Gavin Versus Ricks: Why the U.S. Military Keeps Flailing and Failing

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. 

The Retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea

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.

 

General Curtis LeMay, on a Navy ship, ready to observe a nuclear bomb test

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.