Speaking in strictly military

March 25, 2003 9:42 a.m.

Speaking in strictly military terms, it’s far too soon to say how this war is going or how good a strategy the US is pursuing. But there is one man in particular who comes to mind whose professional reputation very much rides on the outcome. His name is Eliot Cohen and he’s the author of a much-discussed book called Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.

The thesis of Eliot’s book is that the best wartime leaders are those who heavily involve themselves in military planning. They don’t just leave it to the generals. They question and prod and, when needed — and that’s fairly often — overrule them. A key premise of Cohen’s argument is that generals and admirals are often overly risk-averse, trapped in the thinking of the last war, and sometimes overly devoted to the institutional agendas of their particular service.

Any quick description of a book will to some degree be an over-simplification. But this captures the main outlines of Cohen’s argument.

The book made a big splash in Washington policy circles. And what made the book so important was that it provided grist for a debate which was going on in Washington last year between the Pentagon’s civilian political appointees and those in uniform.

Was Rumsfeld and Co. right to tell the Joint Chiefs how to do their business? Were the staff officers on the Joint Staff just too unimaginative or maybe just too afraid of taking casualties? Did the uniforms really grasp the impact of new technology on the conduct of war? Or did the folks in uniform maybe know something that Rumsfeld and Co. didn’t?

For those who supported Rumsfeld and Co., Cohen’s book provided much-needed ammunition. If you didn’t want to fight a war in Iraq the way the military wanted to fight it, Cohen provided a reading of history which justified ignoring a lot of the career officers’ advice.

That debate is now coming back with a vengeance as a lot of retired Army commanders are coming forward with a big “I told you so.” (For a number of reasons, this debate centered most heavily on the Army.) This second-guessing from retired generals isn’t coming from nowhere. They’ve been saying this for 18 months. And the degree of tension and acrimony in that debate became quite intense. (I discussed some of this in an article about civilian-military relations at the Pentagon last year in Salon.)

The Pentagon’s political appointees were buoyed by the progress of the war in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld and Co. pressed the uniformed services to adopt a much more rapid and aggressive approach than they wanted to take. And it worked. By the early spring of last year, in part because of the success in Afghanistan and the discussion generated by Cohen’s book, it had become conventional wisdom in certain circles in Washington that the career officers at the Pentagon were really just a bunch of fuddy-duddies who needed to be told what to do.

That’s the backdrop to retired Army General Barry McCaffrey’s remarks yesterday to Reuters. McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division in the first Gulf War, was asked whether he thought Don Rumsfeld had misjudged the nature of this war, particularly by sending in the Americans without enough force on the ground …

Yes, sure. I think everybody told him that … I think he thought these were U.S. generals with their feet planted in World War II that didn’t understand the new way of warfare.

There’s a lot more to tell here. (One part of the story is Rumsfeld’s practice of appointing military leaders who are not known for standing up to, or giving bad news to, their civilian superiors.) But if it does turn out that we don’t have enough men and materiel on the ground in Iraq, that’s the direction this debate is going to go.

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