Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why Do Our Generals Suck?

Even Americans are beginning to grasp that their generals suck.   The soldiers in the field and their unit commanders are first rate.  The rot is at the top.  And it's not just the Americans beset by this phenomenon.

A new book, The Generals, by Tom Ricks of the Center for a New American Security, attempts to get to the bottom of the problem.  Ricks' assessment is that we're back to a world of ticket-punchers in which bad commanders no longer get relieved, "fired."

Ricks points back to a system that the revered General George Marshall put into place during World War II: unsuccessful officers — defined very, very liberally — were rapidly sacked, especially on the front lines of Europe...

 Over the course of six decades, Ricks demonstrates at length, the Army abandoned Marshall’s system. It led to a culture of generalship where generals protected the Army from humiliation — including, in an infamous case, Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster covering up the massacre of civilians at My Lai — more than they focused on winning wars. On the eve of Vietnam, “becoming a general was now akin to winning a tenured professorship,” Ricks writes, “liable to be removed not for professional failure but only for embarrassing one’s institution with moral lapses.”

Under Harper we flirted with a near seamless integration of military and political leadership.   Our prime minister milked the military and extracted every ounce of political advantage he could from our casualties in Afghanistan while our top brass, notably Hillier, sang his praises.   Only when their mutual inadequacies resulted in a hapless Afghan "mission" did Harper quietly take his leave and his military counterparts headed for the hills in retirement.   Abysmal, utterly abysmal.   Both sides were so busy patting each other's backs and feathering each other's nests that the combat mission was  inevitably sidetracked.   In a better world both sides, Harper and his generals, would have been sacked.


harebell said...

Generals promote people like them but just not quite as good. It was a problem that the British Army recognised it had post Boer and WW1 and even up to WW2.
Dixon's book "On The Psychology of Military Incompetence" is the seminal work on the topic and it appears that there has been some backsliding as of late in the West.

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the title, Harebell. I'll see if I can find the book.

I found it telling when NATO generals donned their kevlar and headed off to Afghanistan. It was obvious from the start they wanted to fight the war they had trained for the past half-century, the Fulda Gap scenario.

They went into it with heavy firepower and limited manpower and, on both scores, were ill suited for the war they had to fight, the political warfare of insurgency.

They led themselves to believe that, so long as we weren't being defeated, we weren't losing. They couldn't grasp that, for our side, marking time was in fact losing.

It may be too early yet to get a definitive fix on the end game our leadership, military and civilian, have in mind. Someone has to wear this unless they can persuade us that they won even as Afghanistan descends again into civil war.