Thursday 22 February 2024

Sacking the Generals

Recently Ukraine's President Zelensky caused a stir (rapidly overtaken by other news) when firing his fairly well-regarded Commander of Joint Forces Gen Zaluzhnyi.  Political machinations?  A sign of weakness?  Well, I don't have any specific insight into what's going on there.  But I do know that firing generals is a perfectly legitimate option when things are going wrong.  You just need to be sure you've picked the right ones for the right reasons, and are not just lashing out in some kind of random scapegoating or personal score-settling.

It immediately brought to mind a recent book on the firing - and non-firing - of US generals: The Generals - American military command from WW2 to today, by Thomas E Ricks.  The author's twofold thesis is that:

(a) when the chips are down, prompt and adroit dismissals are vital to ensure that failure is not rewarded and that the right talent gets to the top, as fast as possible.  The players need to take over from the gentlemen at the earliest possible juncture;

(b) this used to be the American Way in the good old days when George C. Marshall was Chief of Staff: but the the mighty US Army inexorably became bureaucratised thereafter, so that very bad generals have been left in place to wreak havoc in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Well, the US system wasn't perfect - Marshall left Mark Clark, a truly awful general, in place.  But evidently he got through a lot of dead wood in pretty short order, as part of the vast expansion of the US Army in a very few years after 1940.  That's all the more remarkable because, in my experience of ultra-fast-growing organisations (I've worked in a couple), there's a tendency to feel that that hasty firings deplete the numbers just when every more-or-less able-bodied person is needed for the burgeoning task in hand.

Ricks' critique of several postwar US generals is unsparing.  Read it if this is your thing.  I'll just say that the book has told me stuff I hadn't known about the one I worked under (indirectly) - Norman Schwartzkopf - making me think I gave him too much credit in my thread on Desert Storm etc a few years back, which you can find here.  If what Ricks says is correct, I hadn't realised Stormin' Norman's first plan of attack was so lamentably wooden; (I was busy trying to figure out the other side's plans) nor that he so fundamentally misread what Ricks reckons were the strategic significances of the striking initiatives Saddam launched at the Battle of Khafji and his Scud campaign (posts 3 & 4 in my thread).  Colin Powell doesn't come out too well from the book, either.  I could offer a bit of a defence for both men, notwithstanding we all know they didn't manage to decapitate the Iraqi army when with perfect hindsight, we now know it might (possibly) have been achieved in 1991, saving the world a lot of bother twelve years later.  But nonetheless, they did achieve quite a lot.

And firing generals in the UK?  Well, Churchill fired a fair few.  Since WW2 I'm not sure we've been put to the test in quite the same way as the USA.  I once personally witnessed that irascible martinet Peter Inge, when a Lt General commanding 1(BR) Corps, publicly destroy an unlucky (and possibly incompetent) Brigadier in front of the whole Corps staff.  That didn't seem right then, and it still doesn't - and that's not to say the man shouldn't have been fired.  But there are ways and ways.  

I wonder how Zelensky's move will be seen in the years - or even the months - to come?



Bloke in North Dorset said...

It could also be the case of different generals for different stages of a war. Just like some CEOs can build a business but are lost when it comes to running it once it’s past the rapid growth stage. In my own field the MNOs went through quite a few CEOs in the first few years after launch.

I have no special insight but perhaps Zaluzhnyi is not the man for the next phase which appears to be reconstituting Ukraine’s armed forces this year for more offensives next year.

Matt said...

Where are Ukraine going to get more troops to reconstitute the armed forces? In a war of attrition, the Russians were always going to last the longest.
Whilst doing nothing wasn't an option for the West, betting the house on the banking system doing the heavy lifting was gross stupidity.
The US isn't going to be able to fund its long term decline with the greenback now the rest of the world has seen what happens if you don't play ball.

Anonymous said...

Should Churchill have got rid of Montgomery? What was the thinking about coming into Europe from the south when the Americans showed the direct approach (Hey diddle diddle etc) was the best way.

How many lives get lost when a decision is delayed?

Nick Drew said...

Woohoo, anon - big topic!

Let me tell you some of what Ricks says:

1. Hey diddle diddle on the grand scale is bad strategy

2. The Americans (several) who were for skipping Italy (and even TORCH / N.Africa) were Wrong and the Brits were right: Normandy 1943 would have been a disaster

3. the Monty thing is complicated: Ricks is no fan of him, but classes him with Macarthur as 'political generals' who are too big to fire / would be v.disruptive outside the tent / need careful managing. He credits Ike with managing Monty, and Marshall with handling Macurthur (tbc ...)

