A New Kind of General?


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


10 comments on “A New Kind of General?

  1. dwg says:

    No general is going to make a difference in Afghanistan one way or another.
    The increasingly corrupt puppet “leadership” is no different from the corrupt and weak governemnt of Vietnam under Diem and will end the same way – turning over one tribal leader after another until the U.S. realizes that they are trying to build a “nation” on the rubble of a tribal culture that is RESISTING nationhood.
    McClatchy has a great story on this and the real issue is both the Afghan people and the hopelessness of the “boots on the ground” troops who SEE the “COIN” strategy for what it is…. a hopeless failure. See: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/08/13/99170/us-soldiers-mission-shows-afghan.html
    More than 9 years – nearly half a generation on — and what do you suppose Afghans have learnt from Americans? That we are no different from any other colonizer – destruction of their villages and death for their people in exchange for natural resources — all at the expense of the indigenous culture.
    And a mere general is going to make a difference?
    I think not.


  2. Really? says:

    Generals need to be racist killers, now, in the past, and always.


  3. questions says:

    Will this new kind of general figure out what to do about the floods in Pakistan?
    Every time a state fails to deliver basic services and an insurgent group can step in to make things better, the insurgency gains, the state loses. People want daily life to function, and it’s a foolish government that doesn’t have a way to deal with disasters.
    City service delivery is way more old fashioned than is baseball tossing.


  4. susan says:

    Generals throwing out baseballs?
    What a weird thing for him to be doing. Are Obama and Petraeus of the opinion that this photo op of a general throwing a baseball will make Americans love their (lost) war?
    Do they really think we’re that dumb?


  5. samuelburke says:

    From: Petraeus, David H GEN MIL USA USCENTCOM CCCC/CCCC?
    To: Max Boot?Subject: FW: On the Middle East: It’s Palin vs
    As you know, I didn’t say that.


  6. rc says:

    Nothing new here, this is simply the US version of the British ‘Governor General’ role — colonize, rationalize, subjugate, expatiate, integrate, … and where necessary assassinate. Servants of the nice folks who follow the other ‘golden rule’: those with the gold rule!


  7. Mr.Murder says:

    How much comparison is there to the Kosovo conflict?
    Were any such structures in place in Afghanistan that we are intent on establishing? It is one thing to restore order where such structure once existed. It is another to try and materialize it from the archaic shadows of tribal rule.


  8. Lawrence Willson says:

    The risk I see is, allowing generals to nation-build can
    undercut the role of diplomacy in international relations.
    There is a tacit hubris that evolutionary biology will not in
    the long run abide. In a nutshell, no general trained to kill
    can at once be expected to practice empathy.


  9. Pahlavan says:

    Who else but the “Leave alone, then Zap managers” or the Monday Morning Quarterbacks…


  10. JohnH says:

    Training for the coup: “Today’s 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.”
    Who ever had the bright idea of expanding their mission beyond blowing things up?


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