"Why senior military leaders fail"

The Armed Forces Journal has an article that will resonate deeply with Civil War readers, "Why senior military leaders fail." You may want to read it to inform your own views before going further.


The first thing that strikes me about the essay is that - without mentioning the ACW - it models all of the Lincoln-and-his-generals conventions . These are taught to generations of cadets. I hear a playback loop from the authors.

Consider the title and theme of the piece - failure is considered military relief by civilian authority. The general may betray his duty to subordinates, he may lose battles, he may botch strategies, he may neglect equipment and supplies, but he fails if and only if the civilians don't like him.
We define “failed” by their outright firing, or the more euphemistic “asked to resign.”
Meanwhile, a new biography, LeMay, shows us a chief of staff of the Air Force constantly, openly fighting with his presidents (Kennedy and Johnson) and they constantly reappointing him. So as to then versus now: if you have never served, it will be hard to understand how completely the U.S. military have internalized the civilian control ethos and how twisted their form of subordination has become.

Over a decade after Lemay/Johnson, in the summer of 1977, one of my Korean DMZ ambush patrols encountered infiltrators in the kill zone; my patrol leader reported in by radio and within minutes White House civilians took over his unit by telephone. This was a great relief to my battalion commander, his brigade commander, the Second Division commander, the Eighth Army commander, and so on up the Army line. Delegating command to an anonymous poli sci grad student, somebody's ardent campaign assistant, to run combat patrols over phone lines and radio relays half a world away remains a brilliant example of when senior military leaders succeed.

Major General Barry Goldwater, USAF, did a curious thing to help adjust military-civilian relations almost a decade after that patrol. As senator, he and Congressman Bill Nichols sponsored a bill, one provision of which required that the Joint Chiefs of Staff always have direct access to the president. You wouldn't think it was needed. Halleck could again talk to Lincoln.

What General Goldwater did not seem to realize, per my Korean example and the AFJ article linked here, is that the Chiefs do not need access to the president to "succeed," and in fact, are eager to bargain away such access in exchange for real "success." Thus, early in the reprise of SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, his inner Stanton counseled him to have the chiefs sign a memo foreswearing their legal access to the president. They signed gladly and were all the more "successful" for it with only a couple being retired prematurely under Rumsfeld redux. That arrangement continues to this day with less "success" for the generals, Rumsfeld's replacement, Gates, having fired a gaggle of generals and service secretaries (an act we ACW readers associate exclusively with presidential prerogatives). Perhaps the generals need new statutes they can bargain away in exchange for "success."

Here is a test you can apply yourselves any Sunday. To see how the relationship with civilian leaders has evolved, look at the military men on the Sunday civics shows answering policy questions as if they make and own policy. These are implementers of policy whose natural sphere is to tell how they are implementing what they have been given; it is their duty to reject every policy question as out of their field. Nowadays, however, looking out for the boss means internalizing and anticipating his policies, then advocating them as if they were your own.

The linked AFJ piece gives the counter-example of Admiral Fallon travelling the world making statements to pre-empt his civilian masters from adopting policies that Fallon did not want. (Rorschach test for you: is he more like Wadsworth or McClellan?) To me, this is the next natural step after demanding implementers internalize policy. Fallon's pre-emptive diktats are exactly of a piece with generals becoming spokesmen for the policies they are instructed to follow and just as pernicious. Fallon's path at least has the advantage of intellectual honesty but its poisons flow from the same source as the cheerleaders': demanding of subordinates their policy buy-in, as if they were apparatchiks, or clappers at a party congress where the first to stop applauding calls attention to himself.

We don't ask the policeman to be an advocate for every law enforced but rather to be an effective implementer of the law. We don't sit the policeman on the talk show panel and ask what the policy should be.

An important book, one that ended the career of BG J.F.C. Fuller, was Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure. Fuller was less concerned with the specifics of general-civilian interaction than with the superset of phenomena associated with the "chateau general". He noted that the American Civil War was the last period of the fighting commander and that the chateau general is all anybody has nowadays. Perhaps, if the commanders are now going to act like apparatchiks, the term should be dacha generals.


The second thing you notice about the AFJ article is that it's written by men who are not "senior military leaders" themselves and worse, do not draw on any personal experience as aides to such to develop their piece. Their article is based on newspaper clippings such as you or I might gather. This is very much chateau (or dacha) staffwork. No reconnaissance of the line, no mucky interviews, no gory research, and no analysis outside of the crazy framework that equates failure to please the president's aides with military failure.


Misinterpreting relations between Lincoln and his generals, codifying those "lessons learned" in all the wrong ways, then inculcating those errors into the officer corps for generations has led to a morally confused military leadership that does not know how to relate to civilian authority.

It cannot even follow the law in such matters.

There is a very real price we pay for bad Civil War history.