The Arrogance of Generals

I’ve just finished reading – again – Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun. It’s a history of the next nuclear steps after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how the hydrogen bomb came to be built, along with the spying and recriminations that took place during that period. Toward the end of the book, Rhodes describes the role that General Curtis LeMay, the first head of the Strategic Air Command, took on of his own volition – no orders from the top. LeMay had total control over the country’s nuclear arsenal. He didn’t think that a war with the Soviets would be a bad thing if we hit them hard and sent recon planes on provocative missions over the USSR – again, no orders from the top.

I come back to the computer to read about another general who thought it just fine to do things his own way, General David Petraeus, who invited two think-tankers to be his special advisors, and apparently never informed anyone above him. Two think-tankers, Fred and Kim Kagan, who are fond of war and more war and whose think-tanks are funded by defense contractors.

And it appears that nobody in Washington knew how Petraeus was being advised in Kabul. This is very hard to believe. The Kagans attended classified meetings and had the highest clearances.

I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot about this tomorrow. And probably after that, too.

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Cheryl Rofer

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  • LeMay personally flew a B58 across the USSR and I doubt the Prez knew about beforehand. The Soviets at the time lacked any way to bring it down, so while it was insulting, they couldn’t respond to give Lemay the excuse he wanted. By the time Gary Powers’ U2 got dinged, cooler heads prevailed. You may recall an Eisenhower/Khruschev summit being called off after they shot down one of our planes over Albania. It was a regular practice.

    Once the military got its hands on The Bomb, people like Gen. Groves and LeMay began to act like bullies and Truman went along with that. IMHO, that attitude was a big part of the lead-up to the Cold War. You may also recall the arrogance of MacArthur – perhaps the best strategist of the time, but one who only took orders he agreed with.

    Perhaps it’s simply a matter of ‘power corrupts’.

  • Fred and Kim Kagan? Jeebus. two from the neocon Mothership to guide St. Gen. Petraeus.

    Provided desks, e-mail accounts and top-level security clearances in Kabul, they pored through classified intelligence reports, participated in senior-level strategy sessions and probed the assessments of field officers in order to advise Petraeus about how to fight the war differently.

    …The four-star general made the Kagans de facto senior advisers, a status that afforded them numerous private meetings in his office, priority travel across the war zone and the ability to read highly secretive transcripts of intercepted Taliban communications, according to current and former senior U.S. military and civilian officials who served in the headquarters at the time.

    …The extent of the couple’s involvement in Petraeus’s headquarters was not known to senior White House and Pentagon officials involved in war policy, two of those officials said.

    Riiiight. At this rate of BS, they’re going to run out of bridges to sell.

  • So the criticism here is that Petraeus was advised by those not provided / cleared by OSD / the White House? For that to matter much in my books that would presuppose that the role of those institutions in selecting advisors had been good. That’s frankly not very true. Me, I tend to think that combatant commanders should get advice from whoever they think would be best.

    The real issue is why they (combatant commanders) think they need outside advisors and why they (the Kagans) had the role they appear to have had. One of the pervasive problems of just about any headquarters I’ve ever known anything about is the gap between “headquarters reality” and “on the ground reality” – it’s not uncommon to have some folks who are essentially informational stovepipes (somewhat less common are troubleshooters). Was that their role – if so, why outsiders? if not, what was the role? why do generals need to be “graded” on strategy by outsiders? (this is, BTW a distinct issue from civilian control, though it could be standing next to it)

    • The issue is conflict of interest. The Kagans were being paid by neocon think tanks funded by defense contractors. If they are advising a general in a continuing way and receiving classified information, they should be working for the government.

      It’s barely possible that their prescriptions were at odds with what the White House wanted, pace Steve.

      I’m wondering how they got SCI clearances without being employed. There are a number of loose ends in this story.

      • TS/SCI clearance doesn’t strike me as being that unusual in this context based on what I’ve seen and heard as to how things work down there. I believe OSD would be the authority ultimately driving clearance – how closely they’d really look at the request might be a different matter (and that assumes that the Kagans had not previously held clearance via other avenues – some of the stuff at the Point has got to require Level III and I wonder how far they could have gotten into the Surge stuff without needing to be cleared if they weren’t).

        As to whether this really was conflict of interest, that I don’t know. If we take an even moderately restrictive standpoint on this, frankly I wonder how many external players could be brought in at all. It does not take even a little leap to go from AEI being out of bounds to ending up with mainstream outfits like CFR being out of bounds. That would rather strike me as poking out one’s eyes to spite one’s face (as it were). One of the biggest problems is undue deference to and examination of high level politico-military strategy as formulated by the Puzzle Palace denizens – me, I’d bend my rules around conflict of interest in a heartbeat if I thought it could help remedy that.

  • Marcy Wheeler spots a couple of worrying tidbits in the WaPo piece.

    Firstly, the way the Kagans threatened Stanley McChrystal to be allowed to check his work in Afghanistan.

    The Kagans should have been thrilled, but they soon grew concerned. They thought McChrystal’s headquarters was not providing enough information to them about the state of the war. The military began to slow-roll their requests to visit Afghanistan. In early 2010, they wrote an e-mail to McChrystal, copying Petraeus, that said they “were coming to the conclusion that the campaign was off track and that it was not going to be successful,” Fred Kagan said.

    To some senior staff members in McChrystal’s headquarters, the e-mail read like a threat: Invite us to visit or we will publish a piece saying the war is lost.

    Worried about the consequences of losing the Kagans, McChrystal authorized the trip, according to the staff members.

    Then, this:

    Their immersion occurred at an opportune time. Petraeus was fond of speaking about the importance of using troops to protect Afghan communities from insurgents, but he recognized that summer that the Obama White House wanted to narrow the scope of the war. As a consequence, the general decided to emphasize attacking insurgent strongholds — and so did the Kagans.


    The Kagans believed U.S. commanders needed to shift their focus from protecting key towns and cities to striking Haqqani encampments and smuggling routes, according to several current and former military and civilian officials familiar the issue.

    In the late summer of 2010, they shared their views with field officers during a trip to the east. “They implied to brigade commanders that Petraeus would prefer them to devote their resources to killing Haqqanis,” said Doug Ollivant, a former senior adviser to the two-star general in charge of eastern Afghanistan.

    But Petraeus had not yet issued new directives to his three-star subordinate or the two-star in the east.

    Marcy writes: “The suggestion is the Kagans drove the new focus on the Haqqanis–indeed, were even issuing orders to officers before Petraeus was doing–just at the time Obama was trying to de-escalate the war.”

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