Archive for the ‘Military History’ Category

That’s Accountability

LewdNavyStIf All Government Operated This Way

Accountability, at least most of the time, is sure and swift in the United States military. Just ask Captain Owen Honors, who has been sacked as the C.O. of one of the U.S. Navy’s most prestigious sea commands.

By now most everyone has heard the story of how Honors, as the then-Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, hosted racy videos with homophobic, sexual and other offensive content that were broadcast during “movie nights” on the big aircraft carrier. He subsequently became the Commanding Officer of the Enterprise, the videos came to light and his career is as ruined as it would have been if he had run his ship aground in San Francisco bay.

The certainty of consequences for bad behavior or unethical conduct is one of the reasons that order, morale and effectiveness remain as high as they do in our all-volunteer military, while at the same time two wars and countless deployments have made military life incredibly difficult for thousands of young American men and women.

As I read about the Captain’s truly silly behavior – and, yes, I admit to finding the videos on YouTube and did take a look – I thought about the relative lack of accountability for bad behavior or performance on the civilian side of our government. It is a truly bipartisan problem.

Take your pick: the Treasury Secretary’s failure to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, various senators in both parties with ethical problems ranging from sweetheart home loans to sexual peccadilloes, heck even a former New York governor now has a prime time show on cable while the documentary about his frequent visits with prostitutes runs in theaters. Closer to home, a sitting Idaho state representative remains dogged by his tax problems and an Idaho tax commissioner operates under an ethical cloud.

Some might argue that the standards applied to the Captain of the Enterprise are a little harsh give the frat boy nature of his offense. Still, the Navy’s top brass demanded accountability – and swiftly – and not for the first time.

When the Captain’s boss “lost confidence” in him, he walked the plank – immediately.

Admiral John Harvey, in announcing that the can was tied to the Enterprise’s video host, talked about the Navy’s determination to maintain its values of “honor, courage and commitment.” Officers, Admiral Harvey said, simply must be held to the highest standards. The military code of conduct system demands it. End of story.

In the wake of his own bad behavior, Eliot Spitzer got his own television show. Increasingly, it seems, the American political system allows that sort of “accountability.” Little wonder then why the American public gives the military high approval ratings, while the public approval of Congress and other governmental institutions sinks to all-time lows.

No accountability, no confidence.


Communicating the Story

mccrystalI’d Like to Audit This Course

Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the fellow Barack Obama fired earlier this year as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is lecturing at Yale this fall. McCrystal’s syllabus was published by the Yale Daily News and I’ve got to say it looks pretty interesting.

The General, who will draw on his lengthy military career for the seminar entitled “Leadership in Operation,” will lead off on September 7th with a lecture on “The Importance of Leading Differently.”

The notes on the seminar say the session will involve, “A description of how changes in our operating environment over the 34 years of my service have demanded changes in how organizations operate – and how leaders lead them. For the military, focus often falls too narrowly – on technological advances in weaponry and armor. But like most organizations, truly significant changes in technology, politics, media, and society overall have driven change to almost every aspect of leading. Increasingly, the product of a failure to change – is failure.”

McCrystal will focus on four “case studies” in his first lecture – his own career, the decision to invade Iraq in 2002 and 2003, the American Civil War and German military strategy during World War II.

Toward the end of the semester, McCrystal will lecture on “Communicating the Story – the Media Environment.” That should be good. The General’s downfall came, of course, after Rolling Stone published an incendiary article that featured on the record quotes from McCrystal and several members of his staff sharply questioned the ability and smarts of the President and his national security team.

I have often believed that our society really has only one true meritocracy; an institution were individuals, in the vast majority of cases, advance on the basis of merit, wisdom and drive. The American meritocracy is the U.S. military. You don’t get to wear four stars without knowing a few things about leadership, history, politics and human nature. The proof of the modern military’s approach to merit and responsibility is Gen. McCrystal. He screwed up and lost his job. End of story. Not so in any other field of endeavor in American society.

There are exceptions, of course, to the military merit story line and the U.S. military, obviously, hasn’t always been a place where merit wins out. William Westmoreland and George Custer come to mind. Still, day-in and day-out, I’d put the military’s merit selection up against our political selection process, as well as against corporate America and even the academy.

It is very interesting that McCrystal, at least for the time being, has taken a pass on the post-military life of many retired officers. He appears not to be interested in the opportunities he surely could have to consult for a defense contractor or become a talking head pundit on cable television. Instead he’ll lecture at Yale.

It would be fascinating to listen in on those seminars.

