Thomas Ricks explains the declining competence of America's senior military commanders.
This ethos began to change in the early 1960s. In particular, Ricks fingers General Maxwell Taylor, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Kennedy administration, as a prime culprit for this syndrome in Vietnam. Taylor, Ricks writes, was the un-Marshall. He buttered up his superiors and consistently soft-pedaled the dangers of increasing America’s commitment to the war, partly by convincing President Kennedy that the Vietcong was not a serious military force—surely one of the greatest blunders in American military history. Generals who disagreed with Taylor were generally silenced; instead of getting them to work together, he exploited their mutual animosity by playing them off against each other. This was not how Eisenhower, who stressed cooperation, had behaved. Under the new system, Taylor figured out what he thought would maximize the military’s role—Vietnam looked like an opportunity to justify big budgets—and assured his civilian superiors that North Vietnam was easy pickings. Ricks’s indictment of Taylor is sweeping: “He made a habit of saying not what he knew to be true but instead thought should be said.” Ricks accuses Taylor’s disciple, William Westmoreland, of providing “false evidence” to Congress that his strategy of attrition was working successfully vis-a-vis the North Vietnamese. “Westmoreland,” Ricks observes, “would become the most prominent example of the Army’s shift from leadership to management.” (This shouldn’t have come as a surprise; Westmoreland was, after all, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, which he attended while on active duty.) By “management” Ricks seems to mean that the generals had become careerists rather than bold innovators who would figure out how to take on the kind of counterinsurgency warfare that would have been required in Vietnam. The biggest problem, in other words, was that Westmoreland lacked a fundamental grasp of the kind of war he was fighting, which meant that he was unable to lead the country to victory—a task that may have been insuperable from the outset. A war, however, is not supposed to be a proving ground for doctrines; it should be fought quickly and effectively—a lesson the U.S. had to learn all over again in Iraq.
The Army had no choice but to change its doctrines after Vietnam, particularly with the abolition of the draft. It did not change, however, its conception of generalship. Ricks singles out Colin Powell of the exemplar of the political general, someone who was “a master implementer lacking a real strategy to implement.” Ricks sees a lack of intellectual thought about the relationship between military and political ends as at the core of America’s difficulties in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Of Tommy Franks, he observes that “in a bizarre mutation of military thought, Franks seemed to believe—and to have been taught by the Army—that thinking was something others did for generals. In his autobiography he referred to his military planners, with a whiff of good ol’ boy contempt, as ‘the fifty-pound brains.’” One such general was Eric Shinseki, George W. Bush’s Army chief of staff, who had the temerity to tell Congress the truth about the Iraq invasion: that several hundred thousand more troops would be necessary than were being requested by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. As a result of that testimony, Shinseki saw his career at the Pentagon come to an end.
It was only in 2006, after the drubbing the GOP received in the midterm elections, that Bush began to reassess the military leadership. Ricks stresses that the selection of David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to lead the effort in Iraq marked a decisive shift in the military’s culture—the two men insisted on “taking more risks, moving more aggressively, and despite [italics mine] suffering an increase in casualties, radically improving the morale of American troops.” Their example prompts Ricks to call for reforms of the military, including unconventional career moves such as sending leaders to live overseas in Third World countries for a “sabbatical,” reinstating a policy of quickly relieving incompetent officers, and making all command positions probationary for six months.
Is Ricks too hard on the American military? Most armies seem to blunder their way to victory, or squander the fruits of it in the aftermath. Maybe Ricks is indulging in nostalgia—it is almost impossible to favorably compare later generals to Marshall and his generation of commanders given the immense victory that was World War II.
Still, Ricks’s call for reform is persuasive. His own heroes are the outliers—leaders like Petraeus, who began the job of shaking up the military out of its complacency in Iraq and Afghanistan (though he was more successful in the former country than the latter). In the past, the lessons provided by someone like Petraeus might have been shunted aside, with the Army reverting to its former habits. But that’s unlikely to happen this time. The military is preparing for more unconventional warfare and knows that the days of limitless budgets are coming to an end, no matter what Mitt Romney and GOP lawmakers might promise. But as the military continues to reassess its performance, Ricks’s thunderous blast is likely to leave its own tremors behind. His book is not simply an acute account of the military’s difficulties; it is also a devastating one. One has only to read his dedication: “To those who died following poor leaders.”
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