Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Hey, Tom: The next time you write a book, try looking up from the ground

By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper, USAF Best Defense aerial book critic In order to support our Best Defense host’s desire to learn more about Air Force history, I thought I’d provide an airman’s perspective on The Generals. Many reviews of Tom’s most recent book ping-pong back and forth against the Army and in favor of ...

Myles Cullen, U.S. Department of Defense
Myles Cullen, U.S. Department of Defense
Myles Cullen, U.S. Department of Defense

By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper, USAF

Best Defense aerial book critic

By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper, USAF

Best Defense aerial book critic

In order to support our Best Defense host’s desire to learn more about Air Force history, I thought I’d provide an airman’s perspective on The Generals. Many reviews of Tom’s most recent book ping-pong back and forth against the Army and in favor of the Army but make no mention of the teamwork required to execute military operations since World War II. I don’t have much experience working under direct Army leadership but I do know that the contributions of the joint team were not fully accounted for in the book.

The subtitle of Tom’s book, "American Military Command from World War II to Today," is not a complete statement because it neglects all naval and air leaders who have made significant contributions to military operations in the same period. Fortunately for the nation, more than just the Army and Marine Corps conduct military operations. The narrow vision of "the military" presented in the book does not fully capture the lessons of leadership for the way joint warfighting is conducted today. It is joint teamwork that makes American military operations succeed. And it is perspectives born from different service experiences that help broaden the thinking of leaders and produce the high-level of trust needed for joint success.

Unfortunately, many assume the strategic leader ought to wear the same "boots" as the guys sent to fight — probably tactically appropriate, but unproven strategically. A single-service strategic perspective does not take advantage of the joint force the nation has prepared to fight its wars. The Joint Task Force Commander should be surrounded by a diversity of thought, not same-service minions that benefit from agreeing and reinforcing the same-service leader’s way of thinking. The military successes (and military failures) of the leaders highlighted by Ricks require deeper examination through a joint warfighting lens. Each success in The Generals embraced diverse viewpoints of how to fight over single-service concepts.

Many people assumed that the wars of the past decade needed leaders with a ground perspective, but leaders who can approach problems from other viewpoints might have led to different outcomes. A different perspective might have created innovative ways to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan that may have cost less and risked less. In My Share of the Task, General Stanley McChrystal’s descriptions of increasing the pace of operations of Task Force 712 to hunt Zarqawi is similar to the military challenge General Carl Spaatz faced when put in charge of achieving air superiority before D-Day. I don’t know if General McChrystal ever studied air operations over Europe, but the challenge of generating an operational pace that can exhaust your enemy while not exhausting your own was a significant lesson Carl Spaatz learned in the skies over Europe in early 1944. Similarly, "it takes a network" rings very closely to how airmen across generations thought about generating an effects chain to disrupt enemy actions before "effects-based operations" became a "concept that should not be spoken of" by a respected senior leader.

To understand the diversity of thought brought by different military experiences, consider the following academic example. As an airman, I chose a path that did not train me to understand the tactics of an infantry squad, and I have no expectation that I should lead in the infantry. However, in choosing the Air Force, I chose a service that develops an innovative mindset not hindered by geography and more conscious of range.  

This became particularly evident to me while participating in a recent Army-led Antietam staff ride. The experience included the entire South Mountain campaign and siege of Harpers Ferry, giving a more strategic viewpoint than what happened in the individual, but instructive, skirmishes. We began on a hillside looking north towards Frederick, Maryland, where our leader, a well-respected, retired infantry colonel, asked us what Lee was trying to do by moving towards Pennsylvania. My Army counterpart, a SAMS graduate who has thought about these things at length, responded, "The terrain in the valley was a natural funnel for Lee to take the ground ahead of him and move into the North." I looked at the terrain, thought of the geography, remembered my very slight skimming of Landscape Turned Red and said, "Didn’t Lee really want to get across Maryland into Pennsylvania to gain access to the industrial capacity of the North and possibly show the European allies that the Confederacy was for real?" Right or wrong, what struck me was that I saw "terrain" across a broader distance like you’d see from the air and my Army counterpart’s view was shaped by infantry experience of being on foot. It was the sharing of two diverse viewpoints that created a broader view of what Lee was trying to accomplish.

