Small Wars Journal

Questioning the Brass

Questioning the Brass - New York Times op-ed by Thomas E. Ricks.

Over the last 11 years, as we fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan, the civilian American leadership has been thoroughly — and justly — criticized for showing poor judgment and lacking strategies for victory. But even as those conflicts dragged on, our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public...


Generals who are (1) given the task of overcoming those opposed to the transformation of their states and societies along modern western lines but who (2) have not been given the leeway and other tools needed to accomplish this mission; these generals will have great difficulty.

The public seems to understand this and that may be the reason why our military leaders have not been castigated by the public.

And doing such things as having our military leaders rotate in and out of theater less frequently will not resolve the fundamental problem that I have addressed above.

I would suggest that, in earlier times (American Civil War; American Indian Wars), when our generals then were given the task of overcoming those opposed to the transformation of their states and societies along modern western lines; our generals then were not constrained in the manner that they are today.

Consider, for example, what would have happened if Grant and Sherman had been forced to "go in light" and/or had been required to use something along the lines of our "nation-building" approach to deal with their adversaries.

Thus, should we believe that those states and societies who produce the fighters who we contest against today are much less wedded to their values, attitudes and beliefs -- and to their corresponding ways of life -- than those states and societies who we fought against in the latter half of 19th Century (American Southerners; American Indians)? Or would such thinking be, in truth, the true source of our difficulties and a most fatal mistake?

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 11/13/2012 - 7:49am

Ricks and the many "SMEs" he cites can add themselves to the list of what has made the conflicts of the past several years problematic.

Calling things "wars" that are not really wars;

We've been seeking warfare solutions to issues of policy and governance that are not well addressed in the annals of history by "warfare" of any type, to include the "pop-centric" variety.

Equally, there is a case to be made that our problems with military leadership are not from rotating leaders too often, but rather from leaving the same small clique of leaders in charge of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for too long. This was only aggravated by then taking members of the "successful" Iraq clique and making them the new Afghanistan clique to transfer their successful lessons, tactics and experience from one place to the next.

It appears to me that we are as inept at looking for villains to blame for our failures as we were at seeking the understanding and approaches that might have prevented those failures in the first place.

Blaming Generals is easy sport. The think tankers and Academics who have been framing this so wrong from the very start are holding cloaks and throwing rocks right along with everyone else. Likewise the politicians who have largely set on their hands for the past 12 years agonizing over reports and presentations on "the enemy" and on "the war" while never pausing and considering that this is all just one massive metric of how out of synch US foreign policy is for the world we live in today. The military can mitigate the symptoms of failing policy, but ultimately it is fully on the thin shoulders of civilian leadership to understand, update and address those policy problems and render the need for such mitigation obsolete.

We have a nation at peace, but a military "at war". That should have been a red flag that maybe, just maybe, we were out of step with the world we live in.


Wed, 11/14/2012 - 9:01am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


I wish the phrase "casual arrogance" wasn't used. It distracted from the substance. Like when the C's used "just lost two wars" on their post. All many people wanted to do was dispute or define or go ballistic about the word "lost" all to the detriment of the main point.

Pungent phrases are fun to use and are sometimes useful, but sometimes they are to be very much regretted.

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 11/13/2012 - 6:05am

In reply to by carl


My apologies for a having typical reaction. However, if as you suggest that casual arrogance is a throw away phrase then why the need for it? Why not as I suggest and agree with you that we should criticize our strategy and decision making and even the rotation policy but why indict senior leaders with the charge of casual arrogance? Errors, mistakes, even incompetence but where is the evidence of casual arrogance? Again as you point out it is a throw away so why use it? i would like to stick to substance and not be distracted from discussing the real problems. Stick to substance rather the rhetoric and vitriol. Apologies for whining.


Mon, 11/12/2012 - 11:02pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

First off, I think Michael C. and Eric C. should have a word with Mr. Ricks about him not giving them due credit for being first out with this kind of critique. Though maybe the problem is so obvious that the first of a crowd to point it out isn't really exceptionally perspicacious.

Dave Maxwell: Your reaction is pretty typical of many of those who reacted badly to the C's blog post too, you fixate on a phrase, in this case "casual arrogance" that you find insulting and ignore the main point. Then as seems to be the norm too, you follow that up with an arrogant stand of your own, 'How can a mere civilian observer truly understand what the senior leaders have to face since they can never be "privy to the inner workings of military decision making"'. Then we have the de-riguer (sic) quick concession that the military might have made some mistakes but what about those civilians? Then the finish, which is is a variation of 'You shouldn't say such mean things about the military.'

Mr. Ricks' piece was directed at the brass. Mr. Exum's comment was, in context, obviously directed at the brass. Your getting all huffy about a throwaway line is to miss, or worse, intentionally distract from the main point. The brass, even to mere civilians not privy to Olympian consultations, are screwing up. Changing out top commanders in Afghanistan is a big, do it again every year screwup. It looks an awful lot like ticket punching on a grand scale. And yes I know McC getting canned wasn't the big brass's fault but that doesn't account for the other 9 or 10 changes. That revolving door was a good example for Mr. Ricks to use because the ill effects of it are so easy to understand and the importance of it is so great.

I am going to get shot to pieces for writing this but-stop the whining about that bad man saying mean things and listen to the substance.

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 11/12/2012 - 8:39am

I am all for accountability and believe that military advice and judgment can and should be questioned by the senior civilian leadership (and I am a believer in Cohen's and Gooch's thesis that all military failures can be attributed to the three failures: failure to learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate). But this is rich:

"My former colleague Andrew Exum, an ex-Army captain who studies insurgency, sees such rapid turnover as evidence of “the casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.” And yet our political leaders have not publicly questioned the rotation policy."

