Why America’s Military Leaders Need to be Purged

Yves here. Andrew Bacevich makes a straightforward case that the US military has such a clear cut record of failure that most of its top brass should go. Of course, that view denies the truth articulated by departing president Dwight Eisenhower, that the US then was in thrall to a military-industrial complex. The purpose of the US armed forces has increasingly been not about preventing and only if really really necessary, winning wars, but to funnel funds to bloated defense contractors and more recently other grifters like mercenaries (like the how many times renamed company once knows as Blackwater) and surveillance state operators.

The problem is this sorry condition exists across major American centers of power, like the health care industry and higher education. When Lambert and I were discussing the title of a recent post on the Democrats’ Götterdämmerung, he suggested the metaphor of the Jackpot, where 80% of all species die off in about 40 years. We agreed that was about the level of purge of Democratic party pols, consultants, and NGOs that was needed.

Sadly the prospect of recovery seems remote because new leaders need to come from somewhere. And most of these organizations have enough insider-y knowledge that an import is likely to fail. Cue C. Northcote Parkinson:

The first sign of danger is represented by the appearance in the organization’s hierarchy of an individual who combines in himself a high concentration of incompetence and jealousy. Neither quality is significant in itself and most people have a certain proportion of each. But when these two qualities reach a certain concentration— represented at present by the formula ff— there is a chemical reaction. The two elements fiase, producing a new substance that we have termed “injelitance.”

The presence of this substance can be safely inferred from the actions of any individual who, having failed to make anything of his own department, tries constantly to interfere with other departments and gain control of the central administration. The specialist who observes this particular mixture of failure and ambition will at once shake his head and murmur, “Primary or idiopathic injelitance.” The symptoms, as we shall see, are quite unmistakable….

The next or tertiary stage in the onset of this disease is reached when there is no spark of intelligence left in the whole organization from top to bottom….Cases of recovery are rare. It may be thought odd that recovery without treatment should be possible. The process is quite natural, nevertheless, and closely resembles the process by which various living organisms develop a resistance to poisons that are at first encounter fatal. It is as if the whole institution had been sprayed with a DDT solution guaranteed to eliminate all ability found in its way. For a period of years this practice achieves the desired result.

Eventually, however, individuals develop an immunity. They conceal their ability under a mask of imbecile good humor. The result is that the operatives assigned to the task of ability-elimination fail (through stupidity) to recognize ability when they see it. An individual of merit penetrates the outer defenses and begins to make his way toward the top. He wanders on, babbling about golf and giggling feebly, losing documents and forgetting names, and looking just like everyone else.

Only when he has reached high rank does he suddenly throw off the mask and appear like the demon king among a crowd of pantomime fairies. With shrill screams of dismay the high executives find ability right there in the midst of them. It is too late by then to do anything about it. The damage has been done, the disease is in retreat, and full recovery is possible over the next ten years. But these instances of natural cure are extremely rare. In the more usual course of events, the disease passes through the recognized stages and becomes, as it would seem, incurable.

You’d have to imagine someone like Mayo Pete as ruthless schemer posing as court fool. Hard to see any candidates, although admittedly they’d have to be good at subterfuge.

Now to the main course.

By Andrew Bacevich. Originally published at TomDispatch

Professional sports is a cutthroat business. Succeed and the people running the show reap rich rewards. Fail to meet expectations and you get handed your walking papers. American-style war in the twenty-first century is quite a different matter.

Of course, war is not a game. The stakes on the battlefield are infinitely higher than on the playing field. When wars go wrong, “We’ll show ’em next year — just you wait!” is seldom a satisfactory response.

At least, it shouldn’t be. Yet somehow, the American people, our political establishment, and our military have all fallen into the habit of shrugging off or simply ignoring disappointing outcomes. A few years ago, a serving army officer of unusual courage published an essay — in Armed Forces Journal no less — in which he charged that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

The charge stung because it was irrefutably true then and it remains so today.

As American politics has become increasingly contentious, the range of issues on which citizens agree has narrowed to the point of invisibility. For Democrats, promoting diversity has become akin to a sacred obligation. For Republicans, the very term is synonymous with political correctness run amok. Meanwhile, GOP supporters treat the Second Amendment as if it were a text Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, while Democrats blame the so-called right to bear arms for a plague of school shootings in this country.

On one point, however, an unshakable consensus prevails: the U.S. military is tops. No less august a figure than General David Petraeus described our armed forces as “the best military in the world today, by far.” Nor, in his judgment, was “this situation likely to change anytime soon.” His one-word characterization for the military establishment: “awesome.”

The claim was anything but controversial. Indeed, Petraeus was merely echoing the views of politicians, pundits, and countless other senior officers. Praising the awesomeness of that military has become twenty-first-century America’s can’t miss applause line.

As it happens, though, a yawning gap looms between that military’s agreed upon reputation here and its actual performance. That the troops are dutiful, seasoned, and hardworking is indisputably so. Once upon a time, “soldiering” was a slang term for shirking or laziness. No longer. Today, America’s troops more than earn their pay.

And whether individually or collectively, they also lead the world in expenditures. Even a decade ago, it cost more than $2 million a year to keep a G.I. in a war zone like Afghanistan. And, of course, no other military on the planet — in fact, not even the militaries of the next 11 countries combined — can match Pentagon spending from one year to the next.

Is it impolite, then, to ask if the nation is getting an adequate return on its investment in military power? Simply put, are we getting our money’s worth? And what standard should we use in answering that question?

Let me suggest using the military’s own standard.

Demanding Victory

According to the United States Army’s 2021 “Posture Statement,” for example, that service exists to “fight and win the nation’s wars.” The mission of the Air Force complements the Army’s: “to fly, fight, and win.” The Navy’s mission statement has three components, the first of which aligns neatly with that of the Army and Air Force: “winning wars.”

As for the Marine Corps, it foresees “looming battles” that “come in many forms and occur on many fronts,” each posing “a critical choice: to demand victory or accept defeat.” No one even slightly familiar with the Marines will have any doubt on which side of that formulation the Corps situates itself.

In other words, the common theme uniting these statements of institutional purpose is self-evident. The armed forces of the United States define their purpose as winning. Staving off defeat is not enough, nor is fighting to a draw, waging gallant Bataan-like last stands, or handing off wars-in-progress to pliant understudies whom American forces have tutored.

Mission accomplishment necessarily entails defeating the enemy. In General Douglas MacArthur’s famously succinct formulation, “There is no substitute for victory.” But victory, properly understood, necessarily entails more than just besting the enemy in battle. It requires achieving the political purposes for which the war is being fought.

So when it comes to winning, both operationally and politically, how well have the U.S. armed forces performed since embarking upon the Global War on Terror in the autumn of 2001? Do the results achieved, whether in the principal theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq or in lesser ones like Libya, Somalia, Syria, and West Africa qualify as “awesome”? And if not, why not?

A proposed Afghanistan War Commission now approved by Congress and awaiting President Biden’s signature could subject our military’s self-proclaimed reputation for awesomeness to critical scrutiny. That assumes, however that such a commission would forego the temptation to whitewash a conflict that even General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged ended in a “strategic failure.” As a bonus, examining the conduct of America’s longest war might well serve as a proxy for assessing the military’s overall performance since 9/11.

The commission would necessarily pursue multiple avenues of inquiry. Among them should be: the oversight offered by senior civilian officials; the quality of leadership provided by commanders in the field; and the adequacy of the military’s training, doctrine, and equipment. It should also assess the “fighting spirit” of the troops and the complex question of whether there were ever enough “boots on the ground” to accomplish the mission. And the commission would be remiss if it did not take into account the capacity, skills, and determination of the enemy as well.

But there is another matter that the commission will be obliged to address head-on: the quality of American generalship throughout this longest-ever U.S. war. Unless the commission agenda includes that issue, it will fall short. The essential question is obvious: Did the three- and four-star officers who presided over the Afghanistan War in the Pentagon, at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and in Kabul possess the “right stuff”? Or rather than contributing to a favorable resolution of the war, did they themselves constitute a significant part of the problem?

These are not questions that the senior ranks of the officer corps are eager to pursue. As with those who reach the top in any hierarchical institution, generals and admirals are disinclined to see anything fundamentally amiss with a system that has elevated them to positions of authority. From their perspective, that system works just fine and should be perpetuated — no outside tampering required. Much like tenured faculty at a college or university, senior officers are intent on preserving the prerogatives they already enjoy. As a consequence, they will unite in resisting any demands for reform that may jeopardize those very prerogatives.

A Necessary Purge

President Biden habitually concludes formal presentations by petitioning God to “protect our troops.” While not doubting his sincerity in praying for divine intervention, Biden might give the Lord a hand by employing his own authority as commander-in-chief to set the table for a post-Afghanistan military-reform effort. In that regard, a first step should entail removing anyone inclined to obstruct change or (more likely) incapable of recognizing the need to alter a system that has worked so well for them.

