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

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Default Can a theater commander ever say that his war is not "winnable"?

    I have been pondering the immense interest given to GEN McChrystal's recently issued (and closely held) assessment of the mission in AFG. I do not know the GEN personally, but he seems to be a smart, thoughtful guy and a person of integrity. And God bless him for adopting Rosemary's baby out of the orphanage in agreeing to command the AFG ISAF. My question is not specifically about GEN McChrystal and is not intended to cast any aspersion on his honesty.

    With great diffidence, I ask this learned group:

    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?
    Randy Borum
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    Unfortunately, I think not. By the time the mission order comes down to the commander, be it theater, sub-component (as in the case of US Forces-Afghanistan), or tactical, it is *assumed* that the higher level strategy has been worked out and solidified. I would take that to mean that the civilian government and JCS have already developed overarching Ends, Ways, and Means, calulated the various risks, and found the strategy to be feasible, acceptible, and suitable. In other words, they do think it is 'winnable,' or else they would have not went forward. If a commander refused, he'd be removed and rightfully so (this, of course, gets into larger questions of integrity and the civil-military relationship: i.e. should GEN Shinseki have fallen on his sword when he initially briefed SECDEF and POTUS on the need for more troops in Iraq; the failure of the CJCS during Viet Nam, etc).

    Realistically though and in the current situaition, the question is almost moot because no one can seem to define what 'winnable' is.....even Special Representative Holbrook (paraphrasing, 'we'll know it [success] when we see it').
    Last edited by kotkinjs1; 09-01-2009 at 08:49 PM. Reason: wanted to subscribe to post

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    Council Member Rob Thornton's Avatar
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    I think he'd have to qualify it in terms of risk to the political objective, and as such it is really a menu of choices. This gets into negotiating the Ends/Ways/Means equation, or offering up options involving each and pointing to their associated risk(s).

    This allows the political leader to make some judgments and assume their legal responsibilities and authorities as CINC.

    That is not a cop out, it is the way we've designed our system. We (military folks) grow up learning to articulate the world in opportunities, advantages and risks. We may need to do a better job of articulating and communicating them to the political leadership, but that is what assessments and reviews are for, and it is incumbent upon that political leadership to ask tough questions and think.

    Ultimately it is the political leadership that must summon or encourage the body politic to put forth the will, or must apply the argument for an increase in means, and ultimately its the political leadership that must stand for election/re-election. That said, the assessment or review put forward by the CDR is a good way to frame the costs of the political objective.

    Best, Rob

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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default Military command responsibility

    I have a recollection that during WW2 military commanders, notably at Chief of Staff level, did object to some of Winston Churchill's ideas and decisions. The only one that comes to mind was General Wavell's objections to deploying resources to Greece - before the German invasion - instead of "finishing the job" in the North African desert campaign.

    davidbfpo

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    Council Member Bob's World's Avatar
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    I would think that the good commander would go back to his boss with a variety of COAs. His best take at how to do what he has been told to do, with a full candid and honest assessment of what he believes the outcome will be. Along with that, if he thinks that first COA is a loser, he must bring alternatives, with powerful rationale for why they are superior and will better accomplish the commander's true intent, or perhaps best serve the country's national interests.

    He must do this with the moral courage going in to either then do as he is told or respectfully say he cannot and step down. At this level it must be about the nation, and not egos; though I realize history tells us that is oft not the case.
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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rborum View Post
    I have been pondering the immense interest given to GEN McChrystal's recently issued (and closely held) assessment of the mission in AFG. I do not know the GEN personally, but he seems to be a smart, thoughtful guy and a person of integrity. And God bless him for adopting Rosemary's baby out of the orphanage in agreeing to command the AFG ISAF. My question is not specifically about GEN McChrystal and is not intended to cast any aspersion on his honesty.

    With great diffidence, I ask this learned group:

    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?

    Randy, although it was not over a specific conflict area, the last General I know of to resign instead of following the party line was Lt. General James M. Gavin, 1958 which is just part of what makes him one of the greatest Generals in US History.

