How many generals would Lincoln have fired to win in Iraq & Afghanistan?

Summary: After eleven years our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced no gains for America, despite the expenditure of money plus our troop’s work and sacrifice. Generals rotated in and out of senior command to punch their tickets, but unrelated to their actual performance. What would Lincoln have done?  This is #9 in a series about the rot at the top of our military; at the end are links to the other chapters.

“As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
— “A failure in generalship“, Paul Yingling (Lt Colonel, US Army), Armed Forces Journal, May 2007

In the field Grant wore a private’s uniform and coat.

An essential step to winning the Civil War:
…..firing generals for poor performance

John C. Fremont was relieved by Lincoln on 2 November 1861 for exceeding his authority by issuing an emancipation order (this might have pushed slave states in the Union to join the Confederacy). He was later given new commands. He resigned his command on 26 June 1862, declining to serve under General Pope. He remained on the bench for the rest of the war.

John Pope was relieved of command on 12 September 1862 due to his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Don Carlos Buell was relieved on 24 October 1862 by General in Chief Henry W. Halleck, who said “Neither the country nor the Government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals.”


Generals George McClellan was relieved on 5 November 1862 by Lincoln for general incompetence as a fighting general.  On 10 January 1862 Lincoln had said that if McClellan did not want to use the army, “he would like to borrow it, provided he could see how it could be made to do something”.

Joseph Hooker resigned on 27 June 1863 in dispute with Lincoln. Lincoln immediately accepted it.

William Rosecrans was relieved by General Grant on 24 September 1863 following defeats in the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga.

Franz Sigal was relieved on 8 July 1864 by Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, after repeated defeats.

Ambrose Burnsides was relieved on 14 August 1864 by General Grant after repeated defeats. (He later served 3 terms as Governor of RI and two terms as Senator).

Not just during the Civil War

In our better-run wars the Army provided its own discipline to generals. During WWII Marshall and Ike relieved scores of generals from their commands for deficient performance.

“We cannot understand the difference in your leadership in the last war and in this. We could understand it if you had produced one superior corps commander, but now we find all of your corps commanders good and of equal superiority”
— German Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt in 1945, from America’s School for War by Peter J. Schifferle (2010)

Too bad we had Bush Jr and Obama instead of him.
Too bad we had Bush Jr and Obama instead of him.

In our wars…

We can only guess how many generals Presidents Bush and Obama would have had to fire in order to find those capable of achieving better results from our mad wars.  Perhaps no generals could have achieved much better results under any likely conditions.  Perhaps the best we could hope for was a general with the integrity to say that these wars are mad, and that their cost was not worth any likely gains.

But what we got were generals playing the Palace games at the Versailles-on-the-Potomac.  As we did in Vietnam.  For more about this see Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”

Some great sources for more information

Cause for relief – Why presidents no longer fire generals“, Robert L. Bateman (Lt Colonel, US Army), Armed Forces Journal, June 2008 — Much good information about our history of firing generals!

Tom Ricks’ new book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

Other Posts about Our Generals

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders, 27 May 2007
  2. We do have real generals, and this is how they act, 14 January 2008 — About Paul van Riper (General, USMC)
  3. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008
  4. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired), 2 May 2011
  5. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!, 12 February 2012
  6. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals?, 9 September 2012
  7. How bad is our bloat of generals? How does it compare with other armies?, 10 September 2012
  8. Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said, 23 September 2009
  9. What can we learn about ourselves from the career of General Petraeus?, 11 November 2012

Only competent generals could have brought about this conclusion:


Appomattox Court House, 9 April 1865; based on an 1887 illustration by Alfred R. Waud
Appomattox Court House, 9 April 1865; based on an 1887 illustration by Alfred R. Waud



35 thoughts on “How many generals would Lincoln have fired to win in Iraq & Afghanistan?”

  1. norman broomhall

    I don`t get it . What about International Law that states : Thou shalt NOT invade other countries ! Winning has absoluetly NOTHING to do with it !!

    1. Yeah, I’m not even sure what victory looks like. So after the Koran burning and the peeing on the corpses, those Afghans welcome American bases in their country. How exactly is that going to work? How many Afghans do you have to kill, before they think burning Korans is a good idea? There’s no victory here.

    2. Broomhall,

      The US has Security COuncil Resolutions covering its invasions and occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan. As the NATO Q&A Brochuresays about Afghanistan:

      The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is the NATO-led multinational force in Afghanistan. ISAF has been in Afghanistan since 2001 under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386, with a peace-enforcement mandate under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

      NATO has received annual extentions from the UN Security Council, such as Resolutsion 1943 for the year 2011.

