With one celebrated former general under fire for an extramarital affair and another current commander getting questions about “flirtatious” or “potentially inappropriate” emails, it’s been military leaders’ personal lives, rather than their professional standards, which have been making news.
But the real scandal of military leadership these days, says Tom Ricks, the author of the new book
, is the lack of accountability that exists in the military when it comes to the on-the-job performance of its top brass. Ricks is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His new book examines the military’s increasing unwillingness, since World War II, to fire or relieve its generals of their duties. On Leadership columnist Jena McGregor spoke with Ricks about why there’s greater tolerance today for poor behavior, the problems that has created and what the solutions might be. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
On Leadership: In light of how little controversy surrounded what you describe as the poor leadership of several generals during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, what do you make of all the attention being paid to the Petraeus affair?
Tom Ricks: You don’t want people to get away with immoral or unethical behavior, but you really want to focus on professional competence. Soldiers in wartime will put up with an awful lot if they feel they are being led competently. In wartime, in combat, one wants to survive. And if they’re not going to survive, they want to know at least that their lives are not thrown away by some guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
So I think the real scandal is not David Petraeus’ sex life, but the people who preceded him in Iraq who led the military badly. Likewise, in Afghanistan, the real scandal is not whether a Marine general is flirting with a woman by email. The real scandal in Afghanistan is that we’ve had 11 commanders in that war in 11 years. That’s a lousy way to run a war, because the new guy comes in and by the time he gets to really understanding the situation and knowing what’s going on, it’s time for him to get ready to go home.
You wouldn’t try to have 11 CEOs of a corporation in 11 years. In World War II, you can’t imagine rotating Eisenhower home in January 1944 and saying “it’s time to give somebody else a chance to command out there, Ike.” We’ve been running our wars with a kind of inattentiveness and recklessness, and we’ve run into a situation where we care more about the sex lives of generals than the real lives of soldiers.
Do you think the president should have accepted Petraeus’ resignation?
No, I wish he hadn’t. I think it was a possibility for a teaching moment. First of all, it didn’t have to be public. They could have said “let’s try to keep this quiet. Dave, you go home, make amends to your wife, do what you need to do, and then you go back to work. That’s your punishment. You don’t get to leave your job.” And had it publicly leaked out down the road, I think you could just put out a short statement saying the president was aware of this, it’s a private matter, and he’s confident that Gen. Petraeus did not compromise national security.