsey wants to correct.
If General Dempsey is serious about one set of rules for all generals, then he will demand an assessment of his own performance. This is not a call for a resignation. Dempsey is admired for his openness, flexibility, and commonsense. In 2004, he redeployed on the fly his entire division in order to protect Baghdad. At least three four-star generals and three separate staffs (the operations centers in the Pentagon, Special Ops in Tampa, and Africom in Germany) watched the ten-hour action. The issue is not one of personalities. At one time or another, most of us choke in combat or during a crisis; look at the number of CEOs caught flat-footed during the 2008 financial crisis.
To be clear: the non-response by the military is a matter of procedures too rigid at the top. Far more serious and of a different nature was the claim that a video had provoked a spontaneous mob and that Benghazi was not a terrorist attack. That was the deliberate manipulation or fictional creation of intelligence. It raises the matter of deception. Who provided that rationale to U.N. ambassador Susan Rice? That is a grave issue that has nothing to do with the military.
The integrity of the Pentagon is not in question. The purpose of an After Action is to perform better the next time. Is the public seriously to believe that in ten hours Dempsey and the $600 billion dollar Defense Department could not dispatch one ad hoc rescue team, as our embassy in Tripoli did, or order one fighter jet to scramble?
Have our military’s best and brightest lost the capacity to improvise? Clearly, that merits an assessment. Will General Dempsey ask for a review of his own procedures? Do as I say, or as I do? The chairman of the joint chiefs is the only general who can answer that.
— Bing West, a former assistant secretary and combat Marine, has written seven books about combat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.