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Role of Joint Chiefs Deserves Closer Scrutiny

By Tim Wilson

The Armed Forces of the United States are widely regarded as the best-equipped, most powerful military on the planet. The regard in which it has pretty constantly been held abroad has not always been reflected in the US itself, reaching a low point in the early 70s. Over recent decades most foreigners have viewed their capability with awe due to both scale and equipment, while at home support has increased due to deserved recognition of their commitment, patriotism and capability. Both views are being damaged by the widespread coverage of Iraq.

A number of friends and former colleagues on active duty in Iraq now or very recently returned have expressed concerns over many issues, but mainly over the biased reporting, as they see it, focusing on the deaths and destruction rather than on the many successes they enjoy across the country. There are many triumphs as well as some failures in Iraq. They are well aware of the problems and dangers, but feel they have both the will and the ability to succeed, providing they are given the support they need at home and the leadership they need in the field. But the problem may lie in the system of incentives, appraisals and promotion of the military itself.

In any military, as in any large organization, there are good people and bad, capable and incompetent, enthusiastic and lazy and combinations in every degree. This applies at all levels, although in the military those with the finer qualities tend to outnumber the weaker through both natural and promotional selection. Nonetheless it is indisputable that, even at the highest levels, there will be some weaknesses. True strength at arms comes from the core, and the US military has the best possible core - enthusiastic, skilled and brave volunteers. Weak leadership, however, can shackle even the finest of armies.

My own experience has been that the US produces fine Generals, but even at these exalted ranks there will be some who are merely good and few who rate as Great. What separates the good from the Great is "feel" and experience - feel for the ability of their troops and the tactical situation as well as a grasp of the strategic necessities, and experience in combat leadership gained early in their careers. This feel is always combined in the Great with a firm regard for the basic qualities and principles which they learned as cadets and young officers and exhibited while under the pressure of combat leadership. The principle basic quality which all military academies seek, nurture and encourage is moral integrity - to know the right course and pursue it regardless of personal consequence, for the benefit of all.

When it comes to "feel", Patton had it, MacArthur had it, Westmoreland arguably did not. From a more recent perspective, Schwarzkopf had it, Clark and Powell did not. Fred Kaplan wrote an excellent piece on the situation as the revolt against Mr Rumsfeld began to go public in April this year. In it he uses the terms "straight-arrow field commanders" (as represented by the character Sam Damon) and "scheming Pentagon careerists" (in the character of Courtney Massengale) as described in Anton Myers book "Once an Eagle" which is widely read by military personnel. This book provides an accurate picture of real life in the military. It is the Sam Damons who have the "feel" and the Courtney Massengales who do not.

The consequences of less-than-exceptional military leadership are many and far-reaching in both space and time, having major implications on foreign affairs and national security. The US withdrawal from Vietnam resulted in years of national and international disdain for the military and a huge reduction in trust for US international diplomacy. The lack of trust abroad has yet to be fully repaired although home and foreign perceptions were improved to some large extent by the interventions in the Balkans and the success of Operation Desert Storm. It was also enhanced by numerous small successes such as Grenada and Panama, but was correspondingly reduced by failures such as Somalia and Beirut.

Most recently, the war in Iraq has been followed with vast interest by every nation around the planet. The stunning success of the invasion has been followed by regular erosion of belief in the abilities of the US military. Military analysts around the world saw a relatively small force conquer Iraq with ease, then watched in amazement as the occupation turned, from a political and military analysis view, to farce. Some of the highlights which the current Joint Chiefs should be asked to explain include:

The road from the Airport to the former Green Zone in Baghdad (the BIAP road) is known as "the most dangerous road in the world." From an armed forces standpoint it is classed as a Main Supply Route (MSR) which any officer from any army knows implies that it should be secured as a matter of utmost urgency, with whatever resources necessary. Why has this not been done? Can it be true that US 140,000 troops are not enough to keep 13 miles of road safe?

Post invasion US force levels have remained pretty constant at around 140,000. Yet over the past 2 years, we have trained, equipped and handed over vast territories to Iraqi security forces, steadily reducing the number of US troops on patrol. Despite these reductions in combat patrols there have been no major reductions in numbers on the ground.

