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Wiser in Battle?

In the Washington Post today, I point out some of the problems with retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez’s new memoir, Wiser in Battle. But even a 1,000-word review is insufficient space to deconstruct all of the myths, misunderstandings, and false impressions that Sanchez tries to peddle. On his own blog, Phil Carter offers trenchant thoughts on what else Sanchez got wrong.

I was particularly struck by Phil’s comments on what Sanchez has to say about the lessons of Vietnam. As Phil notes, Sanchez peddles the old stabbed-in-the-back thesis, writing that

civilian leaders in the White House micromanaged many aspects of the Vietnam War. They did not allow the U.S. armed forces to utilize the full extent of its resources to achieve victory. Instead, the military was forced to fight incremental battles that led to a never-ending conflict.

This was the conventional U.S. Army takeaway from Vietnam, as exemplified by Harry Summers’s influential book On Strategy. Unfortunately, more recent historical work has largely refuted the notion that civilian micromanagement was to blame for our defeat. Sure, it didn’t help that LBJ personally chose bombing targets in the Oval Office, but even more corrosive was the inability and unwillingness of the U.S. Army in the early years of the war to adapt to counterinsurgency warfare. It’s noteworthy that Sanchez, who fails to comment on this lack of adaptation in Vietnam, was guilty of a similar failure to adapt to conditions in Iraq when he was in charge in 2003-2004.

And, just like many of the Vietnam War generals, he tries to lay the blame at the feet of civilians. Of course, civilians–notably President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–do bear the ultimate responsibility. But Sanchez is off-base when he writes, “I observed intrusive civilian command of the military, rather than the civilian control embodied in the Constitution.” Sanchez seems to be under the misapprehension that the Constitution designates the President as “controller in chief” rather than “commander in chief.”

The problem in Iraq wasn’t that the President was too intrusive; it was that he deferred too much to a military chain of command that made huge mistakes and was slow to correct them. Rumsfeld, while nit-picking minor details, also washed his hands of big strategic decisions (such as the disbanding of the Iraqi armed forces).

The proper lesson of Iraq, then, is the same as the lesson of Vietnam. It is not that we should have less civilian command of the military; it is that we should have better civilian command.


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