Friday, April 27, 2007

A General Failure

Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, May, 2007 Armed Forces Journal
"For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq's grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.
These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer corps. America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America's generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress."

This article about the failures of American generals in Iraq is quite interesting. It presents a view of the war from a different perspective than one often presented. If the author is correct, more needs to be changed at DOD than just the individual at the head of the department.

Comparing the situation in Iraq with that in Vietnam thirty years ago, with the US military facing the possibility of defeat due to an insurgency, Lt. Col.Paul Yingling points to the failure of the generals to prepare the military for current guerrilla warfare, and to properly advise civilian leaders on how to achieve policy goals using the military. He suggests that Congressional intervention is the key to remedying the situation.

Agreeing with Prussian military expert Carl von Clausewitz that 3 P's, passion, probability, and policy, play important roles in war, Lt. Col. Yingling emphasizes that each one is essential to the successful waging of war.

He states that statesmen, ie., the President and his staff, must raise the passion of the citizenship to a certain level for them to be willing to face the sacrifices that will come with war, the blood and treasure so often mentioned.

Along with this passion, generals need to supply the policymakers with accurate estimates of stategic probabilities. What are the probabilities, not just the possibilities, of successful prosecution of the war? The generals have a moral obligation not to sugar-coat the probabilities, but to give a frank appraisal of the military's ability to accomplish the goals given to them.

The policymakers, having received the advice of the generals, are the ones ultimately responsible for waging wars. Yingling states:
However much it is influenced by passion and probability, war is ultimately an instrument of policy and its conduct is the responsibility of policymakers. War is a social activity undertaken on behalf of the nation. The military man is no better qualified than the common citizen to make such judgments. He must therefore confine his input to his area of expertise — the estimation of strategic probabilities.

In order to provide an estimation of the strategic possibilities, it is necessary to consider both the preparations for and the probable conduct of the war, the planning and directing of the military. Requiring imagination, creativity and foresight, the generals must be able to estimate present and future military needs, and visualize what future wars will look like. Lt. Col. Yingling gives multiple examples of past wars fought with outdated strategies and tactics and underscores the importance of foreward thinking to prevent the disasters that could follow such erroneous preparations.

Of course even with good reckoning of future military needs, the generals must still be able to convince civilian policymakers of the demands and risks involved. This is potentially difficult, due to the nature of elected officials' thinking more in the short-term needs of the public than longterm needs of national security. Proper military preparedness requires decades, not years, and generals must tread carefully between speaking too loudly and not speaking loudly enough. "A military professional must possess both the physical courage to face the hazards of battle and the moral courage to withstand the barbs of public scorn. On and off the battlefield, courage is the first characteristic of generalship."

Lt. Col. Yingling gives a brief analysis of the failures of the generals in Vietnam. Even though President Kennedy talked about "another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by evading and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him" but America's generals did not heed the warning. Any adjustments, unfortunately after the American people had largely turned against the war, "... are best described as too little, too late."

With respect to the current war in Iraq, Yingling states that the mistakes of Vietnam were repeated due to the failure " envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly." In addition, the generals failed to gauge what would be necessary to attain the policy goals before the start of the war. Nor did they give a correct description of the war in Iraq. This seems inexcusable with all the terrorist attacks throughout the world since the early l970's. Lt. Col. Yingling feels that there has been a tragic failure to commit the number of troops necessary to keep Iraq's population secure. Despite early estimates of close to a half million troops needed, only half of that number were sent to begin the war. Yet the generals who were in favor of a much high number kept silent. Once again, the current "surge" may be too little, too late.

In addition, there was "no coherent plan for postwar stabilization" and an underreporting of the day-to-day violence. Also compounding the problem was the fact that "...America's general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq's government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq."

Quoting J.F.C. Fuller, a British general in WWI, who found three shared traits among great generals - courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness - Yingling wishes that generals would find the moral courage to be more candid and honest in discussions with the executive branch. Finding themselves caught between the rock of executive intimidation and the hard place of betraying what they feel is true, too often generals keep their doubts of the effectiveness of military strategies suggested by the administration to themselves. He also suggests an increase in the number of generals with advanced degrees, especially in social sciences or humanities. He decries the fact that only one fourth of the Army's senior generals is fluent in a foreign language despite the theory that this proficiency is crucial in fighting counterinsurgency.* He also says that the current military does not reward creativity or moral courage. Officers follow the company line and keep their heads low. Conformity reigns supreme.

Believing that neither the White House nor the military branches will solve this problem, Lt. Col. Yingling believes that it will require Congress to become more involved in determining how officers are selected, advanced amd retired, how military power is used, and ..."the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure."

Yingling warns of military disaster unless the challenges of current insurgencies and the needs of future warfare are adequately acknowledged and plans put in place to prepare the armed forces and the American people accordingly. A key component of this goal is to revamp the generalship to include "...those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security."

*The arrogance of American prosperity led us into the false belief that it was incumbent on other nations to teach their populations to speak English, the increasingly main language of international commerce.


sloandaughter said...

This is a fascinating perspective on a difficult situation -- the average person would never think to look at our current "quagmire" in Iraq through this lens. I don't know if it's true, but we've been told that high-ranking generals who have disagreed strongly with the executive branch have been essentially blacklisted. Is this true?

SML said...

In the potential life or death situation the military can face at any time, "follow orders or accept the consequences" pretty much has to be the rule. This goes all the way to the top, I assume. My problem with the article is where do you allow creative thinking to arise. At the top? You've weeded the creative thinkers out or scared them so that they keep their brainstorms to themselves. This is typical of all administrations. Clinton made sure that his "gays in the military" position was adopted by his generals, whether they wanted to or not. That and other issues military men had with him forced out hundreds, if not thousands of career military. They resigned in droves. I remember that Colin Powell didn't want the US to get involved in the first gulf war in '91. He argued against it, but when the war began, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he played a very public role in supporting the war and appeared very aggressive in his defense of it.