Nick Drew said...

... At the cost of making the post rather longer I could have added that Ricks on the interface between the military and the politicians is interesting. He thinks (a) it was handled well by the USA in WW2 - by leaving it to Ike and Marshall who were very good at it; but (b) the 'solution' - total de-politicisation as regards 99.5% of generals - led to a situation where the 'model general' had no experience with, or feel for, politics at all. You end up "selecting for apoliticality" (as Chris Dillow might put it), to the point where you get a Schwarzkopf who, Ricks reckons, was politically (and strategically) a dolt.

He goes further. He reckons a totally de-politicised army becomes a body of tacticians, and that politicisation is essential to grand strategy. He thinks you need a body of politically adroit generals at the top. Well, adroitness is always to be sought, but Ricks means a good, smooth, institutionalised complement of Ikes and Marshalls at all times, to inhabit the politico-strategic nexus he defines. (But he isn't particularly enamoured of Petraeus)

That's a new thesis to me, and I haven't thought it through yet. If anyone remembers my Desert Storm thread (link in post), my position is (was) that George Bush Snr, Powell and Schwarzkopf had the balance exactly right back in 1990-91.

Which brings us back to Ukraine ...

dearieme said...

I was most impressed by Ike when I learnt that he didn't trust Patton to get an army safely ashore in Normandy. But when the position had changed and the US wanted an (almost unopposed) cavalry charge across France he was put in charge.

Nick Drew said...

Yes, and fired Patton after the war was over.

Patton had a great reputation as a master logician, capable of maneouvres & flexibility that nobody else could achieve, notably at the Battle of the Bulge. Well, Ricks writes that another, less flamboyant (and nowadays unknown) US general, William Simpson, was even better, and turned even more divisions on a sixpence during the Battle of the Bulge.

Simpson was calm, utterly competent, collaborative, self-effacing, great to work for, and apolitical - the model US general from the perspective of the Marshall playbook. But Ricks reckons it's two-edged because that's where the bureaucratisation starts to take hold.

Elby the Beserk said...

Monty. My old man's take. Tanks in NA, then service in India...

"Fine general. Utter shit"

The latter mostly because Monty wore an RTR badge on his beret, despite not being an RTR man.

Fair enough eh?

Anonymous said...

@ "That's a new thesis to me, and I haven't thought it through yet."

You haven't thought it through, ND? Well get on with it then, man!

Anonymous said...

A former head of NATO Armed Forces Committee, admittedly 20 years ago (he's 81 now) chips in on Ukraine generals. Forget the blurb of the video ('exposes neocon lies' etc), the guy himself is pretty sober. It's a long watch tho, 45 minutes.

On Zelensky

The issue was ultimately about the responsibility for the mobilization of 500,000 soldiers to compensate for the high personnel losses. The question was whether the military i.e. Zaluzhnyi or the politicians should take on this responsibility. Neither Zaluzhnyi nor Zelinsky wanted to take on this responsibility. However fundamental disagreements about the conduct of operations, the achievability of political goals in this war, and the public presentation of military successes were decisive... When Zaluzhnyi publicly announced at the beginning of November last year that the offensive was a failure, he openly contradicted his President. The latter consistently presented the situation in an overly positive light and of course received more attention and affirmation from Western politicians and the media for it. Zaluzhnyi's dismissal occurred in an extremely critical phase. It will soon become apparent that Zelinsky's decision was a big mistake.

The other things I didn't know was that a) the UK has bound itself to support Ukraine for 10 years, b) NATO/US/Ukraine HQ at Wiesbaden delivers "reconnaissance and target data to the Ukrainian armed forces".

Now it's obvious that "we're" telling them what to hit, but I've not seen an insider say it out loud.

Nick Drew said...

Anon, that's not all that goes on at Wiesbaden.

the 10-year UK thing was signed with some ceremony in Jan, as have been the others:

- so you haven't been paying attention

Anonymous said...

Bloke in North Dorset - reconstitution seems to be key, plus a pile more weaponry from "the west".

