Of Macedonia and Mesopotamia

Wiser in Battle

Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez opens his new autobiography Wiser in Battle with a note of defiance, quoting Lucius Aemilius Paulus's address to the Roman Senate in 169 B.C.:

In every circle, at every table, you will find someone to lead the Army in Macedonia, who knows where the camp should be made, what port held by the territory is best entered, where magazines should be established, how provisions moved; by land or sea, where the enemy should be engaged, and when to hold back. And these people not only tell us how the campaign should be conducted, but what is wrong with the actual campaign, accusing the Consul as though he were on trial . . . If therefore, anyone thinks himself qualified to give me advice, let him come with me to Macedonia.

Sounds an awful lot like Theodore Roosevelt's famous "man in the arena" speech. Clearly, Sanchez still bristles at the way that senior Pentagon officials used an "8,000 mile screwdriver" to tinker with his operations in Iraq. And he harbors disdain for the many critics of his generalship.

I haven't been to Macedonia yet, but I have been to Mesopotamia. And while I understand the sentiment Sanchez feels -- the visceral rejection of criticism from those who haven't been there -- I think his instincts are wrong. You don't need to be an Iraq veteran to understand our missteps there.

Over the next several days, I plan to post running commentary on the book as I read through it, examining Sanchez's stories and their larger implications. So with that, let's explore the rest of the book.

By Phillip Carter |  May 9, 2008; 10:23 AM ET  | Category:  Wiser in Battle
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Before somebody can claim "armchair quarterbacks" don't know what they are talking about because they haven't been there, you have to show they are WRONG. Otherwise nobody in the entire world can make valid criticism of Gen. Sanchez - because only one person in all the world did his job at the time he did it, so no other human being can criticize him because "they weren't there doing what he did." They didn't walk a mile in his shoes.

But in the Army we have missions that are assigned. Fail in the mission and you have failed. The AAR process should then be used to determine the reason for the failure and what corrective action to take.

Every AAR of Iraq points the same way and to the exact same problems. Entirely predictable (and predicted) and avoidable problems. If during an AAR an officer who performed a task admits that 100 people, many with greater experience and ability, warned him not to do it that way, and the officer ignored the advice and failed - and the failed attempt was not doctrinally correct, did not conform with SOP, and should (and perhaps was) have been revealed as a failure through even minimal war-gaming and the Army's decision-making process, then that officer can not claim "the critics weren't there so they don't know."

You don't need to be a veteran to know that if you pull the pin and the spoon flies off the grenade, don't stand there like an idiot and hold on to it. IT WILL BLOW UP. When it does, is it an acceptable excuse to say: "well, you weren't there when I pulled the pin you warned me not to pull and you weren't there when I held on to the grenade you warned me to throw, so your criticism that I am to blame for my injuries is invalid. It wasn't my fault!"?

Sanchez was a no-go at his station. A commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do. He failed, and he and he alone is responsible for it. He can't even blame Bush or Rumsfeld - it was his duty to speak out and tell what it was he needed to succeed. He had the opportunity. He was questioned by Congress. He said he had what he needed and that he would succeed. He failed.

The maximum effective range of an excuse is zero meters. Shame on him. How embarrassing for the US Army that this man was ever promoted, ever. He has brought discredit upon himself, his command, the US Army, and the United States of American. The fault is entirely his own.

Posted by: JD | May 9, 2008 2:52 PM

LTG Sanchez is absolutely the "poster boy" for LTC Yingling's famous article "A Failure of Generalship", right down to the continuous stream of wimpering and whinning.


Posted by: m_vanmeter | May 9, 2008 3:12 PM

I think his point has some validity, though it doesn't preclude critiquing the Generals plans and strategies.
You can claim Sanchez is indeed responsible for all the failures of his command, but that is a military axiom that doesn't have much bearing in the real world. When you have officers in your ranks that have political connections to your superiors, do you even truly have command of your command, assuming those superiors are willing to employ the 8,000 mile screw driver based on the word of one of your subordinates? What I find worrisome about our Iraqi misadventures is the corruption of the officer corp to support the political objectives of their civilian superiors. Officers were co opted into "selling" the war to the American public, which then taints every decision they make subsequently. The harm is rarely in the initial lie we tell to cover for our mistakes or those of a boss or friend, the harm comes when we must change our actions or decisions to cover the lie we originally told. Patraeus and the Surge seems a good example of this.
Tell the nice congress you can win this with a few more troops, even though your not even sure of who we're going to be fighting in six months. No harm in that really, since more troops is what we need ( I disagree that any number of troops on occupation duty will result in a free Iraqi government, but on this point reasonable people can disagree). Now you have your troops and your six months, and dang if things didn't quite down. So Cool....
Until it starts to heat up again. Then what do you do? More troops for the meat grinder or start backing towards the exit? Your options are now limited, you have no choice but to try to smother the wild fires with the troops on hand, you told congress that just a few more GI Joes is all we need to get a handle on this CF.
But that was then, this is now, and is this really what is needed right now? If it wasn't, could Patraeus even tell us without betraying the political compromise he made when he signed on to the Presidents strategy? What happens to Generals that betray the agenda of the civilian leaders? Nothing horrible, they just get that pension they've been working on their entire professional lives. The real harm is done to us and our faith in our military leadership as a succession of Generals march before us mouthing the carefully constructed positions of their political superiors.
In the end, there is no end. Coincidentally all the respect that 250 years of military professionalism (Doug MacArthur notwithstanding) has accrued gets burned up to buttress a failed political strategy.
I doubt Sanchez is going to write much about that, though I will be following Mr Carters column for some indication as to what Mr Sanchez thought was so important it warranted a book.

