When Generals Must Play Politics, Wars Get Lost
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Everybody loves even the weakest members of a winning team, and that goes for soldiers as well as sportsmen. In World War II, such U.S. generals as Omar Bradley and Courtney Hodges, like their British counterparts Harold Alexander and Henry Wilson, came home popular heroes, even though some of their uniformed peers did not think much of them.
Contrarily, generals who lose wars become forgotten men or high-profile scapegoats. It seems unjust that General William Westmoreland has passed into American folk memory as the architect of U.S. defeat in Vietnam, not because he was a great commander, which he was not, but because all the seriously bad decisions were made in the White House.
Today, generals are out of fashion on both sides of the Atlantic. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, may or may not have been right to call his Chinese counterpart in the closing weeks of President Donald Trump’s administration, and seek to reassure him — in effect, if not in explicit verbiage — that grownups remained in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal.
Milley was surely nonetheless ill-advised to talk to so many members of the media afterward. His Senate testimony last week sought to row back on the meaning widely attached to his conversations — that the U.S. had a rogue president — but the constitutional damage has been done, and will linger.
Even more serious, because the implications for reputations run far and deep, Western military commanders have presided over explicit defeat in Afghanistan and implicit failure in Iraq. The publics in Europe and the U.S. are asking harsh questions both about the effectiveness of using force — which means about the value of our vastly expensive armies — and about the abilities of those who direct them.
A lot of people around the world dislike the West, but have always had an unwilling respect for Western power and effectiveness. The combination of the lost wars and our mishandling of Covid has knocked a big dent in that.
My concern here is with our armies, and especially their leaders. What is going wrong, that causes generals repeatedly to overpromise and underdeliver, with serious consequences both for Western strategy and prestige?
Recent history is strewn with case studies of situations in which politicians wanted to embark on military action; the responsible commanders assured them that this was feasible; subsequent campaigns collapsed into inconclusive muddles. Western armies are seldom beaten in head-on battlefield clashes. They very often, however, prove unable to secure victories, to terminate insurgencies, swiftly enough to satisfy impatient electorates.
A decade ago, my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Admiral James Stavridis was the supreme military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He invited me to address a conference held on HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s 1805 flagship at the battle of Trafalgar. Most of those attending, Jim told me, would soon become heads of their respective nations’ armed forces. I spoke to them as a historian. I suggested that the only near-certainty about their tenures of command was that sooner or later, their governments would ask them to do stuff they thought ill-advised.
It was impossible to tell them how they should respond to an unspecified future scenario, but a general principle applies: It is the duty of the military to warn the politicians of the risks of a given course of action, and perhaps to counsel against it. If, however, a president or prime minister insists on going ahead anyway in the face of their protests, it becomes their duty to execute the policy of the elected government.
Milley’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee about Afghanistan this week made plain that he did just that, in implementing President Joe Biden’s decision to order a total withdrawal after offering strong contrary advice about the consequences (though he acknowledged that the Pentagon did not anticipate the precipitous collapse of the Afghan army).
My own perception would be that the final debacle represented an intelligence failure rather than an explicitly military one. The withdrawal was bound to be a mess — such evacuations always are. Biden’s call to cut America’s losses was a legitimate political judgment. I do not believe the military deserves blame for what Milley on Tuesday characterized as the “mission creep when we transitioned from a counterterrorism mission to nation-building” in Afghanistan.
A different problem often compromises British generals’ conduct: They are unwilling to tell their political bosses that this or that operation is unwise, because they fear that frustrating the government’s aspirations may cause it to take revenge upon the armed forces in the next budget round.
In 1992, there was a fierce public and political debate about whether Western troops should intervene in the Balkan civil wars. The British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, said to me one night, “I wish your military friends would make up their minds whether they do, or do not, support our wish to commit troops.”
I responded that it was unsurprising the generals were hesitant, when West European governments were unable to answer the questions which all good commanders ask: “What are our objectives, and are they attainable?”
Meanwhile, at a time when Western armed forces were being drastically cut back following the end of the Cold War, the military feared that if it argued against Bosnian intervention, troop numbers would suffer.
In the event, history shows, Western soldiers were committed. They saved lives but were also passive witnesses to some ghastly massacres and withdrew two years later after an inconclusive settlement. European armies, including the British, found their governments thereafter imposing harsh strength cuts.
Hurd, like his fellow statesmen with whom I have since discussed the Balkan and other interventions, argues that it is unrealistic for generals always to demand precise objectives before committing their men. Sometimes, they say, the military must acquiesce in a political imperative that requires a government to be seen to deploy troops, especially in the face of humanitarian tragedies.
But a current senior officer, to whom I talked this week about the defeat in Afghanistan, said that while he does not think the U.S. or British chiefs of staff deserve blame for losing the war, they must bear responsibility for failing to insist that the politicians establish clear guidelines and parameters for the Western mission, a view that seems shared by Milley.
One more case-study of tensions between generals and politicians, of which I was a privileged though unhappy witness: Toward the end of 2006, I accompanied the then-head of the British army, General Richard Dannatt, to Afghanistan. He had just taken over his post, and with it responsibility for the U.K.’s troop commitment in Helmand Province, which was already costing a stream of casualties.
