Army Leaders’ Wartime Track Record Bears Up

In furtherance of my search for enduring truths and my discussion of the requirements of leadership, I wondered whether I had a scorecard or a practical assessment of how Army leadership measured up during the past 100 years.

I came to the conclusion that, even allowing for my bias, I could claim that the score is quire high.  In support of that contention I can cite many years in which polls rating the public’s approval of the many career professions had continually placed the military among the most highly respected.  My own appraisal is a bit mixed, but I end up with confidence that A record of the military profession is a good as any, better than most certainly deserving of the high ratings in those pools.

My opinion is not universally accepted.  Senior officers have had to deal with two criticisms that are standard fare for columnists, military analysts, Operation Research Systems, Analysis experts and other second-guessers.  One, that the  ”military mind” is closed, inflexible, stubborn and unable to conceive of the requirements of future warfare.  And two, that those same minds collectively can only plan to fight the last war over again.

Historical Example
Dealing with that first contention requires, for me, only to resort to historical example.  Going back only to World War II, it was military minds that determined the structure of the armed forces needed, and that planned and executed the most complex and complicated human endeavor ever attempted.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill established what had to be done.  Gen. George C. Marshall and Adm. Ernest King drove the determination of how to do it, civilian minds built the Arsenal of Democracy, making available the weaponry and other wherewithal that made the endeavor possible, and the success of the most complex and complicated human endeavor is now history.  Certainly a major positive for rating the military contribution.

The same practices and policies governed the two most successful American military campaigns in the following years.  First, the airborne operation to restore the democratic government of Panama.  President George H. W. Bush decided that had to be done, the U.S. Southern Command approved a joint Army/Air Force plan, and Congress provided the resources to build, train and support the campaign, which was over in a few days.

A second success was the operation to deny the conquest of Kuwait by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.  Bush and the U.N. agreed on what had to be done, the Joint Chiefs and the U.S. Central Command determined the force requirements and the plan of operations, Congress provided the resources and time was authorized to prepare.  The result was an air campaign of more than a month following by an armor and mechanized attack that effectively ended the campaign in about 100 hours.

Stark Contrast
Comparing those three wars with three others, Vietnam, a second war with Iraq and the current war in Afghanistan, all of which were fully controlled by civil agencies of our government, provide a stark contrast in the results achieved.
The Vietnam campaign lacked and approved and accepted mission assignment, suffered from piecemeal commitment of forces and an erosion of support by the public, by Congress and even by members of the executive branch of the government.  Combat operations were directed and controlled by the president, the secretary of defense and his ”whiz kids” and our ambassadors in Vietnam and Laos.  The Joint Chiefs and the field commanders were bypassed by, body count became the measure of success and ”rules of engagement” became a controlling policy.  Military successes after 1968 were ignored as our State Department acceded to an armistice and Congress abandoned our promises to the South Vietnamese.

The second war with Iraq was the first in our history when there was no expansion of our armed forces.  It was to be fought by forces in being, to be decided by the capture of Baghdad and Saddam.  The Army chief of staff’s estimate the need for 300,000 troops to complete the task was derided, then ignored.  The ultimate results of that conflict is yet to be determined.

The current campaign in Afghanistan, being fought with a still too small Army, suffers from indecisiveness in the objective being sought, varying levels of force commitments, and periodic announcements of our planned termination dates and over-control of operations.  We can hope that the current administration will overcome the deficiencies in our situation.

No Claim of Infallibility
My mixed feelings about our leadership stem from a number of things I think should have been done better.  There can be no claim that military direction has been infallible.  The Korean War is an example of some brilliant military decisions, such as the Inchon envelopment operation, but also there is the complete failure of military intelligence to predict the entry of the Chinese into the war and the failure of our military leadership to be prepared for such a contingency. The cost in soldier and Marine casualties was an inexcusable price to pay.

Then there is the failure to argue convincingly that our military forces are too small to satisfy the requirements of the national military strategy.  The Quadrennial Defense Review, since its inception, had been an accommodation to the directed budget. It has never addressed inadequacies and serious risks such as our lack of battlefield nuclear firepower when no other nation has followed our lead in destroying their stocks of these weapons.

Army leaders have not argued convincingly that the Army is too small, that contracting for civilian replacement of support capabilities is too costly and risky.  They have accommodated the social decisions that have added nothing to combat effectiveness but instead have demanded tolerance for maintaining a burdensome nondeployable cohort.  They have compromised their requirement to deploy only fully manned, trained and equipped soldiers and units to combat duty when assigning replacements in the last week or two before deployment on a combat mission.  They have not eliminated rules of engagement as a controlling dictum.  And they have tolerated requirements to commit career soldiers to a too-demanding rotation system unattractive or worse for career longevity or family life.

Oh, about that second cliche contention, that military thinking can only consider fighting the past war.  My comment always starts with: ‘ ‘Well, if we’re only equipped with the last war’s weaponry…”

There is much more to say about the quality and qualifications of Army leadership, but please remember I express only my opinions, not a learned treatise on the subject.  Perhaps I’ll have more later. So far, I have military leadership with a much higher score than civilians when going to war is an issue.


Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, USA Ret., served as vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and commander in chief of the U.S. Army Europe. He is senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare.

This article originally appeared in ARMY magazine, May 2018, VOL. 68, NO 5. Reprinted by permission.

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