Thomas E. Ricks is an American journalist and author who specializes in military and national security issues. He has reported on wars and military deployments in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He also published several books including Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006) and The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012).
Taken from “General Failure” by Thomas E. Ricks published in the November, 2012 issue of The Atlantic Magazine. Full article posted at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/general-failure/309148/
Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx built their careers and reputations in public health during the AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 1980s. During the time, US public health officials put political correctness and HIPAA patient privacy above previous practices of identifying and quarantining or otherwise separating those who were infected and spreading the disease. Did these policies cause hundreds of thousands of needless deaths from AIDS/HIV? Were Drs. Fauci or Birx involved in adopting those policies? Do our public health bureaucracy and other government agencies also have a “culture of mediocrity” where success is not rewarded and failure not punished? Seth Grossman, 2020
Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank—if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two. Thomas E. Ricks, 2012
On June 13, 1944, a few days after the 90th Infantry Division went into action against the Germans in Normandy under the command of Brigadier General Jay MacKelvie, MacKelvie’s superior officer, Major General J. Lawton Collins, went on foot to check on his men. “We could locate no regimental or battalion headquarters,” he recalled with dismay. “No shelling was going on, nor any fighting that we could observe.” This was an ominous sign, as the Battle of Normandy was far from decided, and the Wehrmacht was still trying to push the Americans, British, and Canadians, who had landed a week earlier, back into the sea.
Just a day earlier, the 90th’s assistant division commander, Brigadier General “Hanging Sam” Williams, had also been looking for the leader of his green division. He’d found MacKelvie sheltering from enemy fire, huddled in a drainage ditch along the base of a hedgerow. “Goddamn it, General, you can’t lead this division hiding in that goddamn hole,” Williams shouted. “Go back to the [command] post. Get the hell out of that hole and go to your vehicle. Walk to it, or you’ll have this goddamn division wading in the English Channel.” The message did not take. The division remained bogged down, veering close to passivity.
General Collins removed MacKelvie on the very same day that his tour revealed no fighting in progress. Collins instructed the 90th’s new commander, Major General Eugene Landrum, to fire the commanders of two of the division’s three regiments. One of those two, the West Point graduate Colonel P. D. Ginder, was considered by many to be a disaster. One man, a mortar forward observer, remembered that Ginder “almost constantly made the wrong decisions.” He had been in command of his regiment for less than a month when he was replaced.
MacKelvie’s successor, Landrum, was given a few weeks to prove he was an able commander, but by midsummer he too was judged to be wanting. Before he was relieved, Landrum fired the assistant division commander he had inherited, Sam Williams, with whom he had clashed. “I feel that a general officer of a more optimistic and calming attitude would be more beneficial to this division at this time,” Landrum wrote. General Omar Bradley, the senior American general in France at the time, concurred. He topped off the dismissal by demoting Williams to colonel.
Within a few weeks, Bradley relieved Landrum as well, and sent Brigadier General Raymond McLain, whom he had brought from Italy to England to have on tap as a replacement when someone was fired, to take over the 90th Infantry Division. “We’re going to make that division go, if we’ve got to can every senior officer in it,” Bradley told him. Two days later, McLain gave him a list of 16 field-grade officers he wanted out of the division.
The swift reliefs of World War II were not precise, and while many made way for more-capable commanders, some were clearly the wrong move. Nonetheless, their cumulative effect was striking. The 90th Division, for instance, improved radically—transforming from a problem division that First Army staff wanted to break up, into “one of the most outstanding [divisions] in the European Theater,” as Bradley later wrote. Retired Army Colonel Henry Gole, in his analysis of the 90th Division, directly credits the policy of fast relief:
Because incompetent commanders were fired and replaced by quality men at division and regiment, and because the junior officers of 1944 [who were] good at war … rose to command battalions in a Darwinian process, the division became an effective fighting force.
Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders.
Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars—each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history—and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers, placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished, creating a perverse incentive system that drives leaders toward a risk-averse middle where they are more likely to find stalemate than victory. A few high-profile successes, such as those of General David Petraeus in Iraq, may temporarily mask this systemic problem, but they do not solve it.
Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military. The Bush administration has been roundly (and fairly) criticized for its delusive approach to the war in Iraq and its neglect of the war in Afghanistan. Yet the serious failures of our military leaders in these conflicts have escaped almost all notice. No one is pushing those leaders to step back and examine the shortcomings of their institution. These are dangerous developments. Unaddressed, they could lead to further failures in future wars.
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