Oh, History, you Bitch

Tom Ricks has written a new book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, which I’ve not read yet because it’s not out in the UK. Also I don’t have time. So this is not a review. Anyway, there are a lot of those already out there from Neil Sheehan (enthusiastic) to Spencer Ackerman (very enthusiastic–interview with Ricks at the link also) to Andrew Roberts (kind of bitchy) to Robert Scales (quite critical) to James Jay Carofano (disappointed). I look forward to making up my own mind on it when I get some time to read it (ca. 2014 to judge from the ‘to read’ pile on my desk). In the meantime, I was struck by a couple of things said in the reviews and with Ricks’ interview with Danger Room.

The gist of the book, I gather, is that we have quite a few more bad generals than we ought to because not enough of the demonstrative failures among them get the sack. I am pretty sympathetic to that argument, myself; but Scales in the review above gives a sharp and smart rejoinder to it. Judge for yourself. I was drawn, however, to this line from the interview:

Our generals today are not particularly well-educated in strategy. Exhibit A is Tommy Franks, who thought it was a good idea to push Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda from Afghanistan into Pakistan, a larger country that also possesses nuclear weapons. Franks also thought that he had won when he took the enemy’s capital in Afghanistan and Iraq — when in fact that is when the wars really began.

When generals don’t know what to do strategically, they tend to regress back down to what they know, which is tactical. That’s one reason why in Vietnam you saw colonels and generals hovering over company commanders giving orders. It is also why our generals were so slow to adapt in Iraq. By the time they became operationally effective, it was 2007, and we had been fighting in Iraq for nearly four years, longer than we had during all of World War II.

Maybe it’s just a personality quirk of mine but the more people criticise Franks the more I want to defend him. Now let’s not take this too far, but the commander of CENTCOM’s job is to implement policy with the means at his disposal, right? And American policy was, still is, in effect: prevent another 9/11 occurring by chasing Osama bin Laden to the ends of the earth, smashing up his organisation and demoralising his followers and potential followers, and pulverising anyone mad or bad enough to get in the way. Bad policy, maybe; but what’s the general to do? He’s the clunking fist not the executive agent who decides whose face gets hammered by it. Danger Room gets this, as it would seem does Ricks, from the tone of this Q and A:

DR: Isn’t it too simplistic to blame bad generalship for lost wars and good generalship for successful ones? Tommy Franks may have been “dull and arrogant,” as you write, but he didn’t decide to invade Iraq; David Petraeus may have been his polar opposite, but Afghanistan is in shambles.

TR: Yes, it would be too simplistic. That’s why the major second theme of the book is the need for good discourse between our top generals and their civilian overseers.

To which I say ‘hear, hear’. I’ve always liked the little vignette with which Eliot Cohen begins his book Supreme Comand: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime where he describes the epiphany of one of his students on his course at the US Naval War College:
The Strategy Department there, to which I belonged, engaged senior military officers in a discussion of the fundamental issues discussed here through the study of the history of war from ancient to modern times. One day a frustrated officer remarked to me, ‘This isn’t really a course about strategy at all, it’s a course on civil-military relations.’ He had gotten to the heart of the subject, little though it pleased him to do so. In fact, the study of the relationship between soldiers and statesmen (rather different from the relationship between the soldier and the state, as a famous book has it) lies at the heart of what strategy is all about.
I had come to the same conclusion but from a different angle while working on my PhD on civil-military relations. (It’s in the sidebar there. Go buy it. Routledge will only charge you the equivalent of your first born child). The study of civil-military relations is the study of strategy. Anyway, to get to the point (surely there’s a point here), it seems to me somewhat tenuous historically to blame bad generalship for lost wars. Don’t get me wrong, there is decidedly a link between losing battles and losing wars. But history serves up so many examples of terrific generals winning all the battles and still not really ‘getting it’. In fact, arguably the two greatest commanders of all history Alexander the Great and Hannibal both blew their wars pretty spectacularly. I mean, Alexander conquered Afghanistan more than two thousand years ago and it’s still a shambles. OK, kind of a joke there but Hannibal… now here’s a question that has vexed historians for ages: after slaughtering the Roman army at Cannae why did he not take Rome? Here’s what Livy wrote:
…To Hannibal the victory seemed too great and too joyous for him to realise all at once. He told Maharbal that he commended his zeal, but he needed time to think out his plans. Maharbal replied: ‘The gods have not given all their gifts to one man. You know how to win victory, Hannibal, you do not how to use it.’ That day’s delay is believed to have saved the City and the empire.
In short, it is entirely possible that a lot of our current generals stink for whatever reason (the poor quality of military education, our careerist promotion system, venality: pick one) but surely the key reason for our failings in recent military campaigning is that the policy being served is misconceived.