On that score, Dwight D. Eisenhower offers Biden an example of how to proceed. When Ike became president in 1953, he was intent on implementing major changes in U.S. defense priorities. As a preliminary step, he purged the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which then included his West Point classmate General Omar Bradley, replacing them with officers he expected to be more sympathetic to what came to be known as his “New Look.” (Eisenhower badly misjudged his ability to get the Army, his own former service, to cooperate, but that’s a story for another day.)

A similar purge is needed now. Commander-in-chief Biden should remove certain active-duty senior officers from their posts without further ado. General Mark Milley, the discredited chair of the Joint Chiefs, would be an obvious example. General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversaw the embarrassing conclusion of the Afghanistan War as head of Central Command, is another. Requiring both of those prominent officers to retire would signal that unsatisfactory performance does indeed have consequences, a principle from which neither the private who loses a rifle nor the four stars who lose wars should be exempt.

However, when it comes to a third figure, our political moment would create complications that didn’t exist when Ike was president. When he decided which generals and admirals to fire and whom to hire in their place, Eisenhower didn’t have to worry about identity politics. Top commanders were of a single skin tone in 1950s America. Today, however, any chief executive who ignores identity-related issues does so at their peril, laying themselves open to the charge of bigotry.

Which brings us to the case of retired four-star general Lloyd Austin, former Iraq War and CENTCOM commander. As a freshly minted civilian, Austin presides as the first Black defense secretary, a notable distinction given that senior Pentagon officials have tended to be white or male (and usually both).  And while, by all reports, General Austin is an upright citizen and decent human being, it’s become increasingly clear that he lacks qualities the nation needs when critically examining this country’s less-than-awesome military performance, which should be the order of the day.  Whatever suit he may wear to the office, he remains a general — and that is a problem.  

Austin also lacks imagination, drive, and charisma. Nor is he a creative thinker. Rather than an agent of change, he’s a cheerleader for the status quo — or perhaps more accurately, for a status quo defined by a Pentagon budget that never stops rising.

A speech Austin made earlier this month at the Reagan Library illustrates the point. While he threw the expected bouquets to the troops, praising their “optimism, and pragmatism, and patriotism” and “can-do attitude,” he devoted the preponderance of his remarks to touting Pentagon plans for dealing with “an increasingly assertive and autocratic China.” The overarching theme of Austin’s address centered on confrontation. “We made the Department’s largest-ever budget request for research, development, testing, and evaluation,” he boasted. “And we’re investing in new capabilities that will make us more lethal from greater distances, and more capable of operating stealthy and unmanned platforms, and more resilient under the seas and in space and in cyberspace.”

Nowhere in Austin’s presentation or his undisguised eagerness for a Cold War-style confrontation with China was there any mention of the Afghanistan War, which had ended just weeks before. That the less-than-awesome U.S. military performance there — 20 years of exertions ending in defeat — might have some relevance to any forthcoming competition with China did not seemingly occur to the defense secretary.

Austin’s patently obvious eagerness to move on — to put this country’s disastrous “forever wars” in the Pentagon’s rearview mirror — no doubt coincides with the preferences of the active-duty senior officers he presides over at the Pentagon. He clearly shares their eagerness to forget.

As if to affirm that the Pentagon is done with Afghanistan once and for all, Austin soon after decided to hold no U.S. military personnel accountable for a disastrous August 29th drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 noncombatants, including seven children. In fact, since 9/11, the United States had killed thousands of civilians in several theaters of operations, with the media either in the dark or, until very recently, largely indifferent. This incident, however, provoked a rare storm of attention and seemingly cried out for disciplinary action of some sort.

But Austin was having none of it. As John Kirby, his press spokesperson, put it, “What we saw here was a breakdown in process, and execution in procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership.” Blame the process and the procedures but give the responsible commanders a pass.

That decision describes Lloyd Austin’s approach to leading the Defense Department. Whether the problem is a lack of daring or a lack of gumption, he won’t be rocking any boats.

Will the U.S. military under his leadership recover its long-lost awesomeness?  My guess is no.  In the meantime, don’t expect his increasingly beleaguered boss in the White House to notice or, for that matter, care. With a load of other problems on his desk, he’s counting on the Lord to prevent his generals from subjecting the troops and civilians elsewhere on the planet to further abuse.

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  1. Alice X

    Why America’s Military Leaders Need to be Purged

    The US military itself needs to be purged! Its mindset, its contractors and the entire proportion.

  2. Robert Hahl

    Ike’s warning about our military-industrial complex came on his last day at work. Five years later, officers in Vietnam were evaluated on the basis of how much ammunition they had used during their six-month field assignments. I’d like to know if that is still how they are promoted.

    1. Christopher Horne

      Heh. I remember the daily ‘body count’ in Vietnam on the evening news-
      it was always ’10 Americans, 100 ARVN, and 1000 Viet Cong’- I may
      be exaggerating the actual numbers, but that was the gist of it.
      Notwithstanding ’embedding’ US journalists with our forces in Iraq,
      this is propaganda at its finest.

  3. Alice X

    The Soviets applauded the speech. The US MICC sank it.

    Eisenhower speech for peace:

    The Chance for Peace Speech – 1953

    “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

    Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the Chance for Peace speech in 1953, just three months after assuming the Presidency.

    1. Alice X

      The US military itself needs to be purged! Its mindset, its contractors and the entire proposition.

      I stand corrected.

    2. Alice X

      I should add, the Soviets were not and had not been looking for war. They were a devastated society. They were continually provoked by US Imperialism. Even until their end.

        1. Alex Cox

          Eisenhower spent eight years building up the US military industrial complex and preparing for war in Cuba and Asia. He offered nuclear weapons to the French to support their collapsing project in Vietnam.

          Just because he made a couple of cute speeches does’t exonerate him in the least.

          1. Alice X

            It was the power behind the throne. I don’t exonerate anyone who seeks power, front or back. But sometimes, if only rarely, that there are words from on high that reveal a greater truth, we can point to them. We ask continually, why not do something about it? After 1947: Empire!

            1. JTMcPhee

              We all ought to recall that the “empire” thing has been the substance of This Great Nation since the git-go. Monroe Doctrine, killing off the indigens, slavery, all that stuff…

              “We” have never been nice folks…

              1. Alice X

                “We” have never been nice folks…

                So true and so lamentable. But it took the two world wars before “We” could impose the same regime upon the world. Except, for and to their extent, the Soviets. Whatever they were, they were an alternative. I was aghast at their system, their workers were little more than slaves. Well, “our” workers are little more than slaves, wage slaves. Enslaved to drudgery and consumption.

          2. Susan the other

            Eisenhower was being pushed by imperialist warmongers in Congress led by Prescott Bush; Henry Cabot Lodge and others, as well as their counterparts in Europe. Eisenhower knew the stakes. His own assassination was always an option. WW2 was over but the world was just getting ready to explode with anti-colonialism. And we had literally just financed WW2 for the “West” and we thought we needed to be reimbursed because we were more or less broke. (That was our biggest mistake – because we wound up financing our war spending by more war in an effort to get the old imperialist economies functioning again.) France and England were flat on their backs. Germany was dead in the water. Vietnam had long embraced our Declaration of Independence and they (Ho, and others) went for it. It was a new era of war because the old imperialists had colonized places all over the planet – no one country could “go to war” to end the endless skirmishes. The thought was absurd. But it is probably the genesis of the sorts of wars we have been fighting but never winning. And now that our equally “awesome” economic model has failed, the question arises, Well what do we do with them after/if we defeat them? The only answer has been to “nation build” and win “hearts and minds” – right. We have gone even broker winning distain and hatred, distrust and disgust. What we need, what our military needs, is not a military reorganization based on the assumption that one day we will have to fight for our lives, but a national reprogramming – based on the best practices we can find to create and live in a peaceful, prosperous world. One that eliminates unilateral military strong-arming, starvation sieges, and murder – at least I would assume those tactics no longer apply. It’s not just the Austins – it’s us.

      1. Scott1

        When I was young and had not had experiences that made clear it was pragmatism over idealism and when possible idealism as a strategic end was achieved when pursuit was made of steps in order. Doing things in order is the only way to achieve your strategic goals.

        The Commander-in-Chief is the one office holder who must give the competing armed forces ideal, purpose driven, understandable goals. Defending the nation must be made understandable and achievable.

        A hammer is the same to a carpenter as a rifle to a soldier. The carpenters I have known are all expected to show up with their own hammer. Failing that they at least must have a measuring tape and a pencil. But that is from my world and experience. I would not expect the Army to ask me to show up with my own rifle, though maybe it would be interesting if we returned to that militia sort of expectation. I was once excited by the idea that we could make all bombs illegal and wars would have to be fought with nothing greater than the rifle.

