This is an outstanding article by my friend LTC Bob Bateman. Bob also gave me my first book opportunity, by printing my chapter “Culture Wars” in his book Digital Wars: View from the Frontline (Presidio Press, 1999). Fortunately for the Army, Bob is a strategist in the Pentagon. Bob’s point is that we need to fire incompetent generals, but do not. More of the reason is that it takes a leader of character to understand professional and personal competence, and we do not have that in our strategic political leaders at this time. If we did, we would not be in Iraq, would not be in an energy crisis, ignore our open borders as well as immigration laws, as well as siding with the corporate elite while our once strong middle class is struggling.
Enjoy the article, and thanks for the recent emails.
Armed Forces Journal
Cause for Relief
Why presidents no longer fire generals
BY LT. COL. ROBERT L. BATEMAN
We are now more than six years into a war that spans the globe. American
forces are engaged on the land, from the sea and from the air, around the
planet. More than 1.6 million service members have deployed into the Central
Command area of responsibility, and perhaps 35 percent of them have been there
more than once.
Americans have done brave service in other areas, as well. The financial cost
of this conflict, by even conservative measures, is approaching that of our
largest war. The human cost, although lower as an absolute than many other
wars imposed, also has taken a heavy toll on our all-volunteer professional
military. In many ways one could consider this conflict, even at this point,
one of the largest endeavors the nation ever attempted.
In one area, however, the current conflict is anomalous. We have retained
nearly all our generals (and admirals) throughout the fight. Only a single
brigadier general has been relieved for the performance of duty in a combat
zone. Historically speaking, that is a curious fact.
You have to look back a fairly long distance to find generals and admirals
being relieved of combat commands, either in combat or just prior to
deployment. Only eight American generals or admirals have been publicly
relieved of command from a combatant unit, or in a combat zone, since 1945. As
noted, significantly, only one of them was relieved for failure. General of
the Army Douglas MacArthur was yanked from command by President Truman during
the Korean War not because he had failed, but for outright insubordination. He
disagreed with the president, was privately informed to toe the line and,
instead, continued his de facto attempts to create his own foreign policy.
(This included the threat to bring Taiwanese Nationalist Chinese into the
conflict in Korea, as well as his better-known comments on the use of nuclear
weapons.) More recently, Adm. William Fallon “voluntarily stepped down”
after a media story appeared that highlighted his heretofore apparent private
disagreements with members of the executive office of the vice president and
the president. In both cases, the salient feature was not a failure to win at
the operational or strategic level — the echelon occupied by both Fallon and
MacArthur — but one of subordination of the military to the duly constituted
In this conflict, however, only former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski (now a
retired colonel), the first general officer in the chain of command over the
events at Abu Ghraib, was shuffled out of command (and subsequently demoted)
for her incompetence in that situation. In all the battles, in all the
campaigns, in all the struggles of Korea, Vietnam and now the global war on
terrorism, just one.
It would be intellectually dishonest not to note that there were a few
instances during the Vietnam War in which a commander who had left command was
subsequently relieved or retired when news of events that occurred during his
combat command became known. Most prominently, this occurred to the former
commander of the Americal Division, two years after the massacre by his troops
of several hundred Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai. When that
story hit the papers, the general was relieved of his post. But that was years
after the fact. There are several similar stories.
More recently, it would seem that the major factor that results in the
termination of a career is sex. Within the non-combat criteria, quite a few
general officers have been relieved, or retired (read: pushed out), from their
commands in the past couple of years. It is a curious development,
historically speaking. As recounted from within the Patton family, George S.
Patton quite clearly was of the opinion that, “A man who won’t f—,
won’t fight.” Patton did, of course, consider boundaries in that opinion.
Two Air Force generals found themselves civilians in the wake of allegations
of blatant sexual harassment. More pathetic was what happened to Army Gen.
