The Army

In 2009, as I write this, the United States Army faces new challenges,
and has been transformed fairly radically
from when I first became acquainted with it,
as a ROTC cadet in the mid-1960s
and as an actual company-grade (junior) officer in the mid-1970s
(the intervening years were graduate school).
I want to look back at some aspects of that 1960s and 70s indoctrination,
then point out some relevant changes.

Somewhere along the line,
probably during the officer basic courses I took in 1973
(Infantry and EW/Crypto),
we were given a list of books that spoke in general terms about
the values the Army favored in its officers.
Reading these was not required for our course work,
just suggested as possible good background reading.
One that was especially recommended was
Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer
(Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, IMDB, its web site (!)),
first published in 1968 and amazingly still in print in 2009.
The short description on the Amazon web page reflects perfectly
my memory of the book and how it was viewed and used:

America’s fighting men have turned to Once an Eagle
as a sourcebook for the military's core values
since its publication at the height of the Vietnam War.
The novel, following the careers of
virtuous Sam Damon and
opportunistic Courtney Massengale,
is required reading for all members of the United States Marine Corps
and frequently taught in leadership courses at West Point.

Even more descriptive is this excerpt from the web site devoted to the novel:

Once An Eagle is the epic tale of good versus evil.
The good is embodied in protagonist Sam Damon,
a soldier’s soldier and a consummate professional,
noted for his bravery under fire
and his dedication to the men who serve under him.

Damon’s chief adversary, Courtney Massengale,
is evil personified.
His dedication is to the advancement of his career,
without regard to the devastation it wreaks on his family
and the blood shed by those affected by his command decisions.

And another description, from the flap of the
“First HarperCollins edition published 2000”,
which mentions the
“First Army War College Foundation edition published in 1997”
on its copyright page.
From the flap:

Once An Eagle compellingly recounts
the making of one special soldier, Sam Damon,
and his adversary over a lifetime, fellow officer Courtney Massengale.
Damon is a soldier’s soldier, the consummate professional,
decorated in both world wars for bravery under fire,
who puts duty, honor, and the men he commands
above self-interest.

the consummate political animal who disdains the average grunt,
brilliantly advances
by making the right connections behind the lines
and in Washington’s corridors of power.

Let us now fast-forward to 2009, and some news articles of the day.

Pentagon Worries Led to Command Change
McKiernan's Ouster Reflected New Realities in Afghanistan -- and Washington
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post, 2009-08-17

[An excerpt; emphasis is added.]

[SecDef Robert] Gates and [JCS Chairman Michael] Mullen
had been having doubts about [General David] McKiernan
since the beginning of the year.
They regarded him as too languid, too old-school and
too removed from Washington.
He lacked the charisma and political savvy
that Gen. David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war.

The decision was not discussed at length within the White House
but was endorsed by Obama.
It reflects a view among senior Pentagon officials
that top generals need to be
as adept at working Washington
as they are the battlefield,
that the conflict in Afghanistan requires a leader
who can also
win the confidence of Congress and the American public.

[Confidence in what?
In the personal qualities of the general?
Surely no one had doubts about General McKiernan.
In the conduct of the war?
That’s a legitimate question.
In whether the war was worth fighting?
It is not up to the generals to justify the rationale for the war.
That is the responsibility of the politicians.]

McKiernan is an understated and reticent man;
his 37-year career involved more than two decades of overseas deployments
but less than a year at the Pentagon.
He did not fawn over visiting lawmakers like Petraeus did in Iraq.
He also did not cultivate particularly strong relationships with Afghan leaders.
His replacement, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal,
is regarded as a leader in the Petraeus mold:
able to nimbly run the troops on the ground
as well as the traps in Washington.


“Blame General Petraeus,”
a senior Defense Department official said.
“He redefined during his tour in Iraq
what it means to be a commanding general.
He broke the mold.
The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore.
You had to be adroit at international politics.
You had to be a skilled diplomat.
You had to be savvy with the press,
and you had to be
a really sophisticated leader of a large organization.
When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus’s standards,
he looked old-school by comparison.”


