Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, December 19, 2009

War, responsibility, and generalship

Bob Mackey is doing some posting at Obsidian Wings, and he wrote about The Argument for Manned Nuclear Bombers. I commented:

Count me in as a peacenik of considerable military (esp. history) reading who would like to see more posts like this.

In particular, I'd like to see your take on the religious issues wonkie mentioned.

I also have recently come across:

1. The Victory Disease, a quite prescient 2003 article by then-Major Timothy M. Karcher. LTC Karcher commanded the US forces withdrawing from Sadr City this past summer; he lost both legs above the knee in an IED attack, and is still in rehab.

2. Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template, by Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason. This article, also, strikes me as extremely clear-eyed on the strategic issues.

I found these articles almost at random, and was struck by how much more strategically aware and sophisticated they are than the military "analysis" and "commentary" I seem to hear from official or high-profile sources. It's enough to make me wonder how gung-ho the services really are about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, though that's the impression I get from the teevee and from the off-duty military I know or run into.

Bluntly, I had been assuming that the services were essentially in favor of the interventionist, imperialist policies of the Bush administration, and that doubters were rare and silent. Now I don't know, and it would interesting to hear your take.

I have observed that most senior military people think in terms of mission. If given one they perform it, with great intelligence and focus. They don't think in terms of defining the mission, just executing it, training for it, evaluating alternatives and minimizing the human cost.
In other words, they are not thinking on the "grand strategic" level, where war is in fact part of politics.

It may be that the grand-strategic guys are at a much higher level than those you've encountered -- but I actually wonder if they're there at all.

Don't expect a Clausewitz, Mahan or Jomini to popup there
The question is, why aren't we getting Washington, Grant, Sherman, or Eisenhower? In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich argues that the current crop of flag officers -- since Vietnam at least -- are mediocre compared to the people they command, and especially mediocre at the grand-strategic part of their job. But the US military *has* produced great generals in the past, so there must be something different about the current system.

The larger problem I'm chewing over -- one which should be quite pressing to you -- is how far down the chain of command there is a legal or moral obligation to detect and stop war crimes. The crimes I'm thinking of are "Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace", and also "violations of the laws or customs of war", including "the murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war".

Washington was a pretty mediocre commander
I don't know what criteria you're using, though I don't know as much about the Revolution (militarily) as most of the other US wars. Washington IMHO had the critical quality of focusing on winning the *war*, not the battle -- which is, also IMHO, the most important quality at the grand-strategic level.
Eisenhower's strength was politically dealing with the various factions
And that's why he's on my short-list of greatest US generals. Getting all those interests and egos to work together and not forget the goal was an incredible accomplishment.
we really don't have a metric for judging what a good general will be
I disagree, at least for the highest level. A good grand-strategic general fights the war, not the battle. He has a realistic vision of what the endgame should be -- and that vision has to be political, not just military. He does not tolerate Underpants Gnomes.
As for Grant and Sherman -- if they reappeared in the present day, they'd be war criminals.
That implies (a) that what was important about them was their tactics, and that they'd use the same tactics today. I'm saying no, they used those tactics to serve the grand strategy, and with a different war and goal they'd have the sense to use different tactics.

It also implies (b) that modern US generals do not use such tactics nor include war criminals. Sherman's March and Vietnam argues that yes, Sherman's strategy and tactics are still current; I am arguing that yes, at least some current US generals are war criminals.

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