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Who becomes a general — and why — tells us a lot about whether our military is on the right or wrong track.

The annual spring list of Army colonels promoted to brigadier generals will be shortly released. Already, rumors suggest this year, unlike in the recent past, a number of maverick officers who have distinguished themselves fighting — and usually defeating — insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq will be chosen.

For example, scholar-soldier Col. H.R. McMaster, Special Forces Col. Ken Tovo and Col. Sean MacFarland — all of whom helped turn Sunni insurgents into allies — could, and should, make the cut.

These three colonels have had decorated careers in Iraq mastering the complexities of working with Iraqi forces in hunting down terrorists and insurgents. And they, like Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in the past did not always reflect the Army establishment in Washington. Their unconventional views about counterinsurgency warfare do not hinge on high-tech weaponry, tanks, artillery and rapid massed advance.

But most wars are rarely fought as planned. During the fighting, those who adjust most quickly to the unexpected tend to succeed. And in almost all of America’s past conflicts, our top commanders on the eve of war were not those who finished it.

Few in 1861 anticipated the carnage that would ensue in the American Civil War, in which massive armies collided with lethal new weapons — and depended on industrial production, electronic communications and railroads.

Before the war broke out in 1861, the obscure U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman had failed at almost everything they had tried. But after the Union Army was nearly wrecked by establishment generals like Ambrose Burnside, Henry Halleck, Joseph Hooker, George McClellan, John Pope and William Rosecrans (all wedded to the set style of Napoleonic warfare), President Lincoln turned to his two generals who best understood modern warfare.

On the eve of World War II, Gen. George Marshall, Army chief of staff, promoted a series of junior officers — Omar Bradley, J. Lawton Collins, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor — while retiring senior generals he felt had little idea of the new warfare of armored vehicles, rapid mobility and close air support.

The Iraqi war is no exception. The brilliant and rapid invasion of Iraq in March and April 2003 required accomplished artillery and armor commanders — quite unlike the subsequent insurgency.

The terrorist bands that sprang up during the occupation were at first dealt with through conventional tactics and weapons. Only as American and Iraqi losses mounted did a few gifted officers begin to work with the Iraqis, learn the elements of successful counterinsurgency doctrine and slowly win back the hearts and minds of the civilian population.

Now we will see whether the former mavericks can become incorporated into the military establishment. Will this wartime change in Pentagon thinking be enough — and in time? It depends on how many of the forward-thinking colonels get promoted and how much influence they wield.

A newly ascendant Gen. Sherman captured Atlanta in time to save Lincoln the election of 1864, and with it the Union cause itself. The successful invasion of Normandy and subsequent race to the Rhine would have been unimaginable without Gens. Bradley, Eisenhower and Patton — all unknown colonels as late as 1940. So far, a few largely unheralded colonels in Iraq have salvaged the American cause.

The significance in the promotions of an H.R. McMaster or a Sean McFarland to general is not that they represent the nature of all future American wars. In fact, it is easy to conceive how a blow-up in North Korea or Iran would require a return to conventional military assets of heavy armor, firepower and high-tech close air-ground support.

Instead, the issue is whether the military still remains flexible enough to find the right commanders for the right type of fighting at the right time — and is preparing for all sorts of diverse scenarios in an increasingly competitive and unpredictable world.

A common complaint is that a worn-out military has lost the peace in Iraq and should withdraw in defeat. In fact, recruitments in June exceeded the military’s goals, violence in Iraq is down, Shi’ite and Sunni terrorists are losing ground to the new military of a constitutional Iraq — and the junior American outsiders who engineered all that may soon be seniors on the inside.

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