Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 September 2005

Civilian Control of the Military: Oversight or Micromanagement?


We may still win the War in Iraq. If we do, it won’t be because of our own brilliant planning and strategy. It will be because we muddled through. Or maybe Iraqis will finally get a taste of their last, best chance for liberty and begin to fight harder and smarter. If we lose, the United States---the strongest, richest, smartest, most technologically advanced nation on earth---will be zero for two in our last major “hot” wars. (I don’t count Gulf I because of its strictly limited objective; Bush I wisely hesitated where his son did not fear to tread.)

If that happens, what will have gone wrong? To answer that question, we can start with the man partly responsible for the first loss, former Defense Secretary Robert S. MacNamara. Not long ago, he publicly apologized for his role in the War in Vietnam. And well he might. He bears a large share of the responsibility for over 50,000 American deaths, countless military and civilian casualties in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the defoliation and chemical poisoning of large parts of Southeast Asia, a domestic generational split in America that was only beginning to heal as we invaded Iraq, and political tarnishment of our own military for the better part of two generations. Seppuku might be more appropriate, but a verbal apology will have to do.

MacNamara apologized primarily for his so-called “domino” theory: that the fall of South Vietnam would lead inexorably to the rest of Southeast Asia going Communist. Of course, nothing of the sort happened: Laos and Cambodia tottered, but the rest held. Vietnam itself is now in the process of following China out of the darkness of communism into the light of free markets. History has put the domino theory clearly and firmly in the dustbin.

But the domino theory was far from MacNamara’s only sin. The story of how he mismanaged the War in Vietnam appears at length in David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest.

As CEO of Ford Motor Co., MacNamara was one of the first American executives to apply quantitative methods to business. He was apparently very good and very quick with numbers. Using this skill, he intimidated some very smart people, including Jack and Robert Kennedy. As a numbers man, he ultimately established “body counts” as the “metric” for success in Vietnam. He neglected unquantifiable political factors, like the stench of the corrupt and despotic South Vietnamese government and the steel will of the North Vietnamese. He completely ignored the most salient fact of all: the Vietnamese yearning for independence from foreign domination, including by the Chinese. He ignored the fact that often soldiers doing the counting couldn’t tell the difference between corpses of friend, foe, and the neutral peasant just trying unsuccessfully to survive. His obsession with numbers became so great that soldiers at every level began to “fudge” the body counts to tell him what he wanted to hear. Our military and political leaders lost track of what was really happening on the ground. Not only did we lose the war; we grossly underestimated its cost in lives and treasure.

Now comes Donald Rumsfeld. He and MacNamara had very different backgrounds and education. MacNamara was a successful business leader; Rumsfeld was a marginally successful political hack. Yet both had one key feature in common: their contemporaries described them as unusually arrogant, cocksure, and intimidating, even to hardened military folk. MacNamara intimidated with his intellect and command of numbers, Rumsfeld with his aggressive and overbearing personality.

To understand this about Rumsfeld, you don’t have to have read all the “deep background” reports of his browbeating Pentagon officials, most of whom (for obvious reasons) won’t be quoted for attribution. All you have to do is have seen a few of his news conferences on TV. Even on the other side of the TV screen, you feel the effect of his aggression, sarcasm and absolute bullheadedness. As you walk away and your adrenalin level subsides, you ask yourself what he said and what you learned. Most often the answer is nothing, except that Rumsfeld is one tough hombre in asserting his viewpoint, no matter how mistaken. As admirers and detractors both say, he is a “skilled bureaucratic infighter.”

Now Rumsfeld insists that he gave his military commanders all the troops they wanted, and President Bush says the same. But the facts tell a different story. Both General Shinseki and General Zinni are on record to the contrary. Both asked for about twice the largest number of troops that we have ever had on the ground in Iraq. General Myers, now head of the Joint Chiefs, tries to keep as quiet as he can on the issue, thereby leaving the impression that he agrees with Rumsfeld and Bush.

But a different story emerges when you consider the timing and the services involved. Shinseki and Zinni, both of whom asked for more troops, are gone from active duty. Myers is in charge. Shinseki is Army and Zinni a Marine. Together, they represent the services most bloodied in Vietnam, the ones that spent the next thirty years thinking hard about what they had done wrong. Most of their thinking involved insurgencies, since that was what Vietnam was all about.

Myers, on the other hand, is Air Force. That’s a great institution, perhaps our most important service strategically. (It certainly was in the Cold War, the Kosovo action and the thirteen-year containment of Saddam.) But you don’t fight an insurgency from a cockpit at 30,000 feet. The folks who know most how to fight insurgencies were the Army and Marines, represented by Shinseki and Zinni. Not surprisingly, both wanted a large number of troops to deal with contingencies, like the insurgency that later arose, and like the need to sequester the huge caches of explosives that are now blowing up our troops and Iraqi forces. Both Shinseki and Zinni are now gone, replaced by an Air Force general who knew far less about insurgency and contingencies on the ground, and who only may have acquiesced in Rumsfeld’s cut in requested troop levels at the outset.