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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    Looks like we have another contender a Marine LTC. Here is a link to the article through zenpundit. B/T to zenpundit....B/T is Beret Tip.

    http://zenpundit.com/

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by slapout9 View Post
    Randy, although it was not over a specific conflict area, the last General I know of to resign instead of following the party line was Lt. General James M. Gavin, 1958 which is just part of what makes him one of the greatest Generals in US History.
    Thanks guys for your helpful insights and examples. My thoughts aren't very well-formed on this, so please forgive me as a stumble along.

    Assuming that anyone who agrees (or simply complies) to "take charge" also has an implicit or explicit mandate that "failure is not an option," - I wonder how one can ever determine if an effort is futile.

    I would imagine, this is particularly problematic in conflicts where the objectives are not well-defined or easily definable (which seems like it will be the case throughout the world for the foreseeable future).

    It seems like it might be easy, in such circumstances, for strategy to take a back seat to persistence and accumulation of action - by that, I just mean "doing more."

    Whenever a force is not clearly controlling the battlespace, even if a decision is made to "dramatically" change strategy, it almost invariably leads to calls for more . More people. More resources. More activity. If things do happen to turn around, it becomes nearly impossible to determine what was attributable to the strategy, the activity, or just the volume of effort. If things don't turn around, then, predictably, it will be said that it is because we need more.

    It reminds me of the research on "escalating commitment to failed courses of action."

    It seems to me nearly inconceivable - understandably so - that a Nation involved in a war or intervening in an armed could ever say bluntly: "You know what, this isn't going to work." or "This is much harder and more complicated than we thought, and it won't be worth it." or "We admit it, this was a bad idea."

    But it is certainly conceivable that a Nation could find itself in exactly such a position, and of course, some CDR who has dutifully saluted and agreed to take charge is on the hook.

    In what circumstances might it be possible or advisable when facing a stalled or failing COA to dramatically re-define the outcomes - what it means to achieve "success" or to "win" - and call it a day rather than doing more in pursuit of ambiguously cast, potentially unachievable goals?
    Randy Borum
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    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. Was your question deliberately worded to address situations when the CinC and theater commander were two different people? I'm thinking that some leaders who wore both hats eventually came to the conclusion that things weren't working out and opted to cut their losses, though I can't think of specific instances, offhand.

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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    Randy,If I remember I think General Patraus(cant spell) actually said that he did not know if the surge would work for sure but it was our best option. Similar to what Rob Thornton talked about. The military lays out the best COA available and the risk associated with it.
    On a further note most of the questions you ask are taught in Colonel Warden's workshop SMART Wars, SMART Strategies. Most of the questions you ask would or should fall in the making the go to war decision. I think you can still order the workbook we used, you might find it pretty interesting but it is largely concerned with the national level decision followed by the military strategy to implement it. Not really at the theater commander level. But it gives a lot of insight into an alternative view of how these decisions could be made as opposed to how they are made. Not necessarily better mind you just different.

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    Default Thanks Slap!

    The following story may be apocryphal, but General Marshall supposedly, having lost patience with PM Winston Churchill's repeated attempts to divert Allied resources into the Balkans as a way of postponing D-Day, finally blew up when Churchill demanded an invasion of Crete and told Churchill to his face that "...no American boys are going to die on that goddamned island!".

    Not quite the same as saying "Can't win, get out" of a war, though.

    The Duke of Wellington told the cabinet during the War of 1812 that it would take Great Britain "fifty years" to reconquer the United States. They really didn't have "supreme commanders" back then but given the importance of the war against Napoleon at the time, Wellington was de facto calling the shots on strategic advice.

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    Council Member William F. Owen's Avatar
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    I think IF the General said "it's un-winnable" he should get sacked, and quick.
    IF he said, he needed more resources, or that the Policy could not be set forth by the current strategy, then OK.
    Of course some of this buys into the the limits of military power argument, but the same argument does not seem to worry the Taliban.
    Infinity Journal "I don't care if this works in practice. I want to see it work in theory!"

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    Default Petraeus, phonetically spelled Pea tray us

    Name is Petraeus, I think?

