We should have fired some generals

Fall When Hit
Nov 13, 2014 · 5 min read
Major General William George Keith Elphinstone, prior to leading the retreat from Afghanistan in 1842

British campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan did not work out as intended. The question of whether the British Army was defeated in those two conflicts can be left for another day, but clearly the outcome was not what we expected (and it must be said, thanks to President Obama, worse than we could have feared). On a smaller scale, there have been many brigade operations that went sideways.

Against this backdrop, it is curious that no generals have been fired.

So far, we have been fortunate (in one sense) that the British public has focused on why we went to war (dodgy dossiers, WMDs, and supporting reconstruction) and whether the army was properly equipped. With a few exceptions (Deborah Haynes and Matthew Parris being two), there have not been many challenges over why army leadership has been so poor.

But it often has been. Transgressions include underestimates of the forces required, failure to plan for post-conflict operations, inability to comprehend the evolving threats, lack of imagination in devising winning strategies, leaving key installations unprotected, and – perhaps most egregiously – misrepresentation of the facts on the ground to civilian leaders. Arguably an enabling failure was creating a chain of command where it was unclear who should carry the can.

Despite these transgressions, and the at times desultory operational performances in both wars, by both the US and British armies, no generals have been sacked.

Lt Col Paul Yingling (USA)

At least the Americans have started the debate. In 2007, Lt Col Paul Yingling (USA) published an absolutely blistering, full-frontal assault on American generals entitled “A failure in generalship”. In it he challenged the US Army for producing generals with insufficient education, language skills, creativity and moral courage. He attacked the general officer promotion system as fundamentally flawed. His core argument was clear: “Our generals are not worthy of their soldiers” (link). Amazingly, the article – by a serving officer – was published in the Armed Forces Journal. Less surprisingly, Yingling is now a high school teacher. Can anyone imagine a British Army officer writing such an article, or the British Army Review publishing it?

It was not always this way. Thomas Ricks has argued in his book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (summary here) that the US military used to expect its generals to fail. In the Second World War, the US Army fired sixteen division commanders and at least five corps commanders. The British Army fired generals Wavell, Auchinleck, Cunningham and Ritchie in North Africa alone. Many were given second chances.

Somewhere along the way this tradition has lost. Ricks writes:

To a shocking degree, the [US] Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers, placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished, creating a perverse incentive system that drives leaders toward a risk-averse middle where they are more likely to find stalemate than victory.

Hands out of your pockets, General Abrams

At the moment, the preferred solution for policy-makers seems to be to patiently cycle through as many generals as possible in the hope they find someone smart enough to devise a winning strategy before public support runs out. In Vietnam, the US found that general (General Creighton Abrams), but not before General William Westmoreland destroyed all support for the war with his poorly conceived strategy. In Iraq, the Coalition found that general (General David Petraeus) just before the US ran out of patience in the wake of poor leadership by generals Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez and George Casey. Even then, the damage was done – as President Obama’s subsequent deplorable abandonment of Iraq proves.

General David Petraeus, believed by many to have been the most brilliant soldier of his generation

Have we found our Petraeus, our Abrams? In thirteen years of war? Before we lost our reputation in Iraq we were heralded as COIN experts. In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, first published in 2002, Lt Col John Nagl argued the British Army was successful in Malaya because we learned, while the Americans failed in Vietnam because they failed to. Have we learned our lesson this time?

Frankly, our civilian leaders are being far too respectful of our generals, perhaps because so few of our country’s leaders have served in the military. Traditional notions of civil-military relations also suggest that civilians should stay out of military affairs, although this notion was debunked in 2002 by Eliot Cohen in his seminal Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (Lawrence Freedman’s book review is here): Cohen described the “unequal dialogue” in which civilian leaders hold the upper hand. Yingling explicitly calls for Congress to provide greater oversight of US generals. The Commons Defence Committee under James Arbuthnot was at least proven willing to go after generals (example); I am sure Rory Stewart will carry on his good work.

Closely related to the lack of sackings is the lack of resignations. Yingling makes the explicit point that a critical responsibility of general officers is to estimate strategic probabilities for the benefit of policymakers. In the lead up to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, our generals either gave policymakers downbeat estimates, and were overruled, or upbeat assessments, and were wrong. In either case, someone very senior should have resigned (it is interesting to note that Donald Rumsfeld tried to resign twice over Abu Ghraib, but President Bush refused his requests).

We often (lazily) think of the military with a culture of clear accountability. This is only really true for lower ranks. In contrast, there is absolutely no question that if the British Army were a listed company (heaven forbid), a slew of generals would have been kicked out of theatre early. Boards of directors have very little patience for poor performance, and regularly give CEOs months rather than years to prove themselves. Recent examples include GM (four CEOs in eighteen months) and Hewlett-Packard (five CEOs in six years). In fact as many as a third of CEO departures are due to poor performance.

It’s time to hold generals to account.


Update: Paul Robinson got there first with an excellent article.


Update 2: Was the CGS listening? “Up to a third of army chiefs to be axed”

Fall When Hit

Disruptive ideas for the British Army, by anonymous posters. Member of Military Writers Guild. Broadcast from @fallwhenhit. Curated by @durnure. Submissions welcome: durnure at gmail.com

    Fall When Hit

    Written by

    A blog by British Army heretics. Background photo used under UK OGL.

    Fall When Hit

    Disruptive ideas for the British Army, by anonymous posters. Member of Military Writers Guild. Broadcast from @fallwhenhit. Curated by @durnure. Submissions welcome: durnure at gmail.com

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