        For my own soldiers, warriors, or Guards I want them armed with rifles that fire bullets so smart they cannot fail to hit their target. Such would be the same only better than the proximity bomb, proximity shell, made possibly by the Proximity Fuse. My father who had been an infantry soldier in combat during the latter half year of war in Europe as Americans fought into Germany left all he had to say to his 30 page War Journal. Other than that he said he had wanted a burp gun. He had wanted a sub machine gun as opposed to the MI semi automatic 8 shot at a time rifle.

        Since WWII I am under the impression that soldiers who have been in combat want submachine guns. I’m not familiar with what more today’s soldiers want that they do not have.

        The Air Force fighter and bomber pilots, and then the Navy with its submarines and aircraft carriers, Army, Marines and our new Space FORCE along with our Coast Guard have to be united by the Executive with a mission shared from the soldier to the General. The only legitimate mission is Defense.
        Since Bush Junior, George W., the mission of the Armed Forces has been confused when turned into preventative war. “Preemptive War.” I believe that is the phrase.

        When face to face with an enemy I won when I took the first punch. I decided the throw the punch when seeing in the opponent that they were just about to throw a punch. When I stopped even wanting to fight at all I started losing fights and spending nights in the hospital or experiencing a victimhood psychosis. Clearly both Putin and Ping want the US to believe they will throw the first punch at the weakest moment for us. They dare us. During the Cold War JFK was brilliant to move the war into a race for the Moon. Instead of war in Cuba there was a blockade. Whatever Biden has of such options is different and less at this time.

        Our Executives, and in this case at this time it is Biden do not impress us when it comes to assuring us they know what they are doing. This is not to say that Biden has not explained himself and made clear what he has in mind. He said he was pulling troops out of Afghanistan and giving up on that war because China was a threat he had to get the Armed Forces ready to confront.

        He is correct.

        Here we are pointed to Generals who have not and will not do a good job. One in particular.
        Crisis overload is upon us. Domestic issues have meant Foreign Policy issues have to topped the papers.
        We can encourage our Executive to spend a few days firing and hiring new Armed Forces leaders who he has given a clear mission.

        Otherwise we will experience another sneak attack which our adversaries know had better be so devastating we won’t get all the second chances we have become accustomed to. We cannot afford anything less than a competent set of Generals and Admirals. Neither can we afford an Executive without a clear mission unwilling to brook argument, incompetence or corruption.

        It has always made me wonder why the US Government, Roosevelt, FDR, left Admiral King in charge while the Admiral was invested so much in inferior torpedoes. It is that sort of General or Admiral we can allow ourselves to fear for our lives. It is estimated that had the US replaced with alacrity its failing Mark 4 torpedoes, believing in what ship and submarine captains told anyone who was in power and would listen, that the war could have been ended 2 years earlier.

        Neither Germany, Japan, or the US would have had The Bomb by then. In that case Eisenhower would have pushed further and more likely taken Berlin from the West. Many would now have had to live under Stalinism.

      1. Alice X

        It was broadcasted nationwide in primetime on the three networks. A nation wide speech.

        But as Gore Vidal observed, we are the United States of Amnesia.

    3. Samuel Conner

      In modern terms, DDE’s lament over excessive military expenditure would go nowhere, unless it were possible to frame it as diverting resources from job-creators whose taxes are too high.

      But that isn’t needed; both parties have embraced MMT for the limited purposes of military expenditure and tax reduction.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think its very revealing that he framed it in terms of resources…

        This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

        … and not money. In other words, he understood entirely that it wasn’t about nominal budgets, it was about allocating limited physical and intangible resources within a society. I don’t think there is anything in what he said that an MMTer would disagree.

        1. Susan the other

          MMT could have saved the day – because Eisenhower agonized over the economy and inflation was his biggest concern. I remember his fatherly speeches about the rising cost of living. Catherine Graham (Washington Post) said in her autobiography that her family (influential and rich) was invited to the 1954 “Bankruptcy Ball” at the White House. It was like a party thrown by all the banksters and financiers in support of American imperialism – go out and convert the world to capitalism, the sky’s the limit. We’d now rephrase it as neoliberalism as well, but with austerity for the deplorable thrown in, for a pretense of caution.

          1. ChrisPacific

            Yes, it’s clear from this speech that he knew perfectly well what the challenge was. He just lacked the tools to meet it (it wasn’t too long after this that he began reversing position, even though I’d be willing to bet he hadn’t changed his mind).

          2. ChrisRUEcon

            Oh, we’ve always had #MMT when it comes to war:

            Military Money Theory

            No cost is ever too big for military purposes … #WarKeynesianism as it is also known.

            And yes, I would expect bankers to celebrate anything that curtailed spending for the masses while promoting spending on capitalist ventures in the name of imperialism.

      1. Michael Hudson

        I was told at the Ford Foundation by someone who I think was a CIA spook that the speech was written by Malcolm Mus, of Minnesota.
        Eisenhower didn’t write it. And indeed, we saw his jumping into Vietnam to support French colonialism, and the Dulles Bros. interventions quite soon.

        1. John k

          Nevertheless, he said it, whether subsequently persuaded differently or not. What other pres has said as much? Granted, Kennedy kept us out of Cuba and tried to avoid Vietnam, which was maybe one of those ‘we’ll go there over my dead body’.

        2. Alice X

          Thank you so much, dear sir. There are always speech writers, did he take it to heart? Maybe so, he spoke it, but there have long been powers behind the throne and they certainly held sway with him, actually some time before. And ever more today. Great laments…

        3. Rory

          I believe that Malcolm Moos is credited for writing President Eisenhower’s Military Industrial Complex 1961 farewell speech, but that the 1953 Chance for Peace speech was written by a man named Emmet Hughes. At least that’s what the Internet tells me.

    4. Posaunist

      The Wikipedia article “Chance for Peace Speech” has links to both full text and a recording under External Links.”

  4. Thomas P

    The US military conquered both Iraq and Afghanistan with little difficulty. Not that this is especially impressive, but it was hardly a failure either. The problem is more on a political level where politicians wielding the world’s largest hammer think that every problem is a nail. How do you gain a permanent military victory in a country like Afghanistan?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Its a myth that Afghanistan can’t be controlled or ruled. In reality, for most of the last two millennium Afghanistan was under the control of one empire or another, often for centuries. The British and Russians maintained control/influence over it for decades using only a tiny fraction of their military capacity and were only driven out because ultimately it had little value for them except as a buffer state.

      As for Iraq, it was a functioning state, and these are usually the easiest to hold when conquered. It was the US military that failed to learn its own lessons from Germany and Japan that actively created an insurgency that, yes, defeated it militarily.

      The US never learned from Vietnam that war is not about wining battles, its winning control. The North Vietnamese didn’t win one single major battle or engagement with the US. But it won the war. Because its leadership understood war and strategy, the US leadership only understood tactics. Its far too easy for the military to blame politicians. Thats like a failed company blaming consumers for not buying its products.

      1. The Rev Kev

        ‘The North Vietnamese didn’t win one single major battle or engagement with the US.’

        I’m afraid that that is just an urban legend that even Obama repeated a few years ago. Some time ago I read an article debunking this belief and it mentioned long-forgotten battles with names, places and dates where the North Vietnamese did in fact beat US troops. Cannot find that article now as Google is so hopeless but it is a belief in the same class as those post-WW1 German generals saying that they were ‘ stabbed in the back’ . And neither is actually true. Back then the US would brief reporters daily in Saigon but you can bet that they were never going to say that they lost a battle. Especially in a forum that the reporters themselves nicknamed the “Five O’clock Follies.”

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I used the word ‘major’ deliberately! I know the article you mean and its of course true that the North Vietnamese won many small but cumulatively important engagements.

          But in terms of traditional fixed battles or major field engagements they were all either US victories or to some degree indeterminate. The Tet offensive was, for example, a strategic victory for the north, but was tactically a series of catastrophes.

          1. The Rev Kev

            True that. Though I remember the 1965 battle of Ia Drang being described as the battle that convinced Ho Chi Minh that he could win against the Americans. But what I also remember is a saying that they had about the British centuries ago on the Continent. They said that the British lost every single battle in a war except for one – the last one.

      2. Andy

        Its a myth that Afghanistan can’t be controlled or ruled.

        As you say, the British and the Russians were driven out of Afghanistan. Their respective missions to subdue and control the country failed. The Americans had grand plans to crush al-Qaeda, depose the Taliban and establish a US-friendly client state. This too failed.

        So there does seems to be some truth to the claim that it is a difficult country to control or rule. Afghanistan is famously decentralized and has never had a strong central government. Loyalty is to tribe, village and religion rather than to the state. This leaves a lot of moving parts for an occupying power to subdue. The British, Russians and Americans basically controlled only Kabul, with president Hamid Karzai even earning the derisive moniker Mayor of Kabul.

