Sunday, January 7, 2007

Civilian-military relations in the US

This is a thought-provoking article on civilian-military relations that reminds us not to get too caught up in the immediate controversies and lose sight of the longer view and basic principles: Rumsfeld, The Generals, and the State of U.S. Civil-Military Relations by Mackubin Thomas Owens Naval War College Review Autumn 2006.

In April of this year, a number of retired Army and Marine generals publicly called for the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld. Much of the language they used was intemperate, some downright contemptuous. For instance, Marine general Anthony Zinni, Tommy Franks’s predecessor as commander of Central Command, described the actions of the Bush administration as ranging from "true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility" to "lying, incompetence, and corruption." He called Rumsfeld “incompetent strategically, operationally, and tactically." One has to go back to 1862 to find a senior military officer, active or retired, condemning a civilian superior so harshly in public.

Observers of what the press called the "revolt of the generals" believed that these retired general officers were speaking on behalf of not only themselves but many active-duty officers as well. While there are no legal restrictions that prevent retired members of the military - even recently retired members—from criticizing public policy or the individuals responsible for it, there are some important reasons to suggest that the public denunciation of civilian authority by even retired officers undermines healthy civil-military relations.

First of all, as Kohn has observed, retired general and flag officers are analogous to the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. As such, the public is unlikely to distinguish between the views of retired officers and the views of those who are still on active duty. Second, because of their status, public criticism by retired officers may in fact encourage active-duty officers to engage in the sort of behavior that undermines healthy civil-military relations, signaling to them that it is acceptable, for instance, to undercut policy by leaks to the press and other methods of "shirking." Finally, such actions on the part of retired officers may convince active-duty officers that, by virtue of their uniforms, the latter are entitled to "insist" that civilian authorities accept the military’s policy prescriptions. The implied threat here is mass resignation, which, as we shall see later, is foreign to the American military tradition.

Owens gives a number of historical examples showing that military judgment (i.e., by our infallible generals) on military affairs is not always superior in practice to that of civilian judgment (elected officials):

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln constantly prodded George McClellan, commanding general of the largest Union force during the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac, to take the offensive in Virginia in 1862. McClellan just as constantly whined that he had insufficient troops. During World War II, notwithstanding the image of civil-military comity, there were many differences between Franklin Roosevelt and his military advisers. Gen. George Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army and the greatest soldier-statesman since Washington, opposed arms shipments to Great Britain in 1940 and argued for a cross-channel invasion before the United States was ready. History has vindicated Lincoln and Roosevelt.

Many are inclined to blame the U.S. defeat in Vietnam on civilians. But the American operational approach in Vietnam was the creature of the uniformed military. The generally accepted view today is that the operational strategy of Gen. William Westmoreland (commanding the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) emphasizing attrition of the People’s Army of Vietnam forces in a "war of the big battalions" - a concept producing sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy with superior firepower - was counterproductive. By the time Westmoreland’s successor could adopt a more fruitful approach, it was too late.

During the planning for Operation Desert Storm in late 1990 and early 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command, presented a plan calling for a frontal assault against Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait, followed by a drive toward Kuwait City. The problem was that this plan would have been unlikely to achieve the foremost military objective of the ground war - the destruction of the three divisions of Saddam’s Republican Guard. The civilian leadership rejected the early war plan presented by CentCom and ordered a return to the drawing board. The revised plan was far more imaginative and effective.  (my emphasis)

His review of past cases also provides a reminder that Union Gen. George McClellan's conduct in the Civil War may have resulted from treasonous sympathies rather than just incompetence. Owens writes:

I have come to believe that McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness was the result not of incompetence but of his refusal to fight the war Lincoln wanted him to fight. He disagreed with Lincoln’s war aims and, in the words of Peter Feaver, "shirked" by "dragging his feet." At the same time, McClellan and some of his officers did not hide their disdain for Lincoln and Stanton and often expressed this disdain in intemperate language. McClellan wrote his wife, "I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!" He also wrote her about the possibility of a "coup," after which "everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet." He did not limit the expression of such sentiments to private correspondence with his wife. Lincoln and his cabinet were aware of the rumors that McClellan intended to put "his sword across the government’s policy." McClellan’s quartermaster general, Montgomery Meigs, expressed concern about "officers of rank" in the Army of the Potomac who spoke openly of "a march on Washington to 'clear out those fellows.’"

Owens doesn't provide any definitive answers to what the right mix of restraint and public dissent is for retired military officers. But he makes a very important point that, whatever validity criticisms of Rummy's failings may have - and Lord knows I wouldn't want to spare Rummy any criticism - our infallible generals can also be sorely tempted to use Rummy as a scapegoat for their own failings. (Though he doesn't phrase it exactly that way.)

He even notes that the near-iconic book by H.R. McMasters, Dereliction of Duty, is often taken by officers in a potentially non-constructive way. As I've suggested elsewhere, the book lends itself to projection of one's own preconceived ideas into the book's analysis.

Owens gives a good example of ways in which Rummy shouldn't be the exclusive scapegoat for various problems in the Iraq War:

What about the charge that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon shortchanged the troops in Iraq by failing to provide them with armored “humvees”? A review of Army budget submissions makes it clear that the service’s priority, as is usually the case with the uniformed services, was to acquire “big ticket” items. It was only after the insurgency and the “improvised explosive device” threat became apparent that the Army began to push for supplemental spending to “up-armor” the utility vehicles.

Also, while it is true that Rumsfeld downplayed the need to prepare for postconflict stability operations, it is also the case that in doing so he was merely ratifying the preferences of the uniformed military. When it comes to postconflict stability operations, the real villain is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, a set of principles long internalized by the U.S. military that emphasizes the requirement for an “exit strategy.” But if generals are thinking about an exit strategy they are not thinking about “war termination” - how to convert military success into political success. This cultural aversion to conducting stability operations is reflected by the fact that operational planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom took eighteen months, while planning for postwar stabilization began (halfheartedly) only a couple of months before the invasion.

William Arkin, who has a keen ear for generals making excuses and budget pitches, also refers to the issue of current military dissesnt in his Predictions for 2007 Washington Post 01/04/07:

As for the American military, the new line in 2007 as the surge gets underway and the final showdown is anticipated is that premature removal of U.S. forces from Iraq could have a disastrous effect and just cause us to have to return in the future. The American military, in other words, is lobbying the American public, a disturbing trend. In fact, the absence of a clear vision and exit strategy in Iraq will increasingly pit the military against the will of the American people, never a good relationship. If we were some Latin American country, I'd say coup, where the military decides it needs to take over because it knows what's best for the nation.

Maybe those in uniform should stop passing judgment (and speaking about) how weak they think the U.S. public is and focus instead on what is in its lane first. Let's take IEDs, improvised explosive devices, as an example. The Pentagon has now set up yet another bureaucracy to solve the problem and in their couple of years of existence; they have spent in the billions. Companies are getting richer and the game continues, but the problem in the field isn't solved or even made any better. The military can't solve even its own internal problems. And as for all those brilliant generals, supposedly straitjacketed by Donald Rumsfeld and briefing the new Secretary on their alternative strategies? They don't exist. So what can we expect in 2007? (my emphasis)

They ... they ... don't exist?!? What will we tell the children?

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