Today’s New York Times carries a profile of the challenges facing “today’s generals,” after nine years of war in the Middle East and South Asia. According to the author, for these generals:
Mastery of battlefield tactics and a knack for leadership are only prerequisites. Generals and other top officers are now expected to be city managers, cultural ambassadors, public relations whizzes and politicians as they deal with multiple missions and constituencies in the war zone, in allied capitals — and at home.
The increased demands help to explain how the two most recent American commanders in Afghanistan, among the most respected four-star officers of their generation, lost their jobs. And they are prompting the military to revamp the way it trains and promotes its top officers.
“They must be ‘pentathlete’ leaders,” said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Afghanistan. As Iraq and Afghanistan have proved that a commander must stretch to master nuances of international alliance accord, local governance and tribal politicking, the military has revamped its training ranges and its curriculum.
Strong scores in mock battle in the deserts of California or in swampy Louisiana are no longer the lone measurement. Fake villages with irascible, faux tribal leaders and proxies representing the competing agendas of government agencies and nongovernment organizations are all in play to test a commander’s expanding set of required skills.
While I don’t disagree with much of this, there needs to be a touch more perspective on just how “new” this kind of general is. While the current 24-hour news cycle allows for scrutiny of the tiniest comment or action from anywhere on the globe, it is an exaggeration to imply such a stark difference between combatant commanders or even the way we fight war now and before.
There is ample precedent in American history for removing generals who were deemed ineffective, insubordinate, or simply did not click with their Commander in Chief. And while the author acknowledges that commanders like Eisenhower had to deal with alliance politics and command nuances, they also had to deal with military governance of whole countries, population control and administration, reconstruction and development, and even dabbled in cultural understanding before “COIN” had a name. After all, one of the best-known works of anthropology, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was written so that U.S. troops could better understand (and thus administer) occupied Japan.
None of this is to say that the responsibilities and pressures on combatant commanders are not different now. As a result of changing media pressures and different expectations, a commander must speak, and sometimes behave differently, than his predecessors. But history shows that war is not a binary between options like “COIN,” and “Counterterrorism,” and just as Gen. Petraeus is not a pure military strategist or practitioner, neither were those who fought before him.
— Andrew Lebovich