When President Franklin Roosevelt sought a new Army Chief of Staff in 1939, he ignored the seniority list and plucked a junior general officer, George C. Marshall, who went on to earn the title “Organizer of Victory” in World War II.
Like FDR, Marshall had no use for the “Old Boy Network.” Instead, he compiled in a little black book names of junior officers he believed possessed the ability to be aggressive generals in battle.
Marshall was also wise enough to know that a subset of his newly-minted generals would not measure up. And he was not bashful about relieving them of command.
Historian Thomas E. Ricks observed in his book, The Generals, that Marshall believed “Firing, like hiring, was simply one of the basic tasks of the senior managers. ...” Gen. Eisenhower noted at the end of the war, “Those removals had been key steps to victory.”
Sadly, by 1960, the practice of relieving faltering generals was put in moth balls. Becoming a general was “akin to winning a tenured professorship.”
One such general was Maxwell Taylor, a favorite of President Kennedy. Maxwell, while serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1962-1964), supported sending U.S. troops into Vietnam.
To make sure upbeat messages came out of Vietnam, Taylor appointed his favorite toady, General Paul Hawkins (who David Halberstam described in The Best and the Brightest as “a man of compelling mediocrity”) to command the growing forces in that war-torn country.
Hawkins commanded his officers “not to make waves” and to be optimistic. Colonels and majors who dared to speak the truth about the incompetence and corruption of the South Vietnamese army and the doomed battle strategy were sidelined or denied promotion.
The Army, Halberstam reported, was functioning “more like a separate organism responding to its institutional needs, priorities, vanities and careerism. Challenged by outsiders, by civilians, it responded by protecting its own senior officers.”
The failure of generals to grasp that the ideologically-driven North Vietnamese believed they could be victorious by merely surviving until U.S. public opinion soured on the war, led the U.S. into a quagmire. The result: over 47,000 soldiers lost their lives and a flawed 1973 peace treaty set the stage for the fall of Saigon to the communists in April 1975.
Did the generals learn anything from this failure? The results in Afghanistan prove they did not.
What went wrong in Afghanistan is ably explained in Craig Whitlock’s new book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, which is based on the explosive material found in the 2,000-page report “Lessons Learned,” prepared by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The study, which reads like the Vietnam War Pentagon Papers, reveals that “Washington had wasted billions of dollars trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation;” had no coherent long-term strategy; had not been honest with the public; and that “no senior government officials had the courage to admit the United States was slowly losing a war that Americans once overwhelmingly supported.”
One officer who spoke up, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, blasted the generals for failing “to prepare our armed forces for war” and charged the generals “were repeating the mistakes of Vietnam.”
Yingling called it right.
As in Vietnam, the U.S. failed to grasp that one could not build an American-style government, and an Army, in a country existing under precarious circumstances.
As in Vietnam, the domestic army and police armed and trained by the U.S., were inherently corrupt. Many Afghans in uniform were shakedown artists dealing in opium, and over 30,000 phantom troops were receiving paychecks.
As in Vietnam, U.S. soldiers didn’t know the enemy. They couldn’t detect Afghan “friends from foes.”
As in Vietnam, the enemy was playing for time. The Taliban and al-Qaeda figured, as the North Vietnamese did, the U.S. would eventually grow weary of war. One Taliban leader put it thusly, “You have all the clocks, but we have all the time.”
As in Vietnam, no general wanted to admit they were losing. There were constant claims that “the tide has turned,” or “we are achieving success.”
The chorus included Gen. Mark Milley, who as deputy commander in Afghanistan, declared we “are on the road to victory, on the road to winning, on the road to creating a state of Afghanistan.”
(Tired of hearing “victory is around the corner,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, quipped, “We’ve supposedly turned the corner so many times [in 17 years] that it seems that we’re going in circles.”)
Finally, as in Vietnam, U.S. officials claimed the national government was stable enough to hold out for years after the U.S. exit.
But unlike the South Vietnam government that lasted for two years, the Afghan government fell to the Taliban in less than two weeks.
Trillions of dollars squandered, thousands dead and wounded, and not one general was held accountable. Not one general resigned. Not one was fired.
To avoid another disastrous military excursion, we need, as Thomas Ricks recommends, another Marshall to sweep out the “Old Boy Network” and to instill in the officers’ corps the tenet that “leading soldiers is a privilege, not a right. Just as getting that position is earned, so should keeping it be.”
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." Read George J. Marlin's Reports — More Here.
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