Tuesday, December 22, 2009

General Review

Over the past couple of months, I have read a couple of books focusing on the top level of military leadership: General Rick Hillier's memoir (recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, the highest position in the Canadian Forces), A Soldier First, and The Fourth Star, which focuses on four distinct four-star generals:
  • Gen (ret) John Abizaid--head of Central Command (US forces from Morocco to Pakistan).  He was head of the J-5 (Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate of the Joint Staff) my first month or two on the JS, and then was Director of the Joint Staff for the rest of my tour.  He is now retired.
  • Gen George Casey--headed the Iraq operations from 2005-07, now Army Chief of Staff.  Casey was the J-5 head for the rest of my tour of the JS and then became the Director of the Joint Staff.
  • Gen. David Petraeus--headed the Iraq effort from 2007-2008 and is now CENTCOM commander, Petraeus, Chiarelli).  During my year in the Pentagon, Petraeus was Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations of the NATO mission in Bosnia (SFOR).
  • Gen. Peter Chiarelli--served in key positions in Iraq and is now Vice Chief of the Army.
There are important contrasts and similarities that I would like to highlight.

First, the differences:
  • A memoir has as its goal a central message by the person who experienced the events.  Hillier's book is an assertive defense (perhaps even an offensive in the military sense of the term) of his time in office and the changes he made in the Canadian Forces.  He clearly identifies the targets of his animus: the Canadian politicians that underfunded the CF and blocked some of his initiatives, the bureaucrats on the civilian side of the Department of National Defence who slowed down various processes, and the international organizations (UN, NATO) that left the CF hanging in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
  • A book by journalists does not necessarily have as clear a message.  Fourth Star depicts the trajectories of four different personalities, as each reaches the pinnacle of his profession--the highest rank in the US military (five stars are reserved not just for wartime, but big wartime).  The only messages of the book are: one's path and personalities crucially shape one's perceptions at the end; and that the American military faced a pretty difficult time in the Aughts, including much conflicting messages or, even worse, little guidance at times.
  • As a memoir by a retired officer, Hillier can be astonishingly blunt, referring to NATO as a decaying corpse.  The Fourth Star covers three currently serving generals (only Abizaid is retired).  So, we get some very interesting and honest portraits, I think, but none of them vent their spleen like Hillier does.  Of course, Hillier is actually more discreet than he is given credit for, as he rarely names the civilians he had problems with, although you can sometimes figure it out.
Second, the similarities:
  •  Both books are good, relatively quick reads and should be of interest to the non-specialist.
  • All of the Generals served in a military that transitioned from its absolute lowest ebb to its highest levels of performance and status.  Hillier's book is entirely about this journey, as the Canadian military was underfunded as a result of the end of the Cold War and 1990s budget crises and disrespected as a result of its Somalia experience.  The American generals all entered the US military during or in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam.  Casey actually had to sit guard duty in his initial positions, to make sure his troops didn't engage in criminal activities.  
    • The irony is that all of these Generals may have left/be leaving their beloved institutions just as they reach their breaking points.  The Canadian Army is stressed by Afghanistan, and the US Army is stressed by the dual efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Generals are smart, articulate folks.  Getting to that level in either military requires ambition, tenacity, connections, politics, and just a bit of luck as well.  
    • Abizaid is perhaps the most conflicted, knowing as an expert on the Middle East that the US is making mistakes.  Ultimately, he plays the role of Cassandra--no one heeds his advice.  I would have liked to have seen more on his relationship with Tommy Franks.  In the book Abizaid finds himself giving than he believes.  One of the questions raised by the book but not really answered is why Abizaid was not a bit more forceful a la Petraeus.  The book tries to address this, but I am still left wondering.  
      • Abizaid should have removed or supplemented Sanchez, the first ground commander of the post-phase, who had a toxic relationship with Paul Bremer and was very poorly prepared to lead in Iraq.  The book covers Abizaid's decision to keep Sanchez in place, but again, this is a mystery why he never acted as strongly as he knew he should have.
    • Of all of the generals covered, Casey seems to be the most tragic. The book starts with his father's death in the waning days of Vietnam, and then starting a military career in the aftermath of that catastrophe.  As a result, Casey's focus is on the Army, and has a relatively conventional career.  It leaves him well equipped to run the Army, but poorly equipped to run the mission in Iraq.  His focus was on getting the US footprint smaller, thinking that the troops themselves were magnets for trouble and the more the US did, the less the Iraqis did.
      • This has always been a problem for me--the Rumsfeld argument that you need to get the guy back on the bike and let him ride it himself.  That assumes that you are giving back to the guy a functional bike and that you didn't break his knees first.
    • Chiarelli seems to be the most adaptable, at least as the book portrays him, learning on the fly that winning in Iraq required more than body counts.  The authors seem to want to make him a tragic figure, but I am not so sure he is.  He does not get the Iraq command, but gets to stay in the action from a distance by being Vice Chief.  The book sometimes fails to make clear how hard it is to get promoted at every stage.  There are very four few star generals, with most three stars getting pushed into retirement.  Chiarelli, I think, only gets his fourth star when he leaves Iraq (he did not have a billet or position that was a four star one until he was Vice Chief).
    • Petraeus is the most famous, and has probably been given a bit more credit than he deserves, as the surge and his strategy were fortunate often to interact with key changes on the ground--such as the Sunni extremists overplaying their hand, alienating the rest of the Sunnis.  Still, the book shows more of Petraeus's warts than perhaps Ricks does in his work (Fiasco, The Gamble).  

  • What unifies this five Generals is that, despite different beliefs about what would work best, they all seem to listen to varying opinions, take in discrepant information and modify their plans.  That might sound like a high standard, but it differentiates these guys from Tommy Franks who ran CENTCOM and whose war plans and post-war plans set the stage for Abizaid's and Casey's difficulties.  
    • Indeed, I would have liked to have seen more comparison of before and after--of the previous Chief of the Defence Staff Ray Hennault's thinking and of Franks vs. those who followed him.  
  • War is still too important to be left to the Generals.  Micro-management a la Rumsfeld is a bad idea, and the Generals themselves seem to realize when direct intervention is necessary and when they need to delegate.  
    • The tale of Petraeus focusing on a specific electrical tower was not so much of him micro-managing electricity reconstruction but of sending a message to everyone else in Iraq.  Harping on a specific detail was his way of getting the rest of the folks to think as strategically and as tactically as he does. He knew he could not control everybody in Iraq--but he could push many of them to work within his intent, as each area of operation had its own challenges.
    • The tales of Abizaid and Casey show what happens when they are given poor or lousy guidance.  
    • Hillier's story tries to eliminate all civilian hands from the story, but it is clear that Bill Graham and others did also facilitate the decisions Hillier was making to re-cast the Canadian Forces. 
    • These Generals make it abundantly clear that all war is politics by other means and that the new problems of the Aughts force Generals to confront that reality.  They must interact with the local politicians, and think more seriously about how the use of force alters the politics on the ground.  Civilians back in DC and Ottawa need to take this as seriously, and if they want more control over outcomes, they need to buttress the civilian expertise so that the Generals do not have to pick up all of the slack, as Petraeus suggested is inevitable in the Counterinsurgency handbook he sponsored.

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