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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Military doctrines and moral backbones

Well, things are certainly getting interesting in the US military.

Although I have not been posting lately, two of my more recent ones take note of what is happening with Rumsfeld and company.

As noted in the last post, I am reading Cobra II, and I think it is more than mere coincidence that the current volume of the debate has risen a few notches since that book came out. The book is not explicitly a critique of the decisions behind the Iraqi invasion decisionmaking process, but rather a detailed narrative telling a story that cannot help but raise questions about the competence and wisdom of the folks at the very top. If I had not said it before with emphasis, this is a "must read".

A few posts earlier -- actually comments made March 6 -- I commented on how obvious it was that the entire Iraqi operation was indeed having an impact among the middle level folks I ran into while in South Korea.

"One thing was evident to me this trip, and that is the warnings that the military is facing human resource problems in the near future is probably true. As you might guess, I ask each student to introduce him/herself and talk about past, present and future plans. Typically the response is as you might imagine -- most tend to be long-termers planning on using the degree for promotion in the military with the hope that it will be useful outside whenever they retire.

But there was a decidedly different tone to this group -- much more focus on retirement in the next year or two -- a point made by several folks, from the youngest officers to the command rank professionals. The past few years of tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and other "hot" places is definitely taking its toll. They have had enough, and were ready for civilian life...."

This morning's New York Times has a front page story that reinforces that observation, but in much stonger terms than I had heard before in the media -- and much closer to the feelings of the folks I spoke with in Seoul.

What stands out in that article is the criticism among the field-level officers (captains to colonels) of the way the general officers had let Rumsfeld and others in the current Administration roll over them. In reading this piece I was reminded of still another book that I read four years (or so) ago. It sopke to the impact of the Vietnam War on the thinking of a generation of field officers -- and the influence that experience had on the military through at least one generation of general officers. In Prodigal Soldiers (1995), James Kitfield does a superb job showing how the Vietnam experience led to both a major exodus of competent mid-level officers and a major rethinking of how to conduct military operations. This was all eventually reflected in the Weinberger(/Powell) Doctrine and in the strategic approach to the Persian Gulf War that (we now learn from Cobra II) so annoyed Rumsfeld and others. It was an approach that defined the way Powell and his generation of general officers went about their jobs, and understanding this provides some insight into the former Secretary of State's attitude to the Iraq invasion .

If I remember correctly, Kitfield ended his book with some questions about whether the next generation would sustain that approach, and the answer that emerges from Cobra II seems to be yes and no. It is clear from the Cobra II book that the current problem was not adherence to doctrine but rather lack of moral backbone. Those without the capacity or willingness to stand up for the approach set out by Powell, Schwartzkopf, McCaffrey and others typically got promoted, while others who stood in the way of Rumsfeld (and his transformation plans) went into retirement and are only now expressing their discontent.

All this fact is not lost on those mid-level officers interviewed in the Times piece:

"This is about the moral bankruptcy of general officers who lived through the Vietnam era yet refused to advise our civilian leadership properly," said one Army major in the Special Forces who has served two combat tours. "I can only hope that my generation does better someday."

An Army major who is an intelligence specialist said: "The history I will take away from this is that the current crop of generals failed to stand up and say, 'We cannot do this mission.' They confused the cultural can-do attitude with their responsibilities as leaders to delay the start of the war until we had an adequate force. I think the backlash against the general officers will be seen in the resignation of officers" who might otherwise have stayed in uniform."

More to come....


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