This is quite an indictment and I think neither Ricks nor Exum are qualified to make such a judgment as to the casual arrogance of the US military. Rapid turnover is not evidence. I would like to see concrete examples of the casual arrogance of the US military that can justify painting the entire US military with such a broad brush. I do not think either of these men have witnessed the real inside decision-making that goes on at the most senior levels and listened to the debates on military strategy and the deep concern with which the vast majority of senior leaders have over how to best accomplish the mission and take care of the troops and consider the long term effects on our military. Having access to senior decision makers as journalists or even paid advisers does not make them privy to the inner workings of military decision making and to accuse senior military leaders of casual arrogance based on their interpretation of a rotation policy is not a very strong argument. Mistakes have been made and yes people should be held accountable. There should be no doubt about that. But there has also been an awful lot of cheerleading going on in many quarters outside the military by would be strategists and pseudo policy makers particularly toward recently fallen generals. I think we should remember who was responsible for starting the Iraq war (civilian leadership) and who contributed to making Afghanistan an unnecessarily long war:

"OVER the last 11 years, as we fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan,..."

Yes, there were generals that made mistakes in terms of military strategy making Afghanistan an unnecessarily long one, but as I recall both Ricks and Exum were supporters of and advisers to and certainly cheerleaders for some of those generals.

Let's critique our military decision making and our senior leaders and even the rotation policy but I do not think that accusing the military of casual arrogance is a valid criticism and I do not think either RIcks or Exum are qualified to offer such a judgment.


Tue, 11/13/2012 - 4:18am

In reply to by carl

Carl - It's a tad disingenuous to state "11 commanders in 11 years” and leave out that we are talking about two different areas.

Typically the theatre commander stays on station 2 years not the one implied by Ricks. As Rick’s hawks his book, he fails to address that the commander of those theatre commanders serves a 3-4 year tour as CENTCOM commander. Before Ricks throws out accusations that condemn the practice of rotation a little analysis might help. BTW, looking at the number of troops these theatre commanders commanded equate more to a corps than to allied commanders like Eisenhower. Corps commanders commanded for significantly less time than the current batch of theatre commanders.

Ricks uses a parlor trick to create a problem among those ignorant about how we rotate commanders and how that fits historically. It’s not the first time if you’ve read his other book “Fiasco”.

There’s a lesson there…

BTW, that's not condemning the messenger. It's critiquing some pretty poor analysis and if an individual wants to punch above his weight he should do his due diligence to be taken seriously.

Here are my comments about his article hawking his book and the folks he’ll be having critique it this week on foreign…

"Our officers are much better in battle than at war."

That statement might hold some water if we let our generals fight our wars. Politicans often set the limitations that cause stalemate and eventual reversals.

Though I agree more reliefs would be a good thing all the way around. We might find Generals that win decisively and instil a backbone in those that never call political bat-shit crazy stuff for what it is. Last one we had was Shinseki and he was made a lame duck when he pointed out Rumsfeld was doing Iraq on the cheap.

Knowing Ricks proclivities, I'll wait for a second hand paperback.…


Mon, 11/12/2012 - 10:59pm

In reply to by Bill M.


Excellent point about being fearful of being accused of criticizing the troops. People who are afraid of that misunderstand that criticizing generals is not criticizing the troops. Criticizing the generals is being hard on people who ill serve the country and the troops. It isn't criticizing the people on the line. Some politicians recognize that, they just ain't got the backbone to follow it up. Most, in my opinion (completely uniformed, naive and ignorant as I'm sure I'll be reminded) are probably too dum to realize that.

The prime point Ricks made about 11 commanders in 11 years is there were 11 commanders in 11 years. The big brass has a part in that, I suspect a big part. If those multi-stars really pushed for command continuity, and maybe even a unified command structure, I suspect we may have been able to get that down to something under 6 or 5 maybe.

Your comment about carrying the fight to the enemy is (and I am prepared for the broadside to come) a slogan that sounds great but means nothing without context. When I read The Snake Eaters (boy was that a good book) everybody wanted to take the fight to the enemy, they just couldn't find them very often. They didn't start to find them often enough to make a difference until the local civilians felt safe enough to tell them where they were. I don't know if that is protecting civilians or carrying the fight to the enemy or both in sequence or in combination or what, but that is what needed to be done and seems from my reading that is always what needs to happen if you are to find those s.o.b.s and especially if you are to break the shadow gov. I agree fully with what I believe you have said in the past about expecting handouts to result in the population swinging but using a fundamental 'going after the enemy' without context is sloganeering and is not helpful.

I'm generally not a fan of Rick's articles and books, and while this article has some shortcomings the thesis is sound and needs Congressional level attention.

A couple of quotes from the article captures the thesis accurately:

"As Paul Yingling, a recently retired Army colonel, noted during some of the darkest days of the Iraq war, a private who loses his rifle is punished more than a general who loses his part of a war.

In the past, Congressional oversight hearings might have produced some evidence that challenged the military’s self-satisfied conclusions. But today, politicians are so fearful of being accused of “criticizing our troops” that they fail to scrutinize the performance of those who lead them."

Based on the following comments I think he is off track:

"Why, for example, do we serially rotate our top war commanders?"

Come on Ricks, you can't have it both ways. You want Generals held accountable, but when they're fired (even if politely removed) you complain about rotating generals.

"Why weren’t our troops better prepared for the challenges of protecting civilians from resistance fighters, interrogating suspected insurgents and detaining enemy fighters?"

This is where Ricks pretends to be a great strategist by embracing our COIN doctrine. Another question may be why did the military focus on protecting civilians instead of carrying the fight to the enemy?

While Ricks is bias and punching above his weight class, many of our senior officers have failed miserably and were never held accountable. Not becaus the troops were not prepared to protect the populace, but because they failed to embrace even the basic principles of war fighting.