OVER the last 11 years, as we fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan, the civilian American leadership has been thoroughly — and justly — criticized for showing poor judgment and lacking strategies for victory. But even as those conflicts dragged on, our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public.
Our generals actually bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars. They especially failed to understand the conflicts they were fighting — and then failed to adjust their strategies to the situations they faced so that they might fight more effectively.
Even now, as our wars wind down, the errors of our generals continue to escape public investigation, or even much internal review. As the Vietnam War drew to an end, the Army carried out a soul-searching study of the state of its officer corps. To my knowledge, no such no-holds-barred examination is under way now. Instead, the military’s internal analyses continue to laud the Pentagon’s top brass while placing almost all of the blame for what went wrong in our wars on civilian leaders.
As Paul Yingling, a recently retired Army colonel, noted during some of the darkest days of the Iraq war, a private who loses his rifle is punished more than a general who loses his part of a war.
In the past, Congressional oversight hearings might have produced some evidence that challenged the military’s self-satisfied conclusions. But today, politicians are so fearful of being accused of “criticizing our troops” that they fail to scrutinize the performance of those who lead them.
In the meantime, too many important questions remain unanswered.
Why, for example, do we serially rotate our top war commanders? Earlier this month, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. was selected to replace Gen. John R. Allen as the American commander in Afghanistan. He will be the 11th officer to lead our war there in 11 years.
Rotating troops is appropriate, especially when entire units are moved in and out. But rotating top commanders on an annual basis makes no management sense. Imagine trying to run a corporation by swapping the senior executives every year. Or imagine if, at the beginning of 1944, six months before D-Day, Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, told Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, that it was time to give someone else a chance to lead.
My former colleague Andrew Exum, an ex-Army captain who studies insurgency, sees such rapid turnover as evidence of “the casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.” And yet our political leaders have not publicly questioned the rotation policy.
Why, also, do our military chiefs pay so much attention to getting our troops to the battleground and seemingly so little to what they’ll need once the initial battles are over?
Such was the case in Iraq: our military commanders focused on planning the 2003 invasion but virtually ignored the task of planning for what might happen during the long occupation that followed. Though it was clear, almost from the start, that our round-’em-up approach to the insurgency wasn’t working and that using heavy firepower in the effort was counterproductive, it was not until early 2007 that the United States put in place a more effective strategy. By that time, our military had been fighting in Iraq longer than it had in World War II.
Why weren’t our troops better prepared for the challenges of protecting civilians from resistance fighters, interrogating suspected insurgents and detaining enemy fighters? For almost a decade such questions have gone unasked by our political leaders and unanswered by our military commanders. The stakes of not finding out are great — for while we know we have a strong military, we truly don’t know if we have the right one for the conflicts we may face during the next two decades.
That was the discovery the British made — the hard way — in the Second World War. On the eve of the war, the Royal Navy was the biggest in the world, but Britain’s military leaders did not understand that the aircraft carrier and the submarine had drastically changed the nature of maritime conflict.
The American military does no good by continuing to reassure itself that it’s the best on the planet, as if it has nothing to learn. As another Veterans Day comes and goes, the Pentagon’s top brass owe the nation — and the soldiers they lead — a period of humility and sober reflection.
And it’s time for our civilian leaders to ask them the tough questions as well.