The New York Times has again thrust before me food for thought — and food that I haven’t seen addressed in the major conservative blogs. Again, it involves military personnel criticizing the war effort. The trigger article is a May 2007 opinion piece in the Armed Forces Journal in which Lt. Col. Paul Yingling strongly criticizes the role of generals in the Iraq War. His opening paragraphs spell out his premise, which he develops at length in the article itself:
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.
It’s not an anti-War article. It is a complaint about the military leadership guiding the war effort. That’s certainly a valid issue during a time of war. Whether we should have gone into Iraq is one for the historians to debate. What’s real and important right now is the fact that we are in Iraq and we need to win. Yingling says that our bureaucratic generalship, a stodgy collection of people who don’t know whether they’re supposed to lead or follow, is putting the American effort at risk. Of course, turning to Congress for help, the same Congress with an 18% popularity rating — reflecting America’s understanding of its bungling incompetency and partisan blinders — is probably not the real answer.
In July 2007, Lt. Col. John Mauk came back with a rebuttal. Here’s his premise, which sounds actually more factual, reasonable, and do-able than Yingling’s grand blame and high falutin’ plans to remake the American military in the middle of a war:
As a career Army officer, I found many elements of Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s assessment of our general officers’ leadership to ring true, but his use of history and facts are selective, his expectations of Congress as a solution are naive and his stance a bit self-righteous. This rebuttal does not excuse those few generals who are culpable in failing to stand up to a secretary of defense and the U.S. administrator in Iraq, but Yingling’s scathing assessment doesn’t apply to the great majority of our generals.
Although it is reasonable to debate a crisis of leadership and moral conviction among our general officers, let’s put Yingling’s characterization in perspective. His assertion that our generals failed to plan and have neglected their strategic role is a myopic view and the product of selective memory. Our generals are exceptionally well-educated in the profession of arms by any standard. They are students of history and products of the same professional education system that produced Yingling and me.
And there the whole issue might have stopped, as far as I was concerned, if Mr. Bookworm, one of the New York Times‘ most faithful readers, hadn’t directed me to this lengthy Sunday Times article entitled Challenging the Generals. Fred Kaplan‘s writing makes for interesting reading, but I really can’t tell if it makes a new argument different from any other that could apply to military leadership in a long war: you make mistakes in the beginning as you try to figure out what works best; 20/20 hindsight is can be used to effect future change, but can be dangerously used to assign blame that deflects attention from the task at hand; mid-level officers, like mid-level management in any company, like some of the leadership people and dislike others; large institutions change slowly; etc. The description of Lt. Col. Yingling makes it hard to tell if he’s a malcontent, someone who pompously always knows best, or a Cassandra, a visionary resolutely ignored by people who will go down to their deaths defending the bad old ways.
I have the feeling that, as Phibian pointed out regarding the New York Times‘ most recent attack on the military’s approach to war, in an institution as huge as the American military, there are always going to be conflicting viewpoints; happy people; unhappy people; ideas people; bullheaded, ignorant people, etc. What most troops do is what troops have always done: they muddle along, try to keep their balance, and hope for brilliant leadership from on high. And, with all due respect to the vast majority of humans in the world, few of us are brilliant, so the last may be a faint hope.
By the way, is it just me or is it really true that, having reluctantly acknowledged that the Surge is not a disaster, the Times’ new approach is to slam the military directly?
Just remember, George often found himself a very maligned general, too.
UPDATE: It’s like playing piano: if you press the right keys, you get beautiful music — and that’s what I got from Phibian, who has written a lengthy post about the trouble with military leadership. As I read it, most of the trouble is the predictable stuff you got from an entrenched bureaucracy that rewards caution, not courage, no matter the situation.