A list of some of the greatest generals of the last two hundred years would probably include Erwin Rommel, Erich von Manstein, Robert E. Lee, Jean-Andre Massena, and Napoleon Bonaparte. I doubt that too many people would dispute those choices (though some might want to add some other names). What they have in common is that they were all spectacularly successful on the battlefield. Ultimately, however, they were all losers. At any rate, they were on the losing side. What then makes us think of them as great? What normal measure of success includes ultimate failure? Of course, one can argue that most of the above had no control over the strategic level, etc. The central question, however, still stands. Generals with, arguably, more consistently successful records such as Wellington, Montgomery and Bradley are often overlooked, despite their having good records and being on the victorious side. Is it because they did virtually nothing spectacular? Simply put, they often ground out victories through sheer dogged determination (at least they seemed to). Do we then not rate them because they worked without much flash?
We seem to consider the former list great because they provided glorious tactical and, sometimes, operational victories. However, if physical success on the battlefield cannot be translated into part of a larger aim, it strikes me that any such victory is largely irrelevant even if it does do a great deal of physical damage to the enemy. 2003 anyone? On the other hand, a tactical or operational failure that does contribute to the bigger picture is more useful than a brilliant success that does not (First Tet being the most obvious example of the former).
The type of victories that provide a clear decision at the end of a tactical engagement make it easy for those observing to put their finger on what happened and who won. In that light, perhaps it is not surprising that a less-clear victory, a stalemate, or even a failure make it difficult for an observer to see the true value of the action. That value might become apparent only many years later: the ongoing argument about the futility of the Battle of the Somme being a good example. Largely based on the evidence of this battle, Field Marshal Haig often is portrayed as an unthinking and unskilled commander. That might well be true, but does it really matter? Ultimately, he led the British and Commonwealth Army to some of the greatest victories in its history at the end of a successful war. Thus a better question might be did the Battle of the Somme (or indeed any of the other bloodbaths of WWI) get the Entente Powers closer to their goal of ending the war on their terms? If it did, then it should be viewed in those terms. The exchange, or not, of mere geography should not be the only measure of success, neither should the level of destruction inflicted upon the enemy. That is, unless these measures can clearly be linked to the purpose of the war. Likewise, if pure bloody attrition did the job, and all wars are in essence attritional struggles (whether of material or will), then why the desire for something more flash that did not?
Beating up on the Iraqi Army in 2003 was merely round one of a fight. It might have looked spectacular. There was even something cool called a “Thunder Run”. But, despite the valor and tactical success of the service members themselves the leadership of the force failed to translate this into strategic success. Historically, generals that failed to do this were fired. I suggest that the US Armed Forces have become all too focused on the illusion of progress provided by tactical victories or great sweeping maneuvers (the flash), and they have lost sight of the central goal of conflict. That is, what the government wants from it. That’s why no senior leaders got fired for the mess of either conflict. Of course, I’m sure there’s more to it but it will do for a start.
What, then, does this mean for the U.S.? Did the U.S. government and the armed forces’ senior leaders correctly measure success in Afghanistan or Iraq? The original goals calling for the removal of terrorist havens, the destruction of the Taliban and the creation of friendly democratic states, now seem fatuously far-fetched. Al-Quaeda has spread to new areas, the Taliban is waiting us out, and Afghanistan and Iraq are hardly democratic. Is that really what success looks like?
Of course, none of this is to suggest that the original ends were achievable. Nor that success is easily measured. That being said, why then did the senior leadership not clearly point this out or find something that was.
Perhaps, next time, before the U.S. sticks its finger in another electric outlet the President and the senior leaders of the Armed Forces should remind themselves that success is achieving what we set out to do. Getting part way there is not good enough. After all, if I set out to eat a donut, the job’s not done til I’ve chewed and swallowed it. Neither is the job done if I end up with a cannoli instead. However, tempting that might be.
Senior leaders might also do well to heed Clausewitz: “war therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” (book one, chapter one, part two: J.J. Graham translation). He also had some wise words on understanding the nature of the conflict before deciding to jump in. But that’s another story.