        In Germany and Japan the allies, for the most part, fought a conventional war against regular armies which is what they were trained to do. In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the US fought an asymmetrical war against peasant insurgents who were prepared to take massive casualties and fight until the occupiers were driven out. After World War I the British faced an insurgency in Iraq that had a lot of parallels with the 2003 invasion and occupation. In both instances they packed up and went home.

        For soldiers trained to fight a regular army battling an insurgency takes a massive psychological toll. On a conventional battlefield the enemy is right there in front of you but in an insurgency it remains largely hidden amongst a hostile population and you never know when and where the next attack is coming from.

        Occupying a country and fighting an insurgency is also very resource intensive and almost impossible to win outright and Pentagon war planners have long been complaining about constantly being tasked to fight ragtag militias in the Middle East. They much prefer to focus their energy on ‘near peer competitors’ Russia and China. It looks like they’ve finally gotten their wish.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        You beat me to it. Unless you can walk around the country without being popped by the locals, you haven’t conquered anything.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    The US is increasingly becoming Prussia – as Voltaire said ‘Where some States have an army, the Prussian Army has a State.’

    Looking back to WWII, perhaps the greatest single virtue of the US military was its ruthlessness in getting rid of bad generals. No other major power was as ruthless with its own leadership, and no other military improved so much in such a short time. Stalin was of course ruthless with his generals, but usually in the wrong way (although he learned his lesson quickly). Neither the British nor the Germans were particularly efficient at getting rid of mediocre leaders. The Japanese did their purges earlier on, as they had plenty of experience at war before 1941.

    A key problem of course is that nobody gets to the top of a major organisation without being very good at certain things. But in a rotten organisation, those skills are often nothing more than aggressive posturing and glad handling. Sometimes they are even worse, some organisations seem designed to promote those with personality disorders.

    Football leagues (real ones, with proper rules of relegation and financial controls) are often fascinating in how they reveal weaknesses. In the English premiership, much joy for the neutral can be found in watching billionaires flounder as they get out of their depth (Everton, Man United and Newcastle are providing much amusement right now to anyone who isn’t a fan of those teams). You can also see what happens if the owners/managers know what they are doing (Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester). But life rarely provides such a clear indicator of meritocracy, and militaries in particular are incredibly hard to assess until a real war arrives.

    1. Samuel Conner

      I’ve read that MacArthur is the only US general in history to have lost two campaigns against numerically inferior opponents (IIRC, it was the 41-42 Philippines campaign and the initial phase of the Korean War).

      Granting that, it would appear that there were some who were harder to remove.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, if there was a weakness I think in the US military at the time, it was an unnecessary fondness and respect for the ‘big character’ type of leader. There were quite a few much better commanders than MacArthur, but they were generally low key technocratic types who preferred to let their results do the talking. But that type would rarely be able to bluff their way out of a series of blunders like the ‘pines campaign (the US actually outnumbered the Japanese invaders, but were still comprehensively outfought and out-thought).

        1. Dave in Austin

          After Pearl Harbor the US had almost no navy left in the western and no way to resupply the Philippines. The US Asiatic Fleet had two cruisers and a dozen WW I destroyers to face the Japanese. In December the Japanese send a small invasion force to attack MacArthur but the main thrust was against Singapore and present-day Indonesia. Bataan and Corregidor were courageously defended but fell when the Japanese deployed real numbers.

          The week after Pearl Harbor the Army had a very competent Colonel named Eisenhower draw up the new Pacific plan (I’ve read it). It was a forgone conclusion that the Philippines campaign was lost, only a delaying action now. All resources were sent to reinforce the supply line to Australia and all troops heading to Manila were redirected there. In 1942 the US sent twice as many troops to the South Pacific as it sent to Great Britain and North Africa.

          MacArthur had his limitations- many of them- but he was the retired Army Chief of Staff (retired 1935-6), had done the best he could with limited resources, and was politically well-connected, so he remained in charge of the South Pacific.

          And yes, the poor performers were replaced; MacArthur’s Air Force head in Australia and two navy admirals in a row during the Solomon’s campaign.

          1. Samuel Conner

            Years ago I read what I think was an official summary (it was about 80 pages long) of the Philippines campaign, and it looked like MacA had not stationed sufficient supplies in the Bataan peninsula to implement the Philippines part of the default plan, “War Plan Orange”. Vast amounts of supplies were lost in Manila that could have kept the defenders of Bataan supplied for months longer. In the actual event, they were starving by April.

            It may not have been possible to hold out until relieved by a badly damaged Pacific fleet, but holding the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines for months longer might have made a significant difference elsewhere in the Pacific theatre.

      2. scott s.

        Well, you have to consider that the national security policy of the US directed the military force towards Europe. As a result, the troops on occupation duty in Japan were well under-strength (only 2 of 3 battalions per maneuver regiment and missing much equipment) as well as poorly trained. Even at that within a week the first infantry units were able to deploy. But it’s pretty clear that the rate that force could be applied could not match the North’s. And the ROK divisions didn’t perform all that well. The ROKs lost a division’s worth of equipment when their engineers blew the Han River bridges while the troops were still in Seoul.

      1. JBird4049

        Well, the Prussian state had to fight for real as they were surrounded by more larger, powerful, and often competent, empires; they had to be very, very good just to survive. And that was always the goal, survival. Eventually, they became a little too good and too dependent on their military as a tool, but still.

        After the Second World War, the United States military has never actually fought a hot war for survival, with the very qualified exception of the Cold War. Unlike the Prussians, the American regime has become too dependent on the military use as a protection racket and generally profitable grift machine for insiders.

        Restated, like the Prussians, America has always won the wars it needed to for survival, but unlike the Prussians who did become too dependent on the military as a diplomatic and political tool, the Americans have become too dependent on the military for use as a mafia-style protection racket and as a grift machine for insiders; survival requires victory, which requires competence, while mere use as a tool does not require victory, only profit.

        1. The Rev Kev

          Another problem for the Prussian State was that their lands were mostly flat with few natural defenses to shelter behind like mountains. If they weren’t any good, somebody else would have pushed them aside sooner or later and taken over their lands. But as JBird4049 said, they got a little too good for their own sake. And they never made good friends with the other German States who nicknamed them with a term – Saupreiß – that translates as something like sow (female pig) Prussians.

    2. korual

      Football leagues, and all sports really, also employ the excellent principle of having a total Jubilee at the end of the year and everyone starts afresh and equal at zero points. Bad management is quickly revealed.

      As for the American practice of having the worst team get first pick of the best new players, well that’s just damned communism.

  6. DJG, Reality Czar

    All that you need to know about Petraeus. He’s at KKR now.


    After the wreckage of Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the military-industrial-congressional complex is all ready to pretend it can take on the Russians Russians Evil Russkies.

    What could possibly go wrong? Besides purging the armed forces, there has to be a purge in the “foreign policy” swamp–and if I may be so bold, any middle-aged white lady warmongering for the administration should be drafted into the army forthwith.

  7. Cocomaan

    Oh hell yeah, a post quoting Parkinson’s Law? I’m in.

    The rot is across all sectors. I’m always sipping into the mindset that it’s generational, which is too neat an explanation but also the only explanation that makes sense. It just seems that the age of people in top positions is always constant (50-65 or so) so it follows that if ALL institutions are shit at the moment, it must be the crop of people running them.

    1. Samuel Conner

      There’s a napoleonic era remark that may have come from the great man himself, and that seems apposite: “The problem with generals is that they are promoted from among the colonels.”

      1. Cocomaan

        And there’s my favorite corollary to Parkinson’s which is the Peter principle, everyone rises to their level of incompetence.

    2. c_heale

      Well that makes them born in the late 50’s to early 70’s, and able to benefit from the era of cheap oil and booming economies. So among the political classes I guess that was a time when most of them had no real hardships growing up. The laziest and most cosseted group of people in recent history.

      1. sd

        I’m from that particular cohort. Nothing easy about it. College cost escalated exponentially between 1982-1986 doubling each year. Housing has long been out of each. Lots of lip service about equality but not much in the way of practice.

        If you’re looking for someone to blame, I always go back to the election of Reagan. No one will ever admit it but he was elected because he told people they could be selfish, they could throw off their sweaters, turn up their thermostats in the winter and drive over 55 and without consequence. 40 years of greedy individualism.

        And here we are.

      2. Roland

        There are no cosseted generations. There are cosseted people in every generation. But the cosseted, in themselves, aren’t even the real problem. Big things go bad for bigger reasons than that.

        When institutions get rotten, they rot most of those who join them, regardless of their background, or of the intentions they had when they joined. A friend of mine, whose background was even poorer than mine, became a shameless PMC apparatchik and apologist. He lost his soul amid the long struggle and sunk costs of his personal success.

        It goes to show that social mobility should not be the aim of the socialist. The problems of the proletariat cannot be solved by all the proles trying to become petty bourgeois (a class who have plenty of their own troubles anyway).

