The flap over General McChrystal’s London speech (see here and here for predictable hyperventilation) brought to mind Eliot Cohen’s 2002 book Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. In it, he concluded that presidents have a “right to be wrong,” in their policies on war and military operations as in other realms. The prism through which he adduced his facts inevitably included Vietnam, but he looked at other situations as well.
Cohen is a smart man with a deservedly-excellent reputation as a scholar of politics and the military, and his argument had a number of sound elements and a lot of pertinent history. But the glaring shortfall I found in his thesis was his dismissal of the atypical character of presidential policy during the Vietnam years. The other examples he uses are Lincoln, Churchill (in WWII), Clemenceau (WWI), and Ben-Gurion (Israel’s war of independence). The point he derives from surveying the five separate situations is that generals do disagree with the strategies and methods selected by their civilian (or at least ultimate) bosses, and that doesn’t mean the civilian bosses have erred, or ought to be mistrusted or undercut. Ultimately, the supreme commander, particularly when he is chosen by a constitutional process, has the “right to be wrong.”
In a sense we would all agree with that, with the proviso that the supreme commander’s “right to be wrong” is subject to the review of the people. But what Cohen doesn’t acknowledge is that one of these things – Vietnam – is not like the others. In all four other cases, and indeed in most cases we could come up with, the supreme commander was trying to use armed force to change the existing situation in a decisive way. Each of the four supreme commanders Cohen considers, even Clemenceau, had a clear objective that sensible people would refer to as “winning” or “victory.” That quantity was, by the conscious choice of our political leaders, missing throughout our engagement in Vietnam.
And that is why the generals were appalled and disgusted by the political decision-making, particularly through the earlier years of that conflict (the dynamic changed significantly with Nixon), and why so many in the ranks of the armed forces still resent the way the military was employed there.
Ask most military officers what were the worst uses of armed force since WWII, and you will hear: Vietnam, Somalia, and Lebanon. All three of these actions share the same character: deployment of force to act as a placeholder – a national marker – in a dangerous and unstable situation we had no intention of trying to fundamentally alter. Servicemembers do tend to resent being deployed as bullet-sponges. An officer’s worst nightmare is having to beat up his troops day after day in a situation that, by political choice, we have elected not to try and change for the better. That use of the military – that one right there – is the one that becomes unjustifiable, and loses the moral commitment of the troops.
This brings me to our policy in Afghanistan, and how McChrystal’s recommendations are emerging as a de facto challenge to Obama. We did not see this under Bush, even in the darkest days of 2005 and 2006, because there were three things no one in the chain of command doubted: that Bush’s objective was a fundamentally altered situation in Iraq, that he would not leave the troops to merely hunker down on defense there, and that he would be ready to recognize what would not work, and who could not be compromised with. Bush’s approach was more like fixing what’s wrong with your car. Identify it, get the job done, pay the bill. The Vietnam approach was more like improvisational theater: let’s send some troops, do a little bombing, try a little finesse at the conference table, see what that buys us. There will always be people to whom this sounds clever and interesting – but the military will not be among them.
What appears to be emerging with our Afghanistan policy is the attitude, at the national level, that gave us the Vietnam years of 1964 to 1969. Obama has resisted acknowledging that his stated objective – to defeat, dismantle, and disrupt Al Qaeda – cannot be achieved without immunizing the Afghan populace against the guerrilla tactics of the Taliban. Afghan territory must be secured against the Taliban guerrillas, through the concerted will of a persuaded people: that is what McChrystal is telling him. Otherwise, Obama’s main objective cannot be obtained.
Granted, the vice president disagrees, as apparently does National Security Adviser Jim Jones. Perhaps it is possible to argue about whether we can effectively hunt Al Qaeda without pacifying Afghanistan. (I’ve written on that here and here.) But here is the supreme point. Obama’s tendency appears, regardless, to be disavowing any intention of using armed force to change the existing situation in a decisive way. If Obama decides to shift to a Central Asian manhunt, and use our troops in Afghanistan solely for that, he will be turning them into bullet-sponges, in a deteriorating situation he has no intention of transforming in our – their – favor.
The difference Eliot Cohen did not recognize, between Vietnam and all the other statesman-soldier situations he surveyed, was that in Vietnam, Washington was trying to use our military not to achieve a political decision, but as a beleaguered police force, in a holding action whose parameters shifted on a whim. Generals will typically have serious philosophical objections to lending themselves to this approach: they know what it is their soldiers will be asked to do. Policemen in tough urban areas at least get to go home at night.