By Daniel N. White. Introduction by W.J. Astore.
Why has the U.S. military failed so consistently since World War II? A popular thesis advanced most notably by Tom Ricks is that today’s military leaders simply aren’t called on the carpet and dismissed for poor performance as in the “greatest generation” era. But is it that simple? Should we simply stop coddling generals and cashier a few to encourage the others? Dan White begs to differ, turning to the writings of two generals, James Gavin and Robin Olds, for support. White persuasively argues that more firings and ostensibly tougher generals are not necessarily the answer, not when America’s wars are so poorly defined and essentially unwinnable to begin with. So why does the U.S. military both acquiesce to and persist in waging unwinnable wars for unattainable objectives? And what does that tell us about America’s approach to and understanding of war? Read on! W.J. Astore
A Flailing and Failing Military Has Forgotten the Fundamental Tenets of War
Daniel N. White
Tom Ricks, the Washington Post military affairs correspondent, argued in his book The Generals that US military failures in our ongoing and recently past wars are due to a reluctance to relieve commanders for cause. Ricks tells of how in World War II numerous mid-level and senior officers were relieved for cause—nonperformance of their units on the battlefield. Under-performing units turned around (every time, Mr. Ricks?) with new commanders and relieved commanders were given second chances that they often succeeded at. Ricks argues that despite the obvious military failure in our current military ventures, no general officer has yet to be relieved for cause. According to him, this sea-change in US military policy and practice is what now ails us.
Ricks, however, fails to look at the overall history of relieving officers in the US military in wartime; thus his conclusions are suspect. America’s current military failures have little to do with a failure to relieve officers for cause during wartime. Ricks, like so much of this country’s population at large, its political and media elites in particular, looks no further back in our history than to World War II. The American obsession with the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation” is a blinding defect that will ultimately kill many more Americans unless we wise up soon.
Consider World War I, for example. The US Army in the First World War generally didn’t perform very well on the battlefield. Yet to my knowledge no studies have been done that affirm that relieving officers for cause improved US battlefield performance.
Consider the Korean War as well. The Army performed poorly in the opening stages of the war and was beaten again after the Inchon turnaround at Chosin Reservoir, after which General Matthew Ridgway turned things around and the US Army became a capable fighting force again. Anyone who wants to argue about how relieving officers for cause is the key to effective performance on the battlefield needs to look at the US Army and its relief of officers in World War I and Korea. Ricks doesn’t.
Now let’s consider the Vietnam War. The US Army officer corps was riddled with ticket-punching and widespread personal and professional dishonesty and a wide range of other vices during that war, yet it still managed to relieve officers in the field for cause. The 1st Infantry Division regularly relieved officers for cause, while other divisions rarely used the practice. Was there any real difference in the field performance between the two types of divisions? Ricks doesn’t say.
A better argument to be made against Ricks’ premise is from General James Gavin, in his war memoirs, On to Berlin (1978). Gavin and the elite 82nd Airborne Division were sent to the Battle of the Bulge (1944), where they fought alongside the 7th Armored and the 106th Infantry Divisions. The 7th was an experienced unit whose performance in fighting while badly outnumbered in the first days of the battle is now generally considered an outstanding example of defensive fighting against odds. The 106th was a green division whose performance Gavin considered as good as could be expected under the circumstances, and whose commanding general gets several favorable mentions from Gavin for his performance in those most difficult circumstances of a green unit being attacked by superior forces.
These two units led the US defense in the key defensive battle of St. Vith, a battle that didn’t get the press that its less important crossroads battle of Bastogne got, despite its larger importance. Bernard Montgomery said of these two units’ performance, as they withdrew from their defensive positions they had held for the first week of the battle to new ones further back: “They can come back with all honour. They come back to the more secure positions. They put up a wonderful show.” Gavin quotes the official Army history on Montgomery’s comments on two retreating US Army divisions: “Montgomery showed the ability to honor the fighting men which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats in North Africa.”
Gavin further tells of how the commanders of both of these divisions were relieved once they finished their withdrawal to their new positions. In the case of the CG of the 7th Armored, Gen. Robert Hasbrouck, the orders for his relief were sent at 6:25 on the morning of Dec. 22nd, while the countermanding orders, from the same Corps Commander, were sent to him restoring him to his command of the division the same evening, at 7:00 pm. The CG of the 106th Inf., Alan W. Jones, wasn’t so lucky and was relieved permanently from his command. Gavin has this to say about the matter here, and the US Army’s quickness to relieve officers for cause in WWII—which Ricks finds most admirable—here, on p. 258:
Once again I was struck by the manner in which the system treats senior officers in combat. I have a haunting memory that does not diminish with the passage of time of how unfairly and thoughtlessly we treated some of our senior officers. And I use the word ‘system’ because that is what it is. It is not a personal matter. It is something that one has come to expect of senior officers in our Army. In this case, one is particularly impressed by the manner in which Montgomery congratulated all those who fought at St. Vith for the fine job they did. We relieved the two senior commanders, although one was restored. In the situation at Arnhem, in our earlier battle in Holland, the British general lost three-quarters of his command and a battle. He returned home a hero and was personally decorated by the King.
