10.19.09

The Generals Aren't Necessarily Right

As Obama postpones a decision on Afghanistan, he should remember FDR's lessons: bring the country along. Rushing has downsides. And dithering costs troops more than you know.

I am in the midst of researching a book on modern American generalship, and so tend to view the current agonizing over the way forward in Afghanistan in that light. I find myself thinking that President Obama, for all his love of Abraham Lincoln, might benefit by turning from that son of Illinois to a New Yorker who was a more recent war president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. A good reason for this shift is that the Civil War was essentially a war of amateurs, with the generals having no greater claim on understanding the conflict than did civilians. But by the time the United States joined World War II, two years of fighting had given both our allies and our enemies a big jump ahead of us. Even so, Roosevelt didn't kowtow to his generals.

In the summer of 1942, FDR had his most serious disagreement with his military leaders. He wanted to get the U.S. military into action against the Nazis. Fearing that Stalin might cut another deal with Hitler, FDR wanted to show Stalin and the Soviets that the Americans were getting into the fight, and not just letting Russians bleed. Also, Roosevelt had congressional mid-term elections coming up, and feared that his Democrats would lose heavily. Roosevelt believed that an American-led invasion of North Africa was just the ticket. He pushed endlessly for it-only to find his top generals, along with his secretary of war, deeply and even bitterly opposed to him.

Don't take any more time than you need. That is, don't dither. Troops need time to train for where they are going.

Army Gen. George C. Marshall, who was effectively chief of two of today's services, the Army and the Air Force, not only was against the invasion of North Africa; he distrusted FDR's motives, thinking the president was pushing for the move for cheap domestic political reasons. In Europe, Eisenhower was equally opposed. He privately called July 22, 1942, the day of FDR's decision to go ahead with the invasion, dubbed Operation Torch, "the blackest day in history."

What bothered the military men most of all was that invading Africa in 1942 meant that a cross-Channel invasion of Europe wouldn't take place in 1943. There just weren't enough troops, tanks, aircraft, and supplies available to fight in both places. So Roosevelt's determination to invade North Africa meant that D-Day couldn't take place until sometime in mid-1944; Eisenhower calculated probably August of that year.

The irony of all this is that we now know the generals were wrong in opposing Operation Torch—not just strategically but militarily. Roosevelt was right on both counts. It was important to Stalin that we get into the war, and doing so directly aided the Russians, by pulling German aircraft from the Eastern Front to the taxing task of supplying the Africa Corps across the Mediterranean by air. We also know now that the U.S. military was hardly prepared to fight a seasoned enemy on the ground in Europe and that it needed to take several small steps, such as amphibious landings in Africa, in order to learn how to get across the beach in Normandy much later. The defeat of the U.S. Army by the Germans at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia (remember the early scenes of the movie Patton?) provided a needed shock to the Army. Training was tightened up, and lackluster generals like Lloyd Fredendall were replaced by aggressive officers like Patton. Even then, the invasion of Sicily the following summer provided another needed shakedown, and gave American soldiers more valuable seasoning.

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Crossing the English Channel in 1944 instead of 1943, the Americans were a year better, and the Germans were a year weaker-especially in the air. Had the American, British and Canadians invaded Normandy in 1943, they might well have been hurled back into the sea. Eisenhower then would have been compelled to issue that famous note he drafted taking the blame for the failure. It began, "Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops."

Of course, the conflict in Afghanistan isn't World War II. Even so, I think there are multiple lessons to take away from this, especially because both FDR and Obama had to consider taking risks with people's lives:

First, the generals are not necessarily right, even about military operations, and especially about strategy, which in a democracy must make political sense. In the Afghan case, I think Gen. McChrystal's plan, which calls for a major troop increase in order to carry out a counterinsurgency campaign, is better than any alternative I can see (especially a return to whack-a-mole counterterrorism, supposedly advocated by VP Biden). But the president shouldn't just go along with military advice, even if it is nearly unanimous.

Second, presidents should take all the time they need. The U.S. military wants to have Obama and the people behind this decision. But you need to make a decision and stick to it-not re-open the debate. Even after FDR made his decision, Marshall continued to try to oppose it quietly, or at least re-visit the issue, but was ignored by the president.

Third, don't take any more time than you need. That is, don't dither. Troops need time to train for where they are going. Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places, with remarkably different cultures and terrains, and so units preparing to deploy would like to know months beforehand where they are going. In this case, I thought President Obama had made his decision back in March, and so did a lot of officers. He has some 'splaining to do to the military and to the American people. It matters not just what Obama decides on Afghanistan, but how he does it. He needs to bring the country along with him.

Finally, keep the debate as quiet as you can. We know now how much Marshall and other generals opposed the president on this key step in World War II, but we didn't know it back then. Whoever leaked McChrystal's assessment did President Obama no favors, and made the decision-making process far more difficult. As Marshall angrily wrote in a different context, "If everything pertaining to the Army has to be put on a town meeting basis, we might as well quit before we start."

Bottom line: The Torch debate, while intense, happened behind closed doors. And Roosevelt didn't do it twice. Even then, he took a big political hit. On Nov. 3, 1942, the Democrats lost 101 seats in the House of Representatives, leaving them a majority of just 14. Despite Marshall's suspicions, Operation Torch kicked off five days after the election, much to the disgust of the White House press secretary, Steve Early. The attack went slowly but, ultimately, successfully. I hope Obama is as lucky.

Thomas E. Ricks, the author of Fiasco and The Gamble , is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of Foreign Policy magazine’s Best Defense blog. He was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post for a total of 26 years.