THE SCHOLAR: When Questioning the U.S. Military Is Right

By Thomas E. Griffith
Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
January 31, 2010

President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan on December 1st, has settled, for the moment, the debate over the role of the United States in that troubled nation. What should continue to be discussed, however, is the politicization of the debate that took place beforehand. Accusing the President of “dithering,” or turning “wobbly” on Afghanistan, damaged civil-military relations and in the long run may have done more harm to the men and women in uniform than any delay. Political leaders have an obligation to question military advice; doing so not only makes for a better strategy, it is essential to democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth than the belief, used too often for political purposes, that the President should have given “the generals what they ask for.”
It is easy to see why the military’s advice is so highly regarded. Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions survey consistently ranks the military near the top, while the presidency and Congress rank much lower. This view by the public, the success of recent American operations, and the valor and heroism of Americans under arms, combine to create nearly unquestioned trust in the military. In this environment it is easy to forget that military estimates and recommendations are not foolproof; in fact, a few examples make it clear that military counsel can often be wrong.

On America’s entry into the Second World War, for instance, the U.S. Army wanted to strike directly at Germany as soon as possible. The Army’s plans, developed in early 1942, focused on an invasion of France the next year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, pushed to have American troops in action against Germany sooner and sided with British political and military leaders who blanched at the thought of hitting the enemy strength head-on. They advocated an attack in North Africa instead. While the decision frustrated Army planners and delayed the invasion of France until 1944, in this instance the president’s instincts proved better than the military advice he received. The military had underestimated the scale and ferocity of a cross-channel assault. In the end, the delay saved the United States from attacking Fortress Europe at full strength and helped make the D-Day invasion of 1944 a success.

Almost twenty years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President John F. Kennedy to destroy Soviet missile sites in Cuba through a massive air strike. General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, strongly advocated for the attacks, telling the president that the naval blockade and diplomatic talks with the Soviet leaders under consideration would lead to war. Anything short of direct military intervention, LeMay insisted, would be "as bad as the appeasement at Munich.” In the end, Kennedy disregarded his air chief’s advice, opting for the other measures and avoiding a likely nuclear exchange.

In more recent times, military leaders have missed the mark as well. Before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brushed off suggestions for sending U.S. military forces to the region as a signal of American resolve and a deterrent to Saddam Hussein. Prior to the start of Operation Desert Storm, military planners felt confident in their ability to handle the threat posed by the Iraqi Scud missiles by attacking the fixed launch sites and other facilities. While aware of the need to limit the mobile Scud launches as well, the political impact of the missile strikes surprised the commanders and the effort to stop the mobile missiles consumed more time and effort than any of them anticipated. Finally, at war’s end military leaders recommended stopping the war at 100 hours leaving Saddam's forces intact, and then negotiated a cease fire that allowed him to crush the uprisings inside of Iraq.

Discussions in the Clinton administration highlight similar deficiencies with military advice. During debates in 1992 over what to do about the fighting in Bosnia, military planners forecast the need for nearly half a million troops to guarantee a cease-fire in Bosnia and invoked the specter of Vietnam against any attempt to intervene in the Balkans. The option of using air strikes without large numbers of troops was also rejected as being futile. In the end, U.S air strikes did work. The attacks, coupled with a ground advance by the Croatian army and robust diplomatic efforts, produced a cease-fire and, eventually, the Dayton Peace Accords, ending the war. Later, when asked to provide military options for sending troops into Afghanistan to go after Osama bin Laden in late 1998, the scope of the endeavor--termed the “two-division, $2 billion option” to emphasize the size and expense of the recommendation--proved at odds with the relatively small-scale operation that occurred in 2001, when Afghan rebels working with U.S. special forces and airpower defeated the Taliban in a few weeks.

These examples, and many others, are illustrative of a larger point—military estimates can be wrong. The expectation that the military is always right and that these recommendations should always be followed is disingenuous, politically motivated, and greatly harmful to political discourse and civil-military relations. These military miscalculations are not from incompetence, malfeasance, or subterfuge. Instead, they result because military leaders approach situations with certain biases, assumptions, and routines. The perspective they offer is valuable, but it comes from a particular frame of reference and does not always yield the best recommendations given the political ends desired. Clearly there are times when the military’s advice should be followed, but Presidents must consider a whole range of factors in making strategy, and many of them are not within the purview of military commanders. In considering Afghanistan, for instance, President Obama had to consider the impact of a decision on that country, the consequences of his decision on the wider region, as well as America’s relationship with allies and partners, the impact on the U.S. economy, the opportunities forsaken, and a host of others. Winning the war does not always translate into winning the peace afterwards, as recent wars demonstrate.

The results of the President’s decision for Afghanistan may or may not be successful, but history shows that questioning military recommendations is vital to forging a sound strategy, to keeping trust and confidence in the military, and to maintaining a robust democracy.

Dr. Thomas E. Griffith is director of the Department of Defense National Security Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.


Does peace exist? I mean, is there any solution to stop the wars as soon as possible? All of us have been dealing with the effects. Furthermore, the brand new generation of war veterans that battled in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes faces severe hurdles in readjusting to civilian life. A growing number of them are returning and facing being homeless and high joblessness after re-entering civilian life. The proof is here: Homelessness and unemployment plague new veterans.

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