Small Wars Journal

A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in Generalship

Tue, 10/11/2011 - 6:17am

A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in Generalship.

by Colonel Gian P Gentile

Dear Paul:

In the Spring of 2007 you penned a timely and important critique of American Army generalship.  In your essay, “A Failure in Generalship,” that was published in Armed Forces Journal, you argued cogently that American generals had failed in Iraq because they had been unable to defeat--using superior American military might--a ragtag batch of Iraqi insurgents.  In the essay you referenced a previous American counterinsurgency war in Vietnam and noted that that war was fought poorly because its generals were too focused on firepower and not on the proper methods of counterinsurgency.  You suggested that there was a better way to fight the war in Vietnam yet the Army and its generals were unable to grasp it.  And with Iraq your frustration in the article seemed to be that most senior Army generals between 2003 and 2006 had not figured out better tactical and operational methods of counterinsurgency to end the violence and put Iraq on the track to peace.  In short, in Vietnam and Iraq Army generals failed because they were unable to put together campaigns within an overall effective operational framework to achieve policy ends. 

In light of your 2007 article can we make the same critique of Army generalship in Afghanistan today? 

In another month it will be nearly two years since the Surge in Afghanistan started under General Stanley McChrystal who put into place, at least rhetorically and formally, a counterinsurgency campaign modeled on General  David Petraeus’s Surge of Troops in Iraq which relied heavily on the army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, Field Manual 3-24.  Then after only a short while in command McChrystal was relieved and the general touted as having “saved Iraq from a desperate situation,” General Petraeus, replaced him.  For two years now we have been doing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and arguably one could place the start of Coin in Afghanistan as early as 2004.  Yet with all of these years of billions and billions spent and buckets of blood spilled, what has it gotten us in terms of strategic and political ends?

Senior generals are supposed to set priorities, build military campaigns and operational frameworks and align other sources of national power to achieve political ends with the least cost in blood and treasure.  This, in essence, is strategy.   In Afghanistan how well has American generalship performed at strategy?

In 2006 eminent American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., reflected on America’s Vietnam War through the prism of the current American war being fought at the time in Iraq.  He observed that:

Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behavior to stupidity —the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered military defeat—fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests at stake. Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument for a case of national stupidity.

Perhaps you see it differently, but the failure that I see in American generalship in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (with precedence in Vietnam) is the idea that tactical and operational excellence through a certain brand of counterinsurgency (or any other form of tactical innovation) can rescue wars that ultimately are failures of strategy, or as Schlesinger more harshly puts it “national stupidity.”

In light of how you respond to these questions might you consider writing “A Failure of Generalship, Version 2” for Afghanistan?

If not, might you spell out the differences between what you saw as the failure of American generalship in Iraq from 2003-2006 with the past two years plus in Afghanistan.  In other words, how has American generalship been a failure in Iraq and not in Afghanistan?









Wed, 10/12/2011 - 7:26am

I think there were some great strategic decisions made in Vietnam.

But they were delayed (attacking the sanctuaries) interfered with ( a sustained air campaign against the North) or vetoed entirely (amphibious landing in North Vietnam) or just given up on (sustainable support for the South even as the NVA crumbled) by...


In the end, it was up to the U.S and her allies to adapt and try and fight on tactical excellence alone. But in the end, it was a political failure. Better pop centric COIN may well have helped at the political level, but I think it is too hard to look back and know for sure.

I think that there was some great tactical adaptation to nightmarish problems on the ground going on in Iraq before the vaunted Surge. But the adaptation and improvisation occurred because some very, very serious errors hampered strategic decisions and these decisions were made by...


And in Afghanistan, politicians from across the world rallied round to help clear a terrorist safe haven, and told their military that it was to counter wait! It was to chase terrorists in the mountains...or maybe state building? How did we get into that mess again?


I would add that Rumsfeld is of course now very well documented as to not having a firm, clear idea of what Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to look like after invasion.I would also add that I think all 3 wars were, on paper, good causes, and were, at the point of intervention winnable wars.

I still don't believe there is an "unwinnable" war for the U.S army. U.S will always win on the ground, but you can count on someone else to lose it- the Host Nation or the politicians at home. But then, what do I know?
I am a civilian in London...


Tue, 10/11/2011 - 1:33pm

I don't know that Schlesinger is ascribing the behavior to stupidity. The very concept of a nuclear power facing an enemy that conducts an insurgency through non-traditional warfare is one that conditionally accepts a framework of certain overwhelming political realities - ones rooted in the value of human life or a nuclear power's self-identification as a "civilized" society. For whatever reason, that nuclear power opts not to use weapons of mass destruction in a scorched-earth total warfare campaign which, while probably killing millions of innocents, would almost certainly annihilate the enemy.

An insurgency becomes possible by default when such extreme options are eliminated. Is such a tactical prohibition "stupid"? Perhaps, to a pure warrior. Yet most would consider such a prohibition ethically just and morally obligatory, such weapons only to be used against enemies who wield them as well (ironically enough, an unstable political situation in Pakistan could conceivably present the United States with such an enemy).

If the choice, then, is to embark upon a humanist approach and open oneself up to the negatives of having to employ coin operations, it seems to me less a stupidity and more a confirmation of a higher moral station, one that our enemy would not share. It also seems clear that the way to decisive victory in winning the "hearts and minds" would lie in direct, active, bold participation in significantly and very rapidly improving the quality of life of the mostly poor population whose hearts and minds are at play. By this I mean building houses, roads, entire cities with running water, electricity, adjacent to existing villages - and simply handing over the keys, an even transaction of property. House for house, store for store, building for building. This turns citizens into stakeholders of a greater degree who, given their newly acquired quality of life, will be much more reticent to supporting the insurgent cause, now that they have so much more to lose.

In other words - if we're going to take the humanist approach, the only stupidity lies in taking it halfway, instead of going all the way. A shura, a few bags of concrete, and aid distribution...just doesn't cut it.