There is no doubt that in our system he would have been summarily relieved and sent home in disgrace. In the case of General Jones and his 106th Division, higher command knew no more about the German plans than he did. Higher command also knew of his dispositions and approved them. His leading green regiments were overwhelmed before they could offer much resistance, and there is little that he—or anyone else, for that matter—could have done about it. Summarily relieving senior officers, it seems to me, makes others pusillanimous and indeed discourages other potential combat leaders from seeking high command. Again, it is not individuals acting against other individuals—it is not a personal matter–it is the way the system works and is expected to work. It must be changed. The shift from peacetime to a war footing and then to battle has a tremendous psychological impact on individuals. Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock is not only a luxury that we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole. We have much to learn from the British about senior command relationships.
And it is worth bringing to the table peacetime relief of command for cause. The US military organization most famous for that practice was Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the US Air Force, in its halcyon days of General Curtis LeMay.* SAC was in its day notorious for a horrific pressure-cooker environment but is nowadays regarded by some as a model of a peacetime military organization at the top of its form—the most highly skilled personnel, running the most technologically advanced weaponry, all ready 24/7/365 at the drop of a hat.
SAC awaits a truly critical historian, but whoever it might be will be wise to heed the comments about SAC made by BGen. Robin Olds, an outstanding fighter pilot, a triple-ace, and wartime military leader and commander, in his posthumous memoirs, Fighter Pilot. Olds was thoroughly dissatisfied with what he saw of SAC in the late 1970s, and wrote in his memoirs, on p. 372, of SAC’s longstanding history of relieving officers from command slots at the drop of a hat:
Under their (SAC’s) rules, if a wing commander messed even a little bit he was canned and gone forever, so SAC fostered attitudes about how tough they were. What they really did was make a bunch of liars out of many wing commanders, DM’s, and DO’s. Guys at wing level were scared people. They would lie, cheat, steal, and deny—anything to make themselves look good.
The net result of this over time is described by Olds on p. 374:
When LeMay scared the hell out of his people, he made some-thing out of them that I don’t think was in their true nature. He made them cringe and hide the truth. He made them say,
’Yes Sir, Yes Sir,’ becoming chronic liars protecting their own skins…A man like that has to have someone working for him that he can dominate and he is invariably going to pick a lesser individual (for promotion) … a big group of guys were developed into people who were afraid to think for themselves. They damned near destroyed the air force in the process… (emphasis mine)**
Gavin and Olds versus Ricks on the merits of the US military’s past quickness to relieve commanders. The choice is yours. I’m with Gavin and Olds.
Ricks and his writings on war and the US military deserve more comment than I want to give them here. Fundamentally Ricks is a fan of the US military and of things military in general. A fan isn’t an impartial judge of whatever it is they are a fan of. That’s simply the nature of fandom. Perhaps Ricks sees himself as a friend of the US military, but fans aren’t true friends, either.
The worst sort of fans are accurately described by the athletes themselves as crotch sniffs, and that’s a telling turn of phrase. Ricks is fundamentally a crotch sniff for the US military. Journalists have mostly (and editors invariably) been a bunch of crotch sniffs for their own country’s militaries and Ricks is no exception.
There’s unfortunately nothing new about that situation; it has almost always been the case about military/war journalism ever since newspapers were invented. Anyone wanting to argue otherwise needs to reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty (1975), 3rd edition in 2004, still the best book on war reportage.
A complicating factor is that what most Americans know about war and warfare comes via Hollywood, whether they realize it or not—and most Americans lack the self-perception to realize how much Hollywood/ PR they’ve internalized. An additional compounding factor is that the military is one of those institutions, like the judiciary, that invariably gets a pass from editors from critical analysis, and from probably the same reasons. Most journalists simply know little of war or law, and when you combine technical ignorance with institutional sacred cowism you get uncritical coverage. Ricks to his credit isn’t ignorant; he’s knows a fair amount about the US military and military history. But Ricks’ strong belief in the goodness and efficacy of the US military dooms his writings to hackwork status, much like the rest of his militarily ignorant journalist colleagues’.***
Ricks deserves credit for trying to come to grips with why the institution he admires so much has failed so badly against weak opponents like the Iraqis and Afghans. His is an all too typical American attitude, particularly among conservatives, of harkening back to the glory days of World War II, when America seemed completely right and completely omnipotent. This belief in America’s goodness in those days is dumb and wrong, yet it’s a belief that’s endemic in this country, and one that shows no signs of ever soon diminishing.
