Dissing the ‘commanders in the field’

Today the Honolulu Advertiser editorial page heartily approves of President-elect Barack Obama’s “apparent” choice to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. “That’s a smart move,” the unsigned editorial puffs. “With the nation’s economic turmoil rightly Obama’s top priority, Gates’ understanding and proven leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan will help us continue to chart the right course regarding war policy.”

Huh? Since when has American “war policy” been on the “the right course”? How is fighting two wars simultaneously in Asia, neither of which will end anytime soon, the right course? And since when has the U.S. had a “war policy,” other than a vaguely identified doctrine of “preemption” that may in fact violate international law?
Even more disturbing is the Advertiser‘s willingness to rely on meaningless cliches to describe Gate’s skills and effectiveness: “Gates wisely listened to commanders on the ground, namely Gen. David Petraeus, and revised the timetable for withdrawal [of U.S. troops from Iraq] to accommodate the ‘surge,’ which military leaders say has resulted in a reduction of casualties.” Leaving aside the contention that the well-promoted “surge” in U.S. forces has dampened the violence in Iraq (other analysts point to the U.S. paying Sunni insurgents to stop fighting may have also helped), let’s focus on that favorite military cliche, the inherent wisdom of the “commanders on the ground.”
President George W. Bush often mentions in war speeches how he only makes military policy after listening to his vaunted, infallible commanders on the ground. After all, he may be our commander-in-chief, but he’s not there in the shit, actually fighting the war. Our commanders are there, and if they want something like more troops or permission to chase suspected terrorists into Syria, who is Bush to say no?
The obvious problem with this view is that the commanders on the ground aren’t always right. Remember General of the Army Douglas MacArthur? His amphibious landing at Inchon in the early months of the Korean War has been called “brilliant” more times than I can count, but then not long after all of his military genius abruptly drained away, with horrifying results. In November 1950, the Chinese sent 300,000 soldiers into the North Korean mountains and slaughtered thousands of American soldiers, despite “brilliant” MacArthur’s repeated assurances to President Harry Truman (who also wasn’t shy about telling critics that he was acting on recommendations from the commanders on the ground) that China would never, ever enter Korea.
Lousy generals are nothing new. They plagued both sides in the American Civil War. In Vietnam, Generals Paul Harkins and William Westmoreland were particularly clueless about how to deal with Viet Cong insurgents. And in Iraq, as this Armed Forces Journal article by the very brave U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling makes abundantly clear, bad generals are the reason we’re still hunkered down in the desert doing little good.
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