Kevin Byrnes, who, while separated from his wife pending his final decree of
divorce, had a romantic relationship with a woman who was not in his chain of
command, nor even in the military. Indeed, he was terminated on the day his
final decree of divorce was granted, and 90 days before his previously planned
retirement. Most recently the boom fell upon Adm. John Stufflebeem, who was
effectively removed and apparently demoted for lying to investigators about an
affair that occurred 18 years ago. In other words, running afoul of our laws
regarding sex and marriage is more likely to get a flag officer canned than is
a failure to achieve victory on the field of battle.
Let us be clear here: Not a single general, not a brigadier, a major general,
a lieutenant general or a full general, nor any naval officers of the same
grades, has suffered any serious adverse consequences for failure upon the
field of battle since World War II. At worst, as was the case with Lt. Gen.
Ricardo Sanchez, some might merely have not been promoted. Others, such as
Gen. William Westmoreland, were promoted to chief of staff of the Army after
failing to win year after year in Vietnam. So what is the difference and how
have things changed over time since the end of World War II?
Simplicity demands that we limit our historical examination to our three
largest conflicts: the American Civil War, World War I and World War II. This
ground is fertile, yet the scope is not excessive. Those wars took 48 months
(the Civil War), 18 months (our involvement in World War I) and 43 months (our
involvement in World War II), for a cumulative total of 109 months of war. So
what happened in these wars, and how is today so different from those
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has engaged in three sustained
conflicts. Korea lasted 36 months of active combat; Vietnam, if measured only
from the summer of 1965, was 96 months long; and we have been fighting the war
on terrorism since October 2001, 78 months as I write this — a total of 210
months, nearly twice as long as the three earlier wars. In all three of those
first three wars, we sacked dozens upon dozens of generals, probably more than
100. We also won all three of those fights. Since then, we have removed from
combat only eight of the hundreds upon hundreds, perhaps as many as a
thousand, of generals involved. We fought the Korean War to a draw, we lost
the Vietnam War, and we are in a toss-up right now. There is obviously
correlation, but is there causation in effect, as well? In other words, is one
the result of the other? Even in part? Or are there too many other variables
in play for the correlation to be relevant?
The American Civil War was the bloodiest conflict we have known. Because both
sides were American, the total cost was huge. Added to that was a combination
of new technologies for which appropriate doctrine had not yet been developed,
and a massive expansion in the ability to sustain forces in the field, which
led to bloodshed on a scale that defies us today, particularly when balanced
against our much smaller population at the time. For our purposes, however,
let us just examine the Union side with regard to the relief of generals.
At the apogee of the Union Army’s strength there were a little less than 1
million men under arms and 374 generals. The total who served in Union blue
over the course of the war was between 2.3 million and 2.8 million.
Record-keeping being what it was, we historians cannot determine the precise
number. But we do know that over the course of the Civil War, 583 men served
as generals in the Union Army. Of that number, 110 resigned or were encouraged
to resign for one reason or another. We will leave them aside for the purposes
of our discussion, although several at least were “encouraged to resign”
in the same manner as Fallon was recently. Another 47 were killed in combat,
and 38 were relieved for cause either by their superior officers or by the
president. These numbers, on the face of it, are suggestive. But they also are
misleading without understanding the cultural context in which these
In the end, it appears that there were really two factors in play, in addition
to the generic question of competence. The first was the state and nature of
the profession and popular perceptions of what it took to be an officer or a
general. The second factor derives from the first, and it was the referent
authority of the president. In other words, in the popular perception, did the
president have the experience and qualities needed to stand in judgment of the
generals in the performance of their military duties? This is referent
authority. These elements seem to matter.
In the middle of the 19th century, it should be recalled, the armed forces
were not professional as we would understand the term today. There was little
to no system of ongoing lifelong learning, and the officer corps had only
limited ability to police its own ranks. The number of U.S. Military Academy
cadets relieved and then reinstated by act of Congress or intervention by the
secretary of war during this era demonstrates this point very well. Promotion
was not by merit but by time in service and the availability of a vacancy at a
higher level. And because there was no system of retirement and pay was
perpetually low, many officers served until they died. The sentiment among the
broader population was that military service was a low-status tradecraft, and
officership was nothing particularly special. Taking a page from the mythology
of the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, it was assumed that any
gentleman of good standing, say a business leader or politician, could readily
be as fully competent an officer as any who studied at West Point. All that
was needed was a little reading and the correct moral character.
