Relieving Generals and re-arranging deck chairs.

Thomas Ricks has an idea that the US Army was more effective in WWII because GEN Marshall fired a bunch of senior officers and then presided over the relieving of many more Generals over the course of the conflict. Ricks contends that when relief is not a career ending event, it can be a useful development tool for senior leadership. In the context of WWII, where there was never a lack of professional generals to choose from, maybe Ricks’ idea has some merit.

The youngest American General to be a Division Commander in WWII was “Jumpin Jim” Gavin, who commissioned from West Point in 1929. That meant that his sum total experience as an Officer was less than 15 years of service. The famous “Stars Fell on the Class of 1915” is true, but the vast majority of all Generals in the Army in WWII were West Point Alumni, although Marshall was a notable exception graduating from the Virginia Military Institute. My point here is that all of these men had survived the lean times in the US Army and knew who was a good person, and who was going to be worthless or counter productive.

The context of Korea, and Vietnam, was different. Unpopular wars, units rotating in and out, less fighting as Divisions and more fighting as Brigades, Battalions, and Companies. In this context, relieving a commander is much like re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. The classic example of Matthew Ridgway coming into Korea to clean up MacArthur’s mess really is an example of one West Pointer (MacArthur) being replaced by another West Pointer (Ridgway).

All of this incestuous West Point musical chairs is interesting, but in the context of WWII, the massive expansion of the US Army, from 190,000 to 9,000,0000 in a few years caused massive promotions for trained and educated Officers. Jim Gavin went from 2nd LT in 1929 to a Division Commander in 15 years. A normal Army career creates a “Senior Major” or “Below the Zone selected LT Colonel” in 15 years. There wasn’t a ready bench of experienced talent, and Marshall had famously fired about 200 Colonels and Generals to get rid of the dead wood back in 1939.

Were Generals more effective because they had less experience? They certainly had more casualties, which leads us to the sensitivities of commanders who take risks and don’t win big for it. The place for “thin safety margins” in the US Military lies with Special Operations. Tom Ricks has opined that Petraeus and McChrystal were equal in warfighting, but Petraeus was the more politically savvy officer (this opinion was given before Petraeus fell from grace).

Additional context change from WWII until now is that America does not allow her sons to be drafted and lead by rapidly promoted Generals who may or may not know what the hell they are doing. The post Vietnam reforms, including Goldwater-Nichols, have created a military that American citizens and politicians expect to be professional, and ready. This means that every level of command tests an Officer for promotion, and the best continue up the ranks. But now, those that are relieved are done, although the career of LTC William B. Ostlund as a BN Commander in the 173rd Airborne Brigade was stained by an investigation, he persistently fought the findings until he was exonerated, promoted to Colonel and lead the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in RC-South, Afghanistan before ending his career as the Director of Military Instruction at West Point. That is the only stained career I know of in modern history, although he did not make Brigadier General.

Lastly, the context of Korea, Vietnam, the War on Terror (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria) are not conflicts where WWII tactics of “full economic mobilization to a war of attrition against a peer nation state” is applicable. Korea was a proxy war with both Russia and China, as was Vietnam. The War on Terror activities are simply not things that can be won through more bullets, bombs, or taking territory. There is no “decisive victory” in the war on terror because there is no enemy commander to surrender, no enemy state to conquer. The international terror organizations simply adjust their area of operations elsewhere and leave the nation state military forces to play “whack a mole” when they pop up again.

So, due to these contextual differences, I have to say that there is very little evidence that Ricks’ assertion that relieving commanders would have any effect on outcomes. It would give the most senior leaders in the Army more looks at who would be a good Division or Corps commander, but currently that stands at a total of 14 people in three Corps command slots and eleven Division slots (one of which is a non-deployable HQ only Division). In WWII there were twenty six Corps, and ninety one Divisions. That’s 117 command positions at the two and three star level. Swapping out one Division Commander today would have the same organizational effect as swapping out nine Division Commanders in WWII. Swapping out one Corps Commander today has the same impact as swapping out nine Corps Commanders in WWII.

So contextually, the Army is much smaller, although over twice the size of the Army in the late 1930s.

I do agree that a reprimand, relief, or less than stellar performance should always be first used as a teaching moment and development tool rather than a way to kick someone out of service. However, the “up or out” policies approved by Congress highly incentive each Service to kick out Officers for even the most trivial infraction. Generals in WWII weren’t being kicked out for having a mistress, or keeping a bottle of whiskey at their desk. Both of those are firing offenses now, as if the class of man who is deemed fit to rain down death and destruction upon the targeted enemies of America must somehow remain a pillar of unquestionable virtue. Not every warrior is a paladin, and how virtuous a man is has little to do with combat leadership ability.

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