Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace, sees a general as merely following in front of the army. There’s a point to what he is saying, but Tolstoy doesn’t give the full picture of what makes a general great. There’s something more to it than being in the right place at the right time, of heading a movement that was going to happen with or without the leader.
Consider the case of Genghis Khan. Sure, his Golden Horde swept out of the steppes of Mongolia in part because they could and in part because they needed to—but they succeeded because of the organizational skills of their leader. Temüjin, as he was known in his youth, provided a whole new structure for his army, one that created new bonds at the lowest level and that rewarded the most skillful with promotion. Though his sons were given leadership duties, most of his generals were men who had risen through the ranks—and he generally paired his sons with one of them when they would face a possibly competent enemy. Success for the Mongolians would not have happened, no matter how great other pressures might have been, had it not been for the careful and farsighted work of the commanding general.
The same can be said of most other great generals. Even Napoleon, who Tolstoy so neatly mocks, created his success through the way he designed his army. The tightly pack troops marching to drums and with recurring shouts of “Viva l’Emperor!” were no accident—and defeated most every army they faced. They created an intimidating sight as they advanced—which alone was sometimes enough to insure victory.
Until, of course, they came across Wellington, who realized that the only way to defeat them was to redesign his own formations, creating long, thin lines that could pour more fire into the French than they, massed so tightly, could return. Lines that could even give at the center while the sides continued to fire and the French continued to advance.
Like Genghis Khan, both Napoleon and Wellington had a great deal of military experience before coming to reorganize their forces. Napoleon disparaged Wellington’s earlier successes in India, but they had taught that greatest of English generals much about the organization of forces.
Why was Robert E. Lee so successful, especially in the early parts of the Civil War? It wasn’t simply his leadership in battle, but that he also knew how to build an army out of those who demanded the war. U.S. Grant, who hadn’t had a stellar career as a subordinate, showed an absolute genius when given an army to coordinate. All of the pieces had been there for Union generals before him, but only Grant was able to put them together, creating a force that not even the equally brilliant Lee could counter, given his poorer resources.
In World War I, millions died because the generals, on both sides, lacked vision and understanding, working on the basis of concepts that were, in many cases, almost fifty years out of date.
Douglas MacArthur (who my father, a veteran of Leyte Island, cordially disliked) was as much an organizer as he was a leader of men (my father wasn’t the only one who hated him, oh no!)—the island-hopping campaign that took him from Australia back to the Philippines succeeded through organizations, through careful attention to logistics. When George Patton took over in North Africa, he turned things around not through the strength of his leadership (he was another quite disliked by many of his men—though they still admired him tremendously) but through his understanding of the possibilities and necessities of mechanized warfare. The greatest general of the war, Dwight Eisenhower, rarely came close to combat—but he created an army that, even though it outstripped its own supply lines and had a sorely disorganized replacement system that led to thousands of needless deaths, was able to push the Germans back with surprising success—and that was flexible enough to respond quickly to the German Ardennes push (the Battle of the Bulge).
Each of these Americans (just like Napoleon and Wellington, Genghis Khan, and, yes, even Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar) knew their armies through and through. Lee and Grant were veterans of the Mexican American War. MacArthur, Patton, and Eisenhower had all fought in World War I. Each of them had developed their ideas on warfare from within.
All of them had problems with civilians at one time or another—even Genghis Khan did, and Napoleon and Wellington. But they managed to keep them at bay. Eisenhower, with George Marshall (another experienced general) running interference for him, was able to keep both Roosevelt and Churchill out of the military planning (for the most part). He knew the danger of civilian assumptions about military capability. He knew that, when politicians get involved in planning wars, disaster invariably strikes. Gallipolis, in World War I, was a waste of thousands and thousands of lives because of politicians, not generals.
The lesson of history is clear: let the experienced generals build your army. Keep civilian hands to civilian problems. Only the generals have the experience and direct knowledge necessary to build an effective force, given the particulars of whatever the situation and the available technology. Sure, not all generals are competent to do this—but no one else (as far as I know) has ever succeeded at doing this at all.
Which brings us to “General” Donald Rumsfeld.
For twenty years, he and his fellow neo-cons planned and plotted, developing (among other things) what they thought would be an effective model for a contemporary military—and a strategy that they thought would work with a military built on that model. Completely cut off from the realities of battlefields and logistics, they had no one to tell them how naïve they were. So, they believed their own myths of their own infallibility.
They believed in this, in part because, in another area, they weren’t naïve at all, and were proving extraordinarily successful. They were (and remain) an expert group of political plotters. The wangled their way into power over the greatest nation on the planet, and into power over its military.
Over the centuries of the American experience, with its necessary tradition of civilian control of the military at the top, had come an understanding of just where that control should stop—where the civilians should let go and let the military take over. That line was quickly erased when Rumsfeld took over the Defense Department in 2001. His political successes had made him sure he could show the generals a thing or two. Suddenly, it was no longer military men who were making the decisions about military matters, but Rumsfeld and his neo-con civilians—often people with no background in the military whatsoever.
We’ve seen the result. A war fought with forces totally unprepared for the consequences of their victories. Generals fired because their advice on military matters did not match neo-con preconceptions. Generals retiring because they could no longer do their jobs without interference. Our great military, losing the very people who have kept it strong, now faces a decline brought on by the arrogance of outsiders, men with no experience in the arena they have been attempting to remold over the last five years and two wars.
No, we don’t want the military deciding who to go to war with, but when it comes to fighting and organizing the army for fighting, the generals need to be allowed to do their jobs without undue interference.
“Should Rumsfeld be fired?” People argue about this all the time. But that’s hardly even the right question. If Rumsfeld is fired and another civilian is brought in who doesn’t respect the generals and doesn’t know when to leave them alone to make their own decisions about purely military matters, things won’t change in the least. Rumsfeld should go, but his exit will only make a difference only if the neo-con attitude towards our military is replaced along with him.
As the attitudes that Rumsfeld exhibits are shared by his old companion Dick Cheney and by President Bush himself, there’s no percentage at all in calling for Rumsfeld to go. Only another just like him will be brought in.
If we want an American military that is strong, flexible, and able to respond quickly to unexpected situations then we have to start changing our government completely, starting with the election next month. We need to start replacing the arrogant fools who have been ruining not only our military but our international reputation with people with an understanding of history, contemporary affairs, and the relation of the military to the civilian government in a democracy. We can’t get rid of them all right now, but with a change in control of Congress, we can start putting the brakes on them.
And can start saving—and rebuilding—our military.