This last sentiment, in turn, meant that it did not matter to the American
public that President Lincoln had only a few weeks of military experience, as
a militia captain in the Blackhawk War, during which he saw no combat. What
mattered was that he was demonstrably of the right character — the
demonstration was his election. Thus, in the eyes of the public, he was fully
capable, and not just legally capable, of sitting in judgment upon the
officers of the Union Army. McClellan, Burnside, Buell, Fremont, French and
Hooker, to name a few, all learned that he was not at all averse to the idea
of sacking the commanding generals of entire armies. From there, the ball
rolled downhill, and 32 other generals were at various times given their
walking papers by their commanding generals. But it started at the top, with
Lincoln’s referent authority and the correspondingly, comparatively low
political cost he would have to pay for the act of removing a general from
command. That low political cost is a key point.
By the time of World War I, however, things had changed dramatically both
within the nation and in the area of civilian-military affairs. The armed
forces were a profession. That applies at least to that core of the military
that existed prior to the declaration of war in April 1917. Military officers
were acknowledged by the general public to require not only some level of
training for commissioning, but they also would thereafter be expected to
continue learning the art of war at a series of sustained stepping stones of
professional education. This was a byproduct of civilian outrage following
some of the blatant mismanagement of our forces in the Spanish-American War
and in the Philippine Insurrection which followed. The educational reforms
under Secretary of War Elihu Root were both broad and deep.
The balance of power between the military and the civilians appointed over the
military, thereafter, seems to have shifted slightly. The easy referent
authority Lincoln enjoyed no longer could be taken for granted. Generals were
now something different. They were seen by the public as the products of long
and sustained experience, and specialized education in the art of war. It
seems likely that were a president to begin relieving generals willy-nilly,
circa 1917, he might well be expected to pay some domestic political price if
the public — and particularly his political opposition — had an open say
in the issue. That might apply, as well, to the idea of any general being
relieved. Leading the nation from the Oval Office was President Wilson, a man
with no military experience but who had strong ideas on the power of the
presidency. As it was, Wilson decided to let the military police its own,
while he attended to the domestic side.
And attend to the domestic side he did. Pushing through legislation intended
to ensure the power of the state, Wilson oversaw a government in which more
than 170,000 U.S. citizens were arrested for “disloyal” statements of one
degree or another.
Wilson and his administration also supported, among several others, the
semi-official organization known as the American Protective League. This was a
group whose quarter-million members took it upon themselves to conduct
warrantless searches, phone tapping, arrests (they would be called kidnapping
now, because these were civilians arresting civilians), interrogations and a
host of other activities we now would see as outrageous. Atop all of this,
Wilson’s administration created the Committee for Public Information, a
domestic propaganda organization designed purely to whip up and maintain
support for the war effort, with more than 75,000 employees. In effect, Wilson
established as close to a police state as this nation has ever known. It
meant, in effect if not by intent, that the political cost for the relief of
generals, either by Wilson or by the armed forces, was effectively zero. The
commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Gen. John Pershing, therefore
had the ability to send no less than 32 of the generals sent over to him
packing back home, or doing the general’s equivalent of counting towels at
Note that thus far I have not dealt with the specifics of any particular
general’s performance. In part, this is because such information would be
anecdotal at best and misleading at worst. Certainly some of the Civil War
generals were victims of the so-called “Peter Principle” — they had
advanced to the level of their own incompetence — and were able to serve
well at a lower level. Ambrose Burnsides, for example, comes to mind on that
score as an exemplar. Similarly, some of the generals may have been relieved
for purely political reasons. But the salient point in all of this was the
ability of the president to either relieve generals or empower his
subordinates to do the same. Now, we must move on to that most curious of
presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and our largest struggle, World War
We should, to place this period in context, run the numbers. In World War II,
16 million men served in uniform. Of those, roughly 70 percent were in the
Army (a force that, at the time, included what we now call the Air Force.) The
U.S. had a population of 131 million people, and we lost in combat some
407,000 of the men who were in uniform.
