In spite of its obvious importance, an item in the news this week went nearly unnoticed. It failed to get attention because the American media is consumed by American dysfunction. The government shutdown has sucked the air out of the room.
The fact that two Marine generals were in effect fired for incompetence – Taliban fighters breached a coalition air base under their command in southern Afghanistan, killing two Marines and destroying or damaging more than a dozen aircraft – is a very big deal. It’s a rare example of the U. S. military holding its highest officers to account for their performance on the job. Major General Charles Gurganus and Major General Gregg Sturdevant were relieved of their duties for failing to “take adequate force protection measures,” and for not exercising the “level of judgment expected of general officers.” In making his announcement, the commandant of the Marine Crops, General James Amos, said he had censured Sturdevant for depending too heavily on the British to protect the Americans (the air base was formally under British control). And that he had punished Gurganus because he was the one who “bore final accountability for the lives and equipment under his charge.”
In the wake of the Vietnam War, now widely regarded as lost, the American military was largely ignored or even demeaned. Americans were embarrassed less by it than by their own intervention in a war that was very high in cost and very low in benefit. More recently our attitudes have changed. In spite of widespread doubts about the virtue of American intervention both in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U. S. military has regained its previous position of honor in America’s collective consciousness. Whatever you might feel about the now ubiquitous line from American civilians to members of the Armed Forces – “Thank You for Your Service” – it is an attempt to extend respect.
But the deeper truth is that the American military is just like every other American institution – its leadership cadre is under attack. The most visible (and, some would say, risible) example was its most famous (and, some would say, most pompous) general, David Petraeus, feeling forced to quit his position as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency because of an extramarital affair. Not far behind is General Stanley McChrystal, who was pushed by the president to resign because of injudicious remarks made to a reporter for Rolling Stone. But these personal humiliations are chump change compared to the professional questioning to which America’s military command has recently been subjected.
Three recent books make my case. In “Invisible Armies” military historian Max Boot argues that, “unfortunately, our ignorance of guerrilla war runs deep, even as we find ourselves increasingly entangled in such conflicts” (Wall Street Journal, 1/13). In tellingly titled “Bleeding Talent,” and tellingly subtitled “How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why it’s Time for a Revolution,” military veteran Tim Kane claims that “in terms of attracting and training innovative leaders, the U. S. military is unparalleled. In terms of managing talent, the U. S. military is doing everything wrong.” And in “The Generals,” longtime military reporter Thomas Ricks points out that the way in which “the generals themselves are managed has fundamentally shifted since World War II” – and not for the better. Then they were held accountable. “Firing, like hiring, was simply one of the basic tasks of senior managers.” Now they are not. Now, with some very few exceptions, they are allowed to remain in place. For Ricks this raises several questions: “How and why did we lose the longstanding practice of relieving generals for failure? Why has accountability declined? And is it connected to the decline in the operational competence of American generals?”
There is no reason that military leaders should be exempt from assessment. This is not to suggest that they become targets of public rebuke. Rather it is to point out that the relief of Generals Gurganus and Sturdevant was completely in keeping with the reforms that Ricks properly proposed.