Dannatt, whom I respected, confided to me on the outward flight that he believed the mission in Iraq — British forces were then operating across the Basra region — was getting nowhere. If, however, we could get our forces out of there and redeploy in Afghanistan — especially the army’s very limited helicopter capability — success was plausible; we might win one.
I was skeptical, because the task of remaking Afghanistan seemed so big, our resources so modest. But my first thought was to urge upon Dannatt that what he proposed was political dynamite; that he should say nothing publicly about his aspirations, unless or until Prime Minister Tony Blair did.
The general took no heed: A few weeks after our trip he gave a newspaper interview in which he voiced the same opinions he had expressed to me, and duly prompted headlines. Blair publicly excused Dannatt, but was privately livid, as I heard from one of his staff.
Neither the British nor the Americans ever mustered adequate resources in Afghanistan or, more important, constructed a credible political narrative to overcome the Taliban. Dannatt earned some admiration for his honesty — he is a deeply moral man — but received more brickbats for his lack of discretion, naivete and failure to recognize where political and military responsibilities start and stop. Some of the same charges have been levelled at Milley, especially after his walk alongside Trump amid the June 2020 demonstrations in Washington’s Lafayette Square.
It is often the case that our armies produce officers highly qualified to command forces in battle, but lacking the diplomatic skills that are now indispensable, to work at the politico-military interface. U.S. Army and Air Force officers spend much of their service careers at bases in remote regions of the country, just as their Navy counterparts are often at sea. More than a few, if raised to high rank, find themselves blinking in the headlights of Washington, testifying to congressional committees and parleying at the White House. Few are as socially savvy as David Petraeus, for instance, and he experienced some very bad moments on Capitol Hill.
I recently asked a former head of the British army, a fine fighting soldier, if he ever had a happy moment as chief of staff. I received the succinct response, “No.” I suspect that privately Milley, whom I have met and believe to be an outstanding soldier but uncomfortable Washington warrior, would say the same.
Rather than persist in raking over bad memories, however, what matters is to consider whether the armed forces are throwing up the right kind of commanders to do better in the future. And if not, what we should do about it.
A British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Langley Sharp, has authored a new book entitled, “The Habit of Excellence: Why British Army Leadership Works,” which sounds a tad complacent, given recent history.
The book emphasizes the familiar military virtues of courage, discipline and integrity, but also acknowledges the increasing importance of “soft” leadership skills such as “empathy and humility … a new kind of leader who seeks contrasting opinions and honest disagreement.”
The longer I read Sharp’s pages, the more I recognized that the book is chiefly for and about junior leaders, whose high quality is not in much doubt on either side of the Atlantic. The book does not address the issue that troubles many soldiers as well as politicians and interested observers like me: Why do our armies boast so many excellent lieutenants and majors, but wind up with an oversupply of generals who flounder in top posts?
One important answer must be that battlefield prowess no longer has much relevance to fitness for high command. Brains, sophistication and mental toughness matter much more — the toughness being needed to argue with the politicians, and to withstand the verbal shot and shell that goes with a seat at the chiefs of staff’s table.
Change, drastic change, is now a constant in strategic affairs, especially on the cyber-battlefield. Every top commander must be able both to anticipate these shifts and indeed revolutions, then to reconcile them to instinctively conservative service institutions and personnel. He must also possess the moral courage to resist, to the limits of constitutional propriety, the urge that sometimes overtakes governments to send armed forces into action abroad, as a gesture supposedly showcasing a nation’s determination and strength, heedless of the commitment’s likely efficacy.
An extremely smart British uniformed friend, listing privately the qualities necessary for a modern chief of staff, includes “being able to work with and advise rather low-grade individuals with vastly over-inflated egos.” He means politicians, of course, and continues: “Hence endless patience and tact, a thick skin and tolerance when confronted with some fatuous ideas.”
Some of the politicians, of course, would bat back those insults at the generals. Denis Healey, Britain’s defence secretary from 1964 to 1970 and the ablest holder of the post since World War II, once observed that it is the job of the military to offer options, plans and scenarios. It is then for the civilians, however, to make the choices between peace or war. He added tartly that he considered such decisions entirely political. He rejected any attempt by the uniformed military to influence them.
This seems true, and explains why I, as a historian, attribute overwhelming responsibility for failures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to our political leaders, not to the generals. The military must bear a share of blame, for often lacking courage to tell harsh truths to presidents and prime ministers, about the limits of the possible. The politicians nonetheless wield ultimate power, and the soldiers are their servants.
If those servants fail or are found to have given poor advice, they should be sacked. But the buck properly stops in the White House or No. 10 Downing Street, and no attempt to pass it elsewhere should be allowed to succeed. When he was prime minister, David Cameron had a habit of informing his National Security Council members at the outset of a meeting: “Here is what we intend to do, but I am happy to listen to what any of you have to say, before we do it.” No amount of military brilliance can prevail against that kind of arrogance, of which we have seen plenty in modern times, both in Washington and London.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."
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