Last month, I wrote a commentary on Tom E. Ricks’s essay on The Atlantic prior to having his read his latest book, The Generals. In it, I argued that the premise of Ricks’s Atlantic essay might be flawed for two reasons. First, that it overlooks human nature by neglecting the fact that the military as a mirror image of the civil society cannot be oblivious to the fluid dynamics that affects civilians. Second, that it does not take into account the adage that you do not make the position, but that the position makes you.
As a big fan of Ricks’s writings, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his new book. Although in some sense, it confirmed what I always knew, I learned something new as well. In his well-researched and thoughtful book, Ricks avers that the minute that a general stops being a general, he not only endangers the lives of his men, but also puts civil-military relations in jeopardy. One pernicious outcome of tolerating incompetent generals, Ricks further argues, is that it puts the civilian overseers in position of having to dismiss one of their own which further erodes trust and breeds resentment.
After having finished his book, however, I had to rethink my prior arguments. Even though I found myself nodding in agreement to what he had to say most of the time, I concluded that there was something amiss with Ricks’s premise. I agree with him that general officers must police their own ranks before their civilian overseers do it for them, and that we must cultivate more imaginative, strategic thinkers among our officer corps. I also agree with him that we must publish official history books—at the service level—so that the officer corps will not repeat the mistakes from the past. I even like his idea of probationary command assignments. Even more important, I agree wholeheartedly with him that the officer corps must keep a safe, healthy, distance from its civilian commander-in-chief as Gen. George C. Marshall had done.
The main problem I had with Ricks’s book lay in the alternatives that he purportedly proposes. To insist on relieving what he calls “mediocre” generals and admirals without plausible alternatives would be just as pernicious. For one, it would create a void in personnel assignments. If the latest scandals involving Generals “Kip” Ward, John R. Allen (USMC), and Admiral Jim Stavridis offer any object lesson at all, it would be that wholesale reliefs may, in Gordon Lubold’s words, “leave a gaping hole in the combatant command lineup and few people with the skills to fill it.” Moreover, wholesale reliefs of generals and admirals would have the adverse effect of demoralizing the military as an institution. It would send the unequivocal message that if an officer fucks up for any reason, he may be shown the door without being given another chance to learn from his mistakes. This would eventually have a devastating impact on morale and would hamper readiness. Even more important, summary dismissals would breed resentment towards not only the senior brass but civilian overseers, which will no doubt exacerbate civil-military relations that has already soured to a considerable degree.
To buttress his premise, he writes in his book that “In relieving leaders, the Army can learn from the Navy, which has maintained the practice even as the Army as has lost it…” (p. 452). But one must ask, how does one account for the litanies of opprobrious scandals involving admirals, not to mention absolute failures of command now prevalent within the Navy? In the latest US Naval Institute Proceedings issue, Rear Admiral Terry Kraft and Captain David Tyler seem to echo the prevalent belief among their counterparts in the Army in arguing that “Why we fight is the domain of policy makers. The ‘how’ in the equation belongs to warfighters.” Simply put, the Navy is no more immune to the flaws and shortcomings of the Army.
To his credit, Ricks argues in favor of reinstating the Marshall system whereby an officer’s dismissal from one post would not seriously damage his career since he would simply be reassigned to a post more suited to his aptitude. But given the fact that the DoD may be facing further sequestrations and budget cuts in the years to come, the abovementioned alternative which he proposes may not be feasible. The fact of the matter is, services now face unrelenting pressure to retire more personnel, which has the negative effect of enforcing the zero-defect mentality.
It is my belief that the alternatives that he proposes are unfeasible, because one way or the other, they undercut military readiness. As things stand, it would be best in the nation’s interests to allow the civilian overseers—meaning the President, the SecDef and the service secretaries—to wield the axe. If the generals and admirals remain somehow “decoupled” from grand strategy, civilians have to make the decision for them. Instead, the current crop of generals and admirals would do well to focus on nurturing mid-level (O-4 through O-6) officers to ensure that they possess the learning curves, initiatives and imagination to take the fight to the enemy.
Two years ago, the former Chancellor to the Washington DC public schools, Michelle Rhee, was forced to step down after embarking upon a disastrous campaign to dismiss every teacher whom she deemed “incompetent.” Perhaps, Ricks would do well to take heed to Rhee’s debacle. For me, the object lesson to be had from Rhee’s stormy tenure would be that as it applies to the military, nurturing—across all levels!—and not frenzied reliefs may somewhat remedy the woes that plague the US Armed Forces.