Is it unfair to say that (assuming Myers really agreed) Rumsfeld “shopped” his generals until he got the answer he wanted? Is it wrong to conclude that, in so doing, he ignored the advice of the generals who were most expert on what eventually happened in Iraq? That’s what the bare facts suggest. If this conclusion is correct, Rumsfeld, and he alone, is responsible for the debacle that has followed.

If we lose this war, we therefore will have lost two major wars because two Secretaries of Defense went far beyond their competence. Both meddled directly in military planning and strategy---MacNamara in telling the military how to measure success (and therefore, indirectly, how to fight), and Rumsfeld in dictating how much force was adequate. What military decision is more important than how much force to put in the field? What decision requires more expertise, education and experience? What decision is more crucial to victory? Were we right to have it made by a marginally successful political hack?

The supreme irony is how often Rumsfeld and Bush have publicly lauded our military’s excellence in training, experience, and education. And they have been right to do so. Even in peacetime, our troops train constantly, as much as possible with live ammunition, often raising questions about the environment and noise near military bases. Their leaders attend special schools, institutes, and war colleges. There they read about, discuss, and analyze every conflict in world history, from the Peloponnesian War to Gulf I. They, too, use quantitative methods and sophisticated computer analysis to do their jobs. We do have the best trained, best educated, and brightest military in the world. So what have we done in fighting two of our most recent major wars? We’ve ignored and marginalized their top leadership.

Doing so was not just incredibly stupid and counterproductive. The results speak for themselves. It also violated an implicit social compact with our troops. We expect them to salute, fight and die for us on command; and they do. In return, we owe them not just honor and lip service, but competent strategic and tactical leadership, preferably from their own ranks. We should not expect our brave soldiers to die willingly because of poor planning or command by a political hack (or even a successful industrialist) trying to play soldier. Our present voluntary army only highlights the need to honor this vital social compact.

In George Washington’s time, the man who became President could lead troops into battle. By Lincoln’s day, that time had vanished. Today, it is a distant memory. Today the President’s constitutional role as Commander in Chief is figurative only. The job must be delegated, and delegated wisely to people who know what they are doing. Would anyone want President Bush, with his questionable service in the Texas Air National Guard, standing in for General Myers?

Having experts in charge is not just important for the troops. It is important for democracy. Congress is supposed to have some role in the decision to go to war, if only through the power of the purse. It can’t play that role if it doesn’t have good information about the cost in blood, time and treasure. Would Congress have been so easily stampeded into authorizing the invasion of Iraq if it had known that a successful operation would take 300,000 troops, costs half a trillion dollars, and maybe take several years? We’ll never know, because Rumsfeld’s “spinning” of the facts and disinformation---tasks at which he is so consummately skilled---left the Congress, not to mention “us, the people,” in the dark. Now the time window for ready victory, if there ever was one, has long since closed.

If we are ever invaded, we may not have a choice. But it’s different in an “optional” war. Then, we must all listen particularly well to our real military experts, especially when they give us bad news, and even more especially before we start a conflict (as in Iraq) or get too deeply involved in one to turn back (as in Vietnam). By his constant stream of self-serving disinformation, Rumsfeld the bureaucratic infighter prevented the democratic process from working where it was most needed.

So what can we learn from this sad history? What are the proper limits of civilian control of the military? Certainly, the executive branch (together with Congress) has to set policy. The goals and objectives of any military action, including whether and when to go and when to get out, are matters for civilian leadership and the political process. So are broad strategic limits based on politics or foreign policy. Examples include the decision not to invade China during the Korean War, restraints on the use of nuclear weapons, and restraints on air power to avoid civilian casualties. Military forces must accept these limits on planning and action---even when they rankle---because there can be considerations more important than strategic or tactical advantage, and civilian leadership must make those decisions.

Just as certainly, the executive branch must have the power to appoint and remove top military officials. Lincoln famously ran through several top generals before he found (in U.S. Grant) one who would fight the Civil War boldly and wisely. Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination and going far beyond the limits of national policy, nearly provoking all-out war with China. Both were right to do so.

But if we look honestly at our entire history, including our two greatest wars (the Civil War and World War II), we will see something interesting. Never after our Revolution have political figures meddled in strategy and tactics to the extent that MacNamara and Rumsfeld respectively did in Vietnam and Iraq. By telling our armed forces how to measure success in the face of an insurgency (with body counts), MacNamara was telling them not what to do or what political limits to observe, but how to fight. Rumsfeld's intrusion into military competence was even worse. In telling our military leaders how many troops to field, he intruded at exactly the point where military expertise is most valuable and most needed.

To see just how intrusive Rumsfeld's decision was, consider the "safety factor." No competent engineer would design a bridge to support exactly the maximum weight it is expected to bear. There is always a safety factor. Just so, competent military planners must include a safety factor in troop and equipment requirements to account for unforseen contingencies, breakdowns, disasters, bad luck, a enemy that is stronger or smarter than expected, and "the fog of war." In both engineering and military planning, safety factors are typically 20 to 30 percent, maybe 50 percent at the outside. But Rumsfeld allowed only half the troops that military leaders specified. He was not just quibbling about a safety factor, for a 50% percent reduction assumes an unheard-of safety factor of 100%. Instead, Rumsfeld was second-guessing the basic reasoning and conclusions of his military planners on a matter on which they were the experts and he the amateur.

The results speak for themselves. Had MacNamara not so distorted our sense of reality with his useless “body counts,” we might have realized the full cost of winning much earlier and extricated ourselves with less pain and humiliation. (It’s unlikely that we would ever have summoned the political will to "win," had we honestly faced the true cost of winning in blood and treasure, and had we understood the true determination of the Vietnamese to be free from foreign domination, even under Communism. The nuclear option was never realistic, let alone advisable, despite some hawks’ wishful thinking.) Had Rumsfeld recognized his generals’ competence, we might have thought twice about invading. Or, if the public and Congress had agreed to pay the necessary price, we might have stabilized Iraq during the brief window of opportunity and be on our way out now. Instead, we have a practical demonstration how foolish it is to do something halfway, especially when that something is waging war.

There are other constructive roles that civilian leadership can play besides setting objectives and broad limits and hiring and firing. It can coordinate supply by the government and the private sector to make sure that the military has what it needs. The federal government did so in World War II. It built huge aluminum plants, from scratch, to supplement the resources of Alcoa, which then had a monopoly on aluminum production. (After the war, those plants were sold to the private sector and became Reynolds and Kaiser.) Even in this supply-assurance function, however, civilian officials should not overstep their competence. An army general, General Leslie Groves, and not civilian leadership, ran the Manhattan Project that built the atom bomb.

In coordinating supply, the most important function of civilian leadership is setting and enforcing priorities. Here again, Rumsfeld fell far short of the mark. The spectacle of troops waiting months and months for armor for themselves and their humvees is simply inexcusable. There might be an explanation for delays in making body armor, which involves special ceramics and other exotic materials. But steel plates for humvees? Any competent Secretary who knew and worked well with the private sector should have been able to have all our humvees armored within sixty days, ninety at the most. It was simply a matter of priorities and expense. No doubt MacNamara, with his experience at Ford, could have done it. The role of civilian leadership should be to cut red tape, short-circuit normal procurement procedures, and goad, cajole and (when necessary) replace the private sector---all to make sure that what’s needed is in the field as quickly as humanly possible. When necessary, the Executive should request and procure emergency legislation from Congress; our troops deserve no less. Congress would agree quickly if the need is real, as it was for armor in Iraq.

Finally, civilian leadership can perform a useful role in goading and forcing the military to reform itself and adopt new technology. For some reason, the old saw that the military always fights the last war has more than a germ of truth. We all know the stories of the Maginot line and the difficult birth pangs of our own Air Force. Civilian leadership is appropriate and necessary in overcoming this institutional inertia and keeping our armed forces at the cutting edge, both in weaponry and in organization. It was and is crucial in downsizing and reshaping our Cold-War weapons and organization to be more mobile, agile, and ready to fight contemporary regional conflicts and insurgencies. Here Rumsfeld has done a good job. If we had never gone to war, or if he had never decided to play general, he might therefore have been remembered as a competent Secretary of Defense. Now history will likely tag him as our second biggest loser.

A salient lesson of Vietnam and Iraq is that civilian leadership can do great damage to our troops and our nation when it goes beyond its competence and second-guesses military leaders’ strategic and tactical decisions within their unique competence. How can we prevent that? Can Congress pass a law? Should we amend the Constitution to limit the role of the Executive to oversight, not direct command? Or should we just trust future executives to heed the lessons of the past thirty years and keep their political appointees’ hands out of military planning, strategy, and tactics? Our future security and success as a nation depend on the answers to these questions.

Military leadership is a learned profession like any other. It was in ancient times. It is far more so today, when making war involves advanced technology, communications, industry, politics, psychology, economics and (as in Iraq) religion. Politicians and bureaucrats would never think of taking out their own appendix, designing their own computers or televisions, or sitting in for Julie Gerberding in warding off the next bacterial or viral plague. Yet somehow, when placed in the Pentagon, they think they can second-guess folks who have spent their entire careers learning how to plan and wage war. If we don’t disabuse our political leadership of this notion---and fast---our losing streak may last indefinitely.



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