        In good institutions, co-optation both stabilizes and galvanizes. In bad institutions, co-optation validates complacency and corruption. I know that I beg the question here, “Well, why and how did the institution go bad?” That’s a big question, with lots of big answers, most of which are probably right.

    3. urblintz

      “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”

      – Kurt Vonnegut

  8. Jacob Hinz

    “the United States had killed thousands of civilians” links to a chart that is called “documented civilian deaths” in Iraq. There is no mention of who killed them. It is a known fact that Al Qaeda bombed many Shia mosques in Iraq. Is Mr Bacevich trying to pull a fast one on us? He belongs to the Quincy Institute, whose operational head is Trita Parsi, the unofficial ambassador of Iran in the US.

    1. The Rev Kev

      I wouldn’t be so harsh on Mr Bacevich as he is personally acquainted with the true cost of war, especially that for Iraq. From Wikipedia-

      ‘On May 13, 2007, Bacevich’s son, Andrew John Bacevich, was killed in action in Iraq by an improvised explosive device south of Samarra in Saladin Governorate. The younger Bacevich, 27, was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.’

    2. HH

      It is well known that the US precipitated and supported the civil war between Shia and Shiites in Iraq, which claimed thousands of lives. We have wrecked Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria with nothing to show for the trillions spent other than a theater of cruelty that satisfied the blood lust of a public offended by the 9/11 attacks. Now the whole rotten history is being swept into the amnesia hole and we are supposed to be very afraid of Russia and China. The only thing that will end the poison of US militarism is the nuclear destruction of a few cities, and the DC foreign policy blob is moving us steadily toward that outcome.

      1. Fernando Agüero

        The Saddam period was a Sunni tyranny. It was inevitable that as soon as Saddam fell, the Shia would rise up to occupy their rightful position in government, since they are the majority, and that they would meet Sunni resistance. All the US did was break the Sunni stranglehold on power, and a civil war broke out spontaneously.

        1. Futility

          There is an interesting documentary on Arte on German/French TV (available on their website in French or German), which has a lot of interviews with citizens of Irak. The consensus was that as long as one didn’t criticize Saddam, Irak was a very safe place, no fear from bombing, random violence, etc. Most regretted the US invasion. True, the Shia got the power after the invasion (the US supporting a spectacularly corrupt Shia president for too long), but the violence started from the Sunni side ( outside Al-Qaeda forces and ex-Saddam former military) with the explicit aim to incite a civil war between Shia and Sunni.

    3. Roland

      Those who choose to start a war must accept the principal blame for everything that follows, regardless of what they might have wanted, or how little they foresaw.

      If you don’t want to be held responsible for what happens in a country, then don’t invade and occupy that country.

  9. Gregory Etchason

    Ambition, incompetence and a mean spirit are the toxic mix of people seeking power. An Age of repeated mistakes is the time in which we live. The question is, how long can they get it wrong?

  10. LowellHighlander

    Would it be impolitic to ask whether we should want an effective U.S. military that can win wars for the American plutocracy?

    1. redleg

      Not impolite at all. To answer your question, speaking as a former Army officer: the US military cannot win wars*- they only win battles.

      Winning a war requires strategy, where winning a battle requires tactics. There isn’t any coherent US strategy*, only skillfully executed tactics (dark pun intended). The last time I saw US strategy was when Bush 1 stop hostilities in Iraq, and I’m pretty sure that you have to go back to Kennedy to find the next most recent example (Cuba). So there is no danger that the US will win a war for the plutocracy unless something radical changes at the O-5 level and higher and in the civilian politicians that control the military.
      We’ve all seen how the US civilian “leadership” has handled the pandemic- all tactics, no strategy. Change isn’t coming. Does the US civilian government reflect the military re. all tactics, no strategy, or is it the other way around?

      *unless winning a war is measured in dollars paid to contractors and consultants. Looting the US treasury via no-bid, no-oversight contact is a thing, and is far more safe (not to mention lucrative) than looting an occupied area. If that’s the real strategy, and as far as I can tell it is, it’s working.

    2. Oh

      We don’t want any wars period. And we don’t want to win for the sake of winning. We need to disband this crooked system that is full of revolving door generals, admirals, colonels and a ‘defense’ contractor industry and a corrupt Congress. We’ve never been attacked by anyone (Pearl harbor was a territory not a state) but we have 900 plus bases around the world. Enough is enough. Let’s spend the money on healthcare and getting rid of poverty in America.

  11. LawnDart

    In USA, the president serves the MIC, amongst other masters– public will not one of them.

    Zeros (aka officers, senior officers (young ones often still enslaved by delusions)) are just managerial employees, and will kiss any a$$ above them if they wanna keep collecting a paycheck.

    Anyone with principles in USA military service quickly finds it’s all bulls#!t, and makes their choices accordingly. Many quit and go home, only to find that the reasons that they left haven’t changed.

    FTW, and choke on my 214 you salad-dressed bastards!

    (PS: love it when people say “thank you for your service!” It presents an educational opportunity, though one they’re not usually expecting)

    1. anon y'mouse

      i don’t thank anyone for that “service”, not even my own family members.

      they weren’t serving me. they were serving the corporations and the politicians who get kickbacks for these lamebrained schemes.

      i am sorry when they are injured and have C-PTSD, since most signed up simply for a paycheck and a free college ride (which few can genuinely take advantage of, since from what i understand gov only wants to pay for an education that they themselves can take future advantage of), but there is no gratitude for an unasked for service which is only for citizens through rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

      they would have been better staying home and fixing infrastructure & support systems here than blowing up poor people somewhere else simply to use up, and thus excuse additional expenditures on, materiel.

  12. DTK

    Abroad, the US military runs a protection racket for (mainly) petroleum and uses its inventory of weapons, knowing that, domestically, replenishing that inventory is only a campaign contribution away.

  13. Dave in Austin

    Sorry, I can’t agree with much of this article and most of the comments.

    Our political leaders give our military marching orders. In Iraq the political leaders flat-out refused to plan for the occupation. I’ve talked with battalion commanders who watched locals looting armories after the fall of the regime. They wanted to stop it; they were told orders were to leave the locals alone.

    In Afghanistan our goal was to get Bin Laden. We had a full brigade of air-mobile troops on the gorund ready to cut-off his escape route. Instead we allowed some locals with CIA and Special Forces people to try to do the job. They didn’t have the numbers, the intel… nothing. Both these were decisions made by the political level of our government. Why they were made has never been explained.

    Once in Afghanistan we faced the usual problem; the locals don’t like foreign armies with different cultural views telling them what to do. Our version of diversity is that everyone, regardless of color or religion, should act like we do. They don’t. So to keep the occupation going with small US casualties we opted for local allies and air strikes. Both sometimes fail to do the job. War is not simple. To use the football metaphor, the sports media doesn’t call for a new coach and a new quaterback every time a pass play fails. By football’s and war’s very nature, many plays- and operations- fail.

    And the pullout? If we had tried to start the evacuation at any point in the collapse the full collapse would have been instantaneous.

    I notice that many of the people who are now calling these operations military disasters were silent when we went in to “Get Bin Laden” or “Stop the Iraqi’s from getting weapons of mass destruction”. All these were decisions by the political leadership and the manufactured- and wrong- judgments by the press. And by the American public which failed to ask the most basic question.

    Blaming the military is an easy shortcut. Have we ever demanded that the NYT fire the editors and pundits who insisted we invade and occupy both Iraq and Afghanistan? The Senators? The Presidents? I have very few good things to say about Biden, but the decision to leave was correct and there will always be desperate mobs wanting to go home with us- and most will always be left behind. By the way, what happened to the massacres we were told would follow a Taliban takeover? And we will always have a press saying- afterwards- “If we had only done…”. There is a reason people like this are called “Monday Morning Quarterbacks”

    1. Jack

      You make some good points Dave. Ex Navy officer here. Yes, I agree with the author there is some dead wood in the senior military ranks. But too often the military does not succeed in its mission because there is no clearly defined mission. Militaries are designed to break and destroy. Not nation build. I would say the majority of tactical level commanders are good at what they do, but once one is promoted into a more strategic level position politics becomes more and more a factor. As far as the budget goes, the sad fact is that the military is more of a fountain for congressional largesse in the districts rather than providing the best military money can by. Its all about contracts. You can have and perpetuate a crappy weapon systems like the F-35 for 1.6 trillion dollars but you cannot provide decent housing for your service members for a couple of billion more a year. Can you imagine what would happen if senior military leadership went to Congress and proposed cutting the military budget? They have tried in years past to cut many obsolete weapons programs but the Congress critters did not want to end the frenzied feeding at the trough. Just saying there are two sides to this story.