A Reputation in Tatters

ambroseAmbrose Accused of Faking It

I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen Ambrose the author of Undaunted Courage, the book that did more than anything, I think, to bring Lewis and Clark back from the dusty corners of American and Western history.

I have a vivid memory of visiting Ambrose at his summer place in Helena, Montana some years ago. It was a treat to be invited into his “office” – if I remember correctly a converted garage – where he wrote and where a photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower hung prominently on the wall.

Ambrose was a little on the gruff side, outspoken, but still gracious. He signed a couple of his books for me that day. At least, that’s how I remember it going. Then again, maybe I embellished the memory a little in the interest of making the experience a bit more, well, interesting.

I’ve been questioning my own memory about that meeting since I read, with more than a touch of sorrow, Richard Rayner’s piece in The New Yorker making a very solid case that Ambrose fabricated (embellished, made up, lied about) the level of interaction he had with Eisenhower during the time he was writing the general-president’s biography. Until now, the Ambrose works on Eisenhower have been considered the definitive story of Ike’s military and political career. No more.

Rayner documents, with the help of the meticulous records Ike’s assistants kept, of the very limited amount of time the historian spent with the former president in the 1960’s. Ambrose claimed hundreds of hours. The records show maybe five hours. The documentary evidence even calls into question Ambrose’s oft told story about how he came to write about Eisenhower.

As a result, as James Palmer notes, “everything Ambrose claimed Eisenhower said, including quotes that have often been used by other historians, must now be taken as false.”

Those who occasionally check in at this spot know that I am passionate about history. I have come to really disdain what some have called the American propensity for “historical amnesia.” It is a big part – and I don’t believe I overstate the case – of the reason our politics, our political discourse and our understanding of why things are as they are seems so limited so much of the time. A lack of historical perspective failed to inform the country about the dangers of going into Iraq, it recently led a governor of Virginia to proclaim Confederate History Month and forget to mention slavery, it permits a clown like Glenn Beck to get away with equating the Catholic (and other religions) tradition of social justice with “socialism.”

For the most part, Americans don’t know their history. So when popular historians like Stephen Ambrose find a wide following – he sold over 5 million books – a history buff can only rejoice that more people are paying attention. Except, what happens when the work of a popular historian is cast into serious doubt? And, not for the first time, regrettably.

In his OregonLive.com blog, Steve Duin recalls other of Ambrose’s misdeeds and the latest episode calls up his run-in with plagiarism related to his book about bomber crews in Europe during World War II. It is not a pretty record and his reputation as an historian, as they say, lays in tatters.

I have most of the books Ambrose wrote about Eisenhower. Until a couple of days ago, I thought of them as little temples to the times of a very important American. Now I’ll never think of those books the same way again. I’ll remember the kindness of their author, to be sure, but I’ll wonder what compelled him to mix fiction with history, particularly when the true story is so very interesting.

Winston Churchill famously quipped that history would be “kind” to him because he “intended to write it.” And, so he did producing one of the first and most voluminous histories of World War II.

Still, I can read Churchill knowing that what is on the page has been written by a participant in the great events; a participant colored by all his bias and desire to create a legacy and defend his actions. That doesn’t make Churchill’s version of history “bad” history, or less interesting, or without merit. You just know what you’re reading.

I used to read Stephen Ambrose’s words, naively it turns out, as the work of a keen, uninvolved, but still passionate, academically trained searcher for the “truth” in history. No more and that is a real shame.

Dithering on War

george marshallWhen Politicians Overrule Their Generals

News today that President Obama is set to announce his Afghanistan strategy next week. He certainly has been getting a lot of advice and he is reportedly irate over the leaks.

The debate over Obama’s deliberation has been fascinating and strikes me in the main as being almost totally lacking in historical context. The president’s critics have suggested he should just adopt the recommendations of his generals and be done with it. Former Vice President Cheney persists in criticizing the president for “dithering” over the decision and many members of Congress argue that he should take the advice of the “generals on the ground.”

These critics have either not read our history or have chosen to ignore what has happened many times in the past. So, a little history and perspective on presidential decisions about war.

Obama’s critics should know that presidents decide strategy, informed, of course, by military and other advice, but the buck stops – and should – at the president’s desk. Sometimes presidents have even said “no” to their generals and it has been a good thing. I have no idea what the president will decide in Afghanistan, but history, all the way back to Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln, tells us that political leaders questioning, probing and even overruling their military advisers is the American way.

George C. Marshall (left), one of the country’s greatest military and political leaders, was Franklin Roosevelt’s chief military advisor during World War II. He knew something about being overruled by a civilian.

