Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Gen. Shinseki, the Silence of the Generals, and the State of US Civil-Military Relations

My last post on Gen. Shinseki stirred things up. That’s good and I have a few more things to say. In response to David Tucker, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, arguing that Rumsfeld’s judgment was on the mark. He certainly got a lot of things wrong. But contrary to the accepted--and incorrect--narrative, the uniformed military got them wrong as well.

Despite its prominence later, the real issue concerning what went wrong in Iraq was not the number of troops for the invasion, but what they would be doing later. Here the Army was as wrong as the civilians. Both Rumsfeld and the uniformed military had imbibed the Weinberger Doctrine, which teaches, among other points, that one of the first things the military shoudlbe doing is developing an "exit strategy." But if you are doing this, you are not thinking about "war termination," i.e. how to translate military success into a good peace. That’s why post-war planning for Iraq was almsot non-existent, and to the extent is was done at all, it focused on humanitarian operations and not counterinsurgency.

Humanitarian operations and counterinsurgency both require more troops than were initially committed. But the two are different and require different approaches. The fact is that the Army decided in the 1970s that the best way to ensure that it would never again get bogged down in anything like Vietnam was simply not to prepare for small wars. Thus the Army was not prepared for the insurgency that emerged in 2003-2004. It was not only Rumsfeld who outlawed the term "insrugency." Sanchez did as well. As I argued in the Wall Street Journal in September of 2007, the Army has never been comfortable with counterninsurgecny, but you don’t always get to fight the war you want to fight.

At this point it might be useful to remember that Turkey would not permit the US to launch an attack by the 4th Armored Division from the north. Such a strike could very well have changed the dynamics of the Sunni Triangle, where the insurgency first materialized. But we’ll never know.

Here are some observations from a forthcoming AEI article of mine that get to some of the point others made re Vietnam etc.

Criticism of Rumsfeld by uniformed officers is predicated on two questionable assumptions. The first is soldiers have the right to a voice in making policy regarding the use of the military instrument, that indeed they have the right to INSIST that their views be adopted. Exacerbating the woeful consequences of this assumption is a misreading of the very important book by my friend, H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. The subject of Dereliction of Duty is the failure of the Joint Chiefs to challenge Defense Secretary Robert McNamara adequately during the Vietnam War. Many serving officers believe the book effectively makes the case that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have more openly voiced their opposition to the Johnson administration’s strategy of gradualism, and then resigned rather than carry out the policy.

But the book says no such thing. While McMaster convincingly argues that the chiefs failed to present their views frankly and forcefully to their civilian superiors, including members of Congress when asked for their views, he neither says nor implies that the chiefs should have obstructed President Lyndon Johnson’s orders and policies by leaks, public statements, or by resignation.

This serious misreading of Dereliction of Duty has dangerously reinforced the increasingly widespread belief among officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serving in their traditional advisory role. For instance, a survey of officer and civilian attitudes and opinions undertaken by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in 1998-99 discovered that "many officers believe that they have the duty to force their own views on civilian decision makers when the United States is contemplating committing American forces abroad." When "asked whether military leaders should be neutral, advise, advocate, or insist on having their way in the decision process" to use military force, 50 percent or more of the up-and-coming active-duty officers answered "insist," on the following issues: "setting rules of engagement, ensuring that clear political and military goals exist, developing an ’exit strategy,’" and "deciding what kinds of military units will be used to accomplish all tasks." In the context of the questionnaire, "insist" definitely implied that officers should try to compel acceptance of the military’s recommendations.

This assumption is questionable at best and is at odds with the principles and practice of American civil-military relations. In the American system, the uniformed military does not possess a veto over policy. Indeed, civilians even have the authority to make decisions in what would seem to be the realm of purely military affairs. Eliot Cohen has shown that successful wartime presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt "interfered" extensively with military operations—often driving their generals to distraction.

The second assumption is that the judgment and expertise of soldiers is inherently superior to that of civilians even when it comes to military affairs and that in time of war, the latter should defer to the former. But the fact is that when it comes to military affairs, soldiers are not necessarily more prescient than civilian policy makers. This is confirmed by the historical record. Abraham Lincoln constantly prodded George McClellan to take the offensive in Virginia in 1862. McClellan just as constantly whined about insufficient forces. Despite the image of civil-military comity during World War II, there were many differences between Franklin Roosevelt and his military advisers. George Marshall, the greatest soldier-statesman since Washington, opposed arms shipments to Great Britain in 1940 and argued for a cross-channel invasion before the United States was ready. History has vindicated Lincoln and Roosevelt.