The secretary and the chairman had come to believe that
the war in Afghanistan required immediate innovation and creative risk-taking,
even if it meant drumming out one of the Army’s most-senior leaders,
a general much beloved among those who served for him.


The day before he left Kabul,
McKiernan spoke to several hundred U.S. and NATO troops
assembled in the courtyard in front of his office.
“I don’t want to leave,” he told them.
“There’s work still to be done here. . . .
But I’m a soldier and I live in a democracy and I work for political leaders,
and when my political leaders tell me it’s time to go, I must go.”

The line of soldiers waiting to shake his hand continued for 90 minutes.


Before McChrystal left Washington,
Gates asked him to deliver an assessment of the war in 60 days.
Instead of summoning a team of military strategists to Kabul,
McChrystal invited Washington think-tank experts
from across the ideological spectrum.

The experts gave McChrystal a 20-page draft report that calls for
expanding the Afghan army,
changes in the way troops operate and
an intensified military effort to root out corruption.
What on earth does the military have to do with this?
That is a political task, not a military one.
Further, it can only be accomplished by the Afghans themselves.]

There were few revolutionary ideas in the document,
but McChrystal may have received something far more important
through the process:
allies in the U.S. capital, on the political left and right,
to talk about the need for more troops in Afghanistan --
in advance of his assessment to Gates,
which will probably be submitted this month.

“He understands the need to engage Washington,
and he’s willing do so in a creative way,”
said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations,
who was part of the team.


[In an interview, McKiernan] acknowledged that
he should have “done a better job of feeding the beast in Washington,”
even though he believed that

“an operational commander
needs to spend the vast majority
of his energy and time and efforts
focused inside the theater of operations
and not on trips to Washington.”

Here are some comments by the author of this blog.

It seems to me that the United States Army
is being asked by the American ruling elite
to be too many things and
to do too much,
far more than it can possibly be expected to accomplish,
no matter how large it becomes
(even without taking into account the strong constraints
that will be imposed by America’s declining financial situation).
The same problems hold for what is expected of the Army’s generals.

Let’s take the burdens being heaped on the generals first.
Note the reasons given for sacking General David McKiernan.
He failed to live up to the Petraeus standard:
“The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore.
You had to be adroit at international politics.
You had to be a skilled diplomat.
You had to be savvy with the press,
and you had to be
a really sophisticated leader of a large organization.
When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus’s standards,
he looked old-school by comparison.”

Well, let me make a general observation:
People can only be expected to do so much, to fulfill so many criteria.
Ultimately, the expectations heaped on individuals do become a zero-sum game:
the more that is demanded in a new direction,
the less time and energy an individual has to spend on his previous tasks.
With that in mind, let’s look briefly at what the “senior DoD leader”
(I suspect SecDef Gates)
dismissed so airily as “old-school.”
What that amounted to was what the fictional General Sam Damon stood for,
which amounted to a leader who was close to his troops,
the men under his command,
and whose vision of the job is that stated by General McKiernan.

What Gates, standing in for much of the “elite” running America today,
seems to want is someone who, by comparison,
is disconnected from the organization which he is running,
has less time to perform “hands-on” management,
instead being required to take time to
schmooze the media, Congress, and the Washington elite.

(It is all too reminiscent of
what happened to corporate America in the last half of the twentieth century,
where management by people who understood the procedures of the corporation
was deemphasized,
while MBA and financial types,
who understood the bottom line far more than they did
the processes and people who produced the product the corporation produced,
were put in charge.
Corporations became solely accountable to Wall Street.
Substitute “think tanks” for “Wall Street”
and you gain an approximation to what is happening to the Army.)

Why is it necessary for an operational commander to spend so much of his time interfacing with Congress and the media?

The “elite” is using these generals
to sell an unpopular war to the American public.
Essentially, the “elite” are hiding behind the generals.
They know that the military has far more credibility with the American public
than either the politicians or the media.
The public, for good reason, distrusts both of those.

