Why presidents no longer fire generals
We are now more than six years into a war that spans the globe. American forces are engaged on the land, from the sea and from the air, around the planet. More than 1.6 million service members have deployed into the Central Command area of responsibility, and perhaps 35 percent of them have been there more than once.
Americans have done brave service in other areas, as well. The financial cost of this conflict, by even conservative measures, is approaching that of our largest war. The human cost, although lower as an absolute than many other wars imposed, also has taken a heavy toll on our all-volunteer professional military. In many ways one could consider this conflict, even at this point, one of the largest endeavors the nation ever attempted.
In one area, however, the current conflict is anomalous. We have retained nearly all our generals (and admirals) throughout the fight. Only a single brigadier general has been relieved for the performance of duty in a combat zone. Historically speaking, that is a curious fact.
You have to look back a fairly long distance to find generals and admirals being relieved of combat commands, either in combat or just prior to deployment. Only eight American generals or admirals have been publicly relieved of command from a combatant unit, or in a combat zone, since 1945. As noted, significantly, only one of them was relieved for failure. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was yanked from command by President Truman during the Korean War not because he had failed, but for outright insubordination. He disagreed with the president, was privately informed to toe the line and, instead, continued his de facto attempts to create his own foreign policy. (This included the threat to bring Taiwanese Nationalist Chinese into the conflict in Korea, as well as his better-known comments on the use of nuclear weapons.) More recently, Adm. William Fallon “voluntarily stepped down” after a media story appeared that highlighted his heretofore apparent private disagreements with members of the executive office of the vice president and the president. In both cases, the salient feature was not a failure to win at the operational or strategic level — the echelon occupied by both Fallon and MacArthur — but one of subordination of the military to the duly constituted civilian authority.
In this conflict, however, only former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski (now a retired colonel), the first general officer in the chain of command over the events at Abu Ghraib, was shuffled out of command (and subsequently demoted) for her incompetence in that situation. In all the battles, in all the campaigns, in all the struggles of Korea, Vietnam and now the global war on terrorism, just one.
It would be intellectually dishonest not to note that there were a few instances during the Vietnam War in which a commander who had left command was subsequently relieved or retired when news of events that occurred during his combat command became known. Most prominently, this occurred to the former commander of the Americal Division, two years after the massacre by his troops of several hundred Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai. When that story hit the papers, the general was relieved of his post. But that was years after the fact. There are several similar stories.
More recently, it would seem that the major factor that results in the termination of a career is sex. Within the non-combat criteria, quite a few general officers have been relieved, or retired (read: pushed out), from their commands in the past couple of years. It is a curious development, historically speaking. As recounted from within the Patton family, George S. Patton quite clearly was of the opinion that, “A man who won’t f—, won’t fight.” Patton did, of course, consider boundaries in that opinion. Two Air Force generals found themselves civilians in the wake of allegations of blatant sexual harassment. More pathetic was what happened to Army Gen. Kevin Byrnes, who, while separated from his wife pending his final decree of divorce, had a romantic relationship with a woman who was not in his chain of command, nor even in the military. Indeed, he was terminated on the day his final decree of divorce was granted, and 90 days before his previously planned retirement. Most recently the boom fell upon Adm. John Stufflebeem, who was effectively removed and apparently demoted for lying to investigators about an affair that occurred 18 years ago. In other words, running afoul of our laws regarding sex and marriage is more likely to get a flag officer canned than is a failure to achieve victory on the field of battle.
Let us be clear here: Not a single general, not a brigadier, a major general, a lieutenant general or a full general, nor any naval officers of the same grades, has suffered any serious adverse consequences for failure upon the field of battle since World War II. At worst, as was the case with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, some might merely have not been promoted. Others, such as Gen. William Westmoreland, were promoted to chief of staff of the Army after failing to win year after year in Vietnam. So what is the difference and how have things changed over time since the end of World War II?
Simplicity demands that we limit our historical examination to our three largest conflicts: the American Civil War, World War I and World War II. This ground is fertile, yet the scope is not excessive. Those wars took 48 months (the Civil War), 18 months (our involvement in World War I) and 43 months (our involvement in World War II), for a cumulative total of 109 months of war. So what happened in these wars, and how is today so different from those periods?
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has engaged in three sustained conflicts. Korea lasted 36 months of active combat; Vietnam, if measured only from the summer of 1965, was 96 months long; and we have been fighting the war on terrorism since October 2001, 78 months as I write this — a total of 210 months, nearly twice as long as the three earlier wars. In all three of those first three wars, we sacked dozens upon dozens of generals, probably more than 100. We also won all three of those fights. Since then, we have removed from combat only eight of the hundreds upon hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, of generals involved. We fought the Korean War to a draw, we lost the Vietnam War, and we are in a toss-up right now. There is obviously correlation, but is there causation in effect, as well? In other words, is one the result of the other? Even in part? Or are there too many other variables in play for the correlation to be relevant?
