Another Perspective

Rumsfeld and the Generals

It's not about Iraq. It's about Vietnam.

By 5.5.06

Send to Kindle

The World War II generation would have understood the revolt of the six generals right off. Coming through a five-year conflict that involved the whole of American society, that generation found military behavior, organization, and language second nature. "KP." "Double-time." Most important, terms like "battalion" and "regiment."

Military organization, known as "force structure," traces its roots back to the Roman Empire, and perhaps even to Moses. (See Exodus 18: 21-22: "...You must yourself search for capable, God-fearing men among all the people, honest and incorruptible men, and appoint them over the people as officers over units of a thousand, of a hundred, of fifty or of ten.") In the infantry, the basic unit is a Troop, one soldier.

Troops are organized into Fire Teams, usually of four Troops. Two or three Fire Teams make up a Squad. Three Squads compose a Platoon, and Platoons are grouped into Companies (100-120 Troops). Battalions comprise four or more Companies, plus support and headquarters Companies, plus "S-Shops" (supply, medical, intelligence, chaplain).

At the battalion level and above, says my source for this information, a self-described grunt, "everything gets political." Battalions, usually three or four, are combined into brigades, and three brigades combine to form a Division -- ideally, about 10,000 Troops. Normally, three divisions make up a Corps.

At every level, an officer gets a job. Lieutenants head up platoons, captains, companies. Between battalion and the division level, the scratch for command jobs gets mean and nasty. Lots of fairly long-term soldiers get to the rank of captain, take a look around, and realize there's not going to be anywhere to go. There are lots of retirements at the captain rank. The next rank up is major, a kind of nowhere state in between captain and colonel. Officers often retire at major, too.

Colonels actually run battalions, and, as they acquire experience, especially hard-to-get combat experience or plum assignments in advanced weaponry or assignment to the various finishing schools in the services, it is from their ranks that generals get picked. The politics -- and the bureaucratic infighting -- are easy to understand. At every level, there are fewer commands and fewer jobs. At the rarified top of the command ziggurat, at the various general officer ranks, the rivalries get sharp, indeed.

THE WORLD WAR II MODEL AND THE COLD WAR MODEL of the Army was organized around the division. At the height of the Cold War, there were a lot of them. The Soviets had 150. Indeed, division-level organization, training, and thinking prevailed through the first Gulf War -- that and the goodies available at that level for generals who played the game right.

Now scroll back to the early 1970s, to the humiliating end of the Vietnam war. For the generals, it was a "never again" moment on several levels. A conscript Army sent to fight a war seen from ground level as futile, with its mission undermined by the media and even, in later days, by Congress, became infested with drugs and rebellion. It got so bad there were places line officers simply did not go. Fragging wasn't just a figment of the fevered imagination. Senior leadership suffered under public scorn, and not much better from the post-Watergate Bolshevik Congress.

To its credit, the Army dug in and did the dirty, hard job of purging drugs from its midst. Not so creditably, the generals devised a way to cover their butts, mainly by keeping the politicians off them. It found its most famous expression in the "Powell Doctrine," with its insistence on overwhelming force and an "exit strategy." (How to get the Army out with its getting hurt or embarrassed, never mind that quaint concept, "winning.") And the generals eagerly took refuge in the doctrine of "two major wars and a brushfire" capability for the armed forces as a whole. It assured lots of spending, made the military largely inert, and got the generals (and admirals) lots of big, expensive weapons systems around which to scuffle for stars.

They also took advantage of a civilian leadership increasingly remote from, even hostile to, matters military -- and, most important, ignorant of how the services really worked. The generals drank Bill Clinton's kool-aid on gender-norming, no smoking, and don't ask don't tell. In return, Clinton played his part, using military force only from great distances (cruise missiles) or 35,000 feet (Kosovo).

It ended in a joke, quoted by Mackubin Thomas Owens April 3 in the Weekly Standard, in "Did the Military Really Have a Better Understanding of Iraq?"

If the Army didn't want to do something--as in the Balkans in the 1990s--it would simply overstate the force requirements: "The answer is 350,000 soldiers. What's the question?"

NOW ENTER A NEW PRESIDENT, a new party, and suddenly 9/11. This President Bush was not content to consult the biggest Rolodex in foreign policy (his Dad's). He wanted to get something done fast, and he did it. Within a month, two dozen or so Special Forces ops, dropped into Northern Afghanistan, had rounded up tribal help and set the Taliban on the run. The fall of Kandahar followed within about a month. When the big battalions showed up under Gen. Tommy Franks, GIs began to die -- not before. And it was big Army thinking that let bin Laden escape -- if indeed that's what happened.

The early stunning triumph in the north, still unappreciated by the public, didn't escape the generals for significance. Of those two dozen Special Forces operators, most were sergeants, with a captain or two and a few warrant officers sprinkled in. They exploited "joint" capabilities to the max, calling in laser-targeted bombs delivered by the nearest available fast-mover, never mind the branch of service. The whole operation stood as a rebuke to division-level thinking -- and, in fact, to the Powell Doctrine.

What was worse, from the generals' point of view, the President and the SecDef liked this quick, slashing approach to war and wanted to do more of it -- wanted, in fact, to reorganize the entire military along such lines. The Cold War had seen the Air Force predominate in the Pentagon turf wars, with the fanciest weapons systems and ultimate defense against -- and delivery of -- nuclear weapons. (Can't leave out the Trident sub; the Navy had its hooks in, too.) Now, everything would be turned topsy-turvy, with those hard-to-control Spec Ops types and the Marine Corps, with its self-contained Expeditionary Units, at the center of the show. The President even brought back a retired Spec Ops general, Peter Schoomaker, to replace the looks-like-America Eric Shinseki as U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Secretary Rumsfeld cancelled the appropriation for the humongous Crusader artillery system.

The World War II generation would have understood the pique, as I say. The generals got their rice bowls broken. That rattling noise, under all the whining, was the jingle of hundreds of generals' prospective shoulderboard stars washing out the Pentagon sewers and down the Potomac.

So never mind the apparent policy differences or the complaints that Secretary Rumsfeld is "arrogant" and "doesn't listen." Those are just pretexts for making a political move, hardly unexpected from the politicized Army that survived the Clinton administration.

What strikes me are the paradoxes. Disaffected general officers fall in with the civilian critics who want to re-cast Iraq as another Vietnam. They offer their help in the very process of demoralization that led to America's Vietnam defeat, to the very people they wanted to protect the Army against. Meantime, the all-call-quagmire types have joined forces with the oldest-line representatives of the military industrial complex.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.