Neither war, in Iraq or Afghanistan, is popular with the public.
It is hard to see, President Obama’s claims notwithstanding,
just how either war is vital to America’s security.
So how to sell the war?
Obviously, the are relying on generals,
with their rows of medals and distinguished records of service to their country,
to make the case for war.
Implicitly, the argument goes:
“Look, if General American Hero is for this war, how can you be against it?
We must support the troops!”
And the generals, trained as they are to be loyal to the political class,
can hardly say no, no matter how many internal doubts they may have.
If they break ranks with the politicians,
then the media jackals
(I am thinking in particular of Tony Blankley ([1], [2]) here,
but he is hardly the only one
(some additional examples are embedded here))
will rush to discredit any general who fails to rubber-stamp
the war-mongering that America’s media/political “elite” so favors.

"A General's Public Pressure" - Ackerman
by Patrick Lang
Sic Semper Tyrannis, 2009-10-03


I will make a prediction.
If McChrystal does not learn to subordinate himself
to something other than his vision of what is right and true,
he is going to get fired.

MacArthur was a lot smarter man than McChrystal
and yet he suffered the ignominy of relief for cause
even though he had not “gone public” against national policy.
There should be a lesson in that.

Truman asked George Marshall, then Secretary of State
to look at the collection of communications
that Truman had received from MacArthur.
Marshall sat up all night in a room at the White House reading these.
In the morning he told Truman that
he should have fired MacArthur six months previously.
The issue was
a subtle disrespect and thinly veiled defiance that permeated these messages.
MacArthur was fired and returned to the United States
to seek the Republican nomination for president in 1952.
He lost that fight to Eisenhower
and spent the rest of his long life brooding in the Waldorf Towers.

I judge McChrystal to be a monkish type.
He would have made an admirable Templar or Hospitaller brother.
He does not seem to suffer from
the disease of egocentric obsession so common in both civil and military life.
His boss, Petraeus, is different; he is more the Byzantine general type.
I am told that
he has already laid out a plan for his post retirement political life.
[Emphasis added.
While my rank in the Army never rose above O-3 (Captain),
even so from what I have gathered over the years it is almost unheard of
for officers to plan to enter politics after retirement.
Eisenhower, of course, did; he was highly desired by both parties.
But I never heard of him considering politics while still on active duty.
Are there other examples of such (perhaps MacArthur; who else)?]

Well, why not? As a retired officer he would have every right to do so.

McChrystal, on the other hand, is more of a problem.
From all I have heard from those who know him,
he is a good man, a “good and faithful tiger.”
I doubt if he realizes the potential damage that he is beginning to inflict
on our constitutional arrangements.

He was not invited to the White House to represent “the other side”
in the present deliberations on Afghanistan
because there is no “other side.”
Admiral Mullen,for good or ill,
is the president/commander in chief’s military adviser.
McChrystal is merely a subordinate, one of many.

McChrystal was summoned from England
to a 25 minute meeting with the president aboard Air Force 1.
He showed up in field uniform?
He owns a set of Greens (Class A uniform).
He wore it in London to the IISS meeting.
The man does not seem to know his place.

The Kagan/McChrystal Strategy
by Patrick Lang
Sic Semper Tyrannis, 2009-11-27

[An excerpt.]

The active army is stretched pretty thin.
The suicide and attempted suicide rate is becoming a serious matter.
People with families can not be pushed emotionally beyond
a certain level of alienation from home and hearth.
Perhaps it was not such a good idea to build the force around
middle class married soldiers.


"How to win in Afghanistan, one village at a time" Doug Stanton
by Patrick Lang
Sic Semper Tyrannis, 2009-12-06

[The following is an issue professional soldiers have been talking about
since John Kennedy embraced the Green Berets in the early 1960s (cf.).]

The long standing animosity of the “big army” conventional generals
for US Army Special Forces is still there.
The “SOF” community is full of it.
Special Forces soldiers reading this know that I do not exagerate.
COIN is a fad, the “flavor of the year.”
It is accepted wisdom at this point.
Unfortunately for that fad,
it is not really possible to use conventional troops to do real COIN work.
The infantry fights. That is their role in life.
They have no real taste
for integrating their lives with those of tribesmen and villagers.

A senior person in Rumsfeld’s Defense Department once told me that
their goal was to make the infantry more like Special Forces.
He waved off my observation that Special Forces soldiers and infantrymen
are two quite different breeds.