Now, about the generals. During World War II, there were roughly 1,100
generals in the Army. Eleven of those were killed in action, two were executed
while prisoners of war, and four died in plane crashes. Five corps commanders
and 16 division commanders were relieved for cause. Also relieved were Patton
and the Army and the Navy commanders in charge of the forces at Pearl Harbor,
Hawaii, on that day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941. About a dozen more flag officers
were relieved voluntarily for health reasons, most related to exhaustion. And
almost every one of the pre-war National Guard Division Commanders was
relieved or “eased out of command” before the American entry into the war.
Indeed, only one National Guard commander out of 34, Maj. Gen. Robert
Beightler, retained his command from the pre-war period throughout the war.
And we have not even touched upon the brigadiers. Statistically speaking, if
the percentages hold up, it would appear that some 40 to 50 one-star generals
were relieved in combat, as well.
But here again, we are talking about a nation that was following the lead of
the first president ever to win a third term of office. In 1940, as things
started heating up for us, Roosevelt won re-election. We can assume that he
had more than enough political capital to fire generals at will. The thing
about Roosevelt, however, was that he was anything but direct. Machiavelli,
were his ghostly apparition to appear and hide itself behind a curtain in
Roosevelt’s Oval Office, probably would have given a low whistle and said to
himself, “Man, that guy is devious.” The indirect approach was
Roosevelt’s intent, and having found Gen. George C. Marshall, he was happy
to empower that subordinate to make such changes and reliefs as needed.
Marshall was not shy.
Since then, no political leader has had, or believed he had, sufficient
political power or referent authority to enable and demand widespread reliefs
of nonperforming generals as a result of their performance in combat.
Truman, despite abysmal polls, was unequivocal when he decided finally to
relieve MacArthur from command in 1951 for his repeated insubordination and
blatant political maneuvering with the Republican Party. Just before that, the
commander of the Eighth Army in Korea, Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, had relieved
five division commanders in combat on his own authority (apparently over the
screaming protests of the general officer personnel management back in
Washington). But those would be the last division commanders relieved so far
in our history.
Truman had been at the top of the political game for decades at that point,
and arguably was more interested in adhering to his Midwestern values than he
was in any re-election he might contemplate. He was famously willing to take
the hit, epitomized by his desktop sign, “The Buck Stops Here.” Discussing
MacArthur, Truman told the then-influential Time magazine, “I fired him
because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire
him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not
against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would
be in jail.”
And take the hit he did. In the wake of the overtly political MacArthur’s
relief — MacArthur had not-so-privately maneuvered for the Republican Party
presidential nomination as early as 1930, while he was chief of staff of the
Army — Truman’s opposition made mincemeat of the president. There were
calls for impeachment, his popularity dropped to 22 percent, and he lost the
first round of his party’s primaries. All of which persuaded him to withdraw
from politics after his term. In the elections that followed, his party also
lost both houses of Congress. Chief executives since then can hardly be
expected not to have taken a lesson from the high cost Truman paid to sustain
the authority of the president over the armed forces.
Since that time, two truisms seem to have been in place with regard to the
political calculations that go into presidential decisions regarding the
relief of generals.
The first seems to be that a succession of presidents believed they did not
have sufficient personal expertise to override their military subordinates and
demand the relief of a nonperforming or underperforming commander in combat.
It does not appear that these presidents were not making evaluations of those
generals. It just seems that they collectively doubted their own ability to
sit in judgment of the men in uniform, and because doing nothing is easier,
they did nothing. This did not preclude them from disagreeing with the
generals and admirals, and choosing their own course of action in a strategic
setting. President Kennedy quite explicitly rejected the advice and counsel of
the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we are all here now
because of that rejection.
At best, the presidents who fall under this heading may shuffle an officer
aside, although they also might promote them up and out of the way, as
happened with Westmoreland and others. Call this the “professionalization
effect.” The idea is that the professional military of the late 20th century
was increasingly and demonstrably a specialized profession that required
decades upon decades of training, recurrent education and study. Since
President Eisenhower, no president has even remotely approached this level of
hypothetical knowledge that the generals presumably had at their fingertips.