17 thoughts on “Oh, History, you Bitch

    • ‘Thank you again for your diplomacy and please let me quote you: ‘Our generals today are not particularly well-educated in strategy.’ I also agree with the opinion of Scott, but I don’t think it would be useful in the re-construction of my life…Have a nice weekend indeed!

  1. As an agreement to your conclusion, I think this:

    The American experience in Afghanistan has shown that although military technology continues to advance, it doesn’t make a difference when strategic errors are made.

    American civilian policy makers have failed to take into account the existence of far-reaching long term problems such as the illegitimate border of the Durand Line which divides a large ethnic-cultural group in the Pashtuns; which is destabilizing for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This boundary problem must be solved in order for long term stability to exist in the region.

    American strategists have also made the mistake of failing to learn from previous military experiences in the region. In the first Anglo Afghan War in the early 1840’s the British propped up a puppet ruler, who required constant support from the British to maintain power. How long would the Karzai government last without direct American support? The insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s demonstrated the ability of a relatively small force of insurgents to bog down a much larger and better armed invading force.

    American strategists have also made the mistake of using counter insurgency strategies that have been proven to fail in recent previous military action, e.g. the Vietnam War. The tactic of targeted assassinations resembles the Phoenix Program which was designed to eliminate insurgent leaders. This didn’t work as replacement leaders are produced. Clear and hold tactics resemble the strategic hamlet initiative in that both attempt to isolate insurgents from the populace. The strategic hamlet initiative is widely acknowledged as a failure and yet it is being replicated. Finally, the policy of drone strikes in Pakistan closely resembles the “secret” bombings of Cambodia .

    These strategic errors seem largely based in historical amnesia and the desire for quick and easy resolution by American leaders.

  2. Rory Thomas says:

    Not hugely familiar with modern warfare literature but just felt I had to be nitpicky on the use of Hannibal as a general who could win battles but didn’t understand strategy- the notion that he could have taken Rome if only he had marched on it seems, to me, a false one. He didn’t have the men for a siege and his strategy relied on detaching Rome’s allies from her and, hence, her vast supplies of manpower (The Second Punic War: A Reappraisal covers this area in one of its excellent articles).

    Finicky I know. Apologies!

    • David Betz says:

      No apologies necessary. I’m only expert enough on Hannibal to know that historians differ largely on the wisdom of his decision. Look at the texts at the link I provided on Cannae. Coincidentally, I listened to this In Our Time radio programme on ipod on the way home this evening in which your point on Hannibal’s strategy is noted also:


      Worth a listen.

  3. Pingback: Friday’s Reading List | Smoke & Stir

  4. Hi,
    Brian Linn, a fine historian, also has written an interesting review of my book:


    The Atlantic Monthly also had an excerpt that summarizes the primary theme of the book, the need for accountability in order to promote successful generals, but not the secondary theme, that of the need for tough, clear civil-military discourse:


    Tom Ricks

    • David Betz says:

      I look forward to reading it, Tom. I hope that when you come through the UK next you can be enticed to speak about the book.

  5. TrT says:

    “Bad policy, maybe; but what’s the general to do?”

    If your superior gives you a stupid order, you tell him so.
    If he insists, you tell him to go **** himself and walk away.

    But that requires integrity, and that is something dearly lacking.

  6. Callum Lane says:

    Accountability in Generals, that is an interesting theme. In the current campaigns with short rotations (6-12 months for UK generals), a Coalition construct and blurred boundaries between strategic, operational and tactical levels, accountability appears to have all but evaporated. I was struck in reading the Chilcott (Iraq Inquiry) evidence from senior UK officers how difficult it was to pin down exactly who ordered, or even recommended what.