  2. Marvin in Killie

    I’d hope that Lincoln wouldn’t have committed troops to Afghanistan in the first place!

    btw – Did the British fire their Generals after all those pre-1945 failures in both countries??

    1. The British suffered defeats during their Afghanistan Wars, but that doesn’t mean the wars were failures.

      • Major General William Elphinstone died in January 1842 disaster during the First Af War (aka Auckland’s Folly. Governor-General Lord Auckland had a stroke and was replaced. The Brits did reprisals and left.
      • The Second Af War ended with the Treaty of Gandamak, attaining the Britain’s key goals.
      • The Third Af War was more or less a tie.

      These were small frontier wars for the Brits. The first was the only defeat. The lead general died and the Governor was replaced.

      1. Interesting that none of these resulted in British occupation of Afghanistan.

        The only American general I can think of who studied the problem of occupation was Petraeus, and we’ve all taken turns pillorying FM 3-24. So perhaps the answer is none of them. Or all of them.

      2. Even if none of our generals were up to the task, the US Army and Marines have lots of Colonels..

        Ike was promoted to Lt Colonel in 1936. To Colonel in March 1941. To Brigadier General in September 1941.

        Wars are often won by fast promotions of competent people, accompanied by relief and sidetracking of deadwood.

      3. Excellent point! Virtually anything in the world worth accomplishing was done by a colonel — think Wilson, Boyd, Riccioni, Macgregor, Wyly, Lawrence, Sanders.

        Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve had any better luck in conducting occupations than did the generals.

      4. Might the President have found a Colonel willing to state that these mad wars should end? That might have redefined the political landscape. Much as Ridgeway did for Eisenhower in 1955, so that Ike could more easily resiste the pressure to send troops to Vietnam after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

  3. We didn’t try intentional starvation of civilians by burning their crops. We didn’t try intentional destruction of civilian infrastructure like systematic destruction of railroads.
    We didn’t try (Butler’s Woman Order No. 28) threatening woman with rape if they refuse to treat advances of occupying soldiery with respect. And other stuff introduced by Lincoln’s generals.

    So I guess Lincoln would fired all our current generals because they wouldn’t do with joy all the above.

    1. Alex,

      I don’t believe that is even remotely correct.

      (1). The US invasion of Iraq resulted in massive destruction of civilian infrastructure.

      (2). Butler’s order did not authorize rape of women. That’s a myth. But it did result in his removal from command of New Orleans in December 1862.

      (3). Civilian deaths in the Civil War were extraordinarily low for a war of that duration, geographical extent and ferocity. The ratio of soldier to civilian deaths might be the lowest of any major civil war during the past two centuries. Lower than that of most major wars.

      There were punitive actions by the Union forces, but on a relatively small scale. There were large scale deaths in the South, but mostly as an indirect result of the war: diversion of resources to the war reduced food production and even more so reduced food supply to civilians, destruction of transportation systems, etc.

      War is Hell.

    2. “We didn’t try intentional destruction of civilian infrastructure like systematic destruction of railroads.”

      That’s false. Much civilian infrastructure was bombed by the US during the invasion of Iraq.

      Considering the greater dependence of 21st Iraq on such infrastructure (eg, providing electricity and water, sewage treatment) than the 1860’s Confederacy, the damage might have been greater in Iraq by some measures than in the Confederacy.

  4. Lincoln, like any intelligent man, was a critical thinker. Accordingly, while he vigorously prosecuted the Civil War, he also had opposed the Mexican War. He also, during the Civil War, backed down from a confrontation the British, stating that one war at a time was enough. So the real question is whether Lincoln would have gotten involved in Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place.

  5. That’s what I’m talking about – “punitive actions on a relatively small scale” like by Lincoln forces and namely:
    (1) Burning every single farm and crop field.
    (2) Killing every single head of livestock.
    (3) Destruction of miles of railroads.
    (4) 2-3 week long bombardments of populated cities.
    (5) Introducing of Batler’s “Rape Law” (that how Brits and French call it after they read it and sent note of protest to Lincoln).

    “War is Hell”.

    War is Hell and Women Are Whores.

    1. Alex,

      Please cite some data to support your assertions, as they make little sense in the fashion you state them.

      The Union did not “burn every single far and crop field” in the South, etc. There were such things done as punitive measures, such as in the Shenandoah Valley and the March to the Sea.

