Small Wars Journal

Firing Generals

Firing Generals by Jim Lacey, National Review Online.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let’s fire all the generals.”

This is the basic prescription of military journalist and writer Tom Ricks, who, in his new book, The Generals, blames our lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s and our political leaders’ having lost the ability or willingness to fire failing generals. Unfortunately, many commentators are accepting this formula as true without asking some hard questions, such as: When and for what reasons should a general be fired? Should the Continental Congress, for instance, have sent George Washington into an early retirement after his dismal performance defending New York City? Should Lincoln have cashiered Grant after his less-than-stellar performance at Shiloh, or possibly a bit later, when he wasted six months flailing about in failed attempts to approach Vicksburg? Was General Lee ready for the scrap heap after his early failures in what is now West Virginia?

What about in the 20th century? Should President Wilson have called Pershing home, after he sat idle for over a year before getting into the fight and then, at the start of the great Meuse-Argonne offensive, saw his army mauled and stopped in its tracks? Should Roosevelt or the Joint Chiefs have fired Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher after he delivered so-so results at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and in the process lost one of our three precious carriers and had a second crippled? Of course, if Fletcher had been fired, he would not have been present at Midway, where he smashed the Japanese fleet and changed the course of the war.

And just how should the president, the secretary of defense, or the Joint Chiefs de exactly whom to fire? After the World War II debacle at the Kasserine Pass, a corps commander, General Lloyd Fredenall, was fired. But the Army chief of staff, General George Marshall, could just as easily have found cause to fire Fredenall’s boss — General Eisenhower. I will spare you the list of superiors who could just as easily have been held responsible for setbacks as their fired subordinates. Suffice it to say, it is a long one, and populated with the names of some of our most famous commanders.

Anyone reading Ricks’s previous bestselling book, Fiasco, would surely have walked away believing General Raymond Odierno was a failure. That was certainly Ricks’s assessment then. But two years later, when he published The Gamble, Odierno was apparently transformed and even Ricks was forced to admit that he is one of the heroes in the book. In truth, I believe whatever success we had in Iraq is directly attributable to Odierno’s leadership, and he continues to serve today as the Army chief of staff. We can, therefore, count ourselves lucky that, during our hardest moments in Iraq, Ricks was not responsible for picking which generals should be cashiered...



Tue, 01/29/2013 - 5:41pm

In reply to by jholm

Ricks always says that... That being said it has some merit. There was a time when Generals would fall on their swords, so to speak. They would take on the political leadership, etc. During WWII being relieved as a General officer was not necessarly a career ender. But the zero tolerance, no-risk,trust no one is doing us no good, and our Generals are the best at it. Relieving none preformers is a tool in the tool box, that should be used more often.

Mr Lacy should have faulted the political leadership. In Korea, McArther had them on the run... got fired because he told them what need to be done and he was prepared to do it. Veitnam: Westmoreland never had a clue as to how to win or what was even going on. OEF/OIF no General wanted to get into a LIC fight... The Gen Pat rewrites the book so to speak and everyone thinks it great because its hearts and mind babble and they love that crap on the Hill. Poor leadership.

Gen Esenhower insisted on either total control of D-day or they could get someone else. Gulf 1 ole Stormin Norman was able to operate the same way. Esenhower was a good leader because he stood up and stuck to his guns. If they hadnot given him he would have walked.

Come on Sir, you have seen it yourself... Generals mire themselves it crap they should stay out of... Generals setting uniforms? What the hell do we have Company Commanders and 1SGs for.. This is why we have guys running, I mean crawling around the Hindu Kush in a MOUT uniform.

When to releive dosn't need to be laid out. Is it always going to be right? No probably not, but have you ever seen anyone relieved who should not have been? In half the releifs I have seen it was the releiver who should have got canned. Part of the art of leadership is figuring out when to do something and what needs to be done. You have to base your actions on the problem AND who it is. I don't think we should necessarly be throwing out PVTs for DUIs... Do I think we should be for NCOs and Officers? Yup. Generals don't like to tell other Generals NO.

War has changed since Pickett's Charge.. But but you are mistaken, Generals fight battles... You are correct they should be fighting wars. I hav heard over and over usually from some panicked commander to "Stay in my lane"... Generals need to as well.

I sat in on a meeting were a General was breifed about a company who got shorted 7 pairs of desert boots... He started asking about the names of the Soldiers... Does he not realize that that company had a CO,1SG and XO to work this? That the BN had an S-4... BLUF: The general should have never gotten involved.


Tue, 01/29/2013 - 3:46pm

In reply to by Hammer999

I was in 101st in '03, also. I was a Platoon Leader so my perspective didn't extend too far beyond the horizon of my own day-to-day missions. I do remember two things, though: 1) Mosul was relatively quiet compared to the rest of Iraq during that time and, 2) Mosul became a major insurgent hot bed by my 2nd tour there in '05-06. I also seem to recall Tal Afar becoming a significant hotbed, too. The level to which Petraeus's efforts were a factor in producing the relative quite in Ninevah Province in '03 is certainly debateable but Mr. Lacey stated that no one had a clue what to do about an insurgency until 2006. I think that statement is untrue. I think it also hints at a failure in generalship. Again, part of a general's job is to anticipate and prepare for the future. We always talk about preparing for the next war, not the last one. Whose job is this if not senior generals?

