Monday, October 22, 2012

A General Rates a General

All this military stuff: it's not that I'm so interested in military history per se--I'm no better at doping out a battle plan than I am an NFL offense.  It's rather more the "development" thing, as in how did Ike become Ike, or what moulded the four admirals who ruled the waves in World War II.  Of course might consider this issue in the context of almost any occupation (or more generally, "life-plan")--I recall a wonderful book from a few years back about how Lincoln became Lincoln, for example.   But the military provides particularly good lab specimens, for two reasons: one, they care about this stuff, and write about it and think about it a lot.  And two, they keep such good records. Each of the subjects under scrutiny leaves a long paper trail of documented assignments, efficiency reports and whatnot--also, in several cases, private diaries or introspective letters to loved ones.

Expanding on the topic, I'm remembering a fine one I read a few years back--The Class of 1846 by John C. Waugh, considering the class that provided so much senior manpower for the Civil War (20 general officers, counting both sides).  I won't rehash the whole product at the moment, but allow me to pick out one fascinating insight about the man who was second in the class of '46--but whom everyone, it seems, assumed would be the class star.  Of course he was not: he rather fizzled out as the first of Lincoln's several false starts in his search for an effective commander of northern forces in the Civil War.  The speaker here is not a member of the class of '46, but he is someone whose judgment has to be heard:
McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.  As a young man he was always a mystery.  He had the way of inspiring you with the idea of immense capacity, if he would only have a chance. . . .  I have never studied his campaigns enough to make up my mind as to his military skill, but all my impressions are in his favor. . . .  The test which was applied to him would be terrible to any man, being made a major-general at the beginning of the war.  It has always seemed to  me that the critics of McClellan do not consider the vast and cruel responsibility--the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress.  McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying.  If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman,Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.

Waugh at 519.  The writer is, of course, the one who did succeed as Union commander, U. S. Grant,  17th out of 39 in the West Point class of 1843.  Fun fact: at the time he graduated, Grant stood 5'2" and weighed 117 pounds.

Update:  Here's David Frum's list of "worst generals."  Lot of room for second-guessing here, I suspect.


mike shupp said...

Aaarrrrrrsgh! Frum's "list" is disgusting. First of all, it isn't a proper list -- it's a collection of individuals named by Frum's readers. There's no unifying intelligence behind this list, I'm saying.

Secondly, it's mostly a set of individuals who got beaten in various battles. A helpful hint -- 50% of all generals get defeated in battles, and while it it usually happens that the victorious general is indeed superior to the vanquished, it is not always the case that the defeated general truly rates among "the worst." Napoleon got beat a couple times, after all. And so did Rommell. So did Ngo Diem Giap. Some of these people possibly deserved their defeats -- Horatio Gates for instance. And some of them were just unlucky -- Lloyd Fredenhall, for example, who had the singular privilege of being the first American general to encounter the Wehrmacht at Kasserine Pass in 1942. Was Fredenhall REALLY amongst the worst generals in history, or just somebody ordinary who got surprised by a more experienced (and far more desperate) opponent? John Lucas, the first American general at Anzio (replaced by Lloyd Truscott) probably falls in this category as well.

Third, as a long time reader of Civil War histories, I gotta tell you that Ambrose Burnside and George McClellan and and John Pope and John Bell Hood and Braxton Bragg were not all incompetent in quite the same way; in particular, McClellan had a good strategic sense and very decent instincts for training an army -- strengths which were very rare during that war and worth noting, despite McClellan's weaknesses as a combat commander. The man served the Union well, despite his flaws, I'm trying to say. And some very good Civil War generals failed at indpendent command -- James Longstreet, for example.

Fourth: Douglas MacArthur may have been been a terrible person who deserved to be fired by Harry Truman and he was indeed surprised by Chinese intervention in the Korean War, but for most of his career -- from 1917 in Europe up to 1950 in Korea -- he was one damned good general. Not always successful, let's admit, but somone who knew what he was up to. A master of strategy. And also, a master viceroy, who shaped modern Japan as almost no imposed ruler in history has ever done. Look at Japan as it exists today, a peaceful nation in a war-ridden world, and never forget its creator!

William Westmoreland.... okay, maybe he wasn't quite the best. But he handled the administration while an American force of several thousand solldiers swelled to half a million men in Viet Nam -- a noteworthy task. And he basically did well untill the 1968 Tet Offensive, when he -- and most of Washington DC -- got snookered by the Viet Cong. And thanks to the benefits of modern communication systems, he was more bossed around by people back in Washington than any previous general in history. So was he truly the worst general in our nation's existence? Or the victem of LBJ's megalomania?

Tommy Franks. Repeat the above musing, with Iran in place of VietNam and George Bush in place of LBJ.

Oh well. I settle for sugesting it's easier to make a list of bad generals if you haven't spent much time musing about what generals do and why they sometimes fail. This is probably not a terribly original observation.

Buce said...

I mostly agree. Recall Peter Drucker's rule: if your employee screws up, it is your fault for not training him right or for sending the wrong guy. Both Fredenhall and Lucas had the misfortune of participating in a flawed command structure with deficiencies that ran all the way up to the inexperienced Eisenhower. Fredenhall did have the additional misfortune to be a flaming asshole, although when you survey the history of command, I guess we shouldn't regard that as a deficiency.

Franks was far more interested in getting his chance at command than he was at telling truth to power. As to MacArthur, I suppose you are right. Even if he deserves half the credit he claims (which sounds about right to me)--but why the hell did he leave all those planes on the ground at Clark Field?