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April 14, 2006

Generally Wrong

Several retired American generals have recently criticized SecDef Rumsfeld's conduct in office, and called for his resignation. (Best takes here and here.) The generals are, for the most part, wrong; and because of the way in which they are wrong, they'll never see that they are.

But first to backtrack. One of my largest disagreements ever with my father — one that actually led to both of us raising our voice with some heat — was over an event that happened close to two decades before I was born: Truman's sacking of MacArthur. My father argues that MacArthur was correct in his determination that the war could only be won by advancing all the way to the border with China, and if necessary into China itself. While I agree, with an important caveat, that is only part of the story. MacArthur was correct that the war could only be won militarily as he suggested, but Truman was correct about two somewhat more important matters: first, that the point of the war for the US was not to utterly destroy the enemy, but to preserve South Korean freedom; and second, and most importantly, that the control of military policy is not in the hands of the generals, but the civilian leadership of the nation.

Both issues are coming into play today, too. The generals who are making these criticisms of Rumsfeld (really, of Bush, if you note what they are most often criticizing) have failed to note that the military issues are not the only ones on the table, and the civilians have picked a different grand strategy than the generals assume is operating. As a result, our actions (and force levels, and choices of enemy and target) are different than the generals believe would be best. This does not make the generals correct even though they may be right in a narrow military sense: they have simply failed to consider the broader context of the American use of force and other elements of national power in the long war.

We could easily break countries and leave them to rot, and that is precisely what those who argue for 4 times the troop levels we actually used in Iraq are actually arguing for. It would be possible to level cities, devastate populations and economies and infrastructures, and kill the enemy en masse with few casualties of our own. We could use overwhelming military might to force the enemy's head into the sand so hard he'd never pull it up again. But that would hardly contribute to democratizing the Middle East, which is the grand strategy that our leaders elected for that purpose have chosen, and in fact would be detrimental to that strategy. Further, such criticisms reflect a very isolated thought process: what force then would be available should, say, North Korea come south?

We have undoubtedly traded away margins of victory (the Shahikot Valley and Tora Bora both come to mind, as does the early occupation of Anbar Province in Iraq) in the short term in order to gain a strategic advantage in the long term. It's a type of sacrifice war gamers are very familiar with, and one would expect those whose entire career is tied up in war gaming and war fighting would recognize that. But these generals, for whatever reason, have failed to notice that policy is not their bag, and their opinion of what that policy should be (which is the root of their disagreements on such points as force levels and choices of pace and target and enemy) is no more relevant than mine: their job is to carry out orders, not make policy.

Even within the context of the President's mandate to control national strategy, it is obvious that the President, the SecDef, and the military have all made mistakes. What is remarkable, looking at events through a historical lens, is how few mistakes they have made, how minor they have been, and how easily they have been adapted to. Indeed, the only mistake that I cannot understand, the largest mistake and yet the easiest to avoid, has been the administration's mismanagement of public opinion. While the administration says that they realize they are fighting an ideological struggle, they apparently don't realize that this is a struggle not merely with the enemy, but also with elements within our own society, who would gladly see Americans die in large numbers (and our allies die in massive, massive numbers) if it would give Republicans a black eye. This oversight threatens to end the President's strategy with the President's second term, and that makes it a core error that the President and his administration must fix, or risk utter long-term failure (though it would not happen on their watch).

And by the way, those Bush critics who otherwise wouldn't give a general officer the time of day, but are now jumping to crow out the generals' statements for their (the critics') own political gain, aren't fooling anyone. It is transparently obvious that the generals will be discarded by the critics as soon as they are no longer politically useful.

Posted by jeff at April 14, 2006 7:46 PM

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Why do these generals want so much to be George B. McLellan, and not U.S. Grant?

When Grant was surprised by Albert Sidney Johnston's Confederate Army at Shiloh, many -- including in newspapers -- clamored for Lincoln to fire Grant, even though Grant won that battle. Lincoln's reply was, "I don't fire generals who can fight." He fired McLellan instead, because McLellan refused to budge unless he was absolutely certain he could win, and he kept raising the bar on that requirement as well. McLellan is the original model for today's Bureaucrat Generals, with their "overwhelming force" only doctrine, and finding excuses as to why we couldn't fight the Serbs, Somalis, Iraqis, or anyone else requiring us to actually use our huge treasure chest of war toys.

Posted by: Roderick Reilly at April 18, 2006 1:25 PM

I don't think that they want to be McLellan, so much as that they want to be MacArthur, saving us from our elected leaders. Moreover, I suspect (though I haven't checked) that the majority of the critics fall on the Title X side of the house (that is, bureaucrats in uniform, political generals), though obviously Zinni does not do so.

Posted by: Jeff Medcalf [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 18, 2006 5:42 PM