Once upon a time, flag officers who presided over a battlefield disaster--and weren't killed in the process--did the honorable thing. In Oriental cultures, that usually meant an appointment with your sidearm or ceremonial sword, after writing a final note of apology to the Emperor. Among U.S. flag officers, the custom was less draconian, but equally humiliating; the offending general or admiral accepted some form of administrative punishment (as required), followed by retirement and a legacy as an architect of defeat.
Consider the case of Lieutenant General Walter Short, commander of Army air and ground forces in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, General Short was immediately condemned for failing to anticipate the Japanese attack, and along with his Navy counterpart, Admiral Husband Kimmmel, Short became a convenient scapegoat for the debacle. More concerned about sabotage than a sneak attack, Short ordered that Army aircraft in Hawaii be parked closer together, making it easier for Japanese bombs to destroy them.
History reveals that Admiral Kimmel and General Short were operating at a severe disadvantage in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. For reasons that have never been fully explained, both the Navy and Army commander were denied access to intelligence that might have allowed them to re-think their preparations. Instead, Kimmel and Short based their final actions on a vaguely-worded "war warning" memorandum, dispatched from Washington in November 1941. That document suggested that a Japanese attack might be in the offing, but would most likely occur in the Far East--not Hawaii.
Still, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Short's Army career was kaput. Recalled to Washington, he reverted to his permanent rank of Major General, and retired in mid-1942. Unlike Kimmel (who spent the rest of his life trying to restore his reputation), Short elected to fade into civilian obscurity, becoming a senior executive at the Ford Motor Company. In that capacity, he made important contributions to the war effort before retiring for good. General Short died in 1949.
The final years of Walter Short offer an interesting contrast to retired Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who (apparently) has no desire to follow Douglas MacArthur's dictum and simply "fade away." Sanchez, the first commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has recently emerged as a critic of the war; last Saturday, he delivered the Democratic response to the president's weekly radio address. In his remarks, Sanchez acknowledged that the troop surge has improved the security situation, but he still voiced support for Democrats' legislative attempts to force a withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Of course, General Sanchez is the same man who accused the Bush Administration of "a catastrophic failure in the leadership of this war," without mentioning his own role in our setbacks. True, Sanchez was charged with implementing policies established by his superiors, but there's no record of the general lodging strong protests, or urging modifications. The Iraqi insurgency took root under his watch, and General Sanchez seemed unable to mount an effective response.
Indeed, a reader at OpinionJournal found some telling quotes in Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. While Mr. Ricks' title (and thesis) are premature at best, he does capture General Sanchez's inability to confront a steadily worsening situation in Iraq:
"Rick Sanchez is a great guy given a really, really hard job," said Maj Gen Renuart, who worked closely with him. "I think he's a smart thinker, intuitive....I'm not sure anyone could have been totally successful in that environment."
Even so, the methodical Sanchez often appeared overwhelmed by the situation, with little grasp of the strategic problems he faced. The opinion of many of his peers was that he was a fine battalion commander who should have never commanded a division, let alone a corps or a nationwide occupation mission. "He was in over his head," said Lt Col Christopher Holshek, who served in Iraq in 2003. "He was a fulfillment of the Peter Principle."
"It was my view after seeing him that Rick Sanchez was exactly in the wrong place," said Richard Armitage, the former number two at the State Department...He was much too secretive. He and Bremer, if they didn't hate each other, they could barely tolerate each other, let's put it that way. And when you look in retrospect, a lot has improved since Rick went out...I came away from my first meeting with him saying that this guy didn't get it."
In fairness, Sanchez wasn't the only architect of our initial setbacks in Iraq--he had plenty of help. But, by refusing to acknowledge his own role in creating the mess, General Sanchez is being more than disingenuous. Reading and hearing his recent comments on Iraq, it's obvious that Sanchez blames the Bush Administration for all his problems, including his failure to earn a fourth star. After his tour in Iraq ended, Sanchez was passed over for high-level assignments and promotion. He retired from active duty last November.
While Sanchez has every right to defend his record, most serious observers of Iraq War (and the U.S. military) would prefer a more balanced assessment from our first commander in Baghdad. While General Sanchez has excoriated the administration and the press for their failings during the conflict, he has been silent on his own mistakes. Refusing to even remotely acknowledge his own errors in judgment, Sanchez seems to reaffirm the assessment of his critics--a man who was clearly in over his head, and couldn't recognize the problems he helped create.
Today, General Sanchez is urging Congress to put aside "partisan considerations" and unite to "lessen the burdens our troops and their families have been under for the past five years." Yet, even that request rings hollow. As James Taranto noted at OpinionJournal.com:
"Apparently it didn't occur to Sanchez that the Democratic weekly radio address isn't the best venue to urge people to "put aside partisan considerations."
In another era, Sanchez would have followed the example of General Short, and faded into obscurity. Today, he's emulating the Wesley Clark model, and embracing the party that once railed against him, hoping that changing political winds will help salvage part of his reputation. But even that effort may be doomed to fail. For now, we'll leave the last word on Sanchez and his posturing to James Taranto:
"Whatever the merits of his arguments, Sanchez is far from a disinterested party. He is seeking to avoid blame for the failures in Iraq under his command. Which, come to think of it, makes him quite the fitting spokesman for the Democrats."