Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: The Generals, by Thomas E. Ricks

Ricks is one of my favorite commentators on the American military. His book Fiasco probably did as much to turn American public opinion against the Iraq war as the nightly casualty reports on the news. The comedy of errors that was our adventure in Iraq beggars belief when you really study the personalities and lack of planning involved, but Ricks set it all down in black and white. His latest work on American generalship isn't exclusively or primarily about the 2003 Iraq war, but he shows that the incompetence of our current brass is rooted in the mistakes and personalities of the past.

Ricks begins by describing the American military experience in World War II. Only serious history buffs can usually name any American generals from that time besides Eisenhower and Patton. George Marshall is the closest the modern American military has to a founding father. It was Marshall's system of promoting and firing officers that turned the American armed forces from a third rate backwater to the superpower it is today. Marshall worked hard at remaining cold and impersonal. He never met or chatted with the president socially. He was ruthless in his drive to identify and promote those who could hack it in combat and fire those who couldn't. Marshall and his protégé Eisenhower wanted cool, calm, collected, cooperative team players above all else but who still maintained streaks of optimism and aggression. Marshall relieved some officers who probably didn't deserve it, but back then being relieved of your command wasn't the kiss of death for your career that it is today. It was a sign that the system was working. Men who were relieved often got a second or third chance to prove themselves too.

Some men had trouble fitting into this new paradigm, mainly George Patton and Terry Allen. Douglas MacArthur was the polar opposite of George Marshall, a bombastic, pompous, and increasingly erratic figure who was finally fired by Harry Truman because the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn't know what to do with him anymore. Unfortunately, MacArthur poisoned civil-military relations for decades to come.

The Army failed in Vietnam because it waged World War II style warfare against a 4GW style opponent. William Westmoreland - probably the most unimaginative American officer to ever wear stars - wanted "search and destroy" missions. He failed to realize that in Vietnam the prize was the people, not the terrain or even destroying the North Vietnamese army. The Marines were somewhat more successful because they integrated themselves into villages, making friends, learning the people's routines and thus quickly being able to identify strangers who were Vietcong.

The Army nearly fell apart after Vietnam and was rebuilt from the ground up by William DePuy, Huba Wass de Czege, and William Richardson. DePuy greatly strengthened the Army's tactical proficiency while Wass de Czege and Richardson founded the School of Advanced Military Studies which focused on teaching officers slated for the higher ranks how to think as strategists. Unfortunately, DePuy didn't appreciate the other two or the school they founded. This is reflected in many modern American generals effectively being jumped up battalion commanders. They're great tacticians most of the time, but few of them really know how to think at the operational or strategic level. That's why General Tommy Franks of the recent Iraq and Afghanistan adventures could be asked, "What kind of war are we fighting?" and he responded by describing how to clear a cave. It was a fine answer for a sergeant. From a general, it was astonishing.

The Army is a big institution, and like all big institutions, it tends to put its own welfare first ahead of its ostensible mission. Since World War II, almost all generals who have been relieved have been relieved by civilians, not their brother officers. The rotation system in particular has stymied effective military operations. By the time the officers and men come to fully understand their new environments, they're rotated out. Incompetent officers are left in place because they'll be rotating out anyway, and why bother with all the paperwork? It undermines unit cohesion and sometimes leaves outright criminals unaccountable for their actions. Officers come to "punch their ticket" for a combat tour, and rotate out. This is opposed to World War II where the only way soldiers went home was through Tokyo and Berlin.

These days, officers are generally only relieved because of personal peccadilloes that become public. When careerism waxes and accountability wanes, soldiers get killed. Marshall understood that the career of an officer is not worth the lives of his men. It's unfortunate the Marshall system has broken down. We've returned to our Vietnam type, expecting that moar dakka will fix everything. I hope the Iraqis have tasty cuisine, because a massive influx of Iraqi restaurateurs and cab drivers will be the only thing we gain from our recent adventures.

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