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January 17, 2013

Military book provides a compelling read

Cooperstown Crier

---- — Norman Schwarzkopf died recently. “Stormin’ Norman” was the general in charge of Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraq war that we basically won in four days once we put boots on the ground. He was a national hero not only for leading the quick defeat of Iraq, but for restoring American pride in the military after the debacle of Vietnam. It appeared that the country finally had an Army it could have confidence in again and trust to do the right thing.

One unfortunate outgrowth to the first Iraq war was the way Americans tended to overreact to its success. Soldiers who didn’t actually participate in the fighting were being given parades in their honor when they returned home. It appeared that these celebrations were as much about relieving the guilt of how we treated the Vietnam War veterans as it was about kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

The war also set the stage for our involvement in other regions of the world including the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq (again) and Libya. We tended not to question the wisdom of our armed forces because they operated with such efficiency in Iraq the first time around. Issues such as the premature “Mission Accomplished” celebration and the Abu Gharib scandal left open questions about exactly how well the military was really operating.

Military historian and best-selling author Thomas Ricks examines the whole U.S. Army mystique in his latest book, “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.” Ricks believes that the mistakes the Army is making today are the direct result of a change in its culture. He explains in intricate detail how the Army has switched from making leadership decisions based on merit and ability to ones where the good ol’ boy network prevailed.

During World War II, Gen. George Marshall, Army Chief-of-Staff and FDR’s right-hand man, believed in rewarding leadership and competence, and firing any commander who was failing in his job. The top U.S. commanders in Europe, including Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, followed this protocol.

In Ricks’ estimation, the success of our European campaign was in large part due to the unwillingness of the top brass to accept anything less than the best when it came to wartime command on the battlefield.

Things began to change during the Korean War. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was in command and had achieved God-like status in the U.S. due to his successes in the Pacific during World War II. The problem was that he thought he was untouchable and could publicly undermine policy from Washington. He also tended to reward those close to him with wartime commands whether they were competent or not.

MacArthur’s insubordination led to his firing by President Truman, and his replacement, Gen. Matthew Ridgway, was more apt to place competent generals in charge on the battlefield.

The system that Marshall had developed was slowly changing. In the Cold War period between the Korean and Vietnam war the culture of the Army was to reward whoever was next in line to command and not base it on who was most fit to do so. It didn’t help that President John F. Kennedy embraced a general with a controversial reputation, Maxwell Taylor, as his chief adviser on Vietnam.

To Ricks, much of the failure in Vietnam was due to the incompetence of those in command starting at the top with Gen. William Westmoreland. There were several outstanding leaders in the Army, but too often the best ones were overlooked to promote whoever was next in line. Worst still was the fact that whenever disaster struck, those in charge found a way to avoid responsibility or have their failures swept under the rug. The worst offenders were rarely fired or demoted, but reassigned or allowed to retire at their present rank.

Following the Vietnam War, the Army was in disarray in both readiness and morale. That all changed during the Reagan Administration when military spending exploded. By the time of the first Iraq war the Army was ready to show its return to prominence. Even there Ricks shows that a reliance on short-term tactical gains over long-term strategies came back to bite the U.S. 10 years after the liberation of Kuwait.

The latest military ventures into Iraq and Afghanistan exhibited superb GIs and a lack of competent generals. Ricks documents several examples where the “new” culture of leadership allowed slipshod commanders to remain in place. It took “outliers” such as Gen. David Petraeus to achieve success because of their ability to think “outside the box.”

Ricks provides a compelling read whether or not you completely buy into his thesis. His book certainly has flaws. He is too detailed-oriented and lists the names of so many officials that it’s easy to lose track.

His writing style is often dry and difficult to get through. But he always has some gold nuggets that reinvigorate your interest.

His description of Chosin, an early battle in the Korean War, is unforgettable. How any soldier could survive such an avalanche of enemy fire and brutal weather conditions is beyond belief. The story of one soldier pouring warm milk on his cereal and having it freeze before he can take a bite is literally chilling.

Ricks’ review of the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War is mindboggling and an important reminder of what can happen in the fog of war. He also highlights how officers who were aware of what was happening were able to avoid responsibility for their actions. It was eerily reminiscent of what happened at Abu Gharib during the second Iraq War.

Lastly, his discussion of the first Gulf war pokes holes in the accepted notion that we achieved overwhelming strategic success. By leaving Saddam Hussein in power we allowed him to believe he had actually won the war. In the end, our initial tactical success clashed with the long-term geo-political reality of the region.

Ricks is not anti-military. He reminds us that we have an outstanding Army that is dedicated and well-trained. We also have brilliant minds and tremendous leaders among our officer corps. The problem is the culture that exists today doesn’t always allow the best and brightest officers to be the ones in command of our courageous GIs. In today’s world we cannot afford not to have the two intersect.