      1. upstater

        The post WW2 miltary occupation of Germany, Japan and other places (e.g., SE Asia, Korea, Greece, etc) was certainly nation building. We can debate that turning colonies back to their masters or staffing West Germany’s government with ex-nazis was a good idea, but that was all about establishing control by the US, which continues to this day with few exceptions.

        Gen. Eric Shinseki testified prior to the Iraq invasion the US would need 500,000 occupation troops. He was swiftly retired by the Cheney clique. Their idea was move fast and break things, without giving a thought about what comes next.

        I fear we’ll witness the incompetence of civilian and military leadership on an epic scale with Russia and China.

      2. JoeC100

        Former Marine officer (w/RVN time) here. And completely agree with Dave and Jack’s comments – most of our recent “wars” were politically motivated and essentially “not possible to win”. I think that within all of these conflicts there have been competent officers who did as well as they could have given the mess they were placed in and others who were either incompetent or pursuing personal (or in cases like Petreus, personal political motives). A book worth reading about Afghanistan is “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan”, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It shows that the US had a lengthy, but clueless engagement there, well before we committed troops. Also that high level commanders pretty much had service/personal motives versus “winning” – I was astonished to read that the Marine Corps had managed to have their own independent chain of command and were not under . It is also forgotten that then Taliban had apparently told high level Bush administration official that they would deliver Bin laden to us, but that did not appease the “let’s break something” (Afghanistan) to show how string we are.. Looking back at WW II in the Pacific “battles” were much clearer (mostly “take this island”) and the capability (or lack thereof) of general officers in charge was usually clear – including deep failures and incredible successes. Our recent “wars” have had little or nothing to do with our country’s real security and have been way too easy to start for emotional or political purposes. I was also surprised to read in “Little America” that the Marines in Afghanistan had their own separate chain of command and were not under Petraeus – which made no practical sense.

    2. Rod

      Yes Dave,
      “And by the American public which failed to ask the most basic question.”
      That whole contigent of America’s real Front Line of Defense seems to be MIA on much of everything nowadays.

      and everybody who has worn the uniform and held the weapon knows Strategy and Tactics are two very different things(although, ideally, with purposes that ‘align’)

      as I was told on numerous occasions:
      “Yours purpose is not to reason Why–yours is to Do or Die”

      which adjusted my post war civilian attitude quite a bit…

    3. Larry Y

      “strategic failure” is wholly on the political leadership.

      To continue the sports metaphor, the rot is at the top. Manchester United can keep going through managers/generals and big expensive flashy acquisitions, but to win need some kind of long term coherent plan.

      The denial and gaslighting over the occupation of Iraq continues to today, culminating in the Democratic leadership embracing George W. Bush.

    4. scott s.

      We created a strategy of “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here”. That’s easy to write, but hard to execute. Moreso that “terrorist” isn’t a force. Then we have the treatment of “terrorism” as insurgency, which we thought we could execute against using COIN. Yes, the high priests of COIN were proved deluded. This covers the entire foreign policy elite, not just uniformed military or those civilians directly overseeing them.

    5. ape

      It’s not the military’s officers fault — got it. It’s the politicians — but they’ll tell you they’re just following the elections. So we should, as per Brecht, “Would it not in that case be simpler for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”.

      As always the technocrats, business men, civil servants, military officers, priests and landowners who are the real owners of any country pretend that their frontmen are to blame, and the frontmen blame the markets and elections. It’s all upside-down in terms of power, and thus analyses that look technically impeccable are actually a collection of nonsense because the first principles are wrong.

      As I said, I don’t blame your technical knowledge — but your analysis is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of who runs the show, because you put the obvious, legalistic, individual decisions before the aggregate class effects that are really dominant. So you miss the point and let folks wave away their responsibility.

  14. Monte McKenzie

    (911 was a phony staged event ! All wars that followed it were to support the industrial complex ,never to help citizens! most jobs went to germany or china not am workers! thanks for publishing this

    1. juno mas

      9/11 was not a phony staged event. The death and destruction was real. 911 is is the Emergency phone(y) number for the North American phone system.

      The American reaction to 9/11 was, indeed, a staged event. Iran’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” were phony.

      Thanks to the esteemed military man, Colin Powell, many Americans swallowed the Con. And the death and destruction it caused was also real.

  15. Edward H Jones

    In 1939 the new Sec of War George Marshall fired 150 generals. About 80% of the total. He elevated Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower. It was clear to Marshall that we were not prepared to fight the Nazi. They could see clearly the proxy war in Spain. We were behind in technology, strategy and tactics.

    1. BeliTsari

      Well, that AND most were rooting for Hitler’s aims, well before Russia (ready to use the latest Civil War tactics to help der Fuhrer whup any Commies, Jews & Roma) and they’d ALL attacked destitute veterans, fooled into believing lies, we’d recognize immediately as Biden, Trump, Obama & Shrub’s extension of Clinton & Bush’s neoConfederacy?

  16. David

    Human sacrifices are always popular, and organisations in difficulty often resort to them as a quick solution. But this problem goes a lot deeper.
    The US military in its modern form (ie post-1941) has always fought wars of attrition, with effectively unlimited resources and manpower, against opponents who expect to fight the same kind of war. This was the case in WW2 and Korea, it was the war they trained for until 1989, that they fought in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and for that matter it was the war they fought in Vietnam, for the subset of battles against the NVA rather than the VietCong.

    The US military is an extreme case of military forces configured for conventional warfare having to face unconventional opponents who don’t play the same game. This isn’t new (Napoleon had the same problem in Spain) but it does require conventional forces to completely change their organisation and tactics, as the French did for example, in Algeria or the British in N Ireland. Not only has the US military failed to do this, clinging to its “warrior” ethos, but it’s not clear that the civilian leadership or even the general public wants it to. Thus, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military was not equipped, trained or led to carry out the role it was given (though most of the other contingents were little better.)

    The role in Afghanistan was not to defeat the Taliban militarily, which anyway was close to impossible. An enemy without uniforms, that blends into the civilian population and can take refuge in another country is a tall order for any conventional army to fight: even Alexander the Great might’ve thought twice. No doubt some commanders did less badly than others, but no-one was going to succeed. In any event, the military role, as I remember from NATO documents at the time, was to stabilise the country and train the Afghan military, to enable the political process to restart. The basic strategic error was assuming that one would follow the other automatically, because Afghan politicians were believed to be only too ready to create a modern, democratic state if given the chance. Whilst the US and other forces in the end couldn’t fully stabilise the country, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had, because the political class In Afghanistan wasn’t interested in the western concept of “Phase II”.

    So a commander in Afghanistan could not actually act as a war-fighter. Moreover, senior commanders today (and Bacevich, a Lt-Col, would have understandably little experience of this) have to be many things other than capable field commanders. They have to be bureaucrats and managers, seek and protect funding, manage equipment projects, deal with personnel issues, advise the political leadership, and half a hundred other things. In peacetime (and that’s technically where we are) such attributes are the most important ones for promotion: indeed, Eisenhower was the classic example of a peacetime General, who was wise enough to realise that he was out of his depth in 1944, and left the fighting to Montgomery and Patton. In wars, peacetime Generals get shoved aside. After the war, it’s the fighting commanders who get pushed out.

    Ultimately it’s the US political leadership that has to decide what its military is for, and configure it appropriately.

  17. The Rev Kev

    I’m afraid that it would not matter if you took every general out to the back of the Pentagon and shot them as the system that brought you men like Petraeus would still be there. From what I have read it is up or out meaning that if you do not receive a promotion to the next rank, you are ejected out the military. This system was brought in after WW2 but what it meant in practise that you could have a superb battalion commander but if he was not promoted, then there was no place for him and never considering the idea that he should be left in place.

    But to get promoted, you have to make your superior believe that you are the best thing since sliced bread or you are never given the nod. So this encourages those who know how to suck up to their superiors – while probably thumping down on their inferiors. Under today’s regime, you would never, ever have a Patton or an Eisenhower being allowed to advance in ranks. To make it worse, whereas before higher education was encouraged for senior officers, this has been curtailed so that they may never take the time to reflect on their profession while on a ‘sabbatical,’ And to make the turd sandwich complete, it is my understanding that private corporation (think tanks?) are now being brought in to assess senior people. The people that Patton called the ‘dancers and the prancers’ now have the run of the place.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      And Patton only survived because he was known as being good at moving an army from point A to point B, what command is really about. Ike and Bradley were officers he took a shine too, and they were put in charge of a program going no where per the brass, tanks.

      I’m convinced we need a draft for the officers to promote a form of democratic oversight. We start with 15 year olds who want to go to West Point. “Dedicated” is a nice way of saying nuts. This is too dangerous. People who aren’t there to be lifers, but some will be good and others won’t be so attached to the go along to get along bit. In the end, we have too small a group self selecting at an early age.

    2. scott s.

