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The Right to Command

by Mackubin Thomas Owens

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 576 pp., $32.95)

Writing in World Affairs in 2009, eminent military historian Richard Kohn observed that “nearly twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the American military, financed by more money than the entire rest of the world spends on its armed forces, failed to defeat insurgencies or fully suppress sectarian civil wars in two crucial countries, each with less than a tenth of the U.S. population, after overthrowing those nations’ governments in a matter of weeks.” What, he asks, accounts for this lack of military effectiveness?

This is not exactly the way Thomas Ricks formulates the question in The Generals, but the lack of military effectiveness during recent conflicts lies at the heart of his work. How did a U.S. Army that prevailed over Germany and Japan in World War II lose in Vietnam and then experience only moderate operational and tactical success against insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Ricks is one of the most astute observers of the American military. A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, he has written many books, including Making the Corps (1997), Fiasco (2006), and The Gamble (2009). His July 1997 essay for The Atlantic, “The Widening Gap between Military and Society,” launched numerous think-tank studies and doctoral dissertations. He is currently a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and hosts a very influential blog at Foreign Policy titled “The Best Defense.”

The Generals is very ambitious, tracing the Army’s evolving approach to managing generals from World War II to the present. Ricks provides short and readable accounts of military leaders from George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower to Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez, and David Petraeus. The book has a great deal to say about leadership, institutional culture and transformation, and civil-military relations. Ricks is a fine writer and his prose is clear and forthright. Although he touches on the other services — most notably the Marine Corps during the Korean War — Ricks focuses primarily on the Army, “arguably . . . the dominant service, the one around which the national defense is still constructed.”

Ricks’s central argument is that a major — if not the major — reason for the decline in American military effectiveness is that generals are no longer relieved as they were during World War II. In that conflict, he notes, relief of generals was seen as a natural part of generalship. Out of 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat during the war, 16 were relieved for cause; so were five corps commanders.

Ricks identifies George Marshall, the Army’s chief of staff, who believed that the prospect of relief contributed to accountability on the part of commanders, as the architect of this successful management system during World War II. According to Ricks, Marshall held that “it was inevitable when selecting human beings for extraordinarily complex and difficult jobs that some percentage would fail. But he did not see [relief], usually, as disgraceful. On his watch, relief usually was not a discharge from the service but a reassignment.” For Marshall, “firing, like hiring, was simply one of the basic tasks of senior managers.” He saw relief as an indication that the system was working. But today, relief is seen as a sign of failure. Thus, according to an Army lieutenant colonel who penned a scathing critique of Army generalship in Iraq, a general officer who loses his part of a war is punished less severely than a private who loses his rifle.

Ricks shows that in the absence of relief as a management tool, the Army attempted to compensate by means of additional oversight, described by those who were being “additionally overseen” as “micromanagement.” Many believe that this micromanagement contributed to the U.S. failure in Vietnam.

In attempting to rectify the causes of that failure, the Army turned its attention to training and education as the primary means of managing the officer corps. Unfortunately, much of this professional military education focused on the operational level of war and not strategy.

Ricks acknowledges that today’s Army is not that of George Marshall. The pre–World War II Army was small enough that Marshall knew most of the officers he would appoint to high command. So what would Marshall do about the problems Ricks identifies, were he in charge today? Ricks avers that he would work to improve the interaction between the generals and civilian leadership. Marshall understood that an atmosphere of candor and trust between senior members of the uniformed military and civilian policymakers is an indicator of healthy civil-military relations, which contributes to military effectiveness. Ricks believes that Marshall would reemphasize adaptability in the face of strategic uncertainty. But adaptability depends on accountability, and Ricks believes that accountability would be enhanced by reinstating Marshall’s policy of swift relief, not just for personal foibles but for poor performance in command.

Ricks contends that Marshall would also address the Army’s personnel policies, which, he contends, have become overly bureaucratic. A particularly dysfunctional aspect of those policies is the idea that promotions are a matter of “taking turns” or “waiting in line” for command, especially high command. All too often, says Ricks, senior positions are filled based on convenience rather than excellence. Thus, “when the Army made Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez the commander of U.S. military operations in Iraq, it did so essentially because he happened to be on hand.”

But leadership is not a right. A position of leadership should be earned, and then one’s performance should determine whether one keeps it. “The other side of the coin is that, if failure is punished with relief, success can be rewarded with fast promotions.” Ricks argues that the likely response is that the current system is “fair.” But fairness in this sense is really just a code “for placing the interests of officers and the institutional Army above the interests of the rank-and-file or of the nation as a whole.” Soldiers’ lives are more important than officers’ careers, and “winning wars is more important than either.”

Finally, the Army needs to keep its mavericks and innovators. The current personnel policies militate against this outcome. For example, the institutional Army’s promotion system nearly consigned two of the Army’s brightest stars, David Petraeus and H. R. McMaster, to oblivion. Elsewhere, Ricks has expressed concern that Petraeus’s recent travails may provide an excuse for the Army to favor conformists over independent-minded generals who swim against the institutional tide.

Ricks notes that the qualities the Army values have changed over time as circumstances — and tastes — have changed. Marshall favored aggressiveness and cooperation, but in choosing his subordinates, he was inclined more toward the former while his senior subordinates, especially Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, preferred cooperative officers “who could be part of a larger team.” Nonetheless, Eisenhower and Bradley both protected George Patton, who was certainly aggressive but not known as a “team player.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Army seemed to favor conformists. And while the Army spoke of “warfighters” in the 1980s and 1990s, it really “produced a generation of tacticians who knew how to fight battles but who apparently lacked the strategic ability to fight and conclude wars.” This is what Kohn meant in his World Affairs essay when he noted that, “in effect, in the most important area of professional expertise — the connecting of war to policy, of operations to achieving the objectives of the nation — the American military has been found wanting. The excellence of the American military in operations, logistics, tactics, weaponry, and battle has been manifest for a generation or more. Not so with strategy.”

The Generals is an important book. It provides a readable account of how the Army has managed its leaders over seven decades. But while most of Ricks’s observations regarding the Army’s problems are reasonable, his belief that relieving generals is a panacea of sorts is flawed. The real problem of late is one that he notes but does not really drive home the way that Kohn did in his essay: The Army’s focus on the operational level of war is the cause of what can only be called a “strategy deficit” in the Army.

As I have argued in the past, the Army — beginning in the late 1970s — embraced the idea of the operational level of war as its central organizing concept. As military historian Hew Strachan has observed, “the operational level of war appeals to armies: It functions in a politics-free zone and it puts primacy on professional skills.” And herein lies the problem: the disjunction between operational excellence in combat and policy. It is policy that determines the reasons for which a particular war is to be fought. The U.S. military’s focus on the non-political operational level of war has meant that all too often the conduct of a war is disconnected from the goals of the war.

All of the services need to operate effectively at the operational level of war, but good strategy trumps operational and tactical excellence, as the experience of the German army in the two world wars attests. The Army’s focus on operational art and not strategy seems to have contributed more to recent failures than the absence of relief as a policy.

– Mr. Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the editor of Orbis. A Marine-infantry veteran of Vietnam, he is the author of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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