Some on the ground are aware there is a problem. An officer very recently returned from Iraq told me: "We are fat and happy. I don't mean that the Soldiers, Marines and others who are patrolling daily are fat and happy: I only mean that the ratio of Fobbits [his term for support staff] to patrollers in the street ... makes other conflicts look Spartan. And those folks, almost all of them, are eating steak and lobster on Friday night, and having ice cream not just with dinner, but lunch as well. And surfing the net on broadband. And working out in fully-equipped gyms."

When asked, an officer in theatre told me that reports to their headquarters in Baghdad indicated that, on a typical day across Iraq, some "2-3,000 troops go on patrol." Planning for Special Forces operations typically allows for a ratio of 1:14 (for every trooper who goes on patrol, 14 support specialists are required), while it is understood that for the 6 month period post-invasion, a planning figure of 1:25 was used. That figure appears to have risen to approximately 1:70.

The implications of this force ratio are immense; for example, it implies to foreign powers that the effective combat strength of the United States of America is less than 50,000 out of a total military strength of 2,369,239 (of whom 1,426,713 are active). This impression was strengthened recently by General Abizaid's admission to Congress that we do not have enough infantry and by the much-publicized repeated rotation to Iraq of such units as 1st Infantry Division. Of course there are mitigating factors and circumstances, but to some foreign interpretations, the much-vaunted might of the US military can be perceived as insubstantial. This perception has been further strengthened by the Chairmen (James Baker and Lee Hamilton) of the Iraq Study Group who, when interviewed on Fox News, said that they had been advised by "Senior Commanders" that the US Military could not sustain an additional 50,000 personnel on a long-term deployment to Iraq.

The above interpretation is not valid for a variety of reasons (such as the commitment in Afghanistan), but is given as an example of how some foreign military analysts could (and probably do) interpret the facts coming out of Iraq in the media. Underestimation of the strength of the military is, from our operational viewpoint, a very useful thing. But from the political and strategic viewpoint it is an exceptionally dangerous matter as it can be effectively used by foreign powers and agencies as an excuse for more aggressive antipathy and even hostile action. As a direct consequence, this impression encourages leaders in such places as North Korea, Iran and Syria to discount the possibility of direct military intervention, leaving them free to ignore any criticism expressed by the US even when they pursue the procurement of nuclear weapons or support terrorist groups such as Hezbollah (providing they know how to play the prevaricative version of international diplomacy demonstrated in the United Nations). The Joint Chiefs should certainly be called to account for these admissions to politicians, and thus indirectly to the public at large, that they are leading a military which cannot provide and sustain the major operation of the war on terror even though it requires less than 15% of their active strength.

The recent ouster of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, falls in line with the above questions of military effectiveness. In the main it was retired Generals who lined up to attack his leadership. This is because retired Generals have little to lose and considerable loyalty to those who are still active. However it represents several problems. First it ignores the effects of the advice given to Mr. Rumsfeld, mainly by the Joint Chiefs, by serving members of the Armed Forces. When they have critical concerns, the serving Generals have the options of going to their Commander-in Chief, their Congressional representatives or resigning and making the reasons public, none of which are likely to be career-enhancing moves. The Massengale tactic is to use the retired caucus to express their opinions as proxies while superficially continuing to agree with their superiors, in a similar fashion to those who equip and send out suicide murderers while maintaining cover as respectable people, although General Shinseki was an exception who showed enormous integrity with his stance during Congressional questioning, at considerable personal cost, prior to his retirement.

The ouster of Mr. Rumsfeld also showed a distinct lack of loyalty to the President who, as Commander-in-Chief, is entitled to demand much better from all his military both serving and retired. Mr. Rumsfeld was the personal choice of President Bush who expressed his confidence right to the bitter end - a lesson which was apparently lost on his subordinates. The success of this ouster sent another message to those who disagree with the US, one of disharmony, confusion and dissension within. They will continue to look for similar weaknesses to exploit in the future.

