Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Wanat: Why it matters

I was talking to a neighbor over some Portland red ale the other evening and he asked me to explain the Wanat situation. I didn’t do a good job of it, so I asked myself on my morning dog walk along the pond why Wanat matters. I think the answer is this: Ultimately, it comes ...

SAM DAGHER/AFP/Getty Images
SAM DAGHER/AFP/Getty Images
SAM DAGHER/AFP/Getty Images

I was talking to a neighbor over some Portland red ale the other evening and he asked me to explain the Wanat situation. I didn't do a good job of it, so I asked myself on my morning dog walk along the pond why Wanat matters.

I think the answer is this: Ultimately, it comes down to how the Army takes care of soldiers. The Army gives a lot of lip service to that, but doesn't always follow through. Over the last 15 years I've heard numerous generals and colonels talk about how they "love" their soldiers. The investigation of Wanat was a chance to show some of that love. I think the Army missed that chance.

Giving the families of dead soldiers straight answers is part of really taking care of soldiers. Instead, in this case, I think the Army has chosen the easy wrong instead of the difficult right, which would have been to be candid with the families even at the cost of hurting the feelings and careers of officers in the chain of command. I know the Army doesn't want to discourage officers from taking risks. But if soldiers don't trust their superiors, they won't be as willing to take risks. A cohesive outfit will.     

I was talking to a neighbor over some Portland red ale the other evening and he asked me to explain the Wanat situation. I didn’t do a good job of it, so I asked myself on my morning dog walk along the pond why Wanat matters.

I think the answer is this: Ultimately, it comes down to how the Army takes care of soldiers. The Army gives a lot of lip service to that, but doesn’t always follow through. Over the last 15 years I’ve heard numerous generals and colonels talk about how they "love" their soldiers. The investigation of Wanat was a chance to show some of that love. I think the Army missed that chance.

Giving the families of dead soldiers straight answers is part of really taking care of soldiers. Instead, in this case, I think the Army has chosen the easy wrong instead of the difficult right, which would have been to be candid with the families even at the cost of hurting the feelings and careers of officers in the chain of command. I know the Army doesn’t want to discourage officers from taking risks. But if soldiers don’t trust their superiors, they won’t be as willing to take risks. A cohesive outfit will.     

Back in World War II, generals did not talk about "loving" their soldiers, but I think they often took care of them better than today. One reason for that was General Marshall’s insistence that in a war for democracy, our military had to act in a manner consistent with democratic values. This determination manifested itself in a variety of ways, most notably in relieving a commander if it were considered good for the morale, training or combat effectiveness of those under him. Also, the good of the Army and the nation was valued over the interests of the officer corps. In his 1941 report on the state of Army Marshall discussed his pre-war house cleaning of aging officers and explained that, "In all these matters the interests of the soldier and the nation, rather than that of the individual officer, have governed." Likewise, two years later, Eisenhower couched the relief of Maj. Gen. Ernest Dawley at Salerno in somewhat democratic terms: "Lives of thousands are involved-the question is not one of academic justice for the leader, it is that of concern for the many and the objective of victory."

In Vietnam and later wars, by contrast, personnel decisions seem to have been made more with the interests of the officer corps in mind, rather than that of the soldier or indeed of the country. As Gen. William DePuy, one of the greatest Army officers of the 20th century, once put it in discussing the rotation of officers in Vietnam, "With regard to having six months in command and trying to rotate everybody through, I’ve always said that was running the war for the benefit of the officer corps."

In this way, the handling of Wanat reminds me of the Patton slapping incidents in Sicily in August 1943. In a war for democracy, you couldn’t have generals acting like Prussians. When Ike ordered Patton to apologize to his enlisted men, he told Patton to say that he "respected their positions as fighting soldiers of a democratic nation."

If only today’s military leaders had as much sense as Ike did, understanding that the compact with one’s subordinates is crucial but remains secondary to the Army’s compact with the nation. Not breaking that faith must be foremost if our generals are to be allowed to spend our blood and treasure. In my view the handling of the aftermath of Wanat is a failure of the Army from the very top, by which I mean Gen. George Casey.

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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