      And there were bombardments of cities. Much as we’ve did in the Iraq War.

      But the fact remains that civilian casualties in the Civil War were very low for a war of such duration and intensity — both as % of population and as a fraction of troop casualties. That would not be so if your statements were representative of the war’s conduct.

      What are absurdly called “low intensity wars” in the post WWII era are forms of civil wars — with the ratio of troops (loosely defined) to civilian deaths ofter 1 – 10. That’s the result of the measures you described when they are applied.

      Also, if you appear to be attempting to make the case that Civil War had higher civilian casualties than the Iraq and Af Wars. Considering the scale of the wars, that would not be surprising — but might not be true in Iraq. If that’s your case, please state it more clearly.

      Also — the Brits and French were sympathetic to the South. How they interpreted Batler’s order is not relevant. What actually happened is what counts, and does not match your description.

      No more rants, please. This is not the place for them. Just facts.

  6. Duncan Kinder said: “Lincoln, like any intelligent man, was a critical thinker. Accordingly, while he vigorously prosecuted the Civil War, he also had opposed the Mexican War. ”

    Interesting! Was Lincoln opposed to imperialism in general? If so, is it known why? Were his reasons similar to Thoreau’s in “Civil Disobedience”? Were there any contradictions in his position? Thanks.

    1. This excerpt from the extremely excellent document you cited (thanks!), clarifies the issue: Writing … February 15, 1848, Lincoln spelled out his position more thoroughly.

      “The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your [Herndon’s] view [in support of Polk’s lies] destroys the whole matter, and places our President where Kings have always stood.”

      What we now might refer to as “imperialism” was apparently simply called “military conquest” in those days. My guess is that it was probably understood in the same context: a nation with stronger military capabilities engaging in conquest and control of other nations’ territories for the purposes of expanding the “empire” of the conquering nation in not only the specific instance of a given conquest, but in a wider context.

      I have read that the term “imperialism” was in use by government officials by the time of the Spanish-American War, 50 or so years later.

      In any case, my guess is that the southern military elites that later led the Confederate military intended to not only take as much Mexican “territory” as they could, but intended to expand an american “empire” further into central and south america, and possibly elsewhere to the extent possible.

      When the Confederates lost the Civil War, their imperialist aims were thwarted – for some time. Again, just guessing, but Lincoln probably realized that the south tended to be what we would now call imperialistic in its culture, and that such tendencies were fundamentally inconsistent with the original philosophy of the constitution.

      thanks for the excellent feedback.

  7. On one hand, firing generals for failing to “win” our futile wars is simply setting them up to fail. On the other hand, after you’ve fired several generals for failing, maybe the next one will display some courage and point out that they’ve been asked to do the impossible.

  8. david j michel jr

    the last time the U.S. won a war was ww2 we reduced Germany to rubble ,but thats ok we only killed christian white men,women ,and children. just like Clinton in croatia ,and serbia ,but don’t bomb a mosque you might kill holey men.

    1. Michel,

      What an odd comment. We’ve killed tens of thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, in Iraq alone since 9-11. To destroy Iraq’s non-existent WMDs. And killed thousands in Af-Pak, for no obvious reason or gain.

      At what point will you believe we’ve killed enough?

  9. The premise for this post naively presumes that U.S. military general officers have as their function winning military conflicts. That’s silly. In today’s giant feeding trough misnamed “the Pentagon,” the purpose of the U.S. military general officer is to grow fat. Winning a military conflict might interrupt the session at the feeding trough.

    America’s military is not really a military: it’s a weird hybrid which shades imperceptibly into the civilian arena and into foreign non-military ops.

    “March 9, 2010: The National Security Archive published a series of documents linking the U.S. secret state to Mexico’s dirty warriors and drug cartel operatives under official protection by a CIA-allied intelligence agency. Following reporting by Peter Dale Scott that “both the FBI and CIA intervened in 1981 to block the indictment (on stolen car charges) of the drug-trafficking Mexican intelligence czar Miguel Nazar Haro, claiming that Nazar was ‘an essential repeat essential contact for CIA station in Mexico City,’ on matters of ‘terrorism, intelligence, and counterintelligence’,” the National Security Archive disclosed that Nazar Haro’s corrupt Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) was responsible for the disappearance, torture and murder of left-wing activists during the 1970s and ’80s.”

