Having plowed through Tom Ricks’ book on generals, I expected to write a
review here. Unfortunately, I realized that I lack the background in
the history of American military management and leadership to properly evaluate Ricks’
arguments. I found some of the critical
arguments raised persuasive but also thought Ricks also strongly
defended his work. This is just a case where I just needed to
do so more reading.
That being said my reading of The Generals raised
a couple of general points relevant to readers of a blog founded to discuss ten
years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first is the complexity of assigning
blame for strategic misfortune. I have touched
on this theme in the past and we do have a reasonably well
developed understanding of military failure. But we have much less of a
consensus about responsibility for failure. Why?
The problem of the general’s role in military failure is a classic
agent-structure problem. Does the fault lie in bad people? Or are generals prisoners of bad structures? Jason Dempsey argues that the military favors tactical
proficiency rather than the capacity for bargaining and negotiation with
civilian leaders that is needed to create good strategy. Do politicians get the generals they
choose? Tommy Franks’
tactical focus was consistent with the Bush administration’s initial political
ideas about the extent of desired American involvement. Ricks counters
that bad political objectives doesn’t
necessarily mean that political leaders shouldn’t dump generals that
demonstrate a clear lack of professional chops.
One of the more fascinating aspects of reading The Generals is that, as Brian Linn said,
the book also reflects a practical tension with the commonplace idea of a strict separation of structure and
agent levels of analysis:
First, are the U.S. Army’s post–World War II leadership problems essentially
individual or systemic? Has the Army in the last half-century simply had a run
of bad luck in the pool of senior officers available to lead its forces, or has
its personnel system consistently proved incapable of generating superior
wartime commanders? The book’s organization—each chapter devoted to an
individual general—tends to reinforce the thesis that failure is the result of
having the wrong man in the wrong job, but much of the weight of Ricks’s
analysis, as well as his recommendations for change, points to systemic
This may be a problem for Ricks, or it also could be that the book’s tension
between individual and system comes from the entirely human issue of trying to
visualize how micromotives
generate macrobehavior. The idea that we have to choose between agent-based or structure-based approaches may be at fault here. The Army is a system made up by a variety of
interacting individuals and cultures, as Linn himself has pointed
out. And the Army is also a subsystem of a larger institutional environment
that allows it substantial autonomy to make its own ways but also exerts its
Bringing this down from the 30,000 feet level, what the wars have shown is
that we don’t think deeply enough about the metrics we really want our generals to be
judged by. Take, for example, Andrew Bacevich’s polemical take on David
Petraeus understood —
and was willing to acknowledge — that by invading Iraq, America had created a
situation where winning had become implausible. …So rather than persisting in
efforts to win outright, Petraeus conjured up an alternative: Redefine the goal
as something other than victory; move the goal posts to make it easier to put
points on the scoreboard.
Of course, as I argued last week, how a political community defines “winning” is important. It’s also flexible. Passion, the verdict of the battlefield, and the policy of the state all interact and a political condition can change over time. Bacevich assumes that an objective and positively Platonic form of “victory” exists but he does not define what it would mean to “win outright” in Iraq after the rise of the Iraqi insurgency. So Petraeus used a combination of violence and statecraft to advance the new policy—a policy that his political masters determined.
Does it make sense for Bacevich to fault Petraeus for not “defeating” the insurgency when completely annihilating them, as implied in his comparisons to Patton and Zhuov’s complete destruction of the Wehrmarcht, was not necessary to achieve the mission he was given? Were American generals in Korea’s later phase abject failures because they did not “defeat” the North Korean and Chinese armies, despite successfully using force to preserve a democratic South Korea?
I don’t have an solution about how to judge generalship in the Army today. But I do know how we should not judge it. I fear the lesson we’ll learn from our strategic misfortunes in Iraq and Vietnam is that all we need are hard-charging types that have Patton’s aggression and drive. This “blood and guts” view would ignore Patton’s own deep reading in the history of his profession and his inconsistent but nonetheles important appreciation for the nature of his military task. That’s not a recipe for “winning” wars, no matter how you slice it.