Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Half Right

We've long expressed our admiration for Ralph Peters. In a military culture still dominated by careerists and organization men (and women), Peters stood out as an original thinker, unafraid to rail against conventional thinking and the senior leaders who espoused it. That's one reason that Peters retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, and moved on to a second, successful career as a columnist and author.

But even a first-rate mind produces an occasional clunker, and Peters proves that in his latest column for USA Today. Bemoaning the current state of the Army's general officer corps, Peters says that senior military leaders must accept their share of responsibility for the situation in Iraq.

So far, so good. You don't need to read Clausewitz to understand that serious mistakes have been made in prosecuting the war, and that senior officers played a role in those blunders. But Peters' indictment of some military leaders seems painfully thin, and in other examples, he deliberately ignores information that would undercut his points--and diminish the actions of generals he seems to admire.

For example, Peters reminds us that Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, was "sidelined" by then SecDef Don Rumsfeld for telling him that an occupation of Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of American troops. While Shinseki's "honesty" has made him a favorite among the anti-war crowd, there's another, forgotten element to the story. When General Shinseki told Rumsfeld that U.S. needed "350,000 soldiers" to pacify a liberated Iraq, he was aware that the United States did not have enough soldiers for that operation.

As we've noted before, the Army "lost" a total of 18 combat brigades under force cuts that began during the first Bush Administration, and concluded under Bill Clinton. That's the same period when many current and former Army leaders--including General Shinseki--advanced to senior leadership positions. As combat veterans, Shinseki and his fellow generals understood the potential impact of those reductions; yet there is nothing to suggest that Army leadership strenuously opposed the cutbacks, and not a single, senior officer resigned in protest.

Indeed, the Army was (apparently) a willing participant in the draw down. Money "saved" through the elimination of combat formations would be used to fund high-tech weaponry like the Comanche helicopter and Crusader artillery system. Both the Comanche and Crusader were eventually cancelled, so the Army wound up without its new toys--and without the required number of soldiers needed for a long-term occupation mission.

As for the problems in Iraq, Peters reserves special criticism for the first U.S. ground commander, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez--describing him as a deer caught in the headlights of history--and General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM Commander who planned and directed the invasion of Iraq. Franks is faulted for refusing to stand up to Rumsfeld, and supposedly "losing interest" in his mission. That's a damning indictment, but Peters provides no details to substantiate his charge. Without amplification, it's nothing more than a cheap shot.

Lieutenant Colonel Peters also slams the generals' for their refusal to criticize each other--even when it's obvious that one of them has screwed up. But that's the cultural norm among senior military officers--a fact that Ralph acknowledges a few paragraphs later. Encouraging flag officers to speak openly and honestly about each other means changing the very institutions that train, mentor and promote our military leaders. You'd have a better chance at producing cold fusion in your kitchen. Current and aspiring members of that most elite of military fraternities --the general officer corps--have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Besides, the very system that Peters indicts has, despite its faults, produced the current "competent" chain of command in Iraq. Lt Col Peters commends our current commander, General David Petraeus, for "doing things that should have been done in 2003. He describes Petraeus's subordinates, Lieutenant Generals Martin Dempsey and Ray Odierno, as "remarkably effective officers" and says our line-up of division commanders (the two-stars) is "the best we've ever had."

As Peters observes, the war has finally sorted the good generals from the bad. There's an element of truth in that statement, but it's also the nature of warfare. Lincoln's struggle to find a competent leader for the Army of the Potomac is the stuff of legend; during World War II, both the Army Chief of Staff (General George C. Marshall) and the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, fired hundreds of senior officers whose performance didn't measure up. The ranks of American generals and admirals looked vastly different in August 1945 that it did on December 7, 1941.

In critiquing the current system, Peters gets it half-right. Some of his heroes--including General Shinseki--were selective in speaking "truth to power," while leaders who earn his scorn (most notably General Franks) may be judged more fairly (and accurately) by history. But Peters is right on the most important count: the shuffling of generals to get the "right" team in Iraq may have come too late. And that's not necessarily the result of limited candor and "openness" among our flag officers. It's a reflection of a nation--and its political leaders--who have a marginal world view, and a distaste for only the most expedient solutions.

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