    Source: “Partners in Crime: The U.S. Secret State and Mexico’s `War on Drugs'”

    Also see “Blackwater’s Black Ops,” by Jeremy Scahill, The Nation, September 2010:

    “Over the past several years, entities closely linked to the private security firm Blackwater have provided intelligence, training and security services to US and foreign governments as well as several multinational corporations, including Monsanto, Chevron, the Walt Disney Company, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and banking giants Deutsche Bank and Barclays, according to documents obtained by The Nation.”

    Moreover, the revolving door rotates not just between the Pentagon and weapons procurement contractors and miltiary service contractors (mercs), but equally as much between nominally domestic civilian intelligence, IT infrastructure, civilian prisons, civilian police, and areas like the War on Drugs and War on Copyright Infringement, none of supposedly have any connection with the U.S. military.

    Consider: paramilitary ops by the Department of Homeland security now use military-style psyops and black ops and cyberwar techniques to seize and shut down websites judged (often incorrectly) guilty of nebulous “copyright infringement,” to seize and imprison without trial civilians believe (often incorrectly) guilty of impossible-to-define “violation of copyright laws.”

    At the same time, Delta Force and other black ops units are currently active in foreign countries assassinating key War On Drugs targets; while ex-military general officers run the CIA and have as their main task spying on the emails and phone calls and text messages and bank accounts of civilians, almost none of which has any connection with any military operation, whether the so-called “War On Terror,” or any other military op. Most of this snooping and spying and prying, as in the Petraeus affair, is done in the name of satisfying prurient curiosity by nameless faceless unaccountable bureaucrats or snooping in order to get evidence in drug cases not obtainable otherwise (virtually all the “sneak and peak” searches authorized under anti-terror legislation have in fact been conducted for purposes of DEA investigation, almost none for military anti-terror reasons) or punishing those uppity citizens who dare annoy via e-mail powerful politically connected persons.

    See also “Specialized Military Police Deployed in America During Civil Unrest,” Susanne Postel, 1 August 2012:

    In Camp Pendleton, California, the Marine Corp have created a law-enforcement battalion (ELB) consisting of specialized military police officers (SMP) that will be deployed to assist in investigating crimes dealing with drug trafficking, train security and terrorism. The ELBs contain an estimated 500 SMPs and trained dogs. While capitalizing on their investigative and police training, they will take the role of current street cops while still remaining part of the Marine Corp.

    Maj. Jan Durham, commander of the 1st Law Enforcement Battalion at Camp Pendleton states: “Over the past 11 years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, some lessons learned painfully, there has been a growing appreciation and a demand for, on the part of the war-fighter, the unique skills and capabilities that MPs bring to the fight. We do enforce traffic laws and we do write reports and tickets, and that’s good, but we do so much more than that.”

    Having been deployed overseas prior to their new placement, these SMPs will secure evidence and assist local police departments in building cases against predetermined criminal networks. They may even conduct raids in cities and add to the show of force that is now being used to intimidate the average citizen.

    Winning a war today would greatly inconvenience a general officer in the Pentagon. It would end the good times. The vast river of gold would stop flowing. The revolving door leading from the Pentagon to the CIA to a cushy job into a weapons contractor would greatly slow down. Police departments all over America would lose vast amounts of funding and weaponry. An America no longer on a constant war footing would have trouble justifying its incarceration of vast numbers of non-violent citizens under blue laws regarded as insane in other countries, which would bankrupt the fabulously wealthy prison guard’s union that virtually controls states like California. A society not set up as a garrison state under de facto martial law would find itself embarrassed to spend so little on infrastructure that its bridges constantly collapsed.

    The great function in life of a general officer in the U.S. military is: keeping the money flowing into the military feeding trough. This is all that matters. This is all that anyone in the U.S. military or in congress cares about, in the end. “Duty, honor, country — and greater than all of these, hard cash flowing into the Pentagon.” Anything that keeps the money flowing into the military-prison-police-surveillance-torture complex is good, anything that shuts off the money spigot is bad. Actually winning a war? Not quite in the “bad” category, but definitely not to be listed under “good.”

    Indeed, a much better prediction of the near future than “how many generals would we need to fire?” might be “Caligula for president 2016.”

  10. Burke G Sheppard

    Fabius, you pose a fascinating question, and I have no easy answer for it. I always thought that the way US forces hesitated to engage the enemy when we had Bin laden cornered at Tora Bora constituted a major battlefield failure. Like wise Operation Anaconda. Read Sean Naylor’s superb book Not a Good Day to Die. That operation showed serious incompetence. A summary would far exceed the length restrictions here, and Naylor is well worth reading.

