Buck Stops Here

10.04.135:45 AM ET

You’re Fired, Generals: But About Wolfowitz and Rummy?

Two Marine generals were dismissed this week for an attack on their base in Afghanistan, but why hasn’t the civilian leadership ever paid a penalty for their incompetence and failed leadership? John Kael Weston on the civilian-military divide when it comes to accountability.

General Jack D. Ripper: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war? 

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: No, I don't think I do, sir, no. 

General Jack D. Ripper: He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.

Dr. Strangelove, 1964

During a visit to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, my iPhone began vibrating with a barrage of text messages. It was September 14, 2012. A British diplomat in Washington, D.C. said insurgents had launched an attack earlier that day in Helmand Province on the British airfield located next to Camp Leatherneck. The base had been our home during my time as a State Department official in southern Afghanistan. He wrote that a group of Taliban had infiltrated the UK side, Camp Bastion, killing two Marines and destroying several jets. The suicide mission had been intricately planned. Later we learned that Marine aircraft squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Raible rallied his mechanics with only a pistol—“every Marine a rifle man”—to beat back the attackers. He was killed in the process along with Sergeant Bradley Atwell.

This week, Marine Commandant General James Amos fired the two on-site generals on the day of the attack, Major General Mark Gurganus and Major General Gregg Sturdevant, for what he deemed to be negligence. In a press release, Amos declared: “responsibility and accountability are the sacred tenants of Commandership.” While acknowledging their tough mission and contributions in Helmand Province, he said a final review required their de facto dismissal. The base’s perimeter had been breached, after all, outposts left under-manned or not at all. And two Marines were dead, well inside the wire—not outside it.

Follow-on media stories have focused on how rare, and welcome, such a decision is – and how it marked “overdue” accountability in America’s longest wars. The last time a general was fired in this way? Vietnam. (In June 2010, President Obama asked Army General Stanley McChrystal to resign following a Rolling Stone article that chronicled disparaging remarks by his command team toward Vice President Biden and leading civilian policymakers. On the record … Oops.)

Generals comprise a special group. The American public still reveres them despite recent headlines about their various sexual habits. I spent seven years with the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan closely advising a dozen Marine one-, two-, and three-star officers. The first was General James Conway, a towering Arkansan who later became the 34th Marine commandant. I also know Major Gen Gurganus, having dodged IEDs and bullets with him in Anbar Province. We jousted verbally with wary-but-willing-to-cooperate tribal sheikhs. As a regimental commander in Fallujah in 2005, his leadership and ties with local Sunni leaders helped keep the city safer—as much as possible in Iraq's rebellious “city of mosques”—for hundreds of Marines. I know because I was there. He helped save the lives of Marines and Iraqi civilian. Fallujans remember only one other Marine leader (now a general too) as fondly as the tobacco-chewing, blunt Gurganus. A true Marines’ Marine.

I wonder whether General Amos—an aviator and the first non-infantry four-star officer to lead the Marine Corps—took this Fallujah context into account, from that other war now “over” … at least for us. Four thousand Iraqis have been killed in the last four months.

Giving whole new meaning to being dishonorably discharged, this case misses a larger point, a more important context. Why have no civilian policymakers—those responsible for failures in strategy that cost untold American, Iraqi and Afghan lives—been held accountable in these longest wars?

Let's remember: former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz got promoted to the World Bank after his glaring Iraq failings. Rumsfeld writes books about “rules” and pontificates regularly on cable television. And current White House advisers have even claimed devious generals boxed-in President Obama on a doomed, 30,000-plus troop surge in Afghanistan via Pentagon leaks and Machiavellian machinations. It seems to me, however, our commander in chief overruled himself—not them, the Pentagon’s top brass—and unwisely escalated his own “good” war. President Obama should have fired any generals he considered incompetent or unworthy of the stars on their uniform collars. Poisonous civilian-military relations during both wars marks the greater tragedy, the bigger story, the inexcusable dynamic.

When General David Petraeus repeatedly referred to the late statesmen Richard Holbrooke as “my wing man” why didn’t the general’s galling, backward sense of a proper command relationship get corrected, and fast? In Baghdad and Kabul, Iraqis and Afghans long wanted to see and hear charismatic and commanding civilians in the biggest chairs reserved for Americans. Our overworked generals were ill-equipped and overmatched to wage political warfare with sovereign and wily Arab prime ministers and Pashtun presidents.

Not one senior civilian appointee with a war-related portfolio and judged incompetent has been told, “You’re fired,” in either the Bush or Obama administration. This fact signifies unsettling national security malfeasance. Neither war was won, after all. A no-buck-stops-here Oval Office home to two consecutive wartime commanders-in-chief has left more than a few generals I know scratching their heads, dispirited and disillusioned. Rightly so.

Accountability, alas, has not reached into the marbled zone of immunity inhabited by Washington politicos and party loyalists.

Will it ever?


The Beirut Memorial dominates Camp Lejeune and sets it apart from other Marine installations. One ornamental pear tree is planted on Lejeune Drive for every Marine, soldier and sailor killed on October 23, 1983, when terrorists detonated two truck bombs beneath a multi-story barracks building in Beirut, Lebanon. Among the 241 killed, 220 were Marines. The bombing represented the highest single-day death toll for Marines since Iwo Jima in World War II, and for the U.S. military since the first day of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War.

President Reagan called it a “despicable act.” After touring the site, Vice President George H. W. Bush declared the U.S. “would not be cowed by terrorists.”

Within four months of the bombing, all Marines were ordered to leave Lebanon.

Generals just follow orders. Whichever war. They, more than anyone, remember what happened to the insubordinate General Douglas MacArthur. President Harry Truman fired him with cause.

In our prior wars, top civilians feared pink slips too.