Marine Corps generals of the past recently communicated concerns about the current Marine Commandant, Gen. David H. Berger and his tactical reorganization of the force. Two relevant quotes illustrate their arguments:
“I’m saddened beyond belief knowing that our Marine Corps soon will no longer be the ready combined-arms force that our nation has long depended upon when its interests were threatened. It will be a force shorn of all its tanks and 76% of its cannon artillery, and with 41% fewer Marines in its infantry battalions. To make the situation even worse, there will be 33% fewer aircraft available to support riflemen on the ground… Marines, how could we let this happen?” ― Gen. Paul Van Riper in Marine Corps Times March 21, 2022.
“The U.S. Marine Corps is undertaking a top-to-bottom restructuring called Force Design 2030. The move is well-intended, but we believe it is wrong. It will make the Marines less capable of countering threats from unsettled and dangerous corners of the world … The national security ramifications of reducing the capabilities of our nation’s most ready, agile and flexible force are seismic.” ― Charles Krulak, Jack Sheehan and Anthony Zinni in The Washington Post, April 22, 2022.
The conversation about the military’s tactical composition between a group of past and current generals is amusing but, in many ways, dangerous.
There is a critical fact hidden from the debate: Not a single general officer in the current conversation has won a war.
What if we allow ourselves to reexamine the problem?
The military compels an enemy’s acceptance of political objectives through violence. It is a national instrument used by America’s representatives. Thus, the military’s purpose can never be isolated from political objectives.
When politicians set war objectives, military leaders should be held responsible for accomplishing those objectives. Wars are won and lost in the seam between the National Security Council and the general officer-led combatant commands.
Continued focus on the tactical level, with unnecessary emphasis on the junior service member, only deflects from the true source of repeated failure.
Following Vietnam, Marine Corps generals were quick to point to the draft and drugs as the source of the war’s failure. Reference Commandant Gen. Louis H. Wilson’s post-war focus on raising standards for the junior service member.
But often forgotten in the revisionist version of history are the inabilities of the military generals to implement military strategy capable of achieving political objectives within the restraints of the Vietnam campaign.
For example, Khe Sanh was at one point a critical piece of terrain on the Ho Chi Minh trail, worth sacrificing thousands of lives to disrupt the flow of NVA weapons, troops and supplies. Then suddenly and unceremoniously, the generals deemed the terrain irrelevant despite heavy sacrifices from the junior service members.
Failures to achieve political objectives can also be observed in smaller campaigns since Vietnam, such as Beirut, Kosovo, Somalia, Libya and Syria.
The American military succeeds on the tactical level but consistently falls short of the objectives laid forth by politicians without accountability for military leadership. ISIS and the Taliban are only the most recent reminders of our military leadership’s inability to achieve political objectives even after decades of chances.
As if the pattern wouldn’t be identified, following the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the generals again raised the standards on the junior service member utilizing the same post-Vietnam justification: ensuring our military will succeed in a future conflict.
Despite a long list of failures since Vietnam, senior military leaders have not been held accountable.
Currently, military generals fail to achieve political objectives while absolving themselves of responsibility by deflecting blame toward junior service members, politicians and adjacent foreign diplomacy departments. Reference Gen. Frank McKenzie’s excuse in his Congressional testimony when asked why the Afghanistan evacuation was a failure. These excuses cannot be tolerated much longer without great risk to the American people.
George Marshall, prior to World War II, reformed the Army by firing complacent and apathetic general officers. In many ways, Eisenhower’s assentation and the victory of World War II are a result of Marshall’s “force design.”
Marines don’t need generals of the Vietnam era illustrating tactical level focused requirements. Marines don’t need current generals raising the standards of junior enlisted. Marines need a George Marshall type of leader with the insight to identify the true source of our repeated failures. A leader who will confront, reform and change the culture of a failing organization by holding senior leaders accountable.
Van Riper asked, “How could we let this happen?”
My counterquestion would be, “Does a tactical observation of the problem address how we change the culture of a losing organization?”
Van Riper’s asset focused argument didn’t win his war in Vietnam. And it didn’t win my wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Leadership establishes culture ― and accountability is the bedrock of leadership.
But when I study the problem, ironically, I arrive at the same conclusion as Van Riper, “how could we let this happen?”
Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, resigned, is author of, “Crisis of Command,” set to be released on Sept. 6.
This article was written on June 1, 2022, and published on militarytimes.com