Monday, May 20, 2013

Andrew Bacevich takes a skeptical look at our glorious generals and their organizational culture

Andrew Bacevich has been doing great work for years on the US military. But since his analyses generally fall outside the lazy assumptions of the Very Serious People, you don't see him on the TV gab-fests where such VSPs as David Brooks and Tom Friedman hold forth.

In 'Good Guys' Make Bad Generals The American Conservative 05/13/2013 (May/June 2013 issue), he uses a review of Thomas Ricks' new book to look at the real outcomes of the current organizational culture in the senior military ranks:

To become a general officer is to join an exclusive club. As with many clubs, ranking members decide whom to admit, restricting entry to those who satisfy the criteria for being the right sort. In American military vernacular, Ricks writes, the key is to be deemed a “good guy.” The good guy projects the right attitude, strikes the right pose, and recites all the right clichés. Good guys are team players. They don’t rock the boat. They get ahead by going along. In practical terms, demonstrated adherence to orthodoxy becomes the premier qualification for admission. Heretics need not apply.

And according to Ricks, once you’re in, you’re golden: with membership come privileges and protection. So when events expose the limitations of a William Westmoreland in Vietnam or a Tommy Franks in Iraq, other senior officers cognizant of those shortcomings keep mum. Sergeants or captains falling short in the performance of duty might feel the axe; not so with the generals said to be responsible for what the sergeants and captains do or don’t do. General officer responsibility turns out to be more nominal than real. Reflecting on the Iraq War, one disenchanted American officer put it this way: “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” Needless to say, that officer’s invitation to join the club never arrived. [my emphasis]
Bacevich discusses the dubious accomplishments of Gen. William DePuy, who he credits with developing the infamou "search-and-destroy" strategy in the Vietnam War. He also credit DePuy with successfully convincing the senior officer corps to not learn the most meaningful lessons of that war:

Yet the abject failure of that concept in Vietnam—a failure above all of creative intelligence—prompted little soul-searching on DePuy’s part. Nothing that had occurred there altered his pre-existing conception of warfare. Stripped to its essentials, that conception reduced combat to a series of discrete, measurable tasks. In DePuy’s eyes, to master tasks was to master war itself. Paying lip service to war’s human dimension, disdaining its political aspect altogether, DePuy’s approach—which became the Army's approach—pretended to a sort of pseudo-empiricism, as if war were akin to a large-scale industrial enterprise.

Demanding compliance with prescribed formulas, checklists, and decision matrices, DePuy’s Army had little use for critical thinking or independent judgment. This was the Army that in 1991 fought Saddam Hussein and then in 2003 came back for a second go—an Army led by “good guys” who had mastered minor tactics but were intellectually complacent, strategically illiterate, and wore their antipathy for politics like a badge of honor.
Bacevich quotes an important observation by Ricks on the developing generals' culture in the Vietnam War era: "The Army, writes Ricks, 'was fast becoming a collection of 'organization men' ... who were far less inclined to judge the performance of their peers.' Generals 'were acting less like stewards of their profession, answerable to the public, and more like keepers of a closed guild.'"

And for all the secular and religious idolatry that US political culture currently practices toward the military and its allegedly glorious leaders, the results are not especially impressive:

In terms of providing its army with bountiful resources, no nation comes even close to the United States. In terms of willingness to commit that army into action, no nation (except perhaps Israel and the United Kingdom) compares. Yet the roster of victories achieved by the United States Army since 1945 is an abbreviated one: the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989). Twenty years ago, observers might have added the Persian Gulf War (1991) to that list. Unfortunately, the brief and seemingly glorious encounter that was Operation Desert Storm turned out to be a mere preliminary bout.

Forays ending in something other than victory—i.e., conclusive operational success yielding desired political outcomes—have been both more numerous and of greater moment. The Cold War provided the occasion for one costly draw (Korea) and one humiliating defeat (Vietnam). The post-Cold War era has included one outright failure, the embarrassing if quickly mythologized Somalia intervention, along with two wars of middling size, long duration, and ambiguous outcome. Whatever verdict historians ultimately render regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, they are unlikely to classify them as roaring successes.
But in a climate of cultural militarism with a foreign policy of global hegemony, such questions are too infrequently considered. The Very Serious People are too focused on the next war to cheer for.

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