WASHINGTON – 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 under way, 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 U.S. 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:
• How did the use of contractors, even in front-line jobs, affect the course of war? Consider that two recent national-security incidents involved federal contractors: Edward Snowden, who distributed U.S. government secrets around the world, and Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard last month.
• 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 Syria.
As long as such questions go unanswered, we run the danger of repeating mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan. With President Barack 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.
Journalist Thomas E. Ricks has written five books about the U.S. military, most recently “The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today.”