Politics & Policy

Promoting Failure

The Army gets the lead out.

Earlier this month, the Senate voted 83–14 to confirm Gen. George Casey as Army chief of staff. Ten of those “no” votes came from Republicans, four of whom — John McCain, John Ensign, Saxby Chambliss and Lindsey Graham — serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The four grilled General Casey during his confirmation hearing, forcefully taking him to task for lack of progress in Iraq during his tenure as the commander of US ground troops there.

Democratic senator Carl Levin, chairman of the committee, disagreed: “It is not fair that General Casey be tagged with failures, massive failures which were caused by the false policies, the wrong policies, the deceptions, the ignorance, the arrogance, the cockiness of civilian leaders in this administration.”

But Republican senator John E. Sununu, who is not a member of the SASC, had an answer for Levin. “There are many factors that contributed to the failure to improve the situation [in Iraq], but ultimately our military leadership has to bear some responsibility for its choices. Simply put, we shouldn’t reward a lack of success on the field of command with such an important promotion.”

This is the central issue of civil-military relations during wartime. How much responsibility for victory or defeat does a military commander bear?

In the past, it was not unusual for states to execute unsuccessful generals. The Romans did it routinely. In 1757, at the outset of the Seven Years War, the British condemned Adm. John Byng to death for failing to “do his utmost” during the Battle of Minorca.

While the United States has not executed failed commanders in the past, it has certainly relieved or cashiered them.

No one denies that General Casey is an honorable man and a noble soldier. But it appears that General Casey is suffering the fate of one of his predecessors, the late Gen. William Westmoreland. Just as Casey is being “kicked upstairs” for his perceived failure in Iraq. General Westmoreland, commander of our forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, was promoted to Army chief of staff after his poor conduct there.

Students of the Vietnam War, including many who served in the conflict, have traditionally blamed America’s defeat on President Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. But there is an emerging consensus that General Westmoreland must also be held culpable. During his command in Vietnam, he implemented a flawed operational approach to the war.

Many historians often write as if North Vietnam were always destined to win the war and the United States destined to lose it. In this view, Hanoi pursued a course of action with little regard for United States strategy. But new studies have confirmed that the North Vietnamese strategy was greatly affected by U.S. actions. The lesson here is that victory depends not on fate but on decisions made and strategies implemented.

And in Vietnam under General Westmoreland and Iraq under General Casey, those strategies failed.

Westmoreland’s operational strategy emphasized the attrition of the forces of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces in a “war of the big battalions”: multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior fire power. In so doing, he emphasized the destruction of enemy forces instead of protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas.

Unfortunately, such “search and destroy” operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area. In addition, he ignored the insurgency and pushed the South Vietnamese aside.

For his part, General Casey launched a torrential offensive in al Anbar province in Iraq in late 2004, lasting well into 2005. This was intended to deprive the insurgency of its base in the Sunni Triangle and its “ratlines” — infiltration routes that run from the Syrian border into the heart of Iraq.

The operational concept was “clear and hold.” On the one hand, no force, conventional or guerrilla, can continue to fight if it is deprived of sanctuary and logistical support. Accordingly, the central goal of the U.S. strategy during this period was to destroy the ratlines following the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. On the other hand, the key to defeating an insurgency is to provide security for the population. The first element of the strategy succeeded. But because of insufficient forces, the second part failed.

Wresting Fallujah from the jihadis in November 2004, our first great success, was critically important: Control of the town had given them the infrastructure — human and physical — necessary to maintain a high tempo of attacks against the Iraqi government and Coalition forces, especially in Baghdad.

In and of itself, the loss of Fallujah didn’t cause the insurgency to collapse, but it did deprive the rebels of an indispensable sanctuary. Absent such a sanctuary, large terrorist networks cannot easily survive, being reduced to small, hunted bands.

With Fallujah captured, the Coalition continued a high tempo of offensive operations designed to destroy the insurgent infrastructure west and northwest of Fallujah, and so shut down those ratlines. Although successful in many respects, these operations seemed like a game of “whack-a-mole”: Towns were cleared of insurgents, but because of limited manpower, the towns were not held. Insurgents returned as soon as Coalition forces moved on.

But then even the offensive stopped as training the Iraqis took center stage in the Coalition’s Iraq strategy. Of course, a well-trained Iraqi force is critical to ultimate success in Iraq. Indeed, as more Iraqi troops became available in 2005, they were able to hold some of the insurgent strongholds in Anbar Province. But this shift was accompanied by the consolidation of American forces in large “megabases” in an attempt to reduce the American “footprint” and move US troops to the “periphery” of the fight.

General Casey had finally settled on a defensive posture, enabling the insurgents to regain the initiative that had been wrested from them during the al Anbar offensive. One result of the insurgents’ regained initiative was the bombing of the Grand Mosque in Sammarah, which ignited the sectarian violence that now threatens to destroy the possibility of a united Iraq.

Unfortunately, the new disposition of American forces made it impossible for them to provide the necessary security to the Iraqi population as sectarian violence exploded in Baghdad and elsewhere.

So there is a strong case to be made against General Casey’s promotion to Army Chief of Staff. Replacing him in Iraq has permits us to shift strategies, but there is a danger that in his new position he will champion doctrines that need to evolve.

The Army is in dire need of a cultural change, of a shift from thinking primarily in terms of conventional war — at which the Army excels, but which will be less common in the foreseeable future — to adapting doctrine, training, and organization to the requirements of irregular warfare.

General Westmoreland made few changes as Army chief of staff at a time when they were desperately needed. Those changes, the true beginning of Army “transformation,” originated with his successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams. General Abrams was the only nominee for Army chief of staff since the 1930s (other than General Casey) to draw negative votes during his confirmation. We can only hope his latest successor will follow him in more ways than one.

  Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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