That aside, I'm curious what your thoughts are about some of my other points.

- To me, Ricks is saying that relieving unfit or unsuccessful commanders is a necessary tool whereas Mr. Lacey states that it is Ricks's "basic prescription."
- Mr. Lacey faults political leadership for our unhappy endings to Korea, Vietnam, OIF, and OEF while giving generals a pass. The end result of these conflicts were strategic setbacks. Strategy is a combined civil-military effort. Civilians have the ultimate decision but generals help formulate, influence, prioritize, and then implement strategy. Did poor generalship play no role in the undesirable strategic results of these operations?
- Mr. Lacey also points to our long history of phenomenal tactical performance as evidence of the success of our generals. He does not acknowledge that war has changed since BG Armistead propped his hat on his sword while personnally leading his men during Pickett's charge. Generals fight wars, not battles.

I think Mr. Lacey's point that Ricks does not clearly lay out criteria for when generals should be relieved is a fair one but I do take issue with some other aspects of his analysis.


Thu, 01/24/2013 - 11:47pm

In reply to by jholm

I was in the 101st in 03... The Division had the lest important and lest populated sector in the entire country... No real cities of signifcance except Mosul... And the insurgency had not really gotten of the ground. And beleive me Pat wasn't that good...

I thought Mr. Lacey made some good and some not-so-good points.

First, I haven't yet completed "The Generals" but in what I've read so far, I have not gotten the impression that Ricks's solution to every problem is to fire a general. While it is a critical theme in the book, in the WWII section alone he discusses how Patton was kept on despite not fitting the "Marshall model" because of his unique ability to boldly employ armored forces in pursuit of the enemy, he discusses MacArthur being kept in the Pacific partly to prevent him from eroding unity of command back in DC, he does discuss Bradley ascending the ranks despite some setbacks and an often plodding operational tempo. He also discusses firings that perhaps should not have occurred (e.g. Terry Allen). Again, my read of Ricks's book is that firing generals is not a cure-all, rather a cure-somethings. The ability to fire poorly performing commanders is a necessary tool for victory, not the only one. I feel like either I am reading Ricks incorrectly or Mr. Lacey is.

Second, Mr. Lacey's point about deciding when a general should be relieved is a valid one. Mr. Ricks does describe the "Marshall model" which clearly emphasised qualities such as teamwork and the ability to remain calm under pressure. He seems to look upon this model somewhat favorably but does also touch on how this model can generate more "company men" and fewer bold leaders and can result in a risk averse mentality. In the parts I've read so far, Mr. Ricks does not answer the question "under what conditions should a general be fired."

Third, I do take issue with Mr. Lacey's assertion that, since the end of WWII, the results from Korea, Vietnam, OIF, and Afghanistan are all solely the fault of political leaders and insufficient public support. Was insufficient support really the problem in Vietnam or OIF? The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was essentially a blank check. How many dollars did we spend in Iraq? While, obviously, political constraints (especially in a democracy) impact military strategy, I think this has become the one-stop-shop excuse any time a war with the result we aren't thrilled with. Generals get paid to operate at this level of war, of providing military advice to inform the political strategic decision and then apply military capability to support that strategy. Generals do not get paid to focus at the tactical level. It seems our military strategy in OIF ended at Baghdad, a tactical objective. To my understanding, there was no attempt to plan beyond the fall of Baghdad, or that such an attempt was stifled. Is this not a failure in generalship? Also, to say that everyone was ill prepared for the insurgency that emerged is problematic in two ways: 1) one of the tasks associated with generalship is to anticipate the future. Granted, that is a terribly difficult task but it is worth asking the question, why were we so ill prepared when insurgencies are so prolific around the world. 2) The 101st started doing COIN in '03 yet its success was not replicated hardly anywhere until years later when GEN Petraeus published FM 3-24 and then enforced its application. To suggest that no one knew what to do to combat an insurgency until 2006 is simply ill informed. Again, a question worth asking is, why wasn't the 101st's success in Mosul replicated throughout Iraq? There are any number of generals who could have remedied this.

Finally, I think Mr. Lacey's analogy of "would you fire a coach that never lost a game" is based on a misunderstanding of what the game is. Mr. Lacey talks about battles and campaigns but the game is not an individual battle or campaign. Generalship at the highest levels (CJCS, Combatant Commanders, MNF-I CDR, ISAF CDR, etc) is about winning and losing wars. If generals are the coaches then wars are the games they play. The battles being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan that Mr. Lacey points to are fought by SSGs, SFCs, LTs, and Captains. It feels like Mr. Lacey is grading 3 and 4 star generals based on someone else's homework.