The American Civil War was the bloodiest conflict we have known. Because both sides were American, the total cost was huge. Added to that was a combination of new technologies for which appropriate doctrine had not yet been developed, and a massive expansion in the ability to sustain forces in the field, which led to bloodshed on a scale that defies us today, particularly when balanced against our much smaller population at the time. For our purposes, however, let us just examine the Union side with regard to the relief of generals.
At the apogee of the Union Army’s strength there were a little less than 1 million men under arms and 374 generals. The total who served in Union blue over the course of the war was between 2.3 million and 2.8 million. Record-keeping being what it was, we historians cannot determine the precise number. But we do know that over the course of the Civil War, 583 men served as generals in the Union Army. Of that number, 110 resigned or were encouraged to resign for one reason or another. We will leave them aside for the purposes of our discussion, although several at least were “encouraged to resign” in the same manner as Fallon was recently. Another 47 were killed in combat, and 38 were relieved for cause either by their superior officers or by the president. These numbers, on the face of it, are suggestive. But they also are misleading without understanding the cultural context in which these reliefs-for-cause occurred.
In the end, it appears that there were really two factors in play, in addition to the generic question of competence. The first was the state and nature of the profession and popular perceptions of what it took to be an officer or a general. The second factor derives from the first, and it was the referent authority of the president. In other words, in the popular perception, did the president have the experience and qualities needed to stand in judgment of the generals in the performance of their military duties? This is referent authority. These elements seem to matter.
In the middle of the 19th century, it should be recalled, the armed forces were not professional as we would understand the term today. There was little to no system of ongoing lifelong learning, and the officer corps had only limited ability to police its own ranks. The number of U.S. Military Academy cadets relieved and then reinstated by act of Congress or intervention by the secretary of war during this era demonstrates this point very well. Promotion was not by merit but by time in service and the availability of a vacancy at a higher level. And because there was no system of retirement and pay was perpetually low, many officers served until they died. The sentiment among the broader population was that military service was a low-status tradecraft, and officership was nothing particularly special. Taking a page from the mythology of the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, it was assumed that any gentleman of good standing, say a business leader or politician, could readily be as fully competent an officer as any who studied at West Point. All that was needed was a little reading and the correct moral character.
This last sentiment, in turn, meant that it did not matter to the American public that President Lincoln had only a few weeks of military experience, as a militia captain in the Blackhawk War, during which he saw no combat. What mattered was that he was demonstrably of the right character — the demonstration was his election. Thus, in the eyes of the public, he was fully capable, and not just legally capable, of sitting in judgment upon the officers of the Union Army. McClellan, Burnside, Buell, Fremont, French and Hooker, to name a few, all learned that he was not at all averse to the idea of sacking the commanding generals of entire armies. From there, the ball rolled downhill, and 32 other generals were at various times given their walking papers by their commanding generals. But it started at the top, with Lincoln’s referent authority and the correspondingly, comparatively low political cost he would have to pay for the act of removing a general from command. That low political cost is a key point.
By the time of World War I, however, things had changed dramatically both within the nation and in the area of civilian-military affairs. The armed forces were a profession. That applies at least to that core of the military that existed prior to the declaration of war in April 1917. Military officers were acknowledged by the general public to require not only some level of training for commissioning, but they also would thereafter be expected to continue learning the art of war at a series of sustained stepping stones of professional education. This was a byproduct of civilian outrage following some of the blatant mismanagement of our forces in the Spanish-American War and in the Philippine Insurrection which followed. The educational reforms under Secretary of War Elihu Root were both broad and deep.
The balance of power between the military and the civilians appointed over the military, thereafter, seems to have shifted slightly. The easy referent authority Lincoln enjoyed no longer could be taken for granted. Generals were now something different. They were seen by the public as the products of long and sustained experience, and specialized education in the art of war. It seems likely that were a president to begin relieving generals willy-nilly, circa 1917, he might well be expected to pay some domestic political price if the public — and particularly his political opposition — had an open say in the issue. That might apply, as well, to the idea of any general being relieved. Leading the nation from the Oval Office was President Wilson, a man with no military experience but who had strong ideas on the power of the presidency. As it was, Wilson decided to let the military police its own, while he attended to the domestic side.
And attend to the domestic side he did. Pushing through legislation intended to ensure the power of the state, Wilson oversaw a government in which more than 170,000 U.S. citizens were arrested for “disloyal” statements of one degree or another.