      After WWII you had the Officer Promotion Act of 1948 which put all the services under what had been the Navy system since the early 1900s of using selection boards for the promotion of officers. The selection board process now works on “flow points” were you become eligible for selection (promotion) at certain time in service points. The battalion commander (LCOL) will be rated by his/her brigade commander against the other battalion COs and probably some brigade staff O5s. The promotion opportunity to COL (O6) let’s say is around 50%. While it’s possible one brigade has all water-walkers, in typical case the ones with the highest OER (or equiv) rating from that CO will be promoted. At least in the Navy, you get one shot. There is in theory a chance at promotion the following year, but unlikely, as any one selected after being passed over is effectively “taking away” a promotion from someone else “in zone”. (It’s all a numbers game. By NDAA law there will be a certain number of CAPTs authorized. The personnel folks will determine how many CAPTs will be promoted, retired, etc for the FY. That creates the number to be promoted. They then set the promotion rate at some percentage. That then determines how many CDRs will be deemed “in the zone” strictly by date of rank for promotion.)

      Goldwater-Nichols made a major change, in requiring proof of “jointness” through the attainment of “JPME” (joint professional military education) and “joint” (aka “purple”) tours in order to be promotable.

  18. KLG

    As Robert Hahl pointed out above, Ike gave that speech at the very end of his working life, which had begun 50 years prior. If he had really meant it, he would have done something about the MIC during his final 8 working years. That he found the Pentagon recalcitrant is no excuse. Don’t make him out to be the hero he wasn’t.

    This Nimitz Lecture at Berkeley in 2011 by Thomas Ricks is good, when you have about 50 minutes.

    1. The Rev Kev

      When Harry Truman lost to Ike in 1952 and was in his final days as President, he said that he felt sorry for Ike. Coming from a military background Ike, he said, was used to giving orders and having them carried out and Truman said that Ike would not be prepared for the office of President. That there, Ike would give an order as President – and then nothing would happen..

  19. John

    When was the last time US forces faced a first class opponent and yet while successful tactically and able to overwhelm an opponent materially, the purpose somehow was lost. If war is the pursuit of political aims by violence, show me the political successes of these recent protracted wars.

  20. Charles Yaker

    Not going to happen. Ask Billy Mitchell. Ask Charmers Johnson. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation without the psychobabel has elements of where we are today.

    There will be consequences possibly including 1 Million or more deaths from Covid but will anyone recognize the cause and effect like the Prophets of the Bible.

    Those that care need to identify the consequences and prepare for amelioration so that the phoenix can rise from the ashes. Or as individuals navigate through the disaster

  21. John B

    Is this a good moment in our history to purge the military? Is there a risk that whoever does the purging (this time or next time) adds another non-competence selection criterion for generals, like political or ideological or religious loyalty? And what if we did have a competent military — wouldn’t Presidents find it even more tempting to use it? Just asking.

  22. David Jones

    Historically a purge or revolution will throw up a whole crop of successful military leaders.From Napoleon himself to his generals who got their start as common privates – (a Field Marshall’s baton in every knapsack) along with the Russian and Chinese revolutions this has been the case.

    Indeed Stalin could even purge most of the old Red Army in the mid-1930’s and still the Russians produced enough good leaders to reduce the pride of German High Command to rubble.I guess this may have been the case also with the American Revolution and Civil War. though my knowledge is lacking here.The V.C had good leaders Giap et.al and the presumably the Taliban have a few on board as well.

    Thus a good purge can uplift performance, which is why whenever the latest rich clever entrepreneur wants/threatens to leave the UK “Be my guest “would be the reply.The talent,military,political and organisational is here now with us the pity is that it often takes a revolution bring out that there are many with the potential to be Spartacus among us.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Much of this is knowing a few rules, army professionalism/discipline, logistics, and not doing too much. The captains and lieutenants matter (NCOs in the US), but the rest is done by logistics clerks. One of Grant’s command innovations was pulling generals out of command roles and turning them into glorified messengers. A general might ignore a lieutenant with a message, but amajor or colonel won’t ignore a general with a message. And a general riding with a body guard who was just at the meeting where Grant gave out commands really has to do what he was told.

      And when Grant came East he basically assumed command of a now disciplined army that had a major officer purge. Of course, the newly promoted had proved themselves as soldiers or to the soldiers by that point, so besides Grant’s own guys, he could get to work.

      The Revolutionary War is the story of mistakes from not being schooled in the art of war and a story about NCO reforms and a structure for an army of rebel volunteers. George did incredible stuff, given everything. His ability to get away was what wins wars. Wellington pulled out all the time. Can’t lose if you don’t fight. Napoleon can’t win if Wellington doesn’t agree to meet him.

    2. scott s.

      Sure, if you are OK with losing a few million people waiting for new officers to emerge then I guess purges are good.

  23. Carolinian

    A few years back Ken Silverstein wrote a piece for Harper’s about Hillary Clinton and said her defining characteristic was her complete mediocrity. Or in other words she perfectly embodies “incompetence” plus “jealousy.” Some of us are convinced that one reason the blob hates Putin so much is that he is so obviously smarter than they are.

    All of which is to say our current system of using elite education to stamp a meritocratic USDA seal of approval is not working when it gives us figures like Hillary or Obama. Neither had much in the way of real world accomplishments even though they used identity to gain approval of one of our political parties and make themselves senators. Meanwhile a military which hasn’t fought a real war since Vietnam has it’s own system of fake meritocracy.

    The French revolution happened when the aristocrats became so greedy and useless that they had to be overthrown. Perhaps it’s always like that. No wonder our own Versailles gets panicky about acting out incidents like 1/6. Tumbrils next?

  24. Wukchumni

    This is time of season that owners can’t wait to fire underperforming coaches in the NFL, but sports is tied to a yearly record so it’s different in war which has an open ended season.

    Patraeus is similar to recently axed Urban Meyer, except if the NFL was like the military, Meyer would’ve been offered a lucrative gig as an analyst for Fox sports in lieu of losing his job.

  25. John

    The DOD welfare queens keep winning one ongoing forever war…the one to keep the Treasury checks continually being written. As I said frequently during my time of forced military servitude 50 some years ago…Social welfare is a good policy, DOD is just a sloppy and inefficient way to administer it.
    We should also get rid of the deceptive name D of Defense and go back to the old name Department of War.,

  26. Matthew G. Saroff

    The ratio of general officers to men is 1:1400. In WWII, it was 1:6000. (Source)

    Given the ability of computers to eliminate some steps in the chain in command, it is not a stretch to say that we could eliminate at least 75% of the general officers (and half of all officers, but that is a rant for a later day) with no reduction in effectiveness. (Probably an increase in effectiveness, since the amount of effort directed at rivals would be reduced)

  27. p fitzsimon

    The military needs to be fixed but not for incompetence on the battlefield but for lying. I don’t think I heard a pessimistic report concerning the war in Afghanistan from any top military commander in its 20 years. But it’s worse; the state department also lied about the competence and prospects of the corrupt Afghan government they helped to create. And worst of all were the network reporters who never challenged a general’s commentary because they wanted future interviews.

  28. Tom Stone

    One of the biggest bars to promotion in promotion in both the Army and Marines is “Too much time with the troops”.
    Especially combat time.
    That’s been true for decades and military career counselors ( There are thousands of them,usually at the rank of Colonel) are explicit about it.
    Making it to Colonel unless you are a member of the WPPA or a born politician is difficult,making it to flag rank is virtually impossible unless you are known as a “Team Player”,AKA someone expert at sucking up and kicking down.
    Institutionalized corruption can not be solved from within the institution, and that is what we have.

    1. scott s.

      Not army, but assume WPPA is a reference to “ring knockers”, that is, service academy grads (as contrasted to other commissioning sources).

  29. ex-PFC Chuck

    Only when he has reached high rank does he suddenly throw off the mask and appear like the demon king among a crowd of pantomime fairies. With shrill screams of dismay the high executives find ability right there in the midst of them. It is too late by then to do anything about it. The damage has been done, the disease is in retreat, and full recovery is possible over the next ten years. But these instances of natural cure are extremely rare. In the more usual course of events, the disease passes through the recognized stages and becomes, as it would seem, incurable.

    This final paragraph and the preceding one from Yves’ long quote from the sorely missed C. Northcote Parkinson brought to mind none other than Vladimir Putin.

    1. John k

      Certainly putin turned the country around, a revolution level change that afaik was pretty bloodless. I don’t know nearly enough to know how he brought it about, but our leaders hate and envy him for it while fighting tooth and nail to prevent any such thing from ever happening here.
      Just speculating, but perhaps a country has to fall very far to reach a point where it might permit fundamental change.

  30. Pookah Harvey

    Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Colin Powell at both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Dept, had this to say about the current military leadership during an interview with Paul Jay:

    if you’re talking about the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Milley, or any of the service chiefs, the Joint Chiefs and General or any of the three and four stars, you’re talking about brain dead people, basically, they have become such advocates of money, 750 billion plus annually , that that’s all they know how to talk about more money.

