We’re in a steady descent into a world in which there is no privacy, in which the FBI is investigating lovers’ quarrels, while, if I understood this correctly, there were 57 American casualties in Afghanistan last week—that is, killed or wounded. That worries me much more than what Gen. Petraeus may have been doing with one woman, between two consenting adults.
Military leaders garner more respect from the general public than leaders in many other fields, and the business world—both via corporate training programs and business school academics—tends to lionize the military when it comes to teaching leadership. Yet your book explores why the leadership at the top of the military is really problematic. Why do you think that discrepancy exists?
The U.S. Army is a great institution. The rebuilding of the U.S. Army after the Vietnam War was an epic struggle and was enormously successful. Today we have great frontline soldiers. They are well equipped, they are well trained and they are in cohesive units.
The problem is at the very top. This magnificent rebuilding of the U.S. military after Vietnam really did recreate the force, but they kept the old head. The one thing they didn’t really change after Vietnam was how they shaped their generals. What we got was a generation of officers who thought tactically and not strategically. It’s the difference between being trained and being educated. You train people for known attacks. You educate people for the unknown, the complex, the ambiguous, the difficult situation.
Much of the book refers back to George Marshall, who led the Army during World War II. How would you characterize his style of leadership?
George Marshall was a good man and a great man and a decent man. He was not a nice man. He couldn’t afford to be nice. He took advantage of the crisis to get rid of 600 officers he considered “dead wood.” He had a system during World War II under which generals had about 90 days to succeed, to get killed or to be relieved and move into some other job. It’s a system of extreme accountability.
Marshall believed that generalship should be extremely difficult, that generalship should be extremely stressful—both physically and intellectually—and that not everybody can do it. So he expected a certain percentage would fail. He saw relief of an officer not as an extraordinary event, nor necessarily as a career ender. It happened all the time and it was a sign the system was working. Today, perversely, the Army sees relieving an officer as a sign that somehow the system has failed.
Why did the Army pull away from that approach?
The first reason is that in these smaller wars that follow World War II—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—it’s hard to say what success looks like. The second reason, I think, is bureaucratization. It’s the natural inclination of bureaucracy to protect its own interests. In World War II, Marshall profoundly believed that the lives of soldiers and the interests of the nation were more important than the careers of officers. But by Vietnam, the Army is running the war for the benefit of its officer corps. This is not a thought that was original with me. It was actually said first by Gen. William Depuy, who said we ran the Vietnam War so officers could punch their ticket in combat command.