Friday, April 14, 2006

Armchair Generals and the Old School

Big Lizards has a
great post on the subject of recently retired, newly critical generals.

One of the key points made in the post is that many of the officers' critiques reflect a mindset not in accordance with the 21st century battlefield. BL argues that some of the Generals' references to concepts like "Powell Doctrine" and Unity of Command are less applicable to the assymetrical fights that the military is dealing with in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wedded so faithfully to the concepts that guided the armed forces through the waning years of the cold war are referred to in Big Lizard's post as "Old School".

"Old School" is a great, descriptive term that in my opinion accurately conveys the mindset of most of the Army's senior leadership at the onset of 9/11. It can be argued that many of the generals at the time were driven out of their comfort zones by both the Global War on Terror and by an aggressive SECDEF determined to tranform DOD, who turned many of the generals' sacred cows into so much shoe leather.

Where is the proof? I have written other posts on the subject of the military's readiness for the exigencies of the post 9/11 world; here are a few examples, new and old, supporting the argument that much of the pre 9/11 military leadership (many of whom are throwing darts at Rumsfeld from the safety of retirement) lacked the mindset for the reality the military now faces:

  • General Eric Shinseki, canonized by many for the dressing down he took after disagreeing with the SECDEFs Iraq troop assessment, fought tooth and nail to save the Army's Comanche helicopter and Crusader self propelled artillery piece. Both of these weapons systems were relics that were designed during and for the cold war, and their functions had largely been replicated by other weapon systems already available. Meanwhile the production and supply of body armor, something recognized during the 1990s by many unit commanders as necessary for the type of fights the Army was expected to be in for the foreseeable future, would have taken literally DECADES to field in the amounts needed based on the Army's plan at the time. The two outmoded weapons systems were finally cancelled, although not before the taxpayers paid tens of billions of dollars for development and testing. The fielding of body armor has come a long way since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, no thanks to the decisions made by the Army's senior leadership prior to 9/11.
  • The Army is involved in two major counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, the Army had no counterinsurgency doctrine until 2004, when it released a draft counterinsurgency field manual. As a student in the command and general staff college at that time (where mid grade officers go prior to being assigned as operations officers and planners throughout the Army), counterinsurgency was not part of the 10 month core curriculum. We spent hours studying the peacetime transformation of the Army between the world wars, but alas, no counterinsurgency. Did the Army's senior leadership prior to 9/11 not envision a scenario where U.S. forces would be involved in a hot fight against insurgents somewhere in the world? Possibly (which is bad enough in itself), but there may be another reason why the Army's doctrine and education system was not adequately preparing the force for the roles that it would by necessity find itself in at the dawn of the 21st century: the Army's senior leadership wanted no part of counterinsurgency. At all. COIN is a messy, long term, close-in fight, a mission where many of the technological advantages the U.S. enjoys are neutralized by terrain and by the nature of the operations themselves. The Army wanted to fight in a situation that met the criteria of the "Powell Doctrine", a conventional mid-intensity fight of short duration, where there was no question of goals or moral clarity (for an example, see DESERT STORM). Under this supposition, the Army's leadership did not educate and train the force on Counterinsurgency because it did not WANT to be employed in a counterinsurgency. Old School, indeed.
  • Major General (retired) Swannack today, in his attack on Secretary Rumsfeld, criticized the way Generals are being promoted in the Army:
“If you understand what Secretary Rumsfeld has done in his time in the Pentagon, he personally is the one who selects the three-star generals to go forward to the president for the Senate to confirm,” Swannack told CNN.
Assuming there is more of a point to this comment than merely sour grapes, Swannack is no doubt referring to the unorthodox manner in which the Secretary of Defense has approached general officer appointments. The current Chief of Staff of the Army is a perfect example. General Peter Schoomaker had actually been retired for several years, after having helmed the United States Special Operations Command until 2000 (note: check lexis nexis, anyone who subscribes, and see how many bitter, critical OP Eds Schoomaker wrote during his brief foray into retirement!). Secretary Rumsfeld and the Pentagon's civilian leadership astutely recognized the nature of the fight the U.S. is involved in, and threw out the General Officer appointment playbook when they chose General Schoomaker as Chief of Staff. This is a decision that no doubt rankled feathers at the highest echelons of the service, but one that the Pentagon's civilian leadership determined was essential for an Army in a new kind of war. While the "Old School" may have wished to maintain the efficient status quo in appointments based in previous assignments and time of service, the Pentagon instead focused on effectiveness.

While it is unusual for so many flag officers to be openly critical of the military's civilian leadership (albeit from the comfort and safety of retirement), it is not unprecedented in American history for military leadership to be unprepared for rapid shifts in the nature of warfare. General George McClellan, despite being immensely effective at organizing the Union Army in the early days of the civil war, was nonetheless relieved by President Lincoln when he failed to close with and destroy the confederate army. Interesting to note in this case is that like many of the current crop of retired generals, McClellan was also critical after the fact of Lincoln's prosecution of the Civil War. George McClellan actually ran against Lincoln unsuccessfully on the Democratic ticket in 1864 (the Democrats campaigned on an anti-war platform, surprisingly enough). In another case, American military journals were publishing articles in the 1930s touting the superiority of horse cavalry over motorized units (ie the armored forces that revolutionized modern warfare a few later during World War II). In a final example, General George C. Marshall relieved and replaced several flag officers at the onset of World War II, believing they were unsuitable for the fight ahead of the nation.

As I reported earlier, the media enjoys the saga of retired generals rebelling against the military's civilian leadership because it is titillating, and the story practically writes itself. But the criticism of these retirees is only part of a larger picture. One also needs to look at what the Army was doing prior to the September 11 atttacks, and decide whether or not the Rumsfeld shake up that has put so many general officers outside of their comfort zone was not absolutely necessary for the type of fights the Army must be prepared for in the future. Then, and only then, will you be prepared to decide whether the old school or the new school is best.


Gateway Pundit said...

Great post. I had heard that this latest round of whining is nothing new, but I did not know that it was McClellan and that he ran as an anti-war ticket.

Bob W. said...


Yes, it is amazing that the more things change. . . well, you know the rest.