They shoot generals, don't they?

The French Revolution had a brilliant idea for motivating their generals. A commander of the revolutionary armies who lost a battle was judged a traitor, or at least someone who lacked the proper zeal for the New Order. So for inspiration, the revolutionaries turned to  “Madame Guillotine,” whose sharp tongue was supposed to spur a commander to try a little harder. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, since an itchy feeling on his neck will incline a general toward caution rather than boldness.

The good news is that American commanders who screw up won’t pay with their heads. But they will pay with their careers. The Washington Post reports that the Pentagon has been taking a harder line on leaders whose outfits have taken losses in Afghanistan, after several battles in which American units were nearly overrun by Taliban surprise attacks.

“Officials familiar with recent investigations said letters of reprimand or other disciplinary action have been recommended for officers involved in three ambushes in which U.S. troops battled Taliban forces in remote villages in 2008 and 2009. Such administrative actions can scuttle chances for promotion and end a career if they are made part of an officer’s permanent personnel file.”

It’s about time, because we’ve been making some stupid moves in Afghanistan. As I wrote about the July 2008 Wanat attack that killed nine Americans, only leaders on acid would have placed an isolated outpost of the bottom of a valley where the Taliban could occupy the heights and practically drop boulders on the hapless soldiers like in some Loony Tunes cartoon.

U.S. military leaders have screwed up as much as the civilian neocons, but like Bush and Cheney, they haven’t paid a price. General Tommy Franks, chief of Central Command in 2003, didn’t have a clue what to do in Iraq once Saddam was toppled. Instead of official censure, he got a nice retirement. And the Abu Ghraib scandal, which did more to strengthen the Iraqi insurgents than a whole brigade of Al Qaeda fighters? Some degenerate National Guardsmen like Lyndie England went to jail, a female brigadier general was demoted, but the higher-ups who should – and almost certainly did – know about the torture escaped unscathed. It’s interesting that the Washington Post piece said that six “battlefield commanders” had received disciplinary letters because of three ambushes of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. The ranks of the admonished were not identified, but I’ll bet cash that they were not senior officers. In other words, the middle managers get smacked while their superiors skate.

So perhaps we should take a leaf from the French and bring back the “National Razor”? Or at least punish battlefield failure unmercifully? Unfortunately, a commander who has never lost a battle has never fought a battle. Even the Napoleons and Pattons had their bad days, because no matter how brilliant their planning, the enemy has a say. Or, more accurately, a veto.

The reality of war is that casualties must sometimes be suffered to prevent greater casualties. An American commander might have to risk a patrol or an outpost in an isolated position in order to forestall a Taliban attack that would cost even more lives. To not do so – to sit passively and wait for the enemy to attack at his leisure – would be negligent. This doesn’t excuse terrible blunders like setting up outposts in exposed valleys. But the French generals of the Revolution had to fight with one eye on the enemy and another on their own government. It’s an impossible situation.

The Pentagon is right for taking a tougher line on commanders who make bad decisions. But let’s hope they – and the American public –  strike the right balance between punishing failure and accepting that sometimes even the best commanders fail.  “Off with their heads” is not a strategy.

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2 Responses to They shoot generals, don't they?

  1. Michael Hastings says:

    Michael, great post. This is a subject that I’ve been wanting to pontificate on at length, but I’ve been surprised by the lack of accountability that the top brass has had in the past decade. Iraq was a debacle; Afghanistan, a war we allegedly already “won,” has turned into a debacle–and yet the blame goes on the civilian leadership(deservedly so!) and rarely the generals. The excuse seems to be: “well, we were just following orders, it’s not our fault…”

  2. Michael Peck says:

    Thanks, Michael. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Corporate CEOs drive their firms into the ground and still collect $20 million bonuses. So why shouldn’t a four-star general keep his command even if his troops get killed? Accountability seems to be a foreign word in American culture.

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