December 1, 2012  

Command and accountability

Charting the erosion of senior officer responsibility

Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote in these pages that today a private who loses his weapon “suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war” (“A Failure in Generalship,” May 2007). This ground-breaking article and the issue behind it inspired Tom Ricks’ fifth, and perhaps most important, book: “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.”

Ricks’ book is an important study on command and accountability in wartime. It is also a précis of much of American military history over the past 70 years. It will make many officers uncomfortable and some generals squirm. Its arguments can be disputed; they cannot be ignored.

Ricks knows the armed forces as a journalist, a war correspondent, a blogger and a well-read amateur historian. His book — 460 pages of text and over 65 pages of notes — covers the period from 1940 to the present and looks in depth at more than a dozen high-ranking generals.

His argument is fairly simple. In World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, was a critical strategic leader and, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, the “organizer of victory.” The cold, taciturn Virginian shaped the officer corps by retiring older officers, accelerating the promotion of the best and the brightest, and ruthlessly pruning the general officer ranks. Marshall’s men were mentally agile, broad-gauged thinkers, and a few, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, had an eye for strategy writ large.

General officers who did not do well in combat or wore themselves out were promptly relieved by Marshall or his subordinates. Ten percent of division commanders were sacked. Five corps commanders were relieved, as well. A few of the division commanders made it back to command again, but most did not. Interestingly, Marshall, the epitome of prudence and regularity, tended to favor aggressive officers to help propel his team-player generals to success. In any case, strict accountability for results was the rule. Historians judged the Marshall team as “plodding” and at times unimaginative, but it was ultimately victorious in the most important war in the modern age.

The Army faced its next test in Korea, where it flunked the first year of the war. Handicapped by postwar unreadiness, misdirection and low budgets, and led by the politicized, erratic and egotistical Douglas MacArthur, the Army in Korea initially had few of Marshall’s men and, worse, a shortage of experienced commanders. A brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon — wrongly dismissed by Ricks, in my view — turned the tide in the fall of 1950, but it enticed our forces to go north to the Yalu River, where they were surprised and routed by the Chinese Army. The main U.N. force on the western side of the peninsula, the U.S. Eighth Army, lost two divisions, the greatest battlefield defeat in the Army’s modern history. (Adding to the Army’s embarrassment, X Corps, dominated by the tough and well-led 1st Marine Division, did much better on the eastern side of the peninsula.)

In December 1951, Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway — a Marshall man — took command of the Eighth Army from the fallen Walton Walker and quickly restored the front and his troops’ morale. Four months later, as the 70-year-old MacArthur was being relieved for disobedience and unprofessional conduct, Ridgway’s army was blunting the last major Chinese counteroffensive of the war. Two years of talk-fight-talk completed America’s first, sad foray into modern limited war, preserving the status quo ante at the high cost of nearly 34,000 American lives.

The Vietnam Nadir

The post-Korea story is a complex one. The Army did not thrive under Eisenhower; it resisted JFK’s directives to build a counterinsurgency capability. It did get stronger and larger under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but management expertise replaced strategic and operational acumen. Ricks — in seven chapters that cover almost a fourth of the book — reminds us that the Army did poorly in Vietnam, where it was guided initially by what he calls the disastrous advice of Gen. Maxwell Taylor.

The most obvious exemplar of the Army’s poor performance was Gen. William C. Westmoreland, a general for his age: ambitious to a fault, intelligent but not broad-minded, impressive-looking and ever conscious of image and spin. Interestingly, Westmoreland rose to four stars without having graduated from either the command and general staff or war colleges, both of which were and are considered mandatory for promotion for most Army officers.

Westmoreland’s strategy was one of attrition against an enemy that would not quit. He never reached the mythical crossover point, where allied forces would destroy enemy soldiers faster than they could be replaced. Search-and-destroy operations, not counterinsurgency, were his main effort, despite other potentially viable courses of action pointed out by many experts in his own service and the in-country Marines. Westmoreland bent less effort toward protecting the population and far more toward destroying the enemy with the profligate use of firepower.

During Vietnam, the Army practiced individual replacement, one-year tours for soldiers and, worst of all, rapid rotation of commanding officers. The My Lai massacre and the Army’s failure to punish the senior officers involved marked the Army’s professional low point: 58,000 dead Americans and well over a trillion dollars were the bill for the misguided U.S. strategy.

