Command Crisis.

When George C. Marshall became Chief of Staff of the United States Army in 1939, he perceived a striking disparity between the officer corps and the grim international situation. The Army had been reduced to a small size after the First World War; America had been at peace for twenty years; promotion had been glacially slow; and the upper ranks of commanders were clogged with elderly men who lacked energy and imagination. America would be endangered, at the very least, by the looming European war, and might well be drawn into the fighting. To revitalize the Army, Marshall ruthlessly purged the officer corps. Six hundred senior officers were removed from command or nudged into retirement before Pearl Harbor. Since the world crisis led to a dramatic expansion of the armed forces, many more than six hundred younger men rapidly rose to high command. (The most dramatic example of this is Dwight Eisenhower, who went from colonel to lieutenant-general in just over a year.) Marshall didn’t demand just energy and imagination. He also demanded ruthless effectiveness. During the Second World War, sixteen division commanders and five corps commanders were relieved of command when they failed to perform up to standard.   The rise, fall, and resurrection of George Patton might be offered as a book-end to that of Eisenhower.[1]

Thus, it can be argued that one determined man took advantage of a grave crisis to re-make a hide-bound bureaucratic institution.[2] The failures in Vietnam and in the second Iraq War seem to suggest that something went awry after Marshall and his ruthless followers had faded away. Slowly and in stages[3], the Army reverted to a cautious, self-protective rather than self-critical, bureaucracy. One sign of this change is the reluctance to remove failed commanders. Relief is taken as a sign of institutional failure because it suggests to critics that senior commanders had made a poor choice in the first place. Short command tours reinforce this trend. A duff leader will cycle out in a couple of years anyway, so why rock the boat? Now it takes really egregious personal misconduct, rather than professional incompetence, to bring relief.[4] Will it take another existential crisis to bring new life to the Army?

This analysis strikes a chord with many observers.[5] What it ignores is the malign effects of civilian political meddling and incompetence. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki didn’t under-estimate the number of troops needed to occupy a defeated Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did. Tommy Franks didn’t disband the army of Iraq and order the purge of Baath Party members from public institutions, Paul Bremer did. A critical examination of the failings of the military can’t stand alone in the effort to better defend America. We have to be equally honest and critical in examining the political institutions to which the military is subordinate. Nor should the examination be a partisan witch-hunt. President Obama prolonged a war in Afghanistan in which he plainly did not believe. There is a lot of blame to go around.

[1] See: Forrest Pogue, George C. Marshall, 4 vols. (New York: Viking, 1963-1987); Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower, vol. 1 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983); Carlo D’Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

[2] Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today (New York: Penguin, 2012). See also: Anton Myrer, Once An Eagle (1968).

[3] Except for Vietnam, from the end of the Korean War to the first Iraq War, the Army was “at peace.” Even Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq did not amount to existential struggles on a par with the Civil War or the Second World War.

[4] See, for example, Stanley McChrystal’s ill-considered statements in front of a reporter.

[5] See, for example, Max Boot, “Bureaucrats in Uniform,” NYT Book Review, 9 December 2012; Thanassis Cambanis, review of Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents, NYT Book Review, 27 January 2013.

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