Wilson and his administration also supported, among several others, the semi-official organization known as the American Protective League. This was a group whose quarter-million members took it upon themselves to conduct warrantless searches, phone tapping, arrests (they would be called kidnapping now, because these were civilians arresting civilians), interrogations and a host of other activities we now would see as outrageous. Atop all of this, Wilson’s administration created the Committee for Public Information, a domestic propaganda organization designed purely to whip up and maintain support for the war effort, with more than 75,000 employees. In effect, Wilson established as close to a police state as this nation has ever known. It meant, in effect if not by intent, that the political cost for the relief of generals, either by Wilson or by the armed forces, was effectively zero. The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Gen. John Pershing, therefore had the ability to send no less than 32 of the generals sent over to him packing back home, or doing the general’s equivalent of counting towels at the gym.
Note that thus far I have not dealt with the specifics of any particular general’s performance. In part, this is because such information would be anecdotal at best and misleading at worst. Certainly some of the Civil War generals were victims of the so-called “Peter Principle” — they had advanced to the level of their own incompetence — and were able to serve well at a lower level. Ambrose Burnsides, for example, comes to mind on that score as an exemplar. Similarly, some of the generals may have been relieved for purely political reasons. But the salient point in all of this was the ability of the president to either relieve generals or empower his subordinates to do the same. Now, we must move on to that most curious of presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and our largest struggle, World War II.
We should, to place this period in context, run the numbers. In World War II, 16 million men served in uniform. Of those, roughly 70 percent were in the Army (a force that, at the time, included what we now call the Air Force.) The U.S. had a population of 131 million people, and we lost in combat some 407,000 of the men who were in uniform.
Now, about the generals. During World War II, there were roughly 1,100 generals in the Army. Eleven of those were killed in action, two were executed while prisoners of war, and four died in plane crashes. Five corps commanders and 16 division commanders were relieved for cause. Also relieved were Patton and the Army and the Navy commanders in charge of the forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on that day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941. About a dozen more flag officers were relieved voluntarily for health reasons, most related to exhaustion. And almost every one of the pre-war National Guard Division Commanders was relieved or “eased out of command” before the American entry into the war. Indeed, only one National Guard commander out of 34, Maj. Gen. Robert Beightler, retained his command from the pre-war period throughout the war. And we have not even touched upon the brigadiers. Statistically speaking, if the percentages hold up, it would appear that some 40 to 50 one-star generals were relieved in combat, as well.
But here again, we are talking about a nation that was following the lead of the first president ever to win a third term of office. In 1940, as things started heating up for us, Roosevelt won re-election. We can assume that he had more than enough political capital to fire generals at will. The thing about Roosevelt, however, was that he was anything but direct. Machiavelli, were his ghostly apparition to appear and hide itself behind a curtain in Roosevelt’s Oval Office, probably would have given a low whistle and said to himself, “Man, that guy is devious.” The indirect approach was Roosevelt’s intent, and having found Gen. George C. Marshall, he was happy to empower that subordinate to make such changes and reliefs as needed. Marshall was not shy.
Since then, no political leader has had, or believed he had, sufficient political power or referent authority to enable and demand widespread reliefs of nonperforming generals as a result of their performance in combat.
Truman, despite abysmal polls, was unequivocal when he decided finally to relieve MacArthur from command in 1951 for his repeated insubordination and blatant political maneuvering with the Republican Party. Just before that, the commander of the Eighth Army in Korea, Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, had relieved five division commanders in combat on his own authority (apparently over the screaming protests of the general officer personnel management back in Washington). But those would be the last division commanders relieved so far in our history.
Truman had been at the top of the political game for decades at that point, and arguably was more interested in adhering to his Midwestern values than he was in any re-election he might contemplate. He was famously willing to take the hit, epitomized by his desktop sign, “The Buck Stops Here.” Discussing MacArthur, Truman told the then-influential Time magazine, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
And take the hit he did. In the wake of the overtly political MacArthur’s relief — MacArthur had not-so-privately maneuvered for the Republican Party presidential nomination as early as 1930, while he was chief of staff of the Army — Truman’s opposition made mincemeat of the president. There were calls for impeachment, his popularity dropped to 22 percent, and he lost the first round of his party’s primaries. All of which persuaded him to withdraw from politics after his term. In the elections that followed, his party also lost both houses of Congress. Chief executives since then can hardly be expected not to have taken a lesson from the high cost Truman paid to sustain the authority of the president over the armed forces.
Since that time, two truisms seem to have been in place with regard to the political calculations that go into presidential decisions regarding the relief of generals.
