Fire the incompetents, find the Pattons

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times and author of "War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today."

THE NAVY IS ON a tear. Last week, for the sixth time in six weeks, a skipper was relieved of command. The latest to get the sack was Cmdr. E.J. McClure of the guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke, which had a “soft grounding” while heading back to port in the well-charted waters off Norfolk, Va.

These firings have sparked debate in military circles, with some critics from the other services charging that the Navy is guilty of a “zero defect” mentality that would have robbed it of such distinguished leaders as Adm. Chester Nimitz, the World War II hero who grounded his first command in 1908. But even if the Navy is going, so to speak, overboard, there is a good case to be made that the ground-combat arms go too far in the other direction by not holding their commanders responsible for a lack of results.

This was the essence of a complaint made recently by Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who wrote in the Armed Forces Journal that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

Yingling was complaining about, as the title of his article had it, “A Failure in Generalship,” and he was right to do so. But the same complaint could be lodged with equal justice about some of the lieutenant colonels and colonels who have commanded battalions and brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are positions roughly equivalent to a ship commander in the Navy, and in a decentralized war like the one in Iraq, they are the key combat leaders.


There are precious few examples of an Army or Marine tactical commander being fired for ineffectiveness. One of the few exceptions occurred during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 when Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis replaced a regimental commander he felt was not advancing fast enough. More commonly, it takes extreme misconduct, often of a sexual nature, to get a ground-forces commander fired.

For instance, there is Army Lt. Col. William H. Steele, a reservist who used to command Camp Cropper, the main U.S. detention facility in Baghdad. He faces possible prosecution for offenses including fraternizing “with the daughter of a detainee” and “possessing pornographic videos.”

Another Steele (no relation to William H.) -- Col. Michael Steele of the 101st Airborne Division -- had his career ended in 2006 when he was reprimanded for not doing more to investigate and expose an incident in which four of his soldiers were accused of murdering three Iraqi detainees. Then there is the case of Janis Karpinski, who was busted from brigadier general to colonel because of dereliction of duty in the command of Abu Ghraib prison, as well as for a prior charge of shoplifting.

All these disciplinary actions seem justified. But many military observers wonder about holding to account those who aren’t caught in public scandals but simply aren’t effective leaders or who consistently fail to achieve results. No one should get cashiered for honest mistakes, especially if the errors are the result of calculated risk-taking in the volatile caldron of conflict. But if officers show themselves unable to perform effectively, they need to be sent packing.

Conversely, promising young leaders who prove their worth in the line of fire need to be promoted more rapidly than they are today under a ponderous peacetime personnel system. James Gavin, the celebrated commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, became a brigadier general at 36. Curtis LeMay, one of the most successful airmen in history, was a major general at 37. Why is it that today such senior ranks are only held by graybeards with more than 30 years of service?

War imposes far different demands on soldiers than does the routine life of the garrison. Some who are perfectly adequate peacetime soldiers fail the audit of conflict and have to be shunted aside (as happened to hundreds of generals in the Civil War and World War II), while others who were malcontents in peacetime (think of Ulysses S. Grant or George S. Patton) excel on the battlefield and rocket to the top.

That winnowing-out process, which has been a hallmark of all of our previous major conflicts (at least the ones we won), has not occurred since 9/11. A good deal of the blame rests with President Bush, who has refused to punish incompetence until it’s far too late, and sometimes not even then. Senior generals who have failed to get results in Iraq have received medals and promotions, not pink slips. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was kept around long after his miscalculations had become plain. But accountability can’t stop at the top. It has to extend down the chain of command. Otherwise our soldiers will pay a terrible price for a failure of leadership.

There is no better guidance in these matters than the words of British Field Marshal William Slim, the commander of Allied forces in Burma in World War II. He wrote: “The only test of generalship is success.... The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory -- for that is his duty.”