The Best Defense

A few more words in defense of Big Mac

By John M. McFarland

Best Defense guest columnist

Your opinion on MacArthur as the worst general in U.S. history absolutely baffles me. It just reinforces the notion that anyone, anytime, can assert some completely uninformed, ridiculous opinion on an internet blog and get away with it. Place a Washington Post byline beneath their name, and, suddenly, they have some type of credibility, or presumed knowledge or insight about anything.

One actually has to study military history to be able to articulate an opinion such as that which you have so carelessly issued. Either you have never studied it, or you were skipping that instruction when it was offered to you. If MacArthur had never set foot in WWII or Korea, he still would have been one of the greatest battlefield leaders in American military history, based solely upon his performance in WWI. If you want some suggested readings to inform yourself about MacArthur's military career, and about more basic military affairs or matters generally, I will be happy to provide them. It's never too late to learn.

One can read everything about MacArthur 5 times over, but fail to ever gain the slightest insight into him if (i) one reads everything about MacArthur with a view and goal of extracting only what fits into the preconceived notion of MacArthur to which one is already wed, and/or (ii) one is more concerned with articulating opinions or judgments that will be more readily accepted by those of one's particular social/political persuasion or perspective, rather than viewing a historical figure fully in the round. It's not necessarily what you read, but how you read it.

Now you want to strip him of his WWI accomplishments. I am familiar with the book to which you refer. That author looked at the historical record (as he perceived it) and pronounced most proudly that he had discovered that MacArthur had not actually set foot on the objective in the battle campaign for which he received a DSC (one of 4, I believe, that MacArthur received from a headquarters that was hostile to him). Because of this author's "extensive" knowledge of all things military, he concluded from this sole "fact" that MacArthur did not deserve his decoration, had not performed with valor worthy of the citation, and was a charlatan and a fraud. This author supposedly discerned 80+ years after the fact what no one in the Rainbow Division, Chaumont, or the AEF discerned during the attack. The sheer tonnage of what that author obviously does not know about military operations on a tactical level literally took my breath away. As William Manchester remarked in American Caesar, there is almost nothing derogatory that can be said about MacArthur these days that will not be believed immediately at face value by those untrained or unwilling to examine the premises of the statement.

All of the great captains of history have manifested flaws roughly commensurate with their brilliance. MacArthur is no different than, for example, Napoleon or Hannibal in this regard. The best single volume analysis of MacArthur, I believe, is Geoffrey Perret's Old Soldiers Never Die -- The Life of Douglas MacArthur. Perret is critical and judgmental of MacArthur when necessary and appropriate, but succeeds as a military historian in viewing MacArthur in the round, which you, in this regard, clearly do not. Perret judged MacArthur the second greatest soldier in American history, after U.S. Grant. Perret expressly moves him to second place because of MacArthur's dabbling in politics late in his career, and his antagonism with President Truman. Unlike you, however, Perret does not allow himself to be blinded by these episodes in analyzing MacArthur's place among the great captains of history, and certainly American military history. While I disagree with that particular conclusion of Perret, I respect his process because he has viewed and analyzed the complete sum of MacArthur's life in the whole, not little snippets of his life that are cherry-picked by authors such as you to support the preconceived end that they have already identified for their analysis.

Where have you possibly gone or whom have you possibly talked to in order to draw the conclusion that the U.S. Army has "extirpated" the memory of Douglas MacArthur?

John M. McFarland, an attorney and graduate of West Point, served in the 82d Airborne Division and 5th Special Forces Group before attending law school on active duty and transferring to the Judge Advocate General's Corps, where he continued his service before leaving the Army to begin private practice.

U.S. Army

The Best Defense

Annals of C2 (VI): Here's why coalition command structures are so ungainly

By Nora Bensahel

Best Defense bureau of C3 (command, control and confusion)

Awhile back, Tom asked why the United States is so bad at designing effective wartime command structures. Subsequent contributors and commentators identified several different reasons, including careerism, bureaucratic turf wars, and an imbalance in civil-military relations. Yet most of these comments have overlooked one critical factor: The United States almost always fights its wars in coalition with other countries, and coalition command structures never work well.

Political cohesion is the center of gravity in any coalition operation.  Even when all coalition members agree on the desired endstate of the operation, they often disagree about how to achieve those objectives -- and particularly about command and control structures. They must compromise to find some sort of agreement that they all find acceptable. Unsurprisingly, the political imperatives of consensus and agreement often conflict with the military imperatives of winning a war as quickly and cheaply as possible. And when they conflict, political cohesion usually wins.

Examples abound of wartime command and control structures that were considered ineffective from a purely military perspective. In 1999, for example, many observers decried NATO operations in Kosovo as a "war by committee," since any member state could veto any target on the air strike list. (The Dutch took a lot of flak for vetoing a strike on a palace where a Rembrandt painting hung, but the United States vetoed targets more frequently because of its stringent standards about potential civilian casualties.) 

The command structure in Kosovo may have not have been particularly efficient, but it did not prevent the war from reaching a successful outcome. In Afghanistan, however, the need to maintain coalition cohesion has led NATO to accept force contingents from many countries that place national caveats -- or restrictions -- on how those forces may be used, which has significantly limited the military options available to the NATO commander.  National caveats have already been blamed for many of the military shortcomings of the operation, and they will be blamed even more if the ultimate outcome of the operation is judged to be a failure.

Even coalition command structures that seem to work well often do so despite being inefficient and politically driven. Capt. Rosemary Mariner (U.S. Navy, ret.), for example, argues that "command and control in the [1991] Gulf War was a big success story." Yet to assuage Saudi political concerns, the operation involved two entirely separate chains of command -- one under the command of U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf, which included most Western forces, and the other under the command of Saudi General Khalid bin Sultan, which included all Arab forces. Neither general had the authority to issue orders to the other, which clearly violates the principle of unity of command, though they coordinated informally very well.

Furthermore, some crucial operational decisions were made for political rather than military reasons. At the beginning of the air war, General Schwarzkopf diverted more than one-third of the coalition's 2000 daily air sorties to hunt for Iraqi Scud missiles that were being fired on Israel, which put the air war significantly behind schedule. Even though he repeatedly told the press that the Scuds were militarily insignificant and posed no threat to the coalition, this was the price that had to be paid to keep the Israelis from retaliating directly. At the end of the war, U.S. Marines waited outside Kuwait City for more than 24 hours -- one-quarter of the entire length of the ground campaign -- for Arab forces to catch up so they could symbolically liberate the Kuwaiti capital.

Why didn't these military inefficiencies pose more of a problem? Simply put, the Gulf War coalition possessed a lot of slack that could absorb these inefficiencies. The Iraqi military turned out to be much weaker than originally anticipated, and could not mount a coherent military response to the coalition offensive. Furthermore, the coalition had more than six months to execute its operational plans almost exactly as they were written. Saddam Hussein's shortcomings mean that these coalition arrangements were never tested under any operational stress at all. Similar command arrangements could easily become problematic in more challenging military situations.

Clausewitz's famous dictum applies as much to military coalitions as it does to individual states.

Coalition warfare is still the continuation of politics by other means -- but politics in the international system requires bargaining and compromise among sovereign states. And that results in wartime command structures that do not operate efficiently or, in some cases, effectively.

Nora Bensahel is the deputy director of Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Her Ph.D. dissertation was titled "The Coalition Paradox: The Politics of Military Cooperation."