Troubles between a president and his generals are hardly new in the history of American civil-military relations. Abraham Lincoln had to work his way through a succession of generals before he was able to find the man, Ulysses S. Grant, who could defeat the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee. Woodrow Wilson was more fortunate in World War I. He had the decisive and capable John J. Pershing. Franklin Roosevelt was even more fortunate in World War II. He had the incomparable George C. Marshall.
After that, things began to change, as we learn in this important and timely book by Thomas E. Ricks about the decline of senior leadership in the United States Army. Ricks’s touchstone is the standard established by Marshall, the creator of the modern American Army. The “Marshall system,” as Ricks calls it, consisted of Marshall determining the requirements of a position, appointing the best man he could find to it and then giving the man freedom to exercise his judgment and initiative in fulfilling the task. The most famous example was Marshall’s elevation of Dwight Eisenhower from one-star brigadier to commander in chief of Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa in 1942 that constituted the first Allied counteroffensive.
(Penguin) - ’The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today’ by Thomas E. Ricks
Under the Marshall system, if the officer proved incompetent or grew tired and stale in the job, he was relieved, and reliefs of senior officers were common, particularly of major generals commanding divisions. Eisenhower, too, came close to being relieved after the brilliant Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, routed the American troops in their initial confrontation at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Because of its rigorous demands and willingness to act swiftly against failure, the Marshall system, Ricks points out, brought excellent leadership to the Army’s upper ranks.
The system first began to break down in Korea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were too intimidated by Douglas MacArthur to relieve him in 1950 after he ignored their instructions to limit his advance, disregarded warnings of Chinese intervention and sent his troops into the snow-covered mountains below the Yalu River. The Chinese fell upon his army and precipitated a retreat in disarray 155 miles back down the Korean Peninsula, the longest withdrawal in American military annals, and then another 55 miles of withdrawal with the loss of the South Korean capital of Seoul a second time when the Chinese advanced and struck again. It took President Harry Truman to personally fire MacArthur in April 1951 after the general openly agitated with right-wingers in Congress to start a full-scale war, using atomic weapons, with China.
Then, in South Vietnam under William Westmoreland, came another nadir in American generalship. Westmoreland was convinced that the way to win was through a strategy of attrition that would kill off the Viet Cong guerrillas and the regular North Vietnamese army faster than they could replace their losses. He even had a term for the moment when his objective would be reached — the “cross-over point.” The strategy entailed massive “search and destroy” operations that caused bloody havoc among the peasantry in the Vietnamese countryside and relentless meat-grinder conflict along the onetime Demilitarized Zone that served as a boundary in the country’s north. Equally important, the strategy also led to high American casualties. Worst of all was the senselessness. Intelligence was so bad that in about 85 percent of the actions, it was the Vietnamese communists who initiated combat. In other words, Westmoreland could never inflict decisive attrition on his opponents because they controlled the pace of combat and thus their rate of attrition — and his.