Posted by: Dijetlo | May 9, 2008 3:47 PM

Any Civil War aficionado surely knows of "Battles and Leaders", the ultimate after action report, where the generals who fought the war refought it at length, defended their own actions and questioned everybody else's.

Now the equivalent of Battles and Leaders for OIF is being written, and the McCllelans, Fitz John Porters, John Bell Gordons and James Longstreetss are out in force.

Few enough will directly admit to mistakes, of course, and it won't be until more remote historians comb the self serving writings that some sense will come of it, so taking ANY of the current crop of memoirs as worth hurried reading and analysis is a mistake, Let time and perspective operate, and maybe there will be lessons that some future generation can use. Trying to get meaning from another G. K. Warren, (I DID attack, we won about as much as we could have won, Sheridan is an >>>) while chasing Lee to Appomattox won't accomplish anything.

I have walked the fields of Man asses Battlefield Park, and I have stood at the stone wall and observed the ranks of unremarkable houses, little boxes made of ticky tacky. I was duly impressed, but it gives me no insight that I otherwise didn't have, so that I don't need to go to Chattanooga to know that Longstreet would have done better by Bragg had he insisted on staying and reinforcing the North end of Bragg's line, than to go traipsing off on Jefferson Davis' suggestion that he try to drive Burnside out of Knoxville.

Likewise I don't have to have withstood the simoon of the desert to know that not having any reserves at all for the invasion of Iraq was just plain stupid, and having the 101st continue to Baghdad without first securing those thousands of tons of HE and other ordnance was stupidity only a Bush or a Rumsfield could concoct.

Let the general's book stand or fall on its own. Give it a generation and see if it with Grant or Sherman.

Posted by: ceflynline@msn.com | May 9, 2008 9:10 PM

Sanchez may well be bristling because he has found that along with many American, the Court at the Hague does hold those in the Military responsible for the orders they follow, or give that result in War Crimes. Is Sanchez one of those criminals ? Only a real investigation can prove that, and we can be grateful to those in the EU now conducting those very investigations for the days after Bush steps down.

Posted by: SmileySam | May 10, 2008 5:17 AM

I served as a Staff Officer under then BG Sanchez when he was the DCSOPS of the United States Army Europe. The year working for him was the longest two years in my life. Absolutely one of the worst GO I have known in my thirty two years in the Army. When I arrived in Iraq in the Spring of 2004, it did not take one long to figure out that many of the problems in Iraq were a result of his tactical mindset. He condoned and permitted many of abuses in Iraq. . .can I prove it. . .no. . .but my gut tells me I am right. He lacked a strategic or operational vision. He was the Commanding General in Iraq for only one reason--he was viewed by the politicos as a way to attract Hispanic voters.

Sanchez failure highlights a problem in the Army. . .we promote our officers on the basis of their Tactical success. . .but fail to develop (with exceptions) Officers capable of understanding or for that matter developing either Operational or Strategic Plans. Until we crack that nut the Army will continue to promote Generals who are great squad leaders but lousy Generals.

Posted by: hjfjr | May 10, 2008 7:56 AM

The enhanced torture techniques of Abu Ghraib were not "interrogation."

The Bush regime conducted far worse torture techniques against Americans on American soil for political, sectarian and economic looting purposes.

Only 100 detainees have been killed in Bush's rape rooms. The number of American civil rights leaders killed during that time period is much higher.


Posted by: Singing Senator | May 10, 2008 2:05 PM

If you served in the military, one of your earliest discoveries was that once a man has a star on his shoulder, he is infallible. Lieutenants, NCOs, and grunts make mistakes, generals never do. Sanchez should have been sacked when word of the torture at Abu Ghraib leaked out. He was responsible. Period.

Posted by: Texun | May 13, 2008 3:02 PM

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