The reasons for America’s recent military failures are more obvious than Ricks wants to acknowledge. America simply had (and has) no realistic objective for wars whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. Both wars had lies as their stated rationales, and nobody has yet explained how any sort of good is supposed to come from wars started by and waged on lies. What is worse, far, far worse than that, is that both wars lacked any coherent political or military objective, at any time before or during their commission, and if there is a worse crime or sin in the professions of politics or arms than fighting wars without objective I cannot name it. I defy anyone else to, either.
The US military has continued both wars in the face of obvious failures to achieve meaningful goals, despite however many times the political leadership here moved the goalposts. Persons who remember the Vietnam War, or who bothered to learn anything about it beyond the Rambo cartoons, should be noticing more similarities than dissimilarities in our failed efforts then and our failed efforts now.
Ricks fails to address how (as have likewise, for decades now, most all others in the media, political world, our moral leadership, and intelligentsia), once again, the US military has saluted smartly while participating in wars in distant lands that required more men in the field and a bigger war effort than they knew they were going to get from the home front. Once again, senior military leaders willingly involved themselves and their organizations in efforts that they knew from the beginning were almost certain to fail. They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home). This is institutional failure at the highest level, a master class in moral cowardice and corruption.
Sadly, instead of covering this, most media sites post the usual puff pieces about our noble troops as they fight terrorists in the cause of freedom. Few people have asked the dreaded question of whether and why our military leaders are willingly participating in odious demi-wars staged largely for domestic political reasons. The sickness and corruption—moral and professional corruption of the worst sort possible—that this question raises is an issue that fans like Ricks simply cannot comprehend.
Ricks, who is again a reporter with considerable military knowledge, simply misses the target here. The US military isn’t flailing and failing because it hasn’t fired enough generals: It’s flailing and failing because it engages in wars that are lost causes to begin with, as well as being illegal and immoral to boot. Ricks is too much of a military fanboy to see this; so too are most Americans, who continue to salute the troops as heroes without ever questioning their actions in the field. It is all most discouraging.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
*My favorite story about SAC and its willingness to relieve commanders comes from its earlier days when a B-36 Wing Commander was called on the mat by LeMay for a low level of operational readiness of his aircraft. The Wingco explained that his squadrons at the base had had a rash of bird strike accidents involving buzzards, and these accidents had caused damage to parts of the airframes that were beyond the capabilities of wing maintenance to repair, and that new airframe parts from Convair were necessary to restore safe airworthiness to the airplanes. The USAF didn’t have these airframe parts in its inventory, and Convair did not have them as spare parts yet, and Convair was unwilling to interrupt its production schedule for new B-36s by pulling the necessary parts off of its assembly lines and shipping them to his squadrons’ repair shops like he’d asked them to. LeMay listened and said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent. You are relieved.”
**SAC was the preeminent branch of the US military during its Cold War salad days. It had more money than God courtesy of a complacent Congress that gave it everything it wanted and then some. There is of course nothing to show for all this expenditure; such is always the case for military expenditures. But this line of Olds is as good an epitaph for SAC as an institution as it is ever going to get. And SAC, as big and significant an American institution as it was in its day, really needs a good historian to look at it with a critical eye, before everyone involved in it is dead. Most already are.
***Anyone who thinks I’m being too hard on Ricks needs to go read his account of the Battle of Fallujah in his first book on the Iraq War, Fiasco. A truly revolting bit of crotch sniffery towards the jarheads.
14 thoughts on “Gavin Versus Ricks: Why the U.S. Military Keeps Flailing and Failing”
The US has been pretty much actively engaged in military action of one kind or another for my entire time on the planet (b. 1954). Somehow, in that time we haven’t managed to produce any “fightin’ generals” who are around for more than a single campaign or deployment. Everyone is “one and done,” a courtesy not afforded the people actually doing the fighting. Get a combat ribbon and get out.
We often discuss the “forever wars” in this space … if you are committed to sustaining rather than resolving a conflict, what difference does it make which mediocrity sits in the Big Chair?
When we were much, much younger than we are today and I was in the early stages of my sports playing days, my older brother explained how things work: “Some guys come to play, but we come to win.”
