A Time for Bold Adjustment: Fire the Generals

Jack Carr, In a recently released propaganda photo, a Taliban unit reportedly called Badri 313 hoisted the Taliban flag in a re-creation of the iconic flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi by U.S. servicemen in World War II.

The Taliban have adapted to the 21st-century battlefield using social media as part of a public relations campaign that emboldens our enemies and continues to humiliate the United States, even more so because they are wearing modern uniforms, equipment, body armor, and weapons, weapons that look eerily familiar to me.

Tactically we are the most effective fighting force on the face of the earth. Operationally, we have serious issues in large part due to a promotion system that rewards mediocracy. Any frontline soldier who has been in a BUB — Battlefield Update Brief — with staff officers and their PowerPoints will be acutely familiar; rose-colored assessments that only got rosier as the graphs and figures were polished on their way up the chain of command.  Strategically, we are a complete failure and have been since the 1960s. Once again, as the situation continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan, the frontline soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine will bear the brunt of their senior leaders’ failures.

It remains uncertain exactly how many weapons and how much ammunition we left behind, though estimates from the Government Accountability Office project our billions invested in the Afghan National Army include 600,000 weapons, 75,000 vehicles, and 200 aircraft. After twenty years of war, we managed to turn the Taliban into one of the best-equipped militaries on the planet. Nor do we know the location of U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. We have placed ourselves and our allies in a tactically disadvantageous position by giving up Bagram and consolidating forces at the Kabul airport. Right now, brave men and women are on the ground in Afghanistan executing the catastrophic policies of those in temperature-controlled offices half a world away. They will get the job done in spite of the generals and politicians whose policies they implement.

Now, we are attempting to move U.S. citizens to the Kabul airport, relying on the goodwill of the Taliban to allow them access after having just armed them (and trained them) to the teeth. How did the Taliban end up with all this modern U.S. military equipment? Switching to the winning side is part of the tribal culture of Afghanistan and it is why the Taliban now have all the weapons we’ve given the Afghan National Army over the years. If we were not bright enough to pull this from the pages of history, we have our own experience on the ground in 2001 and 2002 to confirm what invading armies have noted for centuries.

Our senior-level leaders failed again. This should come as no surprise; they have a twenty-year track record of failure. One does not require military expertise or even need to be a student of history to note that common sense is not just lacking but completely absent in our general officer corps. One would be hard-pressed to find a commander in chief over the past two decades who has relieved a general officer for performance. The vast majority were promoted and many went to serve on boards of companies tied directly to the defense industry where they continue to profit.

We have the most experienced and battle-hardened military in our nation’s history. At the same time, those warriors have lost trust and confidence in their senior military leadership and elected officials in Washington, D.C. That’s a bad combination.

It is well past the time to clean house. It is time to change the name of the Department of Defense back to the War Department — which it was called from 1789 until 1947. The Secretary of Defense was called the Secretary of War from George Washington’s administration up until the National Security Act of 1947. We have not won a war since changing its name. Precision in language reflects precision in thought. If the nation requires a Department of Defense, its job is DEFENSE. The War Department exists for the sole purpose of fighting and winning wars. Those are two separate missions that require two different mindsets. Unfortunately, we have conflated the two since Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office.

The same military leaders who lost the war in Afghanistan, squandered the lives of America’s sons and daughters, and wasted $2.26 trillion dollars in the graveyard of empires — a number that does not even account for $6.5 trillion in interest as the war was financed on debt — are saying, as did the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “there will be plenty of time to do AARs [After Actions Reviews].”  They are insinuating that the time to look into what caused this current crisis is after it is over. As usual, they are dead wrong. NOW is the time. President Lincoln fired general after general during the Civil War until he got to Grant. George Marshall did the same before and during World War II. Lincoln and Marshall believed in second chances and forgiveness, allowing leaders to learn and prove they could adapt and apply their lessons as wisdom going forward. This prevented risk aversion; they understood the necessity of taking risks in combat. They also promoted those of lower rank who proved resourceful, smart, aggressive, thoughtful leaders rather than relying on a time in rank based promotion system which is clearly an abject failure.

As the media establishment publishes opinion pieces by those who presided over two decades of failure and cable news channels hire these same officers to bloviate as respected analysts, it perpetuates the problem and the cycle continues. Sideline this losing team of senior leaders and put in the next generation; those who actually fought on the battlefield.

There is a misconception that politicians lose wars. That has been an oft-repeated and popular mantra since the end of Vietnam.  It has been echoed so often that it has become accepted as fact. It is NOT the truth. We need politicians, specifically a Commander in Chief and a Secretary of War confirmed by the Senate, who will fire generals and colonels not up to the task. Promote those who succeed regardless of rank and time in grade and fire those who fail.  Without bold adjustments in the ranks, the next time we go to war, we are condemning ourselves to yet another disaster.

Tactically, we will continue to crush the enemy. Strategically, however, we will continue to fail as long as we keep promoting legacy officers on the basis of their time in grade, despite their overwhelming mediocrity. A drastic culture shift is necessary for an institution that has proven reluctant to change even in the face of obvious strategic failures. The military needs to boldly return to its pre-1947 culture of accountability. Without adopting accountability as a core tenant of leadership and promotion, our wars of the future are already lost.   Firing senior-level leaders is an indication that the system is working and will go a long way in restoring trust and confidence in our Armed Services.

As Admiral Arleigh Burke said, “the first thing that a commander must learn is not to tolerate incompetence. As soon as you tolerate incompetence…you have an incompetent organization.” Incompetence is a common trait in our general officer corps. There is no need for courts martial, disgrace, or public humiliation; what is necessary is that we move out our current leadership and make room for competence. Trust both up and down the chain of command is the most crucial factor in any organization. Our tactical level units have that trust. When they failed or made a mistake on the battlefield, they have adapted and applied those lessons to future missions, passing them on to other units to make the organization stronger as a whole. Our senior leaders have only failed upwards since 1947.

Leadership is a privilege. You earn that privilege every day. In today’s military, you become a “leader” by simply waiting your turn and not popping positive on a drug test. That needs to change immediately.

Who are the next George Marshalls? I pray they are out there.

Jack Carr is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil’s Hand and host of the Danger Close Podcast.  He is a former Navy SEAL Task Unit Commander and Sniper with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Visit him at officialjackcarr.com and follow along on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @JackCarrUSA.