    But I also think there’s a question about where battlefield failure ends and policy failure begins. To what extent was Tommy Franks actually in charge in Afghanistan, and to what extent was he being micromanaged by Field Marshal Rumsfeld? Likewise, to what extent did interference from above play a role in Anaconda?

    You pose an excellent question, to which I have no immediate answer.

  11. I watched this today, and it is difficult to argue against his main points: “Today’s Generals Are Well-Trained, But Ill-Prepared for Battle“, PBS, 4 December 2012.

    THOMAS RICKS: Yes. Compare it to today, when nobody gets fired for anything and mediocrity is an accepted core value in the performance of generals.

    RAY SUAREZ: Is being a general something that we don’t really know how good you’re going to be at until you have to lead combat troops in the field and win a war?

    THOMAS RICKS: Partly, because every war is different. And people need to adjust and understand it.

    I think they were much better in World War II at adjusting than they are now. Also, in World War II, everybody knew that the road home was through Berlin, which is to say you all had an incentive to take a risk because it would get the war over.

    Nowadays, when you just mindlessly rotate generals through, nobody has a strong incentive to get out front and take risks and succeed. You do your one-year rotation and you go home.

    Hence, we have had 11 commanders in Afghanistan in 11 years.

    1. Ricks is articulate and well-informed, but often superficial. So I disagree with several of these points.

      (1) Ricks: “mediocrity is an accepted core value in the performance of generals.”

      That’s daft. The competition is intense to become a general. The question is what is the form of excellence selected for. Looking good, sounding good, strong interpersonal skills, great ability to manipulate the news media, etc. Battlefield excellence (even broadly defined) doesn’t seem to rate high.

      (2) Ricks: “I think they were much better in World War II at adjusting than they are now.”

      I think that’s a bit harsh. The Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth taught US Army officers to fight WWII better than today’s military education prepares them to fight 4th generation wars in foreign lands. Especially since dozens of nations have tried, but nobody has “figured out” how to defeat insurgencies in foreign lands.

    2. @Fabius Maximus

      I think you and Ricks say the same in case of (1): battelfield performance is not the critical filter, with performance Ricks usually means battlefield performance.

      in Case of (2) one can disagree. There are authors who rate the performance of GSC at Leavenworth before WWII not very high. Explicitly Jörg Muth in “Command Culture”, inplicitly Martin van Creveld in “Fighting Power”.

      1. ulenspiegel1965,

        Thanks for comment! I wasn’t clear. I meant that in a relative sense: Leavenworth prepared Army leaders for WWII better than their current military education prepares them to fight 4GW. I agree that GSC at Leavenworth was in many ways a flawed educational institution, but it produced competent leaders for that era’s wars. The Army’s current education prepares them far worse for today’s wars. That is a study for another generation, but I wonder if they learn mostly wrong lessons about 4GW.

        Figthing Power is one of Martin van Creveld’s best books! Also useful on this subject:

    3. FM said: “The Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth taught US Army officers to fight WWII better than today’s military education prepares them to fight 4th generation wars in foreign lands. Especially since dozens of nations have tried, but nobody has ‘figured out’ how to defeat insurgencies in foreign lands.”

      Isn’t the simple answer: they can only be defeated by other “insurgents” (in a civil war)? In other words, imperialist projects are all doomed, so stop doing them?

      Rick was also on the “Tavis Smiley” PBS show a few days ago, and said something interesting about this. Maybe Ricks reads the FM blog?! Ricks made the simple observation that the “successful” WWII generals were in charge of Korea and Vietnam, where they were not very successful. So, Ricks is consistent with FM in implying that it isn’t so much the people or the system of training as it is the environment that really matters.

      Ricks and Smiley both agreed that not engaging in such wars (Iraq/Afghanistan) would have been the most valuable lesson that current generals could have potentially learned from a non-dysfunctional (my word) system.

      1. WTF,

        There have been many studies of post-WWII insurgencies. They clearly show that foreign armies very seldom defeat local insurgencies, and then only under special circumstances. The oddity is that the much of the US military and most geopolitical experts remain unaware of this simple history.

  12. How much of this problem do you think is caused by Goldwater-Nichols, where each service sees its primary mission as development/fielding of weapons systems, with warfighting something that is only done when “on loan” to the COCOMS? Is the primary career path within DoD not the integration and deployment of DOTMLPF Capabilities rather than military success? Even at war, the model seems to be “use the Capability” “find the gaps” “develop more Capabilities” with the assumption that the path to victory is through materiel and process improvements.

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