Best Defense

The useful tradition of relief of commanders

In the last few days, both the Air Force and the Navy have relieved commanders, and made the actions public. In the Air Force, Col. Joel Westa was dumped as commander of Minot Air Force Base. In the Navy, Cmdr. Doug Sampson lost his post as commander of the USS La Jolla, an attack submarine. ...

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In the last few days, both the Air Force and the Navy have relieved commanders, and made the actions public. In the Air Force, Col. Joel Westa was dumped as commander of Minot Air Force Base. In the Navy, Cmdr. Doug Sampson lost his post as commander of the USS La Jolla, an attack submarine.

It interests me that both these services-the least traditional and the most-have maintained this rigorous approach to command, while the Army seems to have lost it. I think relief is a useful management tool, when used wisely. Sometimes people are just not working out. It does neither them nor their subordinates any good to leave them in place.

On the other hand, back when relief was common in the Army, it wasn’t a necessarily a career ender. For example, I remember reading that Hangin’ Sam Williams was relieved as an assistant division commander in 1944, and even was demoted to colonel, but hung on and retired many years later as a lieutenant general. Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen is another good example, losing command of one division in mid-1943 but leading another in combat a year later. 

I’d welcome thoughts on how the Army lost the tradition of relief and how it might be restored. This is something I want to deal with in my next book. I suspect the loss has a lot to do with the new policy of one-year tours in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, but I haven’t yet gotten to that research. Any good articles or books out there?  

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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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