Politics & Policy

Firing Generals

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

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.

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.


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