The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it

This week sees yet another article questioning the moral courage of our most senior generals, the ones at the top.  If correct, this suggests a serious structural flaw in our military institutions.  How can we could fix this?

  1. It only takes the right leader”, the late Colonel David H. Hackworth (US Army (1 July 2001)
  2. Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq“, this site (29 December 2005)
  3. Fire the Generals!“, Douglas A. Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), posted at Defense and the National Interest (30 April 2007)
  4. A Failure in Generalship“, Paul Yingling (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army), Armed Forces Journal  (May 2007)
  5. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders “, this site  (22 May 2007)
  6.  “No General as Obama’s VP“, Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), Defense News  (30 June 2008) — “Why a Military Running Mate Isn’t Necessary”

Of course, numbers 1, 3, 4, and 6 are the most significant in this list.  Here are excerpts from each article.

I.  It only takes the right leader”, the late Colonel David H. Hackworth (US Army (1 July 2001) — Excerpt:

What’s new – and what ratchets up the risk – is that there are no more George Washington’s, U.S. Grant’s, John Pershings, George Marshalls, Matthew Ridgways, James Hollingsworths or Norman Schwarzkopfs in soldier suits. I can’t name a single serving Army, Navy or Air Force senior officer with even a fraction of the true-grit leadership of any of the above men. Our senior military leadership, less the Marine Corps, is bankrupt, kaput, fini. There are no more steel-jawed watchdogs, only slick, sweet-smelling lapdogs.

Our current crop of star-wearers are mostly corporate CEO types, Perfumed Princes who got to the top by a sick system that’s become increasingly entrenched since the Korean War. Too many are mirror images of Gen. Wesley Clark, who strutted his stuff during the recent Serbian disaster. Clark’s now keeping busy blaming that pathetic showing on his former pals in the Pentagon, conveniently forgetting that as the commander in chief of the NATO forces, he had the option of resigning if not allowed to run his war his way.

A George Marshall or Matthew Ridgway could turn our very sick military around before you can say:  OUR KINDER, GENTLER MILITARY WILL LOSE THE NEXT WAR.

 II.  Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq“, this site (29 December 2005) — Excerpt:

The upper echelon of the US military establishment excels at producing industrial grade excuses and shifting blame. Excuses of mass destruction (EMD), they divert pressure that might otherwise lead to reform.

… As a result, we have military leaders that cannot fight and win the most common wars of our era. Despite spending vast sums, many times that of our foes, our post-WWII military performance has ranged from poor to horrible. While analysis and proof of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this paper, these recent – small but telling – vignettes illustrate the nature of our problem.

… The events surrounding the fall of Iraq’s capital are difficult to imagine, even after four years have passed. US forces again proved invincible on the field of battle. They rolled up to Baghdad, occupied it and waited for orders. Then the capitol fell into disorder, with looting and burning of key infrastructure.

Apparently the Pentagon’s senior generals – the best-educated generals ever to lead an Army – failed to prepare for one of history’s most common scenarios. As a result they read reports from their field commanders and watched as victory tipped over to what might become a crushing defeat. Perhaps for the next war our top generals’ briefing books should include DVD’s of War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. Watching the burning of Moscow and Atlanta might remind them to plan for this contingency.

It’s not yet clear why and how this occurred, except in one respect. Our military is a full member of 21st Century American society – no separate military culture here – and its top leaders produce excuses suitable for a Superpower, featuring the new American mantra: “It’s not our fault.”

III.  Fire the Generals!“, Douglas A. Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), posted at Defense and the National Interest (30 April 2007) — Excerpt:

It is bitter to contemplate, but Americans now confront issues of the utmost gravity:

  1. the lack of character and competence apparent in the most senior ranks;
  2. the willingness of the civilians in charge, from the commander in chief to the secretary of defense, to ignore this problem; and,
  3. the probability that future American military operations will fail if generalship of this quality persists.

IV.  A Failure in Generalship“, Paul Yingling (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army), Armed Forces Journal  (May 2007) — Excerpt:

America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

… Failing to visualize future battlefields represents a lapse in professional competence, but seeing those fields clearly and saying nothing is an even more serious lapse in professional character. Moral courage is often inversely proportional to popularity and this observation in nowhere more true than in the profession of arms. The history of military innovation is littered with the truncated careers of reformers who saw gathering threats clearly and advocated change boldly. A military professional must possess both the physical courage to face the hazards of battle and the moral courage to withstand the barbs of public scorn. On and off the battlefield, courage is the first characteristic of generalship.