Our military “leaders” are all adept at “playing the game” which is what counts within The Beltway. But they’re little more than Participation Trophy generals.
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And no wonder, given the underlying mindset. It’s about the impossible aim of “American dominance,” while printing millions of Benjamins for the profiteers back home.
If memory serves, three generals have been hyped during the war on terror. Tommy Franks was first. A quick check of Amazon.com reveals that his book tells the story of how he led America to victories in the Afghan and Iraq Wars. How about the staying power of those “victories”?
The second was David Petraeus, he of the Surge in 2007. (Why did we need a Surge victory when Tommy Franks had already won the war in 2003?) The Surge also had no staying power, and Petraeus later had an adulterous affair with his biographer with whom he illegally shared top secret information.
The third was Stanley McChrystal. He created a command environment that undermined the civilian chain of command of the U.S. military.
So much for miracle generals.
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In 2006-2007, Thomas Ricks published a book entitled Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq. An ironic title, in my estimation, as I would apply the epithet “fiasco” to the book itself as well as its ostensible subject matter. Essentially, it argues that the U.S. military could have done a wrong thing the right way if only it had done more wrong things more often and “better” (or, “more wrongly,” as Donald Trump might say). I found Ricks’ adolescent adulation of General David Petraeus particularly noisome. Take, for example, this passage:
“There were two Iraq wars being waged, according to military officers on the ground there and defense experts back in the United States: the one fought in the streets of Baghdad, and the war as it was perceived in Washington. General Petraeus noted this disparity not long after taking command. ‘The Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock,’ he said. ‘So we’re obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can, perhaps, put a little more time on the Washington clock.'” p. 448
I really hate it when American generals start babbling in metaphors about clocks in different time zones when they really mean that “perception management” in Washington matters far more than all the grim and ugly things actually happening in a distant “war” lost the day some fool American president started it at the belligerent behest of the self-interested, greasy-pole-climbing, ticket-punching military brass. As we used to say back in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam 1970-72): “We lost the day we started and we win the day we quit. So just quit.” Anyway, about that metaphorical “Washington clock” thing, I would call it:
A Badly Managed Perception
See the boot-licking, ass-kissing, chicken-shit Dave
As he spins like a top on the table
Never mentioning troops that he sent to their grave
As the price of his own career fable.
Like the basketball player of comedy fame
Who would dribble before he could shoot
He had Kagan and Keene conjure up a new name
For his mission-creep plan, old and moot.
Like those old books on COIN that we studied before
Back in nineteen and sixty and nine
Where we learned why the French had done badly at war
‘Cause they thought to do Wrong was just fine.
But to Dave and his General-kind, Wrong’s OK.
If you just do it more it will “work.”
Which explains why they cannot tell nighttime from day
And pin medals galore on the jerk.
Then he fell for the lure of the camel-toe cleft.
Now he sells on TV his hot air:
“To prevent the return of the ones who’ve not left,
We’ll assure that they’re always still there.”
So please, Dave, betray us with bullshit and spin
And collect some more loot for your lying.
You have proven that losing’s the best way to “win,”
(If you don’t mind a “few” thousands dying).
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2018
This business of claiming credit for nonexistent victories is, I think, yet another example of what has become acceptable “CYA” behavior: “I said it, the media reported it, that makes it a matter of public record and as true as the North Star. It’s all in my book.” A complacent/compliant media wants heroes. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story (see: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”).
This sort of booshwah reminds me of how my pal Rich used to describe his time in Southeast Asia: “When I got there, Ho Chi Minh was alive. When I left, he wasn’t. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
“Once again, senior military leaders willingly involved themselves and their organizations in efforts that they knew from the beginning were almost certain to fail. They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home). This is institutional failure at the highest level, a master class in moral cowardice and corruption.”
I’m not sure I understand the part about…..
“They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home).”
Am I missing something that others might comment on to help my understanding?
It would seem that support for the military at home is high and dissent is a minority position. Plus, it baffles my mind trying to understand how today’s military budgets could be calculated as inadequate resources.
I have no experience in any of the nuts and bolts of planning, strategizing, procurement, training and conducting an actual war. As one can tell from my commentary,I am coming at this dissent of militarization from a moral and do no harm perspective. But, it does seem very incompetent when your links in the chains of support for a life and death affair cannot turn on a dime and supply the needed materials or engineering know how to create the best possible outcomes for the troops who are in harms way doing their duty, and honoring their commitment to cary out one of the most difficult tasks a human being agrees to perform.
We have more chips than all of the combined chips of the rest of the players in wars poker. How come we are so terrible at winning even one hand is becoming the most important question this nation faces in a period of existence where so many monumental challenges seem to be pulling humanity apart.
