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The Immune Group: Holding the Military's Leaders Accountable for Iraq

On Monday, I laid out my template for assigning blame in a historical context. Regarding America’s most recent foreign policy debacle, the Iraq war, I nominated the usual suspects: President Bush, VP Cheney, the entire Secretary of Defense’s office, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. This ThinkProgress article does a pretty good job of summarizing the popular narrative of who to blame for Iraq, politicians.
The military as a whole embraces this thinking too. (That is, if they aren’t defending Iraq as successful in the first place, which Eric C and I stipulated yesterday that it was not. Because it wasn’t.) Military supporters--including former generals, academics and milblogs--love to blame politicians for “Mess O’patamia”. And lots of politicians too. So if it isn’t Cheney and Rumsfeld, it is “the politicians back in Washington who...”

Tie our hands with restrictive ROE!” or...

Force our men and women to do costly state-building which isn’t our mission!” or...
“Don’t know how to do strategy. Strategy is dead!

Notice who escapes blame? The generals.

As Thomas Ricks (who is one of the few pundits and historians who has blamed the generals for iraq, particularly in Fiasco) wrote in his recent Harvard Business Review article, the U.S. used to hold officers, particularly generals, accountable, especially in World War II. Back then, General Eisenhower went from a “regimental executive officer to a five star general in about four years” and “of the 165 men who commanded combat divisions, 16 were relieved” of command. The utter definition of accountability.

That accountability has disappeared.

So when it comes to Iraq, few people blame the flag officers of the uniformed military, who could arguably shoulder the majority of the blame. As a body, they completely failed to understand the lessons of the Vietnam war. They failed to even fathom that urban combat would dominate the contemporary battlefield. They failed to prepare soldiers in language training.

They failed over time too. In the 1990s, they failed to develop and train the Army and Marine Corps to fight irregular wars. They failed to develop a coherent plan to invade Iraq. They failed to properly advise the president of the United States. They then failed to understand the counter-insurgency environment they found themselves in.

Instead, the generals prepared and tried to fight the war they wanted to win.

By blaming politicians for the strategy, generals and admirals have managed to avoid the fact that they failed to prepare the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps for the post-Cold War war. It’s like a coach who fails to recruit, practice well and motivate his team, then blames the losses on the athletic director for tough scheduling. The coach still deserves the blame.

Way back, I wrote that the Army needs a “post-9/11 AAR” (so did Andrew Bacevich). Do we really trust the generals with it? They failed to understand that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a detrimental policy, not a beneficial one. They failed to forecast that the Pentagon’s retirement system would bankrupt the services. They have failed on weapon system after weapon system. They failed on understanding the nature of war and warfare after the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

When it comes to assigning accountability and blame for the post-9/11 wars, we must remember the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. They deserve some of the blame. (I would argue a lion’s share of it.) Will they ever get it?

I doubt it.

(Final point: Some people have criticized the general's conduct of the war, including Thomas Ricks, as we wrote above, and most notably Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in an Armed Forces Journal article, "A Failure of Generalship". However, Yingling is notable for being one of the few voices assigning blame to this large group of people.)

seven comments

Based on some of the comments we’ve received, I’ll point this out: this is just one group that deserves blame among many. That was why we wrote Monday’s post.

The military establishment remembered one thing from the Vietnam war, they remembered how to convincingly shift the blame from themselves to the politicians. It worked pretty good than and it will probably work well enough now.

Since you brought it up, bemoaning the ‘lack of strategy’ excuse for failure really frosts me. Strategy has nothing at all to do with the actions of high ranking officers on the scene. It hasn’t anything to do with paralysis by powerpoint, nor with H&I fire being delivered in Baghdad in 2003 nor with a moron like Sanchez wanting to bomb the bridge the remains of the murdered contractors were hung from in Fallujah. Our high ranking officer corps likes to talk about being responsible for one’s actions but it is something they mostly seem to require of others.

I just read Monday’s entry. The greatest failing of the generals perhaps is their failing in the duty to advise. I remember reading a story once where FDR was holding some kind of meeting about military preparedness prior to WWII. He said some foolish thing about all being well and everybody nodded their heads in agreement except George Marshall. He said that the foolishness was foolishness and if something less foolish wasn’t done there would be hell to pay. He later recalled that he figured that was the end of his career but duty demanded action so he did it, to the benefit of all.

Maybe (strictly conjecture on my part) he got away with saying what he did was because the civilians figured that if they got rid of him the next guy would be the same and the one after that would be the same so no sense looking a more amenable type.

Now, if somebody like Shinseki says something the civilians don’t want to hear, they can be damn certain that there will be plenty of multi-stars who will tell them exactly what they want to hear so the Shinsekis can be discarded with ease. That there are so many feckless senior officers is the fault of the professional military itself. It couldn’t be like that unless the military as an institution started selecting, at least partly, for fecklessness at some point.

This still goes on of course. Big shot general after big shot general send their men to be killed in Afghanistan knowing that it for nothing if the Pak Army/ISI isn’t reined in. Those same generals tell the civilians year after year that we can prevail without dealing with the Pak Army/ISI even though they know it isn’t true. I don’t understand how those guys can live with themselves.

Since we’re on the subject, I figured you guys might be interested in this.


It is an AP story about how Gen. Dempsey feels that Gen. Ward shouldn’t be retired at a reduced rank.

@ Carl – Sigh. sounds like more of the same. Check out Rick’s new book and HBR article for more of this.

Ike was CEO.
Patton was Combat.
The generals in Iraq are/were what, Combat or CEO?

Iraq was two separate operations. Franks did the easy part, the part the troops knew how to do.

Afterwards? the second part was something new. Nobody, as far as I know, knew how to proceed. So, if CEO and Combat don’t work, they need a third type of general.

Eric H:

It is understandable if nobody knew, knew, how to proceed. But the generals mostly didn’t have any idea at all how to proceed. That they didn’t have any idea at all, and the lower ranks had to figure things out for them as they went along, is a serious indictment of the military education system. Lots of countries in history have conquered, occupied and pacified other countries, including us. That this kind of thing may have been new to the generals just means they weren’t well educated in their business.