No Turning Back: Alice in Afghanistan

As the American Civil War progressed, Abraham Lincoln despaired of the apparent inability of Union generals to take the fight to the confederacy.  Some generals were blatantly political while others could not withstand the carnage resulting from improved weaponry and bludgeoning tactics.  Then came Grant.

The enduring image of U. S. Grant is of the General calmly whittling away on a stick as the battle of the Wilderness rages around him.  An officer weeps as he informs Grant of the killing fields yet Grant is unmoved in his quest to pursue Lee to the finish.  Famously for Grant, there was “No turning back.”

Grant apparently was amply possessed of key attributes for a fighting man:  he was clear eyed, entirely strait forward and given to speaking the truth.  Lincoln, a politician first and foremost, rewarded Grant’s doggedness and clung to him as to a raft in a hurricane.

How times do change.

Major General Peter Fuller, a senior US Army Commander in Afghanistan, was fired from his job the other day for apparently expressing understandable outrage about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent revelation that his country would support Pakistan were they to go to war with the US.
Fuller’s quotes originated in a Politico interview where he castigated the Afghans for being out of touch.  He is now out of a job, effectively for speaking the truth.

While it may be best to leave the diplomacy to the diplomats, one would hope that clear thinking and frank speaking would continue to be the province of those who lead troops into battle.  The State Department can afford to engage in grotesque  hyperbole but generals who make life and death decisions should be rewarded, not fired, for verbalizing the literally fatal dichotomy which exists between Afghan leaders and the interests of their country.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved of the decision thus making the Obama administration, and ultimately the President himself, complicit in punishing a candid forthrightness that is sorely missing as we send our troops to “Alice’s Afghanistan.”

Abraham Lincoln may have joked about his fighting general’s “indiscretion”, were he thought it so.  But fire him?

Never.

 

 

Credit: (Globe and Mail, Politico, Guardian)

5 Comments

  • Larry Osborne says:

    There is a real fire service analogy in this. From the end of the Civil War, the fire service began to follow the military model of command, adminisration, and leadership. Military rank replaced “foremen” and other similar titles. Platoons, battalions, and squads became common. So too, did an increasing consideration of strategy and tactics, especially following the two World Wars.

    Beginning in the 1980’s though, the business model began overshadowing the military model. Civil Service chiefs who could and would speak their minds about the needs of their department and profession were replaced by political appointees,especially an ever-increasing number of “travelling professionals”, whose skills at cutting human, economic, and material resources are particularly valued by politicians.

    The situation is just as objectionable and undesirable as is that of General Fuller.

  • John says:

    Anyone who has been in the military long enough to become a general should know better than to speak to the media on subjects outside his responsibility. The officer who fired Fuller, General Allen, is well known as a straight shooter who is not afraid to say what is on his mind. Based on his reputation, and the word of those who have served with him, he would not relieve another general without good cause. In this case, it was probably the culmination of several previous incidents, with the comments about Karzai being the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    Study military history, and you will find many previous incidents of generals relieved of their commands for speaking out of turn. Gen McChrystal was fired for speaking out to Rolling Stone. Gen MacArthur was fired by Truman for suggesting we should bomb China. Patton was almost fired by Eisenhower-although he was put on the bench for quite some time-for not only slapping soldiers, but making comments about his lack of trust in Stalin and the Russians, to the extent he wanted to arm surrendering German soldiers and use them to fight the Russia. He also famously compared the Nazi Party to democrats and Republicans.

    You also make the assumption that Fuller is Obama’s Grant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Obama probably didn’t even know who Fuller was before he shot his mouth off. Gen Allen and Gen Mattis are the Commanders in that region. Using terminology from the fire service, Mattis is the Chief, Allen the Deputy, and Fuller would fit in as a staff or division head-Training Chief or Fire Marshal. How fast would your fire marshal be fired if he spoke to the media about local politics?

    • Eric Lamar says:

      John-

      Thanks for the comment. In reply:

      You cite MacArthur, McChrystal and Patton as examples.

      Patton, as you readily acknowledge, is not correct here as he was not fired. The reason he was not fired was because Ike could not live without him. Ike hushed up the slapping and pearl-handled revolver waving incidents and attempted to preempt Marshall by reprimanding GP and telling him to keep his mouