Keep slogging

Andrew Bacevich

  • Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-18 edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne
    Weidenfeld, 550 pp, £25.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 297 84702 3

What is it we expect of generals who exercise high command? The answer comes reflexively: in wartime, the measure of merit is victory. Great captains win battles, campaigns, wars. In fact, however, the standard to which generals are held is far more demanding and elusive. Victory by no means guarantees them the lasting gratitude of their political masters, the plaudits of their fellow citizens, or the respect of history. Consider the fate of the senior US commanders credited with ‘winning’ several of America’s most recent military encounters.

In 1991, Norman Schwarzkopf handily dispatched the Iraqi army in what Saddam Hussein had proclaimed would be the ‘Mother of All Battles’. At the time, Operation Desert Storm appeared to be as close to flawless as any major operation in modern military history. Stormin’ Norman instantly became a national hero. He was Patton reborn: gruff, swaggering, volcanic, but above all a gifted fighter. Yet hardly had the shooting stopped than Schwarzkopf’s reputation began to deflate. Despite broad claims advanced in his end-of-hostilities Mother of All Briefings, the defeat inflicted on the Iraqi army fell well short of conclusive. Schwarzkopf’s bungling of the ceasefire negotiations had allowed the Iraqi dictator much-needed additional wiggle room, and enough of Iraq’s Republican Guard had escaped intact to enable Saddam to survive.

It soon became apparent that Schwarzkopf’s blemished victory had succeeded chiefly in deepening American military involvement in the Persian Gulf. The general retired to write his memoirs; US forces remained. Schwarzkopf might rightly claim credit for liberating tiny Kuwait, but as a consequence of his errors a protracted and far costlier conflict emerged. He turned out to be less like Patton and more like the MacArthur of November 1950 who, believing his own press clippings, had foolishly promised to have the troops home from Korea by Christmas.

As Nato’s supreme commander, Wesley Clark faced an altogether different adversary: Slobodan Milosevic, the president of what remained of Yugoslavia. Although by 1999 Clark’s nemesis posed no real threat to his neighbours, he remained committed to the goal of reconstituting an ethnically pure Greater Serbia, an ambition that imperilled the Albanians living in the province of Kosovo. Clark rode to their rescue, directing the first fully-fledged war waged by the Atlantic alliance, an aerial campaign to oust Serb security forces from Kosovo. That Nato eventually prevailed was hardly surprising. That it did so without suffering a single combat fatality was nothing less than astonishing. General Clark’s reward for this unprecedented feat was to be handed his walking papers. Assurances that all had unfolded according to plan could not conceal the fact that he had misread Serb intentions and badly underestimated Serb resolve. As an operation expected to last a handful of days stretched on for several weeks, Clark managed to alienate not only senior civilian officials back in Washington but even his military peers. Once Operation Allied Force ended, they wasted little time in settling scores: the Clinton administration almost immediately announced plans to oust Clark as supreme allied commander. In his moment of triumph, the general was invited to retire forthwith. Although he soon fired back with a blistering memoir, the damage done to his reputation was irreparable.

More recently still, General Tommy Franks engineered not one, but two seemingly momentous victories in America’s global war on terror. In 2001, Franks crushed the hapless Taliban; in 2003, he commanded the coalition that finally toppled Saddam Hussein, presiding over a lightning campaign that Franks himself has described as ‘unequalled in its excellence by anything in the annals of war’. Operation Iraqi Freedom made the general a celebrity. In addition to signing a lucrative book contract, the plain-talking Texan hit the lecture circuit and was soon gracing the cover of lifestyle magazines like Cigar Aficionado. Yet by the time his autobiography was ascending the bestseller lists, evaluations of his generalship were heading in the opposite direction. In Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden remained at large, along with senior Taliban leaders. Long after Kabul had fallen, the Afghan conflict simmered on. In Iraq, the decisive outcome attributed to ‘shock and awe’ proved illusory. The march on Baghdad segued into an altogether different war that Franks had failed to anticipate and for which US forces were ill-prepared. Iraq became – and remains – a mess.

While today the general continues to prosper, offering tips on leadership to business groups at $50,000 a pop, the troops he once commanded are heading back to the Persian Gulf for a second or even a third combat tour. The likelihood of future historians including Franks in the pantheon of great battlefield commanders alongside Stonewall Jackson is essentially nil.

From his perch in Fiddlers’ Green, to which, legend says, the spirits of faithful cavalrymen retire on fulfilling their earthly duties, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig might sympathise. In a war of epic proportions, waged against a tenacious and skilful adversary, Haig delivered decisive victory. But as a guarantor of lasting personal glory, victory did not suffice.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in