‘The Generals’: Some practical approaches to what Tom preaches
Firing wartime generals? You must have known that would be a hard sell.
By Col. G. T. Burke, U.S. Army (Retired)
Best Defense guest book reviewer
I recently finished reading your book The Generals. I admit I’m at least a couple years late getting to this, but I thank you for writing a great book which is a tremendous and enlightening laydown of our general officers’ track record in war over the past 70 years. I especially found interesting your substantial use of quotes from interviews and writings of officers, having served with and around many you mention.
Anyway, wanted to share some thoughts.
Firing wartime generals? You must have known that would be a hard sell. Until the notion of “firing generals for wartime failures” becomes more palatable, it’s not likely to be put into regular use as a personnel action tool. Here are my ideas for the interim in an effort to reduce failures:
1. Rotation policy. I’ve long been a fan of a “for the duration” combat rotation policy. It appears to have worked for WWII and Gulf War I, and potentially its absence was an issue for Korea, Vietnam, and OIF/OEF. As a young captain in Desert Shield, I remember waiting in the desert (for the arrival of the U.S. units from Germany, and Desert Storm to begin) and the inevitable topic of rotation policy coming up, and learning it would be “for the duration.” Yes, it hit kind of hard initially but we quickly got over it, and I remember a general attitude of “ok then, when the time comes that we can make an impact on getting this over with quickly, then let’s all be sure to do so.” I believe it instilled a more positive mindset, at least from what I remember of the guys around me. It was an attitude of “getting this finished quickly” vs. “surviving for 6 months, or 8 months, or 13 months, or whatever, until I can rotate back home.”
I am aware that Vietnam/OIF/OEF veterans would reason that “folks can’t do 10-12 year rotations though” and I agree, most can’t, but I think with a “for the duration” policy our wars would be more like WWII and Gulf War I, that is, in the 6-month to 3-year range. Especially since there is more than just soldiers’ attitude at issue — there’s also obviously public and political will. Such a policy would of course have exceptions (level of injuries, combat wounds, personal hardships would cause military commanders to make case by case decisions on sending folks back early). Anyway, I believe it makes soldiers think differently, in a positive way — I wonder if GEN Tommy Franks would have been forced to pay more attention to strategy and post-hostilities (more than just “the day of”) if he had been told he would remain in theater for the duration.
2. Lessons to be learned. Generals should learn from the previous wars, even when the lesson is positive and complimentary of other senior leaders. Just as there are positive lessons from WWII, there are also strategic lessons from Gulf War I that current and future wartime general officers can use.
Here I suggest a re-consideration regarding the strategic implications of Gulf War I. Gulf War I senior leadership tried and succeeded in not repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. OIF/OEF senior leaders could have taken a page from the Gulf War I strategy playbook especially the part about senior leader insistence on clear strategy containing relevant, achievable Ends. Did they view strategy and fight, trying to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam, while also attempting to emulate Gulf War I success? (I think more the former than the latter and I think that’s a problem when leaders are unwilling to embrace the same strategy as the last guy — especially when the previous guy was successful.)
So, I think that the “strategic failures” resulting from Desert Storm are overstated. Okay, perhaps mistakes were made and opportunities lost at the conclusion of Desert Storm. I remember being in Iraq at the conclusion of the ground assault. Although just a simple heavy artillery battalion maintenance officer I had a strong sense then that a little more could have been done. But would that have been the right thing to do? I’m not so sure. I remember in the ground war what it felt like having the responsibility to lead the battalion’s maintenance effort in order to keep all the vehicles moving. I also remember the feeling of the battalion having this unstoppable momentum (obviously as a small element of the much larger ground force with its also unstoppable momentum). And then we stopped. And it was confusing as to why. It was over though, it didn’t matter that I thought we were unstoppable. So, what would have been the right approach? Well, I guess we could have kept on going and killed some more of the Iraqi forces. But now with the benefit of more information it seems there was concern that if we had destroyed the Iraqi military and brought about regime change there was high potential for civil war and chaos in the region. Instead the 1991 leadership took a different approach which was to avoid civil war. So now we see the difference between the long term results of Desert Shield/Desert Storm and long term results of OIF ($1-3T war costs (depending on who’s counting) and even worse, well over 4,000 service members killed, many more seriously wounded). And now instead of an evil but containable Saddam Hussein we have ISIS running around in the region doing all manner of terrible stuff (beheadings, stealing oil, taking territory, etc.). Given a choice, I would gladly suffer 12 years of the consequences of mistakes and opportunities lost from Desert Storm vs. 12 years of consequences of mistakes resulting from the 2003 (re)invasion of Iraq. So I think any discussion of consequences of missteps of Gulf War I should also be considered vis-à-vis the current state in the region. Gulf War I is not the cause of the current state in Iraq. Rather, Gulf War I is the cause of the 12 years following Gulf War I.
3. Study the assignment and promotion processes to ensure we’re getting guys who are less likely to fail. Making general officer puts one in a super-elite group. Incoming general officers are selected from the pool of available full Colonels (O-6). When one makes O-6 on active duty they are already in an elite group, having achieved the top less than one percent of the Army. (Well, this is the case in the Army and the Marine Corps, but not quite so in the Air Force and Navy — very close though.) And the total active Army general officer population is approximately seven percent of the active Army Colonel population. That’s super-elite. Shouldn’t the top less than .07% of the Army be superhuman at winning war? So the proven talent is apparently there — but are they getting the right assignments as well? And are these super-elite that are getting selected actually the right guys? Having served on an officer promotion board I’m convinced our centralized officer promotion system, while imperfect, is a good one, the right one, that can always be improved upon over time as we study what’s going and figure out how to get better. However, if a significant number of general officers were to be “fired” then wouldn’t that be a significant indictment of the process? (I could write more about this one later.
4. Be careful about firings. A caution here too — firings could cause some to want to avoid the assignments where firings might happen most. Institutional Support and service support GOs obviously enjoy success. If soldiers do well in war (as they have, they have definitely done their jobs) it’s because the institution (led by these generals) properly prepared them for war (under the various lenses such as training, doctrine, combat development, force development, acquisition, resource management, etc.). Soldiers don’t just fall off the back of the bus ready for war. We need to be sure and understand that warfighting is more difficult than preparing for war and Institutional Support and other peacetime performance and functions. And I know from experience that preparing for war and Institutional Support and service support if done properly are really hard functions too btw. But it is certainly less difficult to plan, develop, and write awesome strategy than it is to carry out that strategy in even a mediocre or passing manner. Anyway, warfighting is the most difficult military task. And not just difficult but tricky, and risky for the career at times. I think it’s quite likely that Ricardo Sanchez would have been a 4-star SOUTHCOM commander were it not for his MNF-I assignment. So, any policy of wartime firings should compare fairly to peacetime firings.
Again, great book — I really did enjoy reading it.
Col. G. T. Burke, U.S. Army (Ret.) served briefly in the Army Reserve and then on active duty as a Field Artillery officer, Comptroller, and Finance officer in command, staff, and various leadership positions for a combined total of over 27 years. His final assignment was in the Pentagon as Resource Integration Deputy Director, CIO/G-6, HQDA.
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Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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