[I have no recent personal experience with this,
but do have some from way back.
I attended and graduated from the Infantry Officer Basic Course in early 1973.
The Army was winding down its involvement in Vietnam then,
and the course was transitioning from
training second lieutenants how to lead an infantry platoon in combat in Nam,
to preparing them for
conventional, primarily defensive warfare with the Warsaw Pact,
especially with the formidable GSFG,
which would have been about the highest intensity conventional warfare possible.
(The GSFG OB; a map is at the end. Each symbol is a division;
flattened circle (stylized tank tread) for tank division,
same with an X over it for motorized rifle division.)
In any case, the approach seemed wholly kinetic,
the classic infantry problem of how to
close with and destroy the enemy through superior firepower.
To the best of my recollection, there was none of
the touchy-feely, winning them over stuff present in the course.
I also do not recall any particular training given in
how to determine precisely who the enemy was;
the working assumption in all the exercises I recall
was that the enemy, when he could be found,
was readily distinguishable from friendlies.
Of course, this is a big problem in the real world of insurgencies,
if not in fighting the Warsaw Pact.
But there is only so much
that an infantry second lieutenant can be expected to learn in eight weeks,
and just mastering the skills needed for high or medium intensity combat
made for a quite full eight week course.]

Training, helping and leading the locals as a way of life
has never appealed to the big army.
Stanton offers an interesting explanation for that.
The Green Beret approach to war
is inherently decentralized, inherently cheaper in money
and an inherent threat to
the need for giant budgets and massive equipment programs.

Green Berets are a self aware elite.
Other soldiers, including generals,
see that self awareness in the eyes of the “Greenies, the Snake Eaters.”
They understand that
men who are not afraid to do this kind of isolated, self motivated duty
judge everyone by their own standards.
Perhaps that is part of the problem. pl

[Enchanting as the idea of
special forces winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population is,
I don’t think that even the best special forces the world has ever known
could succeed.
The product that they are selling,
a regime that is acceptable to the American PC elite
(e.g., the editorial board of the Washington Post),
is highly unlikely to be acceptable to a sizable fraction of
the Afghan male population that is willing and able to fight back.
I say this, not based on personal experience with Afghanistan,
but on a lifetime of reading relevant, I believe, information sources.
High-voltage examples are the three books by Michael Scheuer,
who surely has spent much of his life intensively studying
the Afghan situation in particular and the conservative Sunni tradition in general.]

Grinding Down the US Army
by William Astore and Tom Engelhardt
Antiwar.com, 2009-12-16

There is training and then there is hazing...
by Patrick Lang
Sic Semper Tyrannis, 2009-12-21

[About Col. Lang’s personal experience with the Special Forces:]

I [Patrick Lang] went through the SF Officer Course in 1964....


When I got to my first SF unit,
I found that the men were better soldiers than the officers.
They really did not need us, but, the army has to have officers....
These men were something out of The Iliad.
To say that a 25 year old kid like me was their leader was a bit comic,
but they didn't seem to feel that way.
They simply took charge of the “college boy” officer replacements continuing training
and looked pleased when you did something right.

Needless to say, they had not been selected in anything like
the brutal, searing way that I watched last night.
They had selected themselves.
There was nothing that they did not know about soldiering.
After a while, when you saw that they accepted you,
there was no greater privilege than to be their “boss.”

SF work is a thinking soldier's work.
You have to be tough physically, but,
it is equally important that you be smart.
I wonder how many thinking soldiers are excluded from the regiment
by what I saw last night,
by an insistence on physicality before all else.
I wonder how many of the old timers could have passed that test.


Too many wars, too few U.S. soldiers
By Robert H. Scales
Washington Post Op-Ed, 2012-03-14


The media is trying to make some association between
the terrible crime of this sergeant
and the Army’s inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder
and traumatic brain injury.
Perhaps the Army could have done more.
But I think Lord Moran had it more right;

the real institutional culprit is
the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of
one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets:
our close combat soldiers and Marines.


[KH comment:
General Scales does not mention it explicitly in his article,
but I think a comparison with World War I "shell shock" is also appropriate:
the effect of prolonged exposure to the threat of death or mayhem.]

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