  31. Eric

    Have been zoom meeting bi-weekly since spring 2020, with 20 academy classmates who were company mates for four years at the academy, one of whom wore four stars and half retired from full careers. Politically we are patriotic. Only the minority would identify as R,D or libertarian. Our four-star became a “friend” of Hillary as he climbed the ranks and signed on the “generals” Biden endorsement. The group’s reaction was “professional military don’t do politics, don’t sign”. He also supported most top flag officers when we criticized some troubling actions. They all are well known to each other.

  32. George Phillies

    Soon before the Taliban won, the American General over there said that it did not matter that the Taliban controlled the countryside because our side controlled the population centers. This is a recycle of Chiang KaiShek occupying Manchuria as World War 2 ended. The cities could not reinforce each other, and the Communists defeated them in detail one city after the next.

    The recycle of ‘the NVA never beat us’ is ‘there was no hint that the ANDSF was going to collapse’, which is a bald-faced lie. I call your attention to the Special Inspector general (SIGAR) report covering December 2020:

    p. 51 Regular clashes between the Taliban and ANDSF in Kandahar Province
    since October have reportedly led to thousands of families fleeing their homes over the last three months, similar to the exodus that occurred in Helmand in early October.68 USFOR-A also publicly acknowledged an air strike against armed Taliban fighters attacking an ANDSF checkpoint in Kandahar on December 10.69 All told, nearly 200 checkpoints in Kandahar were abandoned to the Taliban by the ANA’s 205th Corps in December.70 For more information about ANDSF checkpoints, see page 67–68

    However, some checkpoints were not eliminated by plan, but abandoned to the Taliban. Nearly 200 checkpoints manned by the ANA’s 205th Corps in Kandahar Province were abandoned to the Taliban during December 2020.157 According to Kandahar provincial leaders and security personnel, the ANDSF and the Taliban have clashed regularly in Kandahar Province since October, and the recent checkpoint abandonment let government weapons and ammunition fall in Taliban hands.158 Following the retreat, CSTC-A said that representatives from the MOI, NDS, and the MOD general staff were debriefed by the Kandahar governor, soldiers and commanders from the 205th Corps, and provincial and district chiefs of police. A lack of ANDSF cooperation, 205th Corps personnel shortfalls, adversarial relationships between the 205th Corps soldiers and Kandahar citizens, and the lack of adequate fuel and personnel reserves for 205th Corps checkpoints contributed to the collapse.

    There was a clear indication that collapse was entirely possible — it had happened already once.

    1. MonkeyBusiness

      So in the next Civil War, the Dems are going to lose right? They control the big population centers, while Reps control the rural areas.

  33. Starry Gordon

    Purging the military will do nothing because the new officers will be drawn from the same pool of people with the same culture and practices you now complain about. In any case, the US military might seem to do a better job if it were not asked to perform impossible tasks. I’m reminded of that Vietnam-era cartoon showing a commander telling some artillerymen and their cannon, ‘Blow up everything but their hearts and minds.’ What was the goal in Vietnam? In Iraq? As noted above, the military objectives could be reached easily; the political goals were contradictory or missing. Obviously the point of the forever wars is to keep ‘defense’ industries humming. I suppose the overall goal is to rule the world, which was plausible in 1945 when the US was the last man standing, but seems pretty silly these days. The US is going to push Russia and China around? Does anyone think that’s going to happen, short of a nuclear catastrophe? The purge we need is not going to be in the military.

  34. Guy Hooper

    The only way to change the military culture is to cut its funding.

    There is a much distorted story of a staff running to its general officer after a budget cut.

    “What are we going to do?” they asked in despair.
    “For the first time, we are going to have to…think,” said the General.

    So the budget is controlled by Congress who is controlled by…?

  35. JTMcPhee

    General officer = CEO class. Here’s a little reminder of how the Upper Brass Class lives, as compared to the mope GIs who have to depend on food stamps for subsistence and live in deadly housing. https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/generals-live-like-kings/ Speaking of that piece of filth, David Petraeus as just one example of how “our military” fails upward, and fails in what to all pretense is supposed to be its mission, as they told us in Basic Training, to “Find, Fix and Kill The Enemy.” I guess the enemy in this case is the US mope class…

  36. Late Introvert

    Lying Loser Generals need to be hung from the rafters. So glad this discussion will be in the Library of Congress.

  37. scott s.

    So I see that in hearings this week for the next VCJS, ADM Grady was asked by Sen Shaheen what he would do to ensure gender equity on the Joint Staff. I think I can see what the priority is.

  38. cnchal

    I am dumbfounded that the word ‘peace’ is not found in either the main post or comments, other than Eisenhower’s speech or a reference to that speech.

    The moar money the military devours, the less peace we get, of which in today’s links is a prime example of military insanity.

    Silicon Valley warns the Pentagon: ‘Time is running out’ Breaking Defense

    Reagan National Defense Forum, sponsored by the criminals that call themselves Booze Allen Hamilton. The first image is of God Elon holding court.

    . . . The Davos-style event, which brings the power brokers of the defense world out to California, has increasingly become a venue for meetings with the young Silicon Valley-based tech founders and venture capitalists eager to break into government markets.

    This year, there was an air of foreboding served alongside the free drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

    “Time is running out with Silicon Valley,” said Katherine Boyle, a partner with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, in a series of tweets published the day before the event. “We have, at most, two years before founders walk away and private capital dries up. And many, many startups will go out of business waiting for DOD to award real production contracts.”

    To many of the executives from defense-oriented tech startups who attended the forum and spoke to Breaking Defense, Boyle’s tweets rang true, a Cassandra-like warning to the Pentagon establishment about what it could lose.

    “People are watching. Is this an area where people can actually make big money?” Joe Lonsdale, managing partner at the 8VC venture capital group and a founder of Palantir, asked during a Dec. 4 panel at the forum. “So far, we haven’t seen big wins.”

    According to defense leaders who spoke throughout the forum, there is awareness that a put-up-or-shut-up moment is approaching, and in typical Pentagon fashion, there are a million ideas for how best to move forward — without clarity that any of them will actually change anything.

    Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown perhaps put it most directly on his panel, when he said the department needs to take action quickly.

    “If we don’t do that, then I really believe all that venture capital is just gonna walk,” he said. “They’re going to find someplace else to go.”

    ‘The US Government Has Been A Lousy Partner’

    It is my hope that the US Government, as agreement incapable as it is becomes even moar disfunctional and agreement incapable. Let venture capital walk, and die in the valley of death.

  39. Tom Stone

    From my youth
    “One, Two , Three,what are we fighting for?
    I don’t know and I don’t give a damn,next stop is Vietnam”

    John was the first one on my block to come home in a box, Barney had three years of surgeries before he got his.
    Three days in country, three years of surgeries at the VA before he died at not quite 22 years old.

  40. John Beech

    Purged? Nope, I believe you are mistaken.

    Give our guys a task, they’ll do it. Pussyfoot around politically, hamstring them with ‘rules’ about fighting the war and now you have a problem. All out war has no rules. Don’t believe me? Ask the residents of Dresden or Tokyo when the fires raged.

    War in Vietnam? Politics.
    War in Greneda? Politics.
    War in Panama? Politics.
    War in Iraq? Politics.
    War in Iraq part 2? Politics.
    War in Afghanistan. Politics.

    The boys took Iraq, but were throttled by the politicians. Believe me, you give them a mission, and get out of their way, the mission will be accomplished. Nothing wrong with our military leaders and purging them would be a mistake. Problems with not winning isn’t down to the troops, or the men and women who command them.

    The problem lays in the civilian leadership, the vacillating pusillanimous fools we elect.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Huh? We never could have won the war in Vietnam. It was guerrilla warfare and we sucked at it. Go read Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets. He was literally one of only about 15 guys who were senior-ish (he had a DoD and SoS post, I forget in which order, but he maneuvered to stay in Vietnam beyond his original assignment) to go outside Saigon and see what the hell was going on. And had you bothered reading the Pentagon Papers, literally every President who touched that tar baby had been told that the US could not win but each refused to pull out Because US Prestige and because they didn’t understand that this was a civil war, and the Vietcong were not Chinese operatives.

      As for Iraq, you apparently do not understand what it takes to hold a country as occupiers. We did everything we could have to make sure we’d be hated, like do nothing to fix the electrical grid we’d wrecked, or post soldiers to prevent the looting of hospitals. Australian TV covered this well, and commentators were astonished by and critical of our negligence and incompetence. And Australia was an ally!

    2. p fitzsimon

      Nobody was throttled by the politicians. The military brass know that the politicians only have two requirements; minimum American casualties and we’re winning. The first requirement is easily met with air and missile power along with drones guided by the great warriors working out of centcom facilities in florida, Las Vegas and Qatar. For the second requirement they simply tell lies with little probing by the politicians or reporters.

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