Similarly, Ricks’s most successful examples in The Generals used contributions of diverse thinking airmen to strengthen the fight. General George Marshall’s embrace of the yet-unproven Army Air Corps and faith in its leader, General Henry "Hap" Arnold, to strengthen the independent Army Air Forces early in World War II is proof alone of the need for a broader viewpoint towards warfighting. Marshall’s trust in Hap Arnold to grow the AAF to a robust, independent fighting organization, sometimes at the expense of ground force priorities, was critical to military success. Just as highlighted by Ricks, it is Marshall’s superior leadership that many look to for a superior example of how a strategic leader should lead. Marshall’s leadership skill is solidified by the fact that all his ground Army subordinates in both theaters embraced the contributions of airpower.

In Europe, Eisenhower clearly understood the use of airpower to change the situation on the ground. Eisenhower had significant trust in RAF Air Marshall Arthur Tedder and AAF commander in Europe General Carl Spaatz. Tedder was Eisenhower’s second in command for the invasion of Normandy. Spaatz was "Eisenhower’s Airman" as he commanded United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe. Eisenhower understood the integration of ground and air forces so well that when it came to establishing his headquarters in England, he co-located his with Spaatz. Eisenhower rated Spaatz and General Omar Bradley as the two leaders who did the most to defeat the Germans, specifically describing Spaatz as an "Experienced and able air leader: loyal and cooperative; modest and selfless; always reliable." A final testimony of this trust is in what Eisenhower wrote to Spaatz in 1948: "No man can justly claim a greater share than you in the attainment of victory in Europe." General Omar Bradley, when asked by Eisenhower
to rank top generals in prioritized order based on their contribution to the defeat of Germany, listed Spaatz as number two and General Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada as number four. Two in the top five were airmen. (Bedell-Smith was one, Courtney Hodges was another, and Patton didn’t make the top five.)

In the Pacific, General Douglas McArthur’s relationship with General George Kenney is one of the more interesting stories of how an innovative air leader changed the way we fought on the ground during World War II. Kenney’s ability to integrate both air and ground fighting to hop through the southwest Pacific is what MacArthur’s success was built on. From innovative new bombing techniques to airdrop methods using bombers and cargo aircraft to cutting trucks in half to move them into the fight, at every turn Kenney used his unique experience and perspective to strengthen the fight on the ground. MacArthur’s own words about Kenney are the most descriptive of what he contributed: "Of all the commanders in the war, none surpassed him in those three great essentials of successful combat leadership: aggressive vision, mastery over air tactics and strategy, and the ability to exact the maximum in fighting qualities from both men and equipment." It is clear that Kenney had MacArthur’s trust to use his unique viewpoint on how to fight to achieve military victory.

Numerous examples exist and all become clear in a recently released volume of biographies titled Air Commanders. This book’s detailed descriptions of air commanders in conflicts ranging from World War II to Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom highlight the role played by airmen and the contributions of airpower to these conflicts. The unique perspective provided by these air leaders to achieve military effects differently than what would have been achieved by fighting through a single-service lens is a critical lesson for future commanders. Each example is stronger or weaker based on the teamwork between the ground commander and the air commander. Our most successful military operations tend to have leaders that understood fighting in the air as strengthening the fight and not as threatening to the Army as they increasingly have since the early 1950s. A couple of the less lauded Army leaders in The Generals begin to exhibit fear of airpower during the Korean War. Maj. Gen. Ned Almond was opposed to the Air Force’s concept for conducting air operations and Gen. Mark Clark advocated that tactical air forces should operate purely under the command of the ground commander. In both cases, airpower’s flexibility was not embraced and may have limited airminded solutions for fighting in Korea. Just look to one of the heroes of The Generals for what a dose of airmindedness can achieve — General O.P. Smith’s first action during fighting at the Chosin Reservoir was to build a runway.

Services don’t fight wars, the nation does. The nation fights wars by the application of the full capabilities of joint force to achieve a military outcome. Ground combat should not be the goal of military leaders when they develop plans, in fact it might be argued that we should fight in a way that makes forces on the ground engaging the enemy a last resort. By discussing generalship and its effectiveness purely in terms of the Army, it discounts the strength of the joint team and what our nation expects and deserves. Our nation invests heavily in building a trained joint force that integrates diverse warfighting perspectives across the spectrum of military operations. Using examples from one service viewpoint, without recognizing joint teamwork, is half the story and does not strengthen future leaders with examples of leadership that truly strengthens how we fight today. As we continue toward a smaller, more capable, more adaptable military for the United States, leadership examples with unique perspectives, teamwork, and, most importantly, trust are increasingly important and should be emphasized.

Lt. Col. Tom Cooper is deployed from Headquarters Air Force to the Office of Security Cooperation — Iraq, where he works to build more than just one strong Air Force.

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

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.