21 March 2013


This week marks the 10th anniversary of the 1991 invasion of Iraq by U.S. troops ~ essentially the second Iraq War.  Everywhere there is commentary and remembrance, examining the political legerdemain with which President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld employed to lure a gullible nation (and a gullible congress) into the desert quicksand which would claim 4,486 American lives in combat (not to mention the collateral damage of injuries, PTSD, and an epidemic of military suicides), and the reminiscences of those who fought. Those casualties don't even include the many thousands of Iraqi military and civilian lives lost and damaged.

Entry into any war involves support or complicity by three components ~ political leaders, military leaders, and the public.  Lies about WMDs aside, once a war has begun, its outcome is determined (usually) by the quality of the military leaders on both sides.  If commanding generals are well-educated in their craft, and possess both a clear understanding of the overall strategic situation and the daring to take swift advantage of specific tactical opportunities, they will likely be successful leaders.  If they are too hesitant, or too rash, or fail to grasp the military and political situation on the ground, they will fail.

For a deeper understanding of how leadership affects war, I highly recommend a new book titled The Generals ~ American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks.  It is a fascinating history which interweaves the stories of generals within a war, and between wars.  We are witness to the emergence of the careers of men whose names are familiar to anyone who has served in the military, or whose life has been affected by war ~ George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Mark Clark, Terry Allen, Douglas MacArthur, William Simpson, Matthew Ridgway, Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams, William DePuy, Colin Powell, Norman Schwartzkopf, Tommy Franks, David Petraeus, and others.  The author pulls no punches, exposing both the strengths and the shortcomings of our military leaders and, more importantly, how the culture of the officer corps has evolved from a military to a business mentality, starting after World War II.

From the book jacket ~

"History has been kind to the American generals of World War II ~ Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley ~ and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed.  In The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks sets out to explain why that is.  In part, it is the story of a widening gulf between performance and accountability.  During the Second World War, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough.  Today, as one American colonel said bitterly during the Iraq war, 'As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.'

"In The Generals, we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers.  Marshall and Eisenhower cast long shadows over this story, as does the less familiar Marine general O.P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught in Korea in the winter of 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation.

"But Korea also showed the first signs of an Army leadership culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring.  In the Vietnam War, the problem grew worse, until finally American military leadership bottomed out.  The My Lai massacre, Ricks shows us, was the emblematic event of this dark chapter in our history.  In the wake of Vietnam, a battle for the soul of the U.S. Army was waged with impressive success.  It became a transformed institution, reinvigorated from the bottom up.  But if the body was highly toned, its head still suffered with familiar problems, resulting in tactical savvy but strategically obtuse leadership that would win battles but end wars badly, from the first Iraq war of 1990 to the present.

"Ricks has made a close study of America's military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning ~ about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails."

It happens that I arrived in Vietnam about two weeks before the My Lai massacre, although few heard about it until the news emerged a year later.  What I did witness was a command culture which emphasized an officer furthering his own career at any cost.  A six-month assignment in a combat zone was "getting one's ticket punched", a prerequisite for advancement from field officer to flag officer status.  Rare was the officer or NCO who would place his rank in jeopardy in order to protect his troops from an incompetent order or policy.  In reality, a military leader's first loyalty should be to his subordinates, then his commanders, and lastly to himself.  Embracing all these is his loyalty to his nation.

During the years and wars since Vietnam, everything I've witnessed supports the history presented in The Generals.  It is a gripping read, and a sober assessment of how this nation wages war ~ or fails to.

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