According to recently published reports, the Bush administration quietly approached several retired four-star generals last March about accepting a newly created position to coordinate military and political/diplomatic activity in Iraq. None accepted. One of those who refused was highly decorated retired Marine Corps Gen. John J. Sheehan, who was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No, thanks.’ ” How unreasonable indeed it was of the president of the United States to ask a retired Marine Corps four-star general — during a time of war — to do something hard, particularly at the risk of an upset tummy.
Gen. Sheehan’s comments and a commentary subsequently published on April 16th have been cited by numerous media outlets and various politicians as proof of the problems within the administration. As a member of the active duty military, however, I find his comments appalling and embarrassing. In his commentary, Gen. Sheehan wrote that to have accepted the job would have required “a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy” to coordinate the various governmental agencies, and ultimately, he wrote, “I concluded that the current Washington decision-making process lacks a linkage to a broader view of the region and how the parts fit together strategically.” To which I respond: How about using your ostensibly powerhouse resume (former supreme allied commander, commander-in-chief of U.S. Atlantic Command, etc), to bring order to the chaos you cite, to recommend policy revisions and use the immense reputation conferred upon a retired U.S. Marine Corps general to solve these longstanding problems? This position carried with it a direct line to the president; armed with such power, a capable man could surely have made a difference. But instead, the general only talks about the challenges — and his personal discomfort.
So to sum: Gen. Sheehan is willing to allow the men and women of our armed forces to continue languishing in a lethal environment that he believes to be dysfunctional, but refuses to get involved because it would be hard and might cause him to “develop an ulcer.”
Where are the men like former Marine Corps Gen. Clifton B. Cates, who was cited for heroism fighting in the bloodiest battles of World War I, and years later when given one of the toughest missions of World War II — taking Iwo Jima — didn’t hesitate? Throughout American history when the times were difficult, tough military leaders have always risen to the occasion. When Eisenhower asked who could relieve the beleaguered men of Bastogne in December 1944, George Patton with all his swagger and confidence didn’t hesitate to throw himself and his men into the teeth of the German offensive and won the day; when the Germans threatened to capture Paris in World War I, it was John “Black Jack” Pershing who thrust the American Army into the breach and helped save the French capitol; and who could imagine Col. Teddy Roosevelt turning his Rough Riders away from San Juan Hill because, well, there were bad guys up there and it could be hard? Where are men of this caliber today? Are we to understand that not one of the hundreds of living retired three and four star generals are up to the task of answering the president’s call in our present war? What does this say about the quality of generalship in America today?
In the May 2007 edition of Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling penned an article titled, “A Failure in Generalship.” In it he wrote, “After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public… For reasons that are not yet clear, America’s general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq.”
Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that none of these men who both failed in the preparation for war and in the aftermath it created, would be interested in taking the job after retirement, when they’d be no more likely to succeed than they were in the past, deciding instead to publicly pin the blame on the administration. For too long now, the responsibility for the failures in Iraq has been laid only at the feet of political leaders while we in uniform are depicted as the luckless victims of poor policy. Although there is certainly room for debating decisions made by political leaders and policy-makers, it is also fair to shine the light of examination on the decisions made (or not made) and actions taken by those of us in uniform; for good or ill, we’re in this together.
We officers in the military — from the newest second lieutenant to the chief of staff of the Army — should be held to account for our performance, particularly in the ruthless, unforgiving crucible of combat, where other men pay with their lives when we make mistakes. By that measure there are some officers who ought not keep their jobs. There are others, thankfully, who have performed brilliantly in combat and richly deserve the accolades they have received.
It is time — well past time — that we examine the performance of all those who have had leadership roles in Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it’s also time for today’s Roosevelts, Pershings, Pattons and Cates to step up and be counted; the courage and resolve shown by the privates, sergeants, lieutenants and captains who do the fighting and dying in this war demand it.
Maj. Daniel L. Davis is an armor officer. He fought in Desert Storm in 1991 and served in Afghanistan in 2005.