The first seems to be that a succession of presidents believed they did not have sufficient personal expertise to override their military subordinates and demand the relief of a nonperforming or underperforming commander in combat. It does not appear that these presidents were not making evaluations of those generals. It just seems that they collectively doubted their own ability to sit in judgment of the men in uniform, and because doing nothing is easier, they did nothing. This did not preclude them from disagreeing with the generals and admirals, and choosing their own course of action in a strategic setting. President Kennedy quite explicitly rejected the advice and counsel of the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we are all here now because of that rejection.
At best, the presidents who fall under this heading may shuffle an officer aside, although they also might promote them up and out of the way, as happened with Westmoreland and others. Call this the “professionalization effect.” The idea is that the professional military of the late 20th century was increasingly and demonstrably a specialized profession that required decades upon decades of training, recurrent education and study. Since President Eisenhower, no president has even remotely approached this level of hypothetical knowledge that the generals presumably had at their fingertips. This applies to Kennedy, Carter, Reagan and the current chief executive.
The second apparent truth is that at least some presidents believed that the political costs the electorate (and the opposition party) would impose on them or their party for the relief of a combatant general would be excessive. That is to say that they may have thought that “General X should be relieved, I know that,” but then for domestic political reasons declined to act upon this belief. This variant would appear to apply to presidents Johnson, Nixon, Bush 41 and Clinton, although only the first two fought sustained conflicts in which the issue might have regularly arisen. In this situation, the president is more likely to endorse a course of action that promotes the offending general out of the combat theater, as happened repeatedly under Johnson.
A host of caveats must cover this material. For starters, two of the three wars since 1945 have been, in large part, unconventional counterinsurgencies. Korea was a straight up fight, although one with a large rear-area component. This, theoretically, raises the question of measurement. In the Civil War, the long lines of Union troops streaming away from the battlefield at First Bull Run clearly demonstrated that the fight was not going into the win column for the Union. Similarly, the performance of the American forces at Kasserine Pass in early 1943 was by almost any measure abysmal. The subsequent relief of II Corps commander Lloyd Fredendall was the almost immediate result. But how does one measure things in an insurgency?
That question should not be the barrier that it apparently has been these past 55 years. The measurement is defined by the president. A president says, “I want X by date Y. Anything less is failure.” What the president decides X and Y should be is a political question, but the act of making that demand seems quite simple. Leaving the definition to the military results in the interminable hand-wringing over metrics — which the U.S. military has engaged in since at least 1966 — a process that also has meant that, technically, nobody ever actually fails. (Before “body counts” became the norm in Vietnam, “captured rice” often was used as a measure of effectiveness.)
It should also be noted that, at least in the case of the Civil War, the relief of generals may be partially ascribed to the political nature of so many of their appointments in the first place — appointments made for political reasons, which in some cases did result in true and sustained incompetence. That state of affairs was a condition forced upon the nation by necessity, obviously, but the fact is that even during the Civil War, a man was not a good general merely as a result of his breeding or business connections. Since at least the turn-of-the-20th-century reforms of Secretary of War Root, however, we have had at least a nominally professional force. True, promotions came fast and furious with expansion, but still, many pre-war generals in both world wars found themselves relieved, even though they had been trained and promoted at the normal peacetime-professionals pace. So that caveat does not entirely explain the utter lack of relief-for-cause events, either.
In the end, there is no simple solution. It is probably dangerous, for the republic and the armed forces that defend her, for this situation to exist. But it is also the logical result of 232 years of evolution between the military and the civilian authorities that control them. The question that remains is this: When nobody is willing to sit in judgment of the combat performance of the generals, including the generals, then who is really in control of our armed forces?
Do we need the equivalent of a base realignment and closure board for generals? Recall that it was only the threat of public hearings before Congress that apparently scuttled Sanchez’s nomination for a fourth star and command of Southern Command. Generals may be selected by the president, but as with all officers, their promotion is contingent upon approval from the Senate. In the Sanchez case, Congress fulfilled the role intended for it in this set-up. But very often it would be a political hot potato for a congressman to appear unsympathetic to a medal-wearing general.
The base realignment and closure board, authorized and directed by Congress, gave lawmakers the top cover they needed to put into effect hard choices that they could not have made publicly and expected to survive politically. Perhaps some sort of similarly constituted board should be convened by Congress for the purpose of reviewing generals, and the promotions and assignments thereof. Yes, this might be seen as an infringement of the president’s prerogatives, but no president in more than half a century has apparently used those powers, and perhaps no president has felt able to do so.
In any event, the history recounted here does seem to suggest that something is out of kilter.
LT. COL. ROBERT L. BATEMAN is an infantryman and historian who has taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy. He is author of “No Gun Ri, A Military History of the Korean War Incident.” The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.