FDR Overruled His Generals, Truman and Kennedy, too, and Lincoln Should Have

In the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II, the American high command lead by Chief of Staff Marshall pressed hard for an early invasion of Europe to be accomplished by Allied landings on the French coast. The British, unlike the Americans, having experienced the full force of German military might and having by 1942 been expelled from the continent three times – Dunkirk, Norway and Greece – resisted an invasion in 1942 or even 1943.

Winston Churchill warned the Americans that a military disaster on the French coast was the “only way in which we could possibly lose this war.” The British advocated a less risky, but more time consuming strategy that included as a first step an Allied invasion of North Africa.

Still, Marshall and others, including Dwight Eisenhower, pushed Franklin Roosevelt to adopt a plan to invade France as soon as possible. The military high command considered North Africa a sideshow. Roosevelt “dithered” over a decision much to the dismay of Eisenhower who argued “we’ve got to go to Europe and fight.”

As Rick Atkinson masterfully recounts in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “An Army at Dawn,” FDR summoned his lieutenants to the White House at 8:30 in the evening of July 30, 1942. Roosevelt announced, as commander-in-chief, that he had made his strategic decision and it was final. The United States would adopt the British strategy and invade North Africa.

As Atkinson has written: “The president made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than his countrymen.”

British historian Andrew Roberts details in his book “Masters and Commanders,” that all of FDR’s top advisors “Marshall, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson, Eisenhower, [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull and [Marshall's chief deputy General Thomas] Handy…preferred the ‘Ulysses S. Grant’ view” that fighting the Nazis “should be done with a full frontal assault on Germany via France as early as possible.”

FDR considered those views and rejected them in favor of Churchill’s and the British high command’s “soft underbelly of Europe” strategy that would eventually involve invasions of Sicily and Italy before the invasion of France. History has vindicated that decision. Most historians now agree that an invasion of France much earlier than 1944 would have risked a military disaster.

Roosevelt must have been thankful to not have to put up with Dick Cheney-type criticism while he made his commander-in-chief decision. All of his deliberations were conducted in strict secrecy and in 1942 military and civilian advisers did not leak. When all the advice was weighed and sifted, FDR had the confidence and courage to overrule his military advisers.

Other presidents have done the same.

During the Korean War, Harry Truman overruled and eventually fired Douglas MacArthur for the general’s insubordination in questioning Truman’s strategy of not carrying the war directly on to Chinese territory.

John Kennedy rejected the advice of his generals to attack Soviet missile sites in Cuba during that crisis and opted instead to negotiate back from the brink of nuclear war.

Perhaps our greatest president – and greatest military strategist in the White House – Abraham Lincoln, experimented with general after general until finding one he could trust. In hindsight, Lincoln gave too much deference early in the Civil War to the views of his generals, particularly the disastrous George McClellan.

When McClellan hatched his ill-considered plan to capture Richmond by moving the Union Army up the Yorktown peninsula in 1862, Lincoln knew that McClellan was pursuing the wrong objective. His real aim should have been to engage and destroy the Confederate Army, but Lincoln, still an unsure commander-in-chief, reluctantly gave into McClellan’s strategy. The outcome was a series of bloody Union defeats and eventual retreat. Lincoln should have overruled his general, but he did gain confidence in his own judgment and worked hard to avoid future mistakes.

Lyndon Johnson also did not overrule his advisers. One wonders how history would be different had LBJ trusted his instincts and resisted the military and political pressure he felt to escalate the Vietnam conflict.

Johnson was captured on tape worrying out loud about his Vietnam decision: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.”

Obama’s decision about Afghanistan, just like George W. Bush’s decision to go into Iraq or LBJ’s into Vietnam, will determine the future direction of his presidency. Of course, Obama must – as FDR, Truman and JFK did, consider the full and frank views of his military advisers. They are the experts and their views deserve great deference. However, our history shows that the generals aren’t always right.

As another president famously said, Obama is the decider. We don’t remember that Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were wrong about North Africa, we do remember that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency died along with tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in Southeast Asia.

Such decisions are how young presidents become old men.

Dithering or a Strategy?

A Lesson from History

Within the stark building that houses the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa – perhaps the most anti-war war museum I’ve ever visited – is a relatively small exhibit devoted to one of the greatest blunders of the Second World War – the 6,000 man raid on the French port city of Dieppe in 1942.

Canadian bravery on the beaches of Dieppe is celebrated in the exhibit, not so the nearly criminal decision making that brought about the disaster.

