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Empty Vessels

A few years ago when it looked like Colin Powell might run for President, George Will described Powell on This Week with David Brinkley as “an empty vessel into which people pour their hopes and aspirations.” George Will had a point.

In the world of rapid fire, shift-with-the-wind Sunday talk show journalism, where yesterday’s obsequious aide, speechwriter or military assistant is today’s celebrated warrior, distinguishing the Grants and Pattons from the empty vessels in uniform is a lost art. Americans seem unaware that today’s generals are products of a bureaucratic system successful wartime Presidents must over-turn to secure victory.

When the Civil War began, General George B. McClellan was lionized in the press as the new Napoleon, the gifted leader who would deliver victory. Ulysses S. Grant was unknown and no longer in an army that did not want him. But fate returned Grant to the Army where he won battles while McClellan cultivated politicians, journalists and generals in Washington. Even then, McClellan and Lincoln’s de facto chief of staff, “Old Brains” Halleck, worked to destroy Grant. Fortunately, Lincoln ignored them.

In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt promoted Brigadier General George C. Marshall over the heads of sixty more senior generals to four stars. With Roosevelt’s backing, Marshall began firing generals who could not shake the bureaucratic mindset replacing them with unknown captains, majors and colonels. Among these was George S. Patton, jr., an old, irascible colonel whose abrasive personality, and independence of mind made him unpopular with the Army hierarchy. Marshall promoted the unpopular Patton. The rest is history.

Lincoln and Roosevelt achieved victory by rejecting what the status quo offered. They selected men like Grant and Patton who provided their soldiers with clear direction, direction that often put Grant and Patton at severe personal risk on the battlefield and, more to the point, in Washington’s corridors of power. These generals had a capacity for independent action and risk-taking, essential ingredients for success, but ingredients acutely absent from the leadership of peacetime armies and, sadly, current operations in Iraq.

In Iraq, the consistent failure of our generals to provide meaningful direction and effective leadership has been disastrous. The result in April 2004 was a Sunni Arab rebellion against the American military occupation. Like the British Army in Ireland between 1916 and 1921, the generals commanding U.S. troops in Iraq managed to transform a minor insurgency in the summer of 2003 into a full-blown Sunni Arab rebellion by the spring of 2004.

By the time General George Casey arrived in Baghdad during the summer of 2004, in medical terms, the U.S. military occupation was already on life support. But instead of choosing a new strategic direction, Casey reinforced the strategy he inherited. He expanded the occupation’s big-base strategy of Maginot-like forts and launched thousands of troops on sweeps that created more enemies than they killed. The cost of occupation went through the roof while the conflict expanded into a civil war. For this handiwork, Casey moves up to become Army Chief of Staff.

Of the remaining generals on active duty, General David H. Petraeus, is the most popular with the retired four-stars and his superiors in the Pentagon. He comes with effusive praise heaped on him by politicians and journalists desperately seeking an answer to the Iraq conundrum. But, in truth, no one really knows whether Petraeus is Grant or McClellan.

We do know that when the 3rd Infantry Division raced to the gates of Baghdad in less than 5 days at the cost of just two casualties, Petraeus together with his bosses, generals Wallace and McKiernan, urged a halt to the advance, forecasting disaster if more troops were not committed to overcome the hollow Republican Guard units and irregulars in pick-up trucks–all of which presented themselves as easy targets to American firepower whenever they fought, which was rare.

A week later, Baghdad fell to one brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. Discouraged by the 101st’s limited role, Petraeus’s Asst. Division Commander said the Army’s V Corps fought the war “with one hand tied behind its back” relying almost entirely on the 3rd Infantry Division.

In Mosul where Petraeus made a reputation as the one general who truly understood Arab hearts and minds, the town reverted to insurgent control within hours of his division’s departure. Similarly, we know that the new Iraqi Army he built was seriously flawed from Shiite domination and corruption to its inability to operate without US support, and sometimes even with it.
We also know Petraeus is a politically skilled officer. In a break with the U.S. military tradition of political neutrality, he published a passionate OPED piece in the Washington Post on behalf of Bush’s Iraq policy on 26 September 2004. There, he claimed, “Today approximately 164,000 Iraqi police and soldiers (of which about 100,000 are trained and equipped) and an additional 74,000 facility protection forces are performing a wide variety of security missions Most important, Iraqi security forces are in the fight ”

In truth, Gen. Petraeus is unlikely to improve the situation in Iraq, but he could make it worse. Moreover, to find a Grant you must also have a Lincoln, and there is little to indicate that President George W. Bush is Lincoln. Today, moral courage seems absent at both the military and the political levels of leadership.

Col. Douglas A. MacGregor, Ph.D., is lead partner in Potomac League, LLC. He is the author of “Breaking the Phalanx” and Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights. Macgregor served in the first Gulf War and at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe during the Kosovo Air Campaign. He was an adviser to the Department of Defense on initial Second Gulf War plans and is an expert on defense policy issues of organization and transformation.

 

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