Similarly, many observers, especially uniformed observers, have been inclined to blame the U.S. defeat in Vietnam on the civilians. But the U.S. operational approach in Vietnam was the creature of the uniformed military. The conventional wisdom today is that the operational strategy of General William Westmoreland emphasizing attrition of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces in a "war of the big battalions"—sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior fire power—was counterproductive. By the time Westmoreland’s successor could adopt a more fruitful approach, it was too late.

During the planning for Operation Desert Storm in late 1990 and early 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command presented a plan calling for a frontal assault against Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait followed by a drive toward Kuwait City. The problem was that this plan was unlikely to achieve the foremost military objective of the ground war: the destruction of the three divisions of Saddam’s Republican Guard. The civilian leadership rejected the early war plan presented by CENTCOM and ordered a return to the drawing board. The revised plan was far more imaginative and effective.

The public acrimony that has characterized so much of post-9/11 civil-military relations is a particular manifestation of the idea that the uniformed military should “push back” against civilian leaders when the former disagree with the policies of the latter. But this is a dangerous idea that is at odds with the theory, if not always the practice, of the U.S. civil-military tradition.

Discussions - 6 Comments

More later, but Westmoreland was a pick of Maxwell Taylor's, which LBJ seconded. But Taylor was the guy pushing Westmoreland, and he pushed against some objections of the Army high command, which wondered whether his suggested approach was equal to the challenge.

The method of utilizing "big battalion" sweeps was favoured by no one other than Westmoreland himself. Creighton Abrams was considered for the initial MACV command spot, but was passed over in lieu of Westmoreland. And Abrams was strongly opposed to battalion sized sweeps which accomplished little.

It needs to be recalled that Taylor was JFK's boy, which is why LBJ didn't feel he could disregard Taylor's recommendations on who should command MACV.

It's a stretch to suggest that America's military was genuinely behind Westmoreland's approach.

I don't think you can properly understand the Army's approach to Iraq without a firm grasp on what happened, and what didn't happen, in Southeast Asia. But again, more later tonight.

No battlefield strategy failed in Nam because it was lost not on the battlefield but in america's newsrooms. And in LBJ's head: he was never really committed to victory.

The Powell Doctrine was promoted for Iraq only as a means to do nothing, just as McClellan insisted on waiting until everything was perfect. And isn't victory the best exit strategy?

One should not forget to include the United Nations abdication of its responsibility in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the war. Also, Bush's State Dept. has tried its best to avoid or thwart implimentation of Administration policy in Iraq. The military has been forced to fill the vacuum created by the failure to step up to the plate of these two agencies- One Bush couldnt control and one he could have controlled and didn't.

I am sorry, though not sure how that happened.

Kate, I wouldn't worry too much about your son. I say that as a poli sci/history major who entered OCS (the 10 week OCC) in January. Yes, the individualism of our society is greatly at odds with the discipline of military service (especially the Marine Corps!) and your son will become intimately familiar with the term "hurry up and wait". But rather than focusing on grand questions of War and Peace, he will be constantly concerned with the "how?" That is where our individuality shines. Americans are accostumed to taking the initiative and being rewarded for being innovative and not being punished for "doing their own thing" (example: ID-ing tripwires in houses with Silly String).

In my very limited experience, most officers don't make a hobby of politics the way academics do (though they are certainly aware of them). Yes, there were many more McCain stickers around than Obama, but the camaraderie of shared hardships squelches the desire to bicker about it. One of my best friends is a 32 year old Ivy League graduate who owned his own gym in LA before selling it and attending OCS. We shared a room with four other guys for six months at TBS this summer. He's very liberal and I'm very conservative and we get along famously. (In fact, he sent me a message on election night consoling me about Obama's win - and reminding me he joined the Marine Corps under the administration of a man he attended rallies against). Good luck to your son - he shouldn't expect to get any sleep.

Andrew, thank you. How kind you are to take time to offer words of comfort.

I suppose you are saying that the matter of individualism and initiative and its value to the military comes with handling situations properly. Elsewhere you mentioned a soldier's dissent as a private matter being acceptable. As an officer, are you taught how to handle disagreement with authority, or are you told to be quiet?

About "hurry up and wait" my older son who was a Marine developed an uncanny ability to sleep anywhere and in almost any position while he was a Marine. It was a useful skill in the circumstances. Since they have had children, I think his wife is less than happy with his skill at staying asleep in whatever circumstance. Still, I hope his younger brother acquires the same skill. Napping sounded like the only way to get any sleep in the Marines.

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