As the photo nearby gruesomely explains, the Dieppe Raid – poorly conceived, horribly lacking from a strategy and planning perspective, and in no way adequately supported by naval and air forces – cost the lives of more than 1,000 brave Canadian infantrymen and British Marines in the space of a few short hours. Another 2,300 men were captured on the beaches in front of Dieppe and hundreds more of the wounded were evacuated back to England. The then-new British tank, the Churchill, saw action for the first time at Dieppe and most of the armor was left burning and destroyed as the survivors fought desperately to shed their weapons, get back to landing craft and escape across the English Channel.

In the annals of historic military disasters, Dieppe ranks high – or, perhaps, low.

What didn’t go wrong at Dieppe was the bravery of the mostly Canadian troops who went ashore at first light on the 19th of August. What did go wrong was the planning, larded with hubris, that marked virtually every step on the way to the death of so many of those brave men. No historian of the Raid has ever questioned the courage and resolve of the Canadians and to this day Dieppe conjures up a particularly melancholy memory among those who remember the sacrifice. Those who conceived and ordered the Raid have, in the fullness of time, been found wanting at every turn.

As historian Robin Neillands has written in his story of the raid: “If common sense had ruled the day rather than hubris,the Raid would either have been cancelled or the plans drastically revised. It was not one of those operations that begin well and then deteriorate. It failed from the very first moment the troops stepped ashore and got worse thereafter.”

Only later, as Neillands points out, was the Dieppe adventure justified – by Lord Louis Mountbatten, among others – as a trial run for the Normandy invasion in 1944. In none of the pre-Raid discussions had that rationale ever emerged as a reason for landing at Dieppe. Only later did it also become clear that virtually all of the assumptions made by the planners of the Raid were wrong. They underestimated German military strength and capability. They casually rejected what turned out to be the absolute necessity of naval and air support for the landings. And, amazingly, very senior British and Canadian military men and their civilian bosses dismissed the complexity of getting men and equipment both on and off a beach, under intense enemy fire, and all in the space of one high tide.

What was fundamentally wrong at Dieppe – and to draw the historical parallel to the current debate about the next steps in Afghanistan – was a sound, achievable objective. The Raid had no real purpose. At a time when British troops had suffered setback after setback, and before American GI’s were engaged in combat anywhere, the Raid would apparently prove that offensive action against the German Army was possible. As a result, the effort to put Allied troops on a French beach took on a life – and death – of its own as political and military leaders made the worst possible mistakes. They assumed that in war the best will happened and they planned for the obvious, not the possible. In the end, the planners of the Dieppe Raid failed, at any point, to stop, question, assess and ask the awkward question – including the most basic question – what are we trying to accomplish?

It is difficult to tell from the news coverage of the current Afghanistan strategy review – coverage heavily influenced by political calculations from the White House, the Congress and the last administration, particularly Dick Cheney – what is really being considered. Is our Afghan mission to destroy Al-Qaeda (and capture or kill the elusive Bin Laden), are we trying to defeat the Taliban, are we trying to prop up and then reform a corrupt Afghan regime, or are we trying to bring a 21st Century democracy to a tribal nation that, by most accounts, has never had a stable central government?

Not unlike the questions that should have confronted those who conceived the Raid on Dieppe in 1942, the questions in Washington today are simple to ask, but very hard to answer: What are we trying to accomplish and what must be done to realistically achieve success?

None of this is to question the bravery or commitment of the soldiers, airmen and Marines deployed – and likely deployed in the future – to Afghanistan. The troops will try to do whatever is asked of them without question. Leaders must have the wisdom and cold-eyed clarity to ask them to achieve objectives that really are possible and not based on fuzzy strategy or mere wishful thinking.

The great military historian B.H. Liddell Hart once wrote: “Throwing good money after bad is foolish. But to throw away men’s lives where there is no reasonable chance of advantage is criminal.”

With due respect to the former vice president, trying to get a strategy right is hardly dithering. In fact, it is altogether fitting and proper to question, debate and analyze before committing men and women to battle, or continuing battle. If there is any enduring lesson from the last half century of American military deployments it must be that asking and answering the “what are we really trying to do” question is essential.

After the Dieppe Raid had come to a disastrous end after just a few hours on the killing ground of that narrow French beach, a German interrogator said to one of the Canadian prisoners: “Too big for a raid, too small for an invasion…what were you trying to do?”

That is a very good question – always – when American troops are sent to war. What are we trying to do? A little dithering (or thinking) in the interest of developing a real strategy – a strategy with a chance to realistically succeed – can be a very good thing. Let’s hope we get it right.