Ricks laments that few ineffective officers were relieved of command in Vietnam. Then-Maj. Gen. William DePuy, a former deputy to Westmoreland, was an exception. He cashiered so many officers that the Army’s Washington leadership felt the need to counsel him. Later, Westmoreland himself was softly relieved by President Johnson after the Tet Offensive, a tactical disaster for the enemy but a strategic defeat for the United States. Westmoreland became the chief of staff of the Army. Gen. Creighton Abrams took over in Vietnam and did better at counterinsurgency, but he later watched his efforts come to naught. He, too, ended his career as chief of staff of the Army, and died of cancer eight months before Saigon fell in 1975.

The Vietnam War left the Army in sad shape, lacking organizational focus and slow to find its way as an all-volunteer force. The energetic DePuy was promoted to general and placed in charge of the Training and Doctrine Command, where he sparked a re-professionalization of the officer corps. His new-mold leaders were not focused — as Lt. Gen. Jack Cushman, the Fort Leavenworth commander, wanted — on broad-gauged, creatively thinking officers. Instead, DePuy wanted tacticians who could master the new doctrine he was spearheading at TRADOC, which sought to synchronize active defenses and win the first battle of a war against Warsaw Pact or similar forces. In 1982, DePuy’s successors improved the doctrine and opened the School of Advanced Military Studies for advanced operational planners, which remains a sterling center of excellence. Yet problems persisted: From the early 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century, Army studies and surveys of serving officers often found senior officer leadership to be below standard.

The Army’s next war came in the Middle East and was seen at the time as a great triumph. Ricks, however, taking the long view, wrote — correctly, in my view — that it was a war based on the false assumption that defeat in Kuwait in 1991 would end the career of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In the end, as in Vietnam, the Army was unable to connect tactical success to a favorable strategic outcome. Conflict with Saddam’s regime continued for more than a decade. Accordingly, Ricks offers scant praise for Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf and favorably quotes Andrew Bacevich that “apart from restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty” (which was, after all, the objective of the operation) the first Gulf War “solved remarkably little.” In my view, “limited war, limited joy” is a better summary of the Desert Storm experience.

Iraq & Afghanistan

Turning to the past decade’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ricks gives low marks to most of the generals who fought them. He insults Tommy Franks by calling him a “two-time loser,” a reference to the general’s roles in planning and leading initial operations in both conflicts. In my view, Ricks unfairly blames Franks for following the Pentagon’s guidance on the “small footprint” in Afghanistan and for believing what his civilian bosses told him about Iraq: that Central Command forces would leave soon after the shooting stopped, and that civilians would lead the postwar aid and reconstruction effort.

Ricks accurately describes Franks’ successor in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, as being “in over his head.” Indeed, the kindest thing that could be said of Sanchez was that he played a weak hand poorly. The hapless Texan had no successes, initial or otherwise. His tour — which featured a rapidly growing insurgency, the Abu Ghraib travesty and open feuding with the president’s representative, Ambassador Paul Bremer — was a disaster in the eyes of nearly everyone. One exception was the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who admired Sanchez and reportedly wanted to promote him. Abu Ghraib made that impossible.

Ricks noted that both Franks and Sanchez had come up through the DePuy system, which judged officers by their tactical and operational prowess, not by their ability to solve complex strategic problems. In truth, neither man understood the insurgency that followed successful conventional operations in Iraq.

Gen. George Casey, who commanded in Iraq for 30 months, comes off better than either Franks or Sanchez. The first half of his tour went well, and he fixed many of the defects in Sanchez’s methods. But when the insurgency heated up, President Bush lost faith in Casey’s campaign plan, which focused on training Iraqis to take over security. Writes Ricks: “Casey’s record in Iraq was mixed. He did not succeed, but he probably deserves more credit than he has been given. … It is the fate of some generals simply to stave off defeat. Both Walker [of the Korean War] and Casey held on long enough in their wars for their successors to be able to act quickly and reap much credit in the process.”

If Casey was like Walker, then Ricks saw Gen. David Petraeus as the Ridgway of both Iraq, where the surge succeeded, and Afghanistan, where it hangs in the balance. The thoughtful recommendations that appear in Ricks’ epilogue could be summarized as “more Petraeuses and fewer Frankses.” (The book was released just weeks before Petraeus confessed to having an affair and resigned as director of the CIA.) Ricks favors all-around personnel evaluations and more education for officers. He, of course, recommends bringing back the habit of more reliefs from command, which continued to be rare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Relief From Command

Ricks’ book has an important message: We must hold generals accountable. Sadly, improving accountability is more difficult than simply relieving more battlefield commanders, a practice that, while valuable, can be faulted on various levels. It is not clear where relief should start and end. Eisenhower showed little tactical and operational expertise in North Africa; should he have been relieved? Should Omar Bradley have lost his post when he assumed too much risk in the Ardennes before the Battle of the Bulge?

Reliefs can also run afoul of service politics. As Ricks writes, when Marine Gen. Holland M. Smith relieved Army Maj. Gen. Ralph Smith, a division commander on Saipan in 1944, he was right as rain, but the Army for parochial reasons decided that he was not.

And some people seem to be above relief. In the Italian campaign, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark showed himself to be substandard as early as the Salerno landings. Eisenhower was already mad at him, but Clark, who was known to relieve senior officers who made him look bad, was never himself relieved. Years later, in the Korean War, Clark was once again placed in command of U.S. and allied troops. The saga of MacArthur before and during World War II makes a mockery of the notion that relief was applied in any sort of consistent manner. How President Truman waited 10 months to relieve him in Korea is also mystifying. War is the extension of politics, and sometimes relief from command is, as well.

If we are to truly hold generals accountable, the character of modern wars and common sense demand something further: We must also hold civilian officials accountable. Clausewitz reminded his readers that in limited wars, politicians dip deeper into military matters, creating the impression that these wars are more politicized than general wars. In great wars, the political and military objectives are often the same, and the most senior generals have incredible latitude. In limited wars or irregular conflicts, the generals are constrained, and military objectives may not bring about the political effects that one desires. In every war after World War II, the United States has allied with host governments that were inadequate and unable to hold up their end of the relationship. In such wars, the degree of difficulty for commanding generals is great. There is less physical danger and fewer costs in irregular conflicts than in larger wars, but the metrics of success are often well hidden from view. Even when progress is real, it is often, in Petraeus’ now-famous words, “fragile and reversible.”

Compounding this organic problem, we have the phenomenon of intrusive civilian leaders. Ricks believes that Eliot Cohen had it right in his book “Supreme Command,” in which he argued for intrusive leaders and Cabinet officers who closely supervise the generals, cajoling and questioning them to make sure that they understand the leadership’s intent. This is a fine theory, and it worked for Lincoln, Churchill and Ben Gurion.

It has worked less well in the past half-century of U.S. experience. Westmoreland performed poorly in Vietnam, but can we understand what happened there without discussing the major and dysfunctional roles played by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Johnson? H.R. McMaster has assessed the joint chiefs in the early Vietnam years and found them derelict in their duty. Can we “convict” the chiefs without finding McNamara, Taylor and Johnson guilty of even greater offenses? Can we harshly criticize Franks and Sanchez without understanding the detailed guidance that they regularly received from Rumsfeld and his subordinates? Indeed, was there any possibility of operational success in Iraq when the entire enterprise was based on bad intelligence and faulty national strategy, not generated by Franks’ team at Central Command but from the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House?

The line between presidential or secretarial prerogatives and the professional competence of a combatant commander is drawn by the civilians. Cohen is correct. The civil-military conversation is an unequal dialogue, and that fact must also color our understanding of accountability.

In wartime, the most effective reliefs of command may come not from commanding generals or civilian officials. The most effective reliefs may come from the electorate, which can change the supreme commander or alter his or her course. It is instructive here that no developments in Iraq had as much influence on the war as the election of 2006, which yielded the resignation of Rumsfeld and ultimately, the advent of the surge. Years later, it took the fresh eyes and willpower of a new president in the first year of his first term to re-evaluate the war in Afghanistan and double down there.


Accountability is critical; we must do better. If relief from command is not a definitive barometer, how shall we proceed? The armed forces need to pick the best commanders and closely monitor their performance. More peer and subordinate input on evaluations will help the services separate the best commanders from the mediocre, the kiss-ups and the ticket punchers.

Education, as Ricks points out, is an important step in developing officers who can think outside of the tactical box. In the downturn, we must preserve and improve the staff and war colleges. It is more important than ever to keep the war colleges focused on strategy and clear strategic thinking. More opportunities for civilian graduate schooling will also help officers to think outside the box. All of these things are imperative if the armed forces are to move to initiative-intensive mission command, a core notion of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As senior officers go to school to study military history and modern generalship, they would be well advised to read this important book. Ricks will make them uncomfortable. They will curse his excellent pen, his often irreverent tone and his biting commentary. But Ricks has something to teach the next generation of general officers, if they will let him.