Correction to This Article
This Sept. 16 Outlook article incorrectly implied that Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli has a PhD. He holds two master's degrees.
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The Next War

That brings us to the military's leaders. We need generals who are well-educated, flexible and culturally adept men and women -- not just warriors, not just technicians. Why aren't more military leaders sent to top schools such as Princeton, the way Petraeus was, or given opportunities to earn PhDs, as did Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's military assistant, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli? For years, Congress has whacked away at military-education budgets, thereby driving gifted officers from the top-flight graduate schools where they could have honed their analytical skills and cultural awareness.

Still, let's not be too hard on ourselves. As an institution, the U.S. Armed Forces stands head and shoulders above any other military in skill, equipment and compassion, and its leaders are able, conscientious and loyal.

But shame on political leaders who would hide behind their top generals. It was hard not to catch a whiff of that during last week's hearings. The Constitution, however, is not ambivalent about where the responsibility for command lies -- the president is the commander in chief.

Surely here is where some of the most salient lessons from recent wars lie: in forcing civilian leaders to shoulder their burdens of ultimate responsibility and in demanding that generals unflinchingly offer their toughest, most seasoned, advice. Gen. Tommy R. Franks embarked on the 2001 Afghanistan operation without a clear road map for success, or even a definition of what victory would look like. Somehow, that was good enough for him and his bosses. So Osama bin Laden slunk away, the Taliban was allowed to regroup, and Afghanistan is now mired deep in trouble and sinking fast.

In Iraq, President Bush approved war-fighting plans that hadn't incorporated any of the vital 1990s lessons from Haiti, Bosnia or Kosovo; worse, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought doing so. Nation-building, however ideologically repulsive some may find it, is a capability that a superpower sometimes needs.

At the same time, the United States' top generals must understand that their duty is to win, not just to get along. They must have the insight and character to demand the resources necessary to succeed -- and have the guts to either obtain what they need or to resign. If they get their way and still don't emerge victorious, they must be replaced. That is the lot they accepted when they pinned on those four shiny silver stars.

Above all else, we Americans must understand that the goal of war is to achieve a specific purpose for the nation. In this respect, the military is simply a tool of statecraft, one that must work in tandem with diplomacy, economic suasion, intelligence and other instruments of U.S. power. How tragic it is to see old men who are unwilling to talk to potential adversaries but seem so ready to dispatch young people to fight and die.

So, steady as we go. We need to tweak our force structure, hone our leadership and learn everything we can about how to do everything better. But the big lesson is simply this: War is the last, last, last resort. It always brings tragedy and rarely brings glory. Take it from a general who won: The best war is the one that doesn't have to be fought, and the best military is the one capable and versatile enough to deter the next war in the first place.

Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo war in 1999.

Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo war in 1999. He is a fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA, and the author, most recently, of "A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and Country."

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