… The hour is late, but not too late to prepare for the challenges of the Long War. We still have time to select as our generals those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security. The power and the responsibility to identify such generals lie with the U.S. Congress. If Congress does not act, our Jena awaits us.

V.  The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders “, this site  (22 May 2007) — Excerpt:

The German General staff was as perfect a system as we can ever devise, but it could not compensate for the moral flaws of the officers who comprised it.  By 1943 Hitler’s insanity was obvious. Germany’s senior officers should have drawn straws, with the loser to walk up and shoot Hitler. After which would follow his trial and execution for murder and treason. A bad end for him, but the salvation of the Wehrmacht and Germany.  Instead, the small minority that had the will to act — the schwarze kapelle – undertook assassination attempts suitable only for comic opera. All, of course, were unsuccessful.

The Wehrmacht and Germany were almost destroyed by the cowardliness of the Army’s leaders, the inexcusable flaw in an officer.  Scharnhorst and von Moltke the Elder would have despaired to see their descendents’ failure.  I hope our officers prove of higher quality when our time of testing comes. Considering the physical power wielded by the US military, the rest of the world should also pray for this.

The run-up to the Iraq war gave hints of what we can expect – for good and for ill.  On a small scale, we should applaud LtGen Paul Van Riper (U.S. Marine Corps-Ret.), who refused to continue with an obviously rigged war game in preparation for the Iraq War.

More importantly, if the rumors are correct, General Eric Shinseki — then Army Chief of Staff — boldly spoke the truth to Rumsfeld about the number of troops required for the Iraq Expedition. This effectively ended Shinseki’s career.  If this story is true, we can speculate about its implications.  Shinseki’s sacrifice was, unfortunately, in vain. His peers failed to support him, so Rumsfeld ignored his recommendations.  An act of conscience by the Army Chief of Staff should not become a career opportunity for a fellow officer.

Our senior generals should understand the importance of collective action. Together they might have, on a matter of military strategy, successfully confronted their political leaders.  Bravery is important when privates are under gunfire, and equally so when generals are under political fire.

 VI.   “No General as Obama’s VP“, Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), Defense News  (30 June 2008) — “Why a Military Running Mate Isn’t Necessary” — Excerpt:

Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration always ex­hibited a marked aversion to ad­vancing men of character to the most senior posts in a way not seen since the days of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. If they had, events might have turned out very differently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s be­cause such men would have fought the administration over its culture of torture and abuse in relation to Muslim detainees, be­havior that has betrayed Ameri­can values, cost us our moral au­thority and done us incalculable damage internationally.

Instead, the Bush administra­tion opted for biddable corpo­rate men who followed orders, pushed the party line, lied and dissembled where necessary.

The most disturbing example of moral gutlessness occurred when Ambassador Paul Bremer announced the decision to dis­band the very Iraqi Army which the top U.S. Army generals had planned to reconstitute and use to restore order. A minority of generals – John Abizaid, for ex­ample – who composed the U.S. Army leadership in Iraq knew it was a disastrous decision that virtually guaranteed the most ap­palling consequences.

But did he or any of the generals stand up and oppose the decision or threaten to resign en masse, and speak out publicly? No, they folded – and eagerly accepted the promotions that followed.

Such moral cowardice is inex­cusable. In the final analysis, the generals turned a limited mili­tary intervention to remove the corrupt leadership of a weak, in­capable despot into a destructive war of occupation waged against Iraq’s Sunni Arab population.  Then, they replaced Saddam Hussein’s regime with a corrupt Shi’ite Islamist Arab government with ties to Iran.

No less disappointing was the readiness of the retired generals to defend the incompetence and failure of their chosen succes­sors by misinforming the Ameri­can people about the true condi­tions on the ground in Iraq.

Thanks to their disinformation campaign on television and ra­dio, the disaster was concealed from the American public until the strategic consequences were so negative the only way to re­duce U.S. losses was to buy off the insurgent enemy with bags of U.S. cash under the guise of the surge.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other articles about this subject

For more information see the full archive of articles about “An army near the breaking point“, with reports and studies over the past decade.

Chief of Staff of the Army’s Leadership Survey 2000

Top-down loyalty – DOES NOT EXIST. Senior leaders will throw subordinates under the bus in a heartbeat to protect or advance their career. There is no trust of senior leaders in terms of loyalty because the record is clear. At the highest level, as example, 4 stars will watch our health care erode without taking a stand.