    Quote Originally Posted by slapout9 View Post
    Randy,If I remember I think General Patraus(cant spell) actually said that he did not know if the surge would work for sure but it was our best option. Similar to what Rob Thornton talked about. The military lays out the best COA available and the risk associated with it.
    On a further note most of the questions you ask are taught in Colonel Warden's workshop SMART Wars, SMART Strategies. Most of the questions you ask would or should fall in the making the go to war decision. I think you can still order the workbook we used, you might find it pretty interesting but it is largely concerned with the national level decision followed by the military strategy to implement it. Not really at the theater commander level. But it gives a lot of insight into an alternative view of how these decisions could be made as opposed to how they are made. Not necessarily better mind you just different.

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    Council Member Tom Odom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by davidbfpo View Post
    I have a recollection that during WW2 military commanders, notably at Chief of Staff level, did object to some of Winston Churchill's ideas and decisions. The only one that comes to mind was General Wavell's objections to deploying resources to Greece - before the German invasion - instead of "finishing the job" in the North African desert campaign.

    davidbfpo
    Oh very much so--Churchill's constant push for actions against the "soft underbelly" of Europe --Anzio being a classic--simultaneous efforts to delay the main attack into France.

    The same applied for the RAF's refusal to deploy more fighters to France in the face of the collapse in 1940.

    On the other hand winning his support proved invaluable to the US daylight bombing campaign after he bought the idea of round the clock bombing.

    Tom

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    Council Member Fuchs's Avatar
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    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?
    Luddendorff told the German government that the war is lost and that peace talks need to be initiated (autumn 1918).

    Rundstedt was asked by Keitel what could be done about the Normandy landing and he replied something along the lines of "Make peace, fools, what else?".

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    I would think that the good commander would go back to his boss with a variety of COAs. His best take at how to do what he has been told to do, with a full candid and honest assessment of what he believes the outcome will be. Along with that, if he thinks that first COA is a loser, he must bring alternatives, with powerful rationale for why they are superior and will better accomplish the commander's true intent, or perhaps best serve the country's national interests.

    He must do this with the moral courage going in to either then do as he is told or respectfully say he cannot and step down. At this level it must be about the nation, and not egos; though I realize history tells us that is oft not the case.
    I think that is basically the perfect response.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fuchs View Post
    Luddendorff told the German government that the war is lost and that peace talks need to be initiated (autumn 1918).

    Rundstedt was asked by Keitel what could be done about the Normandy landing and he replied something along the lines of "Make peace, fools, what else?".
    Yep. The exchange is in the footnotes of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

    Rundstedt's dismissal may have come partly as the result of his blunt words to Keitel the night before. The latter had rung him up to inquire about the situation. An all-out German attack on the British lines by four S.S. panzer divisions had just floundered and Rundstedt was in a gloomy mood.
    "What shall we do?" cried Keitel.
    "Make peace, you fools," Rundstedt retorted. "What else can you do?"
    It seems that Keitel, the "telltale toady," as most Army field commanders called him, went straight to Hitler with the remarks.....Kluge was immediately named to replace Rundstedt.

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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fuchs View Post
    Luddendorff told the German government that the war is lost and that peace talks need to be initiated (autumn 1918).

    Rundstedt was asked by Keitel what could be done about the Normandy landing and he replied something along the lines of "Make peace, fools, what else?".
    Very helpful examples. Thank you.
    Randy Borum
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    Council Member rborum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by William F. Owen View Post
    I think IF the General said "it's un-winnable" he should get sacked, and quick.
    IF he said, he needed more resources, or that the Policy could not be set forth by the current strategy, then OK.
    I guess I'm wondering if "needing more resources" is not always - or nearly always - the default response when executing a plan that doesn't seem to be working.

    I didn't mean to get glitched in the discussion of the "theatre commander"-level specifically, but I have found helpful the reminders a number of you have made here about how such dilemmas are embedded within the broader civil-military decision making process.
    Randy Borum
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    Council Member slapout9's Avatar
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    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.

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