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Nat Geo’s ‘American War Generals’: A sad tale wrapped around a big contradiction

I watched a new National Geographic documentary, American War Generals, earlier this week. It is built on a series of interviews with eight top generals from our recent wars: Colin Powell, Barry McCaffrey, Wesley Clark, George Casey, Jack Keane, David Petraeus, Raymond Odierno and H.R. McMaster.  Two things struck me about this documentary, which my ...

via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia

I watched a new National Geographic documentary, American War Generals, earlier this week. It is built on a series of interviews with eight top generals from our recent wars: Colin Powell, Barry McCaffrey, Wesley Clark, George Casey, Jack Keane, David Petraeus, Raymond Odierno and H.R. McMaster. 

Two things struck me about this documentary, which my New America colleague Peter Bergen was involved in making. First, there is a core of sadness in it. By this, I don’t mean the expected sorrow of the losses of comrades. Rather, I sensed a whiff of failure that was known but not being admitted to by most of those interviewed.

And that leads to the second point. There is an essential contradiction to the tale. Powell in his comments especially focuses on the magnificent rebuilding of the Army after Vietnam. Yet H.R. McMaster comes along later and insists that the Army in 2003 went into Iraq unprepared for the tasks it faced and unable to adjust quickly to the jobs of occupation and then countering an insurgency. The American invasion, he says flatly, was "a rush to failure." Well, which was it? In other words, if this was the greatest army in history, why was it unable to prevail in Afghanistan and Iraq?

The answer to the contradiction is that the Army was indeed rebuilt well, but too narrowly. It was well prepared to fight the Red Army on the plains of Europe, or the Iraqi army in the desert of the Middle East. It was not prepared to actually do the job that was handed to it, and it had a generation of general officers who proved largely unable to recognize the problem and devise effective solutions to it.  

In the documentary, Powell uses a phrase about taking a hard look in the mirror. He is correct that the Army did this after Vietnam. I wonder if it will be able to do it now. So far, I see little evidence of that. Generals talk a lot about having an adaptive officer corps, but I don’t see much concrete evidence that they are changing the Army toward achieving that end.  

One of the best signs for the Army would be if McMaster is selected to succeed Odierno as Army chief of staff.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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