Harald Kujat again (ex NATO/Luftwaffe bigwig)

"the front is to be stabilized where it is now. This strategy, which is planned for 10 years, envisages that European allies undertake specific commitments for military and economic support. These commitments are to be defined in binding national documents and agreed upon in a bilateral agreement with Ukraine. The 10-year commitment serves as a safeguard against any termination of support for Ukraine announced by Trump. It is also intended to prevent a change of government in a European country from leading to a change of course. The United Kingdom has already signed a corresponding agreement with the Ukrainian government, the Federal (German) government is also ready to enter into this 10-year support and assistance commitment. If all NATO States follow this example it could amount to NATO membership through the back door - at least in terms of collective defense under Article Five of the NATO treaty. Therefore there are considerations in the USA to create a mechanism with Ukraine that resembles Article 4 of the NATO treaty. This article provides for member states to consult each other when the territorial integrity (or) political Independence or security of a member is threatened.

We're going to be even more broke than we currently are! Can that be possible?

Can governments commit their successors to a course of action?

(ND - isn't it always the case that 'political' generals do well in peace and get found out in war? We binned a few once the first WW2 battles started - did we do the same in WW1?)

Anonymous said...

I know I've not been paying attention, ND, but Shapps & Cameron are just too depressing for words, and I tend to turn over or read something else.

The really depressing thing is that Starmer would be just as bad. Imagine following Shapps with, say Wes Streeting. I might go and live in a cave in Mid Wales.

Anonymous said...

Coming back to the comment about Montgomery and being "too big to fire". Could this be applied to the Israel situation where Gantz has been invited into the tent as otherwise the politicians (who lack Gantz's military background) prefer not to be fighting an internal battle as well as an external one?

Nick Drew said...

isn't it always the case that 'political' generals do well in peace and get found out in war? We binned a few once the first WW2 battles started

Ricks' account is not quite that, anon. He says you need the right type of 'political generals' at the start - indeed, before the start - of a war, and all the way through: and that Marshall, joined by Ike, were exactly those political generals. You'd hardly say they 'got found out'

... but if you have apolitical generals at the start, then (passive) your army gets no useful input into Grand Strategy; and (active) you have assembled a collection of (at best) tacticians just waiting to be told what to do

The dangerous type of 'political' general is the Macarthur / Montgomery, playing politics with the wrong motives: personal motives, in fact

dearieme said...

I don't know much about them but I've often wondered whether Patton and Macarthur were bonkers.

Olf Git Carlisle said...

I do not have the background you all have . But did not Napoleon say something to the effect that I do not want good generals just lucky ones.

Anonymous said...

Sorry ND, I was more referring to the types who 'lick up and kick down', who can be found in most organisations.

Just read "our" agreement with Ukraine - cheers, Rishi! Not much meat there, I assume it'll be in "The authorised bodies of the Participants can conclude executive and technical agreements on specific areas of cooperation within the framework of the implementation of this Agreement" which won't be published.

How on earth did they find, after Serbia/Kosovo, Iraq, Syria and Libya, someone to type with a straight face about how we affirm "the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and the inviolability of borders"?

Caeser Hēméra said...

Suspect it may have been down to a change in what Ukraine had been getting - wasn't too long ago that Ukraine was able to outfire Russia on the front, that has changed due to politics in the US - and now in a phase of leisurely retreat obliterating as many Russians and as much Russian equipment as possible, controlling swathes of the Black Sea and destroying Russian oil/gas equipment.

They also seem to be shaping up to move into making Russian life even more miserable in the air, they already know that Russian air defences leaves a lot to be desired, and have been busy degrading other avenues.

Russia has been catching up to Ukrainian inventiveness on the ground, albeit with something like an 18 month gap to learn lessons, be interesting to see what they come up with the F16s.

Nothing good for the Russians, and plenty of ideas for NATO no doubt.

Anonymous said...

ot, but looking forward - what happens to our communications when the code inserted into all our Far Eastern routers and Openreach's infrastructure is activated - and BT/Openreach have completely shut down the analogue network, which currently functions even when all power to a home is lost?

It's possible to stay in touch that way, but what will we do when we CAN'T do that any longer and all our money is on digital? A major digital attack and we are straight back to the 1920s if not earlier.

Maybe I shouldn't have read this

electro-kevin said...

Zelensky was a comedian, am I right ?

The general knows more about war - that's why he stood up to Zelensky.

I read elsewhere (multiple sources) that supplies of ordnance cannot reach the troops fast enough. That US 'aid' (when allowed) has to come via US factories for weapons that have not yet been manufactured.