After the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army
soberly examined where it had fallen short. That critical appraisal laid the
groundwork for the military's extraordinary rebuilding in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, after more than a decade of war
in Afghanistan and Iraq, no such intensive reviews are underway, at least to my
knowledge -- and I have been covering the U.S. military for 22 years. The
problem is not that our nation is no longer capable of such introspection.
There has been much soul-searching in the United States about the financial
crisis of 2008 and how to prevent a recurrence. Congress conducted studies and
introduced broad legislation to reform financial regulations.
But no parallel work has been done to
help our military. The one insider work that tried to critique overall military
performance was a respectable
study by the Joint Staff,
but it fell short in several key respects, including silence about the failure
to deploy enough troops to carry out the assigned missions in Iraq and
Afghanistan. As James
Dobbins recently noted in a review of that study, our military shows "a
continued inability to come to closure" on some controversial issues.
This is worrisome for several reasons.
The military continues largely unchanged despite many shaky performances by top
leaders. That is unprofessional. It doesn't encourage adaptive leaders to rise
to the top, as they find and implement changes in response to the failures of
the past decade. And it enables a "stab in the back" narrative to emerge as
generals ignore their missteps and instead blame civilian leaders for the
failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. A retired general I know warns that this
narrative is more likely to take hold as the active-duty military shrinks and
grows more isolated from the society it protects.
There is no question that President
George W. Bush and other civilians made many of the most glaring errors, such
as the decision to go to war in Iraq based on a misreading of intelligence
information. But military leaders also made mistakes, and those remain under
the rug where our generals swept them.
I am not criticizing the performance of
soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike in the Vietnam War, they
were, at the small-unit level, well-trained and well-led. They were tactically
proficient and generally enjoyed good morale. In Vietnam, Chuck Hagel, now the
secretary of defense, served as an acting first sergeant of an infantry company when he had been in the Army for less
than two years. Nothing like that happened recently.
Our military is adept and adaptive at
the tactical level but not at the higher levels of operations and strategy.
Generals should not be allowed to hide behind soldiers. Indeed, one way to
support the troops is to scrutinize the performances of those who lead them.
The many unanswered questions about how
our military performed in recent years include:
Which units tortured people? This
affected success in the wars but also relates to caring for our veterans.
Torture has two victims: those who suffer it and those who inflict it. Yet our
military leaders are not turning over this rock.
Are there better ways to handle
personnel issues than carrying on peacetime policies? Were the right officers
promoted to be generals? A recent article
in Parameters, the
journal of the Army War College, found that commanding a division in combat in
Iraq slightly hurt a general's chances of being promoted to the senior ranks.
Yet in most wars, combat command has been the road to promotion. What was
different in recent years?
And what happened to accountability
for generals? Recently the Marine Corps fired two generals for combat failures in Afghanistan.
This was newsworthy because it apparently was the first time since 1971 that a
general had been relieved for professional lapses in combat. That is too long.
The military is not Lake Wobegon, and not all our commanders are above average.
Some fundamental disagreements
between U.S. military leaders and their civilian overseers were never
addressed, such as the number of troops required to occupy Iraq. This undercut
the formulation of a coherent strategy. Can we educate our future military
leaders to better articulate their strategic concerns? If not, expect more
quarreling and confusion on issues such as what -- if anything -- to do about
As long as such questions go
unanswered, we run the danger of repeating mistakes made in Iraq and
Afghanistan. With President Obama and Congress apparently disinclined to push
the military to fix itself, it is up to the Joint Chiefs, especially Chairman
Martin Dempsey and the heads of the Army (Gen. Raymond Odierno) and the Marine Corps (Gen. James Amos), to do so. It is their duty.