  7. libertarian soldier says:

    I have not bought the book. However, from the commentary at the various reviews the premise seems very skewed.
    1. It was relatively easy in WWII to decide who failed—whose division got their ass kicked by the Germans. And since there were a large number of such divisional fights going on simultaneously across the front, it would again be much easier to compare performance and determine success or failure. But the number of “divisional” fights—as opposed to divisions conducting a number of simultaneous operations over a broad battlespace none of which were being directly controlled by the GO—since Korea have been very few. And those, such as in the Gulf War, seem to me to have been pretty successful. How do you measure the success or failure of the commander of RC—East, with the hundreds of disparate operations “he” is commanding, and separate his performance from the limitations imposed upon him from higher?
    2. The current system that produced the GO corps is a peacetime system, as it was when Marshall became the CSA. And his system evidently produced a large number of failures, since 155 of those he selected for division command were relieved. At least then, there was the “crucible” of sustained hi-tempo combat to measure competence. But now, regardless of the US having “been at war” for a decade, the GOs spend very little time—as GOs—conducting combat operations, and those operations are short, low-level, and engage only a fraction of the commander’s resources. So, if a platoon gets its ass kicked somewhere, is the GO responsible? Did Marshall relieve division commanders every time a squad got ambushed?
    3. Does Mr. Ricks address the case of Wes Clark? I worked for him, and he was, by far, the most micromanaging micromanager imaginable. But didn’t the operation he conducted in the Balkans succeed?
    4. I would never defend Tommy Franks. He is quoted as saying that Doug Feith was the dumbest guy on the planet. Having worked for both of them, as well, my view is that as long as Franks is alive, Mr. Feith could never be higher on the list than number 2. Yet the same system that produced him, produced the rock star generals—Petraeus and McChrystal. So, is it the system or is it individuals who game the system? Looking at the large numbers of failures (multi-billion dollar losses/bankruptcies) in selecting CEOs for businesses—where in theory accountability is greater since they are focused on the bottom line—perhaps there is no good system above a certain size, and determining whether that personnel system was a success or failure will just depend on the environment (time period) being looked at.
    5. TL;DR, I know. Sorry.

    • Callum Lane says:

      Point 1. You cannot measure the success or failure of Comd “RC Anywhere” without knowing what he has been given to achieve. If you know what he has been given to accomplish then it should be relatively straightforward to assess success or failure.

      The problem is less one of demarcation and more of accountability. We are aware of the fact that two campaigns (Iraq and Afg) appear to have gone badly, and yet for once in history it is unclear where the responsibility for this lies. That is a pretty damning indictment on systemic accountability and efficiency.

      Point 2. We remain in a peacetime system (UK as well as US; in the UK I describe the army career system as “running the Army to produce Generals, not producing Generals to run the Army”). It is immaterial whether or not a platoon gets its ass kicked on ops – a General can only be measured as a success or failure in a system where it is clear what his responsibility and tasks are. That clarity appears to be absent. Furthermore – how do we measure competence as a General nowadays? What are the yardsticks for being a good general? This is not clear. The fact that no generals appear to have been removed from post for professional failings indicates that we are selecting the right people for GO slots. The entirety of military history and the course of the latest two campaigns would suggest however that while some GOs may be good GOs, many will not.

      Point 4. There is no perfect system. War like business, is a dynamic environment that demands different attributes of successful leaders at different times. The fact however that unlike business the military systems of the UK and US appear to believe that one size fits all and there is no issue with whom we select for leadership roles is in itself the issue.

    • “…it should be relatively straightforward to assess success or failure.”

      It would be nice if it was. Regrettably, success and failure being in the eye of the beholder, (and requiring justification and interpretation, not only in terms of definition, but also of the actual evaluation), is never straightforward to assess.

  8. libertarian soldier says:

    And concerning Hannibal: since his strategy failed–even if it was the only possibly viable one available–does that make him a failure as a general Mr. Ricks? Or, as is perhaps the case with many US generals now, does it just mean there was no winning action available, and he did the best he could under the constraints he was under?

  9. In my opinion, I think we should turn our direct look from the Afghan war and look upon the way Barack Obama and Mitt Romney translate it, along with the international relations of the U.S., in their internal advertising and political commercials too. And please send me a link to these if you could, because all I have found on their political strategies may be summed up like that: the feet and short skirt of Eva Longoria and her handicapped sister too vs. the breasts of a not so cute still very fair-haired Jeena Jenson, with her visible interest for the very different(rich men). Looking fwd. 2 your reply…thank you.

  10. W4rlord says:

    Is this strategy THE grand-strategy of Liddel-Hart? The area which is run by and ruled by civilians and soldiers are only cooperating? If yes, then a real reverse CIMIC is needed (ie not on local population, but on the top leadership).

    On the other hand you just cannot let the Zeitgeist go. This age of ours is full with ‘sciencism’. Look at the modern arts, especially paintings. Constructivism run amok. Even the art of war is seen as something which can be measured from all angles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *