General Failure

Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank—if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.

When the world learned in the spring of 2004 that American soldiers had sadistically abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Sanchez treated the scandal as a breakdown of discipline among a few enlisted soldiers, rather than a problem caused by a series of leadership failures, most notably his tolerance of massive roundups. An Army intelligence expert later estimated that more than 85 percent of the detainees had no intelligence value.

During the Tora Bora fight, Franks seemed inattentive, almost as if the battle were someone else’s problem. He did not see bin Laden’s capture as crucial to his campaign.

Even if widespread detentions were the right approach—and to this day, some Army officers maintain that they were—Sanchez failed to ensure that he had a back office capable of processing all those prisoners. Because detainees were not sorted by political orientation, hard-core insurgents and al‑Qaeda terrorists were able to use the prisons as recruiting and training centers. Worst of all, Abu Ghraib was run by a small, undertrained, poorly led Army Reserve unit that amused itself by playing brutal games with prisoners. The revelation of its crimes was the biggest setback of Sanchez’s year of command in Iraq—a black eye for the American military and the United States, and a major boost for the insurgency.

In a 2009 study, a veteran Army intelligence officer, Major Douglas Pryer, reviewed Sanchez’s performance. “Perhaps most unforgivably,” he wrote, “based on his staff’s recommendations, Lt. Gen. Sanchez approved two interrogation policy memoranda that were, at best, poorly considered and poorly written.” The main cause of the Abu Ghraib scandal was not lack of resources or training, he concluded, but lack of ethical leadership. “The fundamental reason why interrogation abuse in Iraq occurred was a failure in leadership. The answer is that simple.”

After the scandal broke, Sanchez contemplated relieving Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commander of the American jailers at Abu Ghraib. But he did not do so, he said, in part because she was due to rotate home in less than two months.

Nor was Sanchez himself relieved, despite his dismal record. In a privately circulated essay on American generalship in Iraq, retired Army Lieutenant General John Cushman, a veteran commander and a leading Army intellectual in the post-Vietnam era, concluded that General Abizaid, Sanchez’s immediate superior at Central Command, should have relieved Sanchez of his post.

The military scholar Andrew Bacevich’s verdict on Sanchez’s performance in Iraq is harsh but fair:

When Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez assumed command of coalition forces in Iraq in 2003, the first stirrings of an insurgency had begun to appear; his job was to snuff out that insurgency and establish a secure environment. When Sanchez gave up command a year later, Iraq was all but coming apart at the seams. Security had deteriorated appreciably. The general failed to accomplish his mission, egregiously so. Yet amidst all of the endless commentary and chatter about Iraq, that failure of command has gone all but unnoted, as if for outsiders to evaluate senior officer performance qualifies as bad form. Had Sanchez been a head coach or a CEO, he would likely have been cashiered.

Given the record of his command in Iraq, it is startling that one of the preoccupations of Sanchez’s memoir is how the Bush administration failed to elevate him to four-star rank. The end of the book dwells not on the mess he helped make of Iraq, nor on the American troops who were stuck there, nor on the American and Iraqi dead, but on how he did not get a promotion he believes he was promised. As he was trying to salvage that promotion with officials at the White House in May 2004, Sanchez turned to an aide and uttered that most tired of Army lines: “Boy, am I glad to be leaving Washington. At least in Iraq I know who my enemies are and what to do about them.”

He was wrong, of course: Sanchez was even more out of his depth in Iraq than he was in Washington. In the spreading war in Mesopotamia, he had only a dim idea of who his foes were, and even less sense of how to deal with them. There is perhaps no clearer sign of how radically America’s military culture has changed since World War II than Sanchez’s entitled whine, which speaks not only to the decoupling of poor performance from consequences in the Army’s leadership ranks, but to the expectation, civil service–style, that promotion should follow from merely putting in one’s time.

Sanchez was succeeded in Iraq in mid-2004 by General George Casey, a deeply conventional man who tried to persuade the Army to operate unconventionally. Casey was an Army insider—a four-star general and the son of the highest-ranking American casualty of the Vietnam War, a division commander who was killed in a July 1970 helicopter crash. He knew the Army needed to start operating differently in Iraq. He developed a formal campaign plan, something Sanchez had never done. More significant, he asked two counterinsurgency experts, Colonel Bill Hix and retired Lieutenant Colonel Kalev Sepp, to review the actions of individual units and make suggestions. Sepp, a Special Forces veteran of El Salvador with a doctorate from Harvard, reviewed the commander of every battalion, regiment, and brigade in Iraq and concluded that 20 percent of them understood how to properly conduct counterinsurgency operations, 60 percent were struggling to do so, and 20 percent were not interested in changing and were fighting conventionally, “oblivious to the inefficacy and counterproductivity of their operations.” In other words, a vast majority of U.S. units were not operating effectively.

His misgivings confirmed, Casey started a Counterinsurgency Academy at the large military base in Taji, just north of Baghdad. There, he gave newcomers a one-week immersion course in the basics of irregular warfare. “Because the Army won’t change itself, I’m going to change the Army here in Iraq,” he told subordinates. Just capturing a known insurgent is not necessarily a tactical gain, the academy taught the students, if it is done in such a way that it creates new enemies. As the course’s textbook put it, “The potential second- and third-order effects … can turn it into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals.”

Even so, both Casey and the Army were slow to adjust. For example, a key tenet of classic counterinsurgency theory is that troops should live in small outposts among the local people, to better understand them and to deter the enemy from controlling them. Yet in 2005 and 2006, Casey was determined to close small outposts and move his troops onto a few very big bases. “By and large,” concluded Francis West, a counterinsurgency expert and Vietnam veteran who studied American military operations in Iraq, “the battalions continued to do what they knew best: conduct sweeps and mounted patrols during the day and targeted raids by night.”

Torn and confused, trying to change course while under assault by a sophisticated group of enemies who adapted constantly, the American military under Casey did not make progress in Iraq. In 2004, it recorded 26,496 insurgent attacks. In 2005, that number increased to 34,131. Casey hopefully announced that 2006 would be “the Year of the Police,” but it turned out to be the year of bitter urban fighting, as Baghdad was consumed by a small-scale civil war. Fighting in Iraq intensified in July, especially in and around the capital. That summer there were an average of 50 insurgent attacks a day just in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. By the end of the summer, the capital had been largely ethnically cleansed, with Sunnis reduced to a few embattled enclaves on its western side. Insurgents were detonating about 1,000 roadside bombs a week. An estimated 2 million Iraqis, most of them Sunni, had fled the country, and an equal number had been classified as internally displaced.

Casey and those around him did not seem to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Admiral William Fallon, the American military commander for the Pacific, visited Baghdad in midsummer. When he returned home, he called retired Army General Jack Keane, an influential figure behind the scenes in Washington. “Jack, I just came out of Iraq,” Fallon began. “Could you help me to understand what the fuck is going on? … Casey is up to his ears in quicksand, and he doesn’t even know it. This thing is going down around him.” (The following year, Fallon was reassigned to run Central Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in early 2008 he was forced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to step down after making disparaging comments to a journalist about Bush-administration policy in the Middle East.)

Casey’s lack of awareness began to undercut his support at the top of the Bush administration. On August 17, 2006, during a video briefing to top national-security officials, he said he wanted to stick with his plan to turn Baghdad over to Iraqi security forces by the end of the year. Vice President Dick Cheney, watching from Wyoming, was troubled by that comment. “I respected General Casey, but I couldn’t see a basis for his optimism,” he wrote later.

In the wake of that briefing, the vice president began poking around for a different strategy—and different generals to lead it. Among those he met with was Colonel H. R. McMaster, the author of Dereliction of Duty, a book about the failures of top American generals in Vietnam. The colonel told Cheney that the U.S. government should abandon the view, held by Casey, that the American goal was to turn over control to the Iraqis as soon as possible.

In December, Casey was told to leave Iraq within weeks rather than in the spring of 2007, as he had planned. “I left not really understanding what the hell had happened,” Casey said. He was replaced by General Petraeus, who took a sharply different approach, moving his troops out to live among the people and getting insurgents to stop fighting Americans by putting almost 100,000 Iraqi fighters on the American payroll. Petraeus ultimately extracted the United States from Iraq, but hardly left behind a stable democracy.

Bizarrely, the tactical excellence of enlisted soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan may have enabled and amplified the strategic incompetence of the generals in those wars, allowing long-running problems in the military’s leadership culture to reach their full expression. The Army’s combat effectiveness let its generals dither for much longer than they could have if the Army had been suffering clear tactical setbacks. “One of the reasons we were able to hold on despite a failing strategy, and then turn the situation around, was that our soldiers continued to be led by highly competent, professional junior officers and noncommissioned officers whom they respected,” Sean MacFarland, who as a brigade commander in Ramadi in 2006 was responsible for a major counterinsurgency success, said at a 2010 Army symposium on leadership. “And they gave us senior officers the breathing space that we needed, but probably didn’t deserve, to properly understand the fight we were in.”

MacFarland’s point is rarely made, and worth pausing over, because its implications are far-reaching. Consider a U.S. military at the other extreme—tactically mediocre and manned with unmotivated troops. In such a circumstance, it is hard to imagine the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being allowed to meander for years without serious strategic review and redirection. Yet meander they did, at the cost of many thousands of lives—both American and Iraqi. Unless something changes at the top, it is not hard to see our future wars devolving into similarly rudderless messes, held together by the rank-and-file troops, who bear the heaviest costs.

A few reliefs might have broken the strategic logjam in Afghanistan and Iraq, but by now, even the vocabulary of accountability has been lost. A fine essay by Colonel George Reed on “toxic leadership” in the military, published in 2004 in Military Review, bravely analyzed the problem but tiptoed around the obvious solution, saying only, “If the behavior does not change, there are many administrative remedies available.” Similarly, a 2005 Rand study of Army generalship found many deficits and made many recommendations—but you will not find terms like firings or relief for cause within it. The report speaks vaguely and briefly of the need for more “performance departures.” And a study done at the Army War College by Colonel Steven Jones at about the same time pointed to persistent problems with rotation and officers’ unaccountability, as well as an assessment system that tended to reward abusive leadership—but, again, it never quite mentioned the need for firing such leaders.

The erosion of the Army’s performance culture—at least in its highest ranks—has not left the service devoid of talented leaders. But the Army continues to do too little to sort the average performers from the outstanding ones. That has long-term consequences for the caliber of military leaders. A recent survey by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that good young officers have left the military in large part because of frustration with military bureaucracy and the sense that the armed forces do not have a performance-oriented system for managing personnel.

If George Marshall, the superlative Army chief of staff during World War II, came back today to run the Army, the first thing he would likely insist upon is accountability. And that would produce more-adaptive leaders, a necessity in the post–Cold War, post-9/11 world.

Almost certainly, Marshall would also restore the sense that the needs of the nation should come before the needs of the individual or even the service. No one should get to be a general because it is his or her turn. Leading soldiers is a privilege. Our military should abide by the belief that the lives of soldiers are more important than the careers of officers—and that winning wars is more important than either. This fundamental truth is all that needs to be expressed to justify a policy of rapid relief. As Marshall understood during World War II, instilling that attitude is healthy for a military that protects a great democracy.

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Thomas E. Ricks writes the Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy magazine and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Generals, out this month.

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