This applies to Kennedy, Carter, Reagan and the current chief executive.
The second apparent truth is that at least some presidents believed that the
political costs the electorate (and the opposition party) would impose on them
or their party for the relief of a combatant general would be excessive. That
is to say that they may have thought that “General X should be relieved, I
know that,” but then for domestic political reasons declined to act upon
this belief. This variant would appear to apply to presidents Johnson, Nixon,
Bush 41 and Clinton, although only the first two fought sustained conflicts in
which the issue might have regularly arisen. In this situation, the president
is more likely to endorse a course of action that promotes the offending
general out of the combat theater, as happened repeatedly under Johnson.
A host of caveats must cover this material. For starters, two of the three
wars since 1945 have been, in large part, unconventional counterinsurgencies.
Korea was a straight up fight, although one with a large rear-area component.
This, theoretically, raises the question of measurement. In the Civil War, the
long lines of Union troops streaming away from the battlefield at First Bull
Run clearly demonstrated that the fight was not going into the win column for
the Union. Similarly, the performance of the American forces at Kasserine Pass
in early 1943 was by almost any measure abysmal. The subsequent relief of II
Corps commander Lloyd Fredendall was the almost immediate result. But how does
one measure things in an insurgency?
That question should not be the barrier that it apparently has been these past
55 years. The measurement is defined by the president. A president says, “I
want X by date Y. Anything less is failure.” What the president decides X
and Y should be is a political question, but the act of making that demand
seems quite simple. Leaving the definition to the military results in the
interminable hand-wringing over metrics — which the U.S. military has
engaged in since at least 1966 — a process that also has meant that,
technically, nobody ever actually fails. (Before “body counts” became the
norm in Vietnam, “captured rice” often was used as a measure of
It should also be noted that, at least in the case of the Civil War, the
relief of generals may be partially ascribed to the political nature of so
many of their appointments in the first place — appointments made for
political reasons, which in some cases did result in true and sustained
incompetence. That state of affairs was a condition forced upon the nation by
necessity, obviously, but the fact is that even during the Civil War, a man
was not a good general merely as a result of his breeding or business
connections. Since at least the turn-of-the-20th-century reforms of Secretary
of War Root, however, we have had at least a nominally professional force.
True, promotions came fast and furious with expansion, but still, many pre-war
generals in both world wars found themselves relieved, even though they had
been trained and promoted at the normal peacetime-professionals pace. So that
caveat does not entirely explain the utter lack of relief-for-cause events,
In the end, there is no simple solution. It is probably dangerous, for the
republic and the armed forces that defend her, for this situation to exist.
But it is also the logical result of 232 years of evolution between the
military and the civilian authorities that control them. The question that
remains is this: When nobody is willing to sit in judgment of the combat
performance of the generals, including the generals, then who is really in
control of our armed forces?
Do we need the equivalent of a base realignment and closure board for
generals? Recall that it was only the threat of public hearings before
Congress that apparently scuttled Sanchez’s nomination for a fourth star and
command of Southern Command. Generals may be selected by the president, but as
with all officers, their promotion is contingent upon approval from the
Senate. In the Sanchez case, Congress fulfilled the role intended for it in
this set-up. But very often it would be a political hot potato for a
congressman to appear unsympathetic to a medal-wearing general.
The base realignment and closure board, authorized and directed by Congress,
gave lawmakers the top cover they needed to put into effect hard choices that
they could not have made publicly and expected to survive politically. Perhaps
some sort of similarly constituted board should be convened by Congress for
the purpose of reviewing generals, and the promotions and assignments thereof.
Yes, this might be seen as an infringement of the president’s prerogatives,
but no president in more than half a century has apparently used those powers,
and perhaps no president has felt able to do so.
In any event, the history recounted here does seem to suggest that something
is out of kilter.
LT. COL. ROBERT L. BATEMAN is an infantryman and historian who has taught
military history at the U.S. Military Academy. He is author of “No Gun Ri, A
Military History of the Korean War Incident.” The opinions expressed in this
article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the
Army or Defense Department.