A good question. The U.S. military doesn’t lack for money and materiel. But the support of the people is weak, because the people (by design) aren’t involved in the wars. Yes, people “support our troops.” But does anyone really care that much about what’s really going on in Afghanistan? Most Americans are profoundly ignorant. They salute the troops and call them heroes, but talk is cheap.
With respect to lack of resources, I think what Dan is saying is that, to truly “win” in places like Afghanistan (whatever “win” means), we’d have to commit even more troops. The U.S. is trying to win on the cheap (even as “cheap” comes at such a dear price!), and it isn’t working.
You could argue we “won” in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 if we had simply left both of those countries after our attacks/invasions. Instead, we stayed–and stayed–and stayed–and stayed some more, spilling blood and spending treasure with no achievable goal in mind.
Thanks for the assistance. It send my mind wandering around the almost unimaginable effort of trying to create a society that would respect outside influences imposed upon their cultural preferences by a very large occupying force Especially after spilling blood and then giving orders through the end of those bloody sabers. Because I only have a limited number of years in which to draw a perspective on such a task; I could be wrong, but this sounds like a pipe dreamed madness. Has it been ever done effectively by a modern nation; having the military perform such a Herculean Lift? It seems like we are asking our military to become global managers of the infinitely possible ways of living life, within societies our leaders assume would like to view the world through an American microscopic lens. I don’t believe that’s a realistic experiential match with our boastings about freedom. We’d have to stay there forever to make sure they were “getting it right”! I am sorry to say this, but I’m not that confident in any human being that exceptional to formulate a strategy and execute such outcomes over such a large area that encompasses a myriad of diverse ideas. What in the **** are these folks thinking. It seems so impossible.
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Just to add a bit to Professor Astore’s response, in the case of the second Gulf War, there was fairly widespread protest in the U.S. On at least one occasion, there were upwards of 100,000 people protesting the planned war nationwide, although there was almost no press coverage of the mass gatherings. The outcry ratcheted up the more the WMD lies were revealed, but long before the initial “shock and awe” attacks, people were loudly decrying Bush II’s crusade. Evidently, tens of thousands of citizens had a much more accurate view of the situation than did the cowardly Congress critters.
Yes, I remember the initial push back. Getting out in the streets for a few rallies was a good start. I sure wish the organizers would have told the masses that this campaign would need to be sustained for over 2 decades. It seems like it unraveled like a cheaply tailored suit. Almost non existent to the public. eye and if there is any dissent it seems to be instantly vilified for it’s traitorous point of view. We need an army of dissenters and hopefully there are those, who know how to create such an opposing force,are busy putting together the strategies for their creation to succeed.
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I dunno. When the media are, by and large, complicit in the MIC’s insanity, what’s to be done? If 100,000 people march in protest in one day, but there’s zero press coverage, there’s no pressure brought to bear—in other words, it might as well never have happened. Indeed, our elected officials acted as if it was a figment of someone’s imagination. Even usually progressive-minded legislators refused to stand in the way of the military. At this point, the scale of protest it would require to change things would seem to be so vast as to be beyond accomplishing.
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This complete burying of the opposition to the war and the reasons for it was one of the most depressing events I have seen in my lifetime, possibly exceeded only by Cold War Part 2 and the complete acceptance, indeed support of it, by the mainstream media and the DC elites. Of course pretty much everyone responsible for the former were richly rewarded for it and went on to being key to the latter. The Iraq war was and is a flat out catastrophe and bad enough on it’s own, but the new Cold War could possibly result in global nuclear holocaust.
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Coming to this thread a little late. I think that Dan meant a lack of willingness on the part of the American people to support a universal draft that would send a couple of million soldiers. I wish there was a draft with no exceptions because if all Americans knew that their sons and daughters were going to be sent overseas in such immoral endeavors then there would be more resistance to such evil.
My brother likes to say “I support our troops. I want them to stay here.”
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Since i was knee high to a grasshopper, i’ve always believed that military incompetence was/is an endemic part of American culture & history. There’s nothing new here. I don’t think we’ve changed since the Revolutionary War. Our oceans protected us from the consequences of our neglect & inefficiency, but that protection is wearing thin. Perhaps we must accept amateurishness & plutocracy as the price of an un-militarized society, especially if the alternative is a culture a la Germany from 1870-1945. That doesn’t mean our country should settle for wall-to-wall incompetence; I hate waste, whether it involves human lives or money or time, but i can’t find a happy medium or an answer.
Hello to you, Col Astore, from a long forgotten voice of the past.
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