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Thread: Can a theater commander ever say that his war is not "winnable"?

  1. #21
    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default Example from antiquity??

    You might also consider the Athenian General's request (I think it was Nicias??) who is reported to have thought that if he sent an outrageous request back to Athens for more men and ships they'd call the mission off. Instead they fulfilled the request (with some extra to boot), but no allowment was made for cavalry and it did not turn out so well.

    This may have been a case where the CDR might have been better off just saying this is a bad idea - but I think the political body had already been sold on it, so they'd probably have just sacked him (or worse)

    I think what you will probably find more historical examples of disagreements over operational approaches (e.g. "here first", or "in this manner vs. another") between military and political leaders - which is kind of the "once it is started, let me execute it - or atleast do my job" argument.

    There is also the discussion of "means" required to enable an operational approach - of which I thought a good recent example of such discussion showed up on the SWJ blog wrt SWC Council member COL Gian Gentile's response to the article written by Anthony Cordesman where he ref. the opening years of the Civil War before Lincoln promoted Grant.

    Best, Rob

  2. #22
    Council Member zenpundit's Avatar
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    Default Nicias

    hi Rob,

    You are right. It was Nicias, who spoke against the expedition to Syracuse in the Assembly and was elected general on the reasoning that his skepticism ( and military experience) made him best qualified to execute the invasion. Athens also doubled down later when the invasion faltered.

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    Quote Originally Posted by slapout9 View Post
    Randy,another modern example would be USMC General Van Riper and his refusal to keep playing a rigged War Game after he had already beaten the US forces. This was supposedly a War game of a possible invasion of Iran if I remember correctly (check this i could be wrong on the country).Others on this site may remember more details. General Van Riper is a really smart guy so this may be worth doing more research on to see some of the fine details of high level decision making when facts get in the way of a pre-determined decision.
    AFAIK it was called millenium excercise at invading IraQ and he won by sending his messages by couriers (yes real persons). He has repelled the planned landing at BASRA IIRC.
    Nihil sub sole novum.

  4. #24
    Council Member Fuchs's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Schmedlap View Post
    Just one thought that I would add...

    The division of powers into CinC and theater commander has not always been the norm. Don't hold me to this, but it may be a relatively new construct. I'm thinking Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Mao, etc.
    Maybe this comes late, but it's an old construct.

    Ever since monarchs stopped leading their own armies (typical since European 18th century conflict) we have usually seen theater/army commander and CinC (=head of state) separated.

    The Germans also had the army group (Heeresgruppe) level in WW2 and a similar division of Western and Eastern Front in WWI.

    Many Roman emperors sent generals to wage war in distant places; they certainly claimed to be what we would call CinC today.

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    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    Default

    Thanks Mark,
    I now find myself trying to remember exactly when it was that Athens tapped into their reserve to pay for the war and melted down the gold cladding on Athena for talents. If we want a historical example to consider for how a "long war" influences the interaction of politics and war (and the impact of chance) there are few competitors that might prove more useful then that of the war (and times where there was less war or no war) between Sparta and Athens. Too many folks think it is only useful as an example of a struggle between a maritime and a land power, or a democracy and an oligarchy - both of which, as comparrisons have their own limitations.

    Best, Rob

  6. #26
    Council Member Fuchs's Avatar
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    I always saw its primary utility in being an example for the society-shattering effects of prolonged warfare.

    The Greek culture produced very little advances and notable personalities after that war.

  7. #27
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    Default Some Initial Riper/IRN War Game Resources

    Quote Originally Posted by slapout9 View Post
    Randy,another modern example would be USMC General Van Riper and his refusal to keep playing a rigged War Game after he had already beaten the US forces. This was supposedly a War game of a possible invasion of Iran if I remember correctly (check this i could be wrong on the country).Others on this site may remember more details. General Van Riper is a really smart guy so this may be worth doing more research on to see some of the fine details of high level decision making when facts get in the way of a pre-determined decision.
    And here's some places worth starting with....
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/articl...type=printable
    http://www.military.com/opinion/0,15202,95496,00.html
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/12/wa...on/12navy.html
    http://nationalsecurity.oversight.ho...ry.asp?ID=1618
    http://nationalsecurity.oversight.ho...1114181303.pdf
    http://www.commondreams.org/views02/1103-04.htm

    As for the main topic of the thread, I agree with those who've said if you can't win it, you shouldn't be leading it. Now, when that's happened in the past, I note some (most notably after they retired) have said, "well, I didn't agree with the plan/resources/strategy/approach, but I didn't quit because I wanted to be sure the best possible effort was made, even a less-than-perfect situation." Was this true, or were pensions/reputations worried about more? I can't read minds/hearts, so I'll leave that to the individual consciences of those making such statements.

  8. #28
    Council Member Abu Suleyman's Avatar
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    This isn't just a problem for CinC's but also all leaders, and even soldiers in the military. There comes a time, probably for everyone, where you don't agree with what is going on, and you only have two choices: exit or stay. Saying that "This is unwinnable" is functionally exit, because you have no reason to believe that you will be retained after that, if the powers that be have already committed to the idea. After all, (Nicias aside) if they have made a decision, why would they want someone who believes that the mission is doomed to failure in charge?

    If you stay, later on people will believe that you stayed because really you tacitly agreed with the mission. If you leave, you may be abandoning those around/subordinate to you, who may not have the option to get out. In the end, this may be part of the reason that big time policy changes are so difficult in the military. People quitting is a great way to get the turnover necessary to make those changes a reality, but like lobsters in a bowl, loyalty keeps pulling people back in, even if most people don't agree with the policy.
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  9. #29
    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Default You can resign in protest and they'll just keep dipping down until they

    find someone who will do ti. Generally better to say 'Yes' and then do it your way. If you get it done, they can say little, if you don't they'll can you any way...

    Some things have to get a flat 'No, Sir. I cannot do that' but they're relatively rare in my observation and generally, if what you say makes sense, you' ll win the argument.

    All of which gets away from the poor Theater Commander who pretty much has to say he can do this thing...

  10. #30
    Council Member zenpundit's Avatar
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    Default Expedition to Syracuse

    "If we want a historical example to consider for how a "long war" influences the interaction of politics and war (and the impact of chance) there are few competitors that might prove more useful then that of the war (and times where there was less war or no war) between Sparta and Athens. Too many folks think it is only useful as an example of a struggle between a maritime and a land power, or a democracy and an oligarchy - both of which, as comparrisons have their own limitations."
    Wholehearted agreement.

    I like two sources here, the Landmark Thucydides and Donald Kagan's Peloponnesian War:

    http://www.amazon.com/Landmark-Thucy...1946508&sr=1-1

    http://www.amazon.com/Peloponnesian-.../dp/0670032115

    Alcibiades figures in heavily with the poor strategic choices of the Athenians here ( and not just of the Athenians, Alcibiades was a remarkably bad actor but evidently a persuasive one) which raises the question of the elite, among which both Nicias and Alcibiades were the dominant figures. An elite that sees and pursues a divergence of personal interest/ambition from "national" interest are more dangerous than a foreign enemy.

    Not that I would point any fingers at the elite governing class in America...cough....ahem....cough.....

  11. #31
    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default Does this add to the debate?

    I don't normally read Ralph Peter's column in the NYPost, but it caught my eye and in reading it found it applied to this discussion: http://www.nypost.com/seven/09032009...day-newsletter

    According to multiple (angry) sources, McChrystal -- our top soldier on the ground -- intended to ask for 28,000 more US troops. A presidential hatchet man directed the general not to make the request: Troop increases would be "addressed separately."

    Worried about his poll numbers, our president's making a bad situation worse. He's given McChrystal the impossible mission of turning Afghan Flintstones into Jetsons, while starving him of means.

    This violates a fundamental principle of the American way of war: Once the president assigns the mission, the commander must receive due consideration when he asks for the necessary resources.

    Obama's message to McChrystal was "Just don't ask."