It is possible only to speculate on the why of the above. No one with military experience can doubt the patriotism of all those who serve. Likewise these are intelligent and experienced men and women. From their earliest training they are imbued with the values of service and loyalty. Apart from the Massengale factor, the problem may arise from several other issues. One is simply that the loyalty of senior officers becomes more focused over time on serving their perception of the needs of the country as a whole. As officers rise in rank to heights where their strategic knowledge is important, their view of these needs may be vulnerable to a degree of egocentricity in which they come to believe that, while remaining loyal to the office of the President, they know better than either the person or, perhaps more insidiously, they know better than his political appointee.

It also takes a degree of arrogance to reach Generals' stars. This arrogance can distort personal views to the extent of believing that they are sufficiently senior, and that they no longer take orders, only direction. Some confuse this with signs of greatness. After all, Patton was famously arrogant. The big "but" here is that Patton never lost his loyalty to the chain-of-command which peaks at the President and necessarily includes his appointee, the Secretary of Defense.

There is a second string of loyalty involved, to the Armed Services themselves. Military training necessarily and rightly focuses and depends on teamwork. Loyalty to the team is an essential facet of service life, and of great benefit to the system and to the individual. Even a few short years in uniform often leads to a lifetime commitment to supporting those in the uniforms of their country. It is no surprise that for some, particularly those who serve long and full careers in uniform, this becomes the predominant loyalty and that it usually extends to future generations.

A number of senior officers see Iraq as an opportunity. There is no better training ground for the military than on live operations. The more troops who rotate through an operational theatre the greater the quality and operational capability of the whole military for a disproportionately long period of time and across a wide pool of personnel. This beneficial effect results from the generational increase of efficiency arising from the spread of experience of NCOs and Officers who have operational and combat experience as they are posted between units. Also there is a certain self-interest in ensuring the maximum number of troops are kept in operational theatres - it ensures not only an increase in quality but also an increase in the number of Generals' posts and other promotion opportunities.

Sadly, most importantly at the General officer level but also throughout the military promotion system, a posting to an operational theatre where combat is a regular event is not the discriminative event it should be. It is more of a criticism than a tribute that few, if any, Generals return from such commands with appraisals which are less than effusive in their praise. This obviously reflects well on the most senior officers who select the candidates for these posts, but generates significant questions as to the effectiveness of the appraisal system. Can it really be believable that all of these senior officers are truly paragons? It would seem more likely that the reality is that some are only just competent and a few may even have been over-promoted. Neither General Sanchez (who solely blames the Abu Ghraib scandal for his early retirement) nor General Casey have managed to make the BIAP road mentioned earlier safe, a failure resulting in numerous casualties arising from a lack of will to achieve a basic military objective. This seems to be a failure without consequence to those responsible and against which failure their other (admittedly considerable) successes pale.

Nonetheless, all Generals are human individuals with opinions, prejudices and failings. It should therefore be no surprise that some express disagreement with strategies and the conduct of operations. Further, in a large organization, it should not be a surprise that such disagreements arise even within the topmost echelons. It is a testament to the quality of the system that disagreements are few and seldom critical. What was surprising about the recent ousting of Mr. Rumsfeld was that so many Generals decided to make their feelings and dissension public, albeit through the proxy opinions of the retirees thus avoiding confrontation with the chain of command. This was not in keeping with the lifelong Oath of Allegiance that they all took on joining the military to uphold the Constitution, which specifically appoints the President as the Commander-in-Chief.

I believe that this public display of dissension showed a significant lack of integrity as it should have been aimed at the Joint Chiefs who either misadvised or failed to make their cases strongly enough to the Secretary of Defense and the President. As the current professional heads of their branches, they should have the knowledge, expertise and political savvy to provide the resources they need to achieve the objectives set. If they lack resources, perhaps they should have to explain in even greater detail why they are running a military whose support ratio seems to run at 1:475 (Troops on patrol : total active military).

If the new Defense Secretary wants to be well-advised, he should consider removing any Massengales amongst the current Joint Chiefs. Their integrity is now in question and their only defense against a charge of dereliction of duty necessarily rests on ineptitude (based on self-interest). In the interests of the service he can also direct them to alter the promotion system in favor of the Damons who are much more likely to give honest advice and opinion.

FamilySecurityMatters’ Contributing Editor Tim Wilson is a retired British Army officer who served in a variety of command appointments on numerous operational tours during a 30 year military career. He now works as an independent consultant and over the last 2 years worked for USAID in Iraq.

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