Challenging the Generals“, Fred Kaplan, New York Times Magazine (26 August 2007)

On Aug. 1, Gen. Richard Cody, the United States Army’s vice chief of staff, flew to the sprawling base at Fort Knox, Ky., to talk with the officers enrolled in the Captains Career Course. These are the Army’s elite junior officers. Of the 127 captains taking the five-week course, 119 had served one or two tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, mainly as lieutenants. Nearly all would soon be going back as company commanders. A captain named Matt Wignall, who recently spent 16 months in Iraq with a Stryker brigade combat team, asked Cody, the Army’s second-highest-ranking general, what he thought of a recent article by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling titled “A Failure in Generalship.”

General Cody looked around the auditorium, packed with men and women in uniform – most of them in their mid-20s, three decades his junior but far more war-hardened than he or his peers were at the same age – and turned Captain Wignall’s question around. “You all have just come from combat, you’re young captains,” he said, addressing the entire room. “What’s your opinion of the general officers corps?”

Over the next 90 minutes, five captains stood up, recited their names and their units and raised several of Yingling’s criticisms.

… Challenges like this are rare in the military, which depends on obedience and hierarchy. Yet the scene at Fort Knox reflected a brewing conflict between the Army’s junior and senior officer corps – lieutenants and captains on one hand, generals on the other, with majors and colonels (“field-grade officers”) straddling the divide and sometimes taking sides.

… Colonel Yingling’s article gave these tensions voice; it spelled out the issues and the stakes; and it located their roots in the Army’s own institutional culture, specifically in the growing disconnect between this culture – which is embodied by the generals – and the complex realities that junior officers, those fighting the war, are confronting daily on the ground. The article was all the more potent because it was written by an active-duty officer still on the rise. It was a career risk, just as, on a smaller scale, standing up and asking the Army vice chief of staff about the article was a risk.

6 thoughts on “The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it”

  1. This is one of the best postings and threads that gets to the heart issue or a major portion of it in DOD. Gates held both the senior AF uniform and civilian heavy breathwers accountable. Time this is done straight across the board particularly in area of financial accountability and responsibility. Seems the philosophy among generals is spend it and it will get funded.

  2. Ralph Hitchens

    I think moral courage has always been a fairly sparse commodity in the higher ranks. Most senior soldiers will lean forward when the commander-in-chief puts a mission directive on the table, and actively marginalize critics in the staff and the ranks. History doesn’t give us much hope on this score. The most critical variable is the commander-in-chief himself (or herself).

  3. Robert Petersen

    A European view: The chief of the Danish defence forces – general Jesper Helsoe – gave two interviews to the radio when he retired last month. As far as I could tell it was very difficult to distinguish between him and a CEO of a major company. He used the same buzz-words about management and production like a CEO. As if the Danish army is a factory, that produces sausage and exports it to the world. There is still pockets of excellence in the Danish armed forces doing their best in Afghanistan, but people are fleeing from the army as fast as they can when they return from their missions. This year alone we “lost” 79 officers and 449 NCO’s and that way there will simply be no Danish army left in a few years (for the record the Danish military employs a total of 30.000 men and women). The solution for the Danish armed forces according to our high command? A better use of the media in order to promote a more “modern” view of the armed forces. Aka propaganda about how wonderful it is to serve and how great our military is.

    I recall interviewing a general, who was once asked by the Danish chief of Defence to serve in the Defence Command of the Danish military. He answered that the only reason he could see for serving there would be to study how a bureaucracy comparable to the bureaucracy of the Central Committee in the old Soviet Union worked. The chief of defence was not amused.

    It might be irrelevant, but people need to understand how much the United States mean for the Danish military. Everything that comes from the United States is treated like the gospel in Denmark and just a few years ago everybody spoke about the miracle of Revolution in Military Affairs and Network-Centric Warfare. For some reason that suddenly disappeared from the debate after what happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we still try to mirror the American military and buy expensive toys like for example the Joint Strike Fighter.

  4. An old Russian joke illustrates the nature of this problem.

    “There are two ways of resolving this problem. One of them is realistic, the other is fantasy. The realistic way is to radio for help from aliens living elsewhere in the galaxy. Fantasy is to wait for the government to fix it.”

  5. It is accounting, you get what you measure. It’s what got Pat Tillman killed. The officer separated the company when a truck broke down in an attempt to meet his numbers. He was more concerned about his career and with meeting the mission time requirements (deliverables)than the safety of his troops.

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