    I don't believe the general's correct, but he has a right to be heard. Any decision about troop levels should be made based upon the facts on the ground, not politics. By playing along with White House censorship, McChrystal's allowing himself to be used as a political tool. That's not a proper role for any general.
    All manner of issues raised here, for a non-American I do wonder why a White House "hatchet man" could direct the general's report being written in such a manner. I could follow if DoD or JCS gave such a direction.

    davidbfpo

  12. #32
    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by davidbfpo View Post
    I do wonder why a White House "hatchet man" could direct the general's report being written in such a manner. I could follow if DoD or JCS gave such a direction. davidbfpo
    "Sources" is a bit vaguely referenced, so I suppose we don't know with any degree of confidence whether (1) such a directive was ever given (2) such a directive was delivered by a "hatchet man" and (3) whether the hypothetical "hatchet man" was acting under the authority of or even with knowledge from the "White House." Nor is there any evidence that the White House was refusing to "hear" GEN McChrystal's request or rationale.

    There are certainly plausible strategic reasons why the General -or perhaps the Civil authority - might wish to separate an assessment and a specific troop surge request.

    I don't know if Peters' scoop on this is accurate or not, but it seems a bit specious to invoke accusations and moral outrage based on speculative inference... in my opinion.
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  13. #33
    Council Member Wargames Mark's Avatar
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    I think that leaders should communicate clear and honest assessments of the situation and their prospects for achieving the desired end state with available resources. If a leader's honest assessment is that he cannot get the job done with the available resources, then it is up to the superior to decide how to proceed. Maybe someone else could deliver, maybe not. As has already been mentioned, what matters is that the job gets done, not who gets to do the job. Certainly the opportunity to command is important to the professional himself, but morally, that is not the important issue.

    A related scenario is one in which the subordinate leader is convinced he can do something, and may be utterly wrong in his assessment. In this case, is the superior paying attention and how well does he know the nature of his subordinate?

    I agree with others who have stated that the root question here is applicable to leadership at all levels throughout the Army (and in many other organizations, as well).
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    Those who can count, and those who can't.

  14. #34
    Council Member Ron Humphrey's Avatar
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    Default Main reason I didn't have a problem with the idea

    of seperate requests is that it might help keep the generals assessment from being percieved to dictate policy rather than inform it.

    Now what the powers that be do in relation to real requirements is on them.
    I'm sure the needs have been rather extensively expressed. Gen McChrystal seems like the type that would ensure that message is chrystal clear.

    And can't see Gen Petreaus accepting anything less

    Guess we'll see
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  15. #35
    Council Member Greyhawk's Avatar
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    Default Yes and yes

    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    Can a theater commander ever say publicly or to his CINC that his theater is not "winnable" (however that is defined)?

    Is there historic precedent for making such an assessment?
    When the war is clearly not winnable. At that point, what has the commander to lose? For an American historical precedent, Robert E Lee did it at Appomattox, and history hasn't condemned him for the loss.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ron Humphrey View Post
    of seperate requests is that it might help keep the generals assessment from being percieved to dictate policy rather than inform it.

    Now what the powers that be do in relation to real requirements is on them.
    I'm sure the needs have been rather extensively expressed. Gen McChrystal seems like the type that would ensure that message is chrystal clear.

    And can't see Gen Petreaus accepting anything less

    Guess we'll see
    Chrystal clear. Very clever

  17. #37
    Council Member Abu Suleyman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Greyhawk View Post
    When the war is clearly not winnable. At that point, what has the commander to lose? For an American historical precedent, Robert E Lee did it at Appomattox, and history hasn't condemned him for the loss.
    True, but he was on the side that supported slavery, which is now universally condemned. However, if McClellan had said so after the Peninsular Campaign then I doubt history would have looked so kindly on him. (Not that he has a stellar reputation anyway.)
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  18. #38
    Council Member Greyhawk's Avatar
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    Default Another opinion

    "Can you imagine ever saying to the president of the United States, 'Sir, we just can't do it,'?" Martin asked.

    "Yes I can," McChrystal said. "And if I felt that way, the day I feel that way, the day I'm sure I feel that way, I'll tell him that."
    - from 60 Minutes interview

  19. #39
    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Greyhawk View Post
    Greyhawk: Your post is directly on point, sir.
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