Friday, October 26, 2012

The failure of generals - A missing context

General Failure - Thomas E. Ricks - The Atlantic:

'via Blog this'

I'm not a fan of military affairs journalist Thomas Ricks. I read his book, Fiasco, about the early conduct of the Iraq war back in 2006, and found most of his conclusions to be grossly simplistic. He glossed over enough important details and leaped to so many shaky judgments that I never felt tempted to pick up any of his follow on books about the war, as it continued to play out. It certainly didn't help that during conflict's closing phase he went and made a number of public predictions that turned out erroneous, to put it it mildly. He claimed in 2008 that the largest battles of the war had yet to be fought, and that the conflict would only grow larger. All that said, his Atlantic article in the above link does a worthwhile job of looking at the inability of senior commanders during the conflict's early years to understand the nature of the enemy they were facing, and at the disappointing failure of the Pentagon and White House to relieve them as Iraq spiraled down into chaos. However, that latter failing requires some historical context, which Ricks fails to provide.

In the article he contrasts the lack of generals fired during the Iraq war to the readiness of the general staffs of the World War II Era-Army to quickly sack commanders who failed to perform under the stress of combat. Part of Ricks' missing context is fairly obvious, even at first glance. None of the officers fired during World War II were theater commanders, like the ones he criticizes in the Iraq conflict. Instead they were all unit commanders. There is a big difference between kicking out a general in charge of how a war is waged, versus a field grade or lower flag rank officer who failed to make himself or his unit perform while under fire.

The other missing bit is that the officer corps going into combat in World War II was an enormously different beast than the one in Iraq. In 1943 the US Army had gone from a pre-war force of around 190,000 with 14,000 professional officers to having 8.3 million men under arms. That exponential growth had seen the officer corps diluted down again and then again and yet again as tens of thousands of green volunteers joined its ranks.

In that chaotic environment, there was no way to know who would perform and who would fail. Officers who had never commanded small units in battle suddenly found themselves in charge of thousands or tens of thousands of combat arms soldiers in the middle of history's largest war. The result was an intense shake down period for the Army and other services, in which the service branches had little choice about promoting masses of untested officers into positions that held the power of life and death, and then firing those who couldn't cope while promoting those who looked promising. The commanders in Iraq, conversely, had all come up through a long chain of previous commands, staff assignments, and schools, and for the most part they had excelled during their earlier careers. Their failures were often a lack of perception or insight, rather than outright operational incompetency or even cowardice under fire.

Despite that missing context, Ricks does bring up an interesting tangential point in the article that's worth thinking about. An ugly point that I've heard others touch on, but never express as clearly as he did. Namely that the tactical proficiency of the enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and company grade officers made it possible for generals who failed to understand the conflict to hold onto their commands as the war spun out of control. Even while the insurgency spread and number of attacks increased, Army and Marine units continued to win nearly every fight on the ground. There were no large-scale massacres of US soldiers or overrun American platoons. No large firebases or camps were lost, and no groups of stunned POWs were paraded before cameras by insurgents -- any of which might have brought about an immediate change in theater leadership. Without tangible significant losses, the failures of vision took longer to recognize as friendly casualties came in at a rate of one or two or three a day.

In other words, tactical excellence on the part of soldiers and marines in the field helped blind politicians and officers in Washington to a subtler but persistent set of strategic failings. So it's not surprising that it wasn't until nearly four years into the conflict that a theater commander was finally put in place with a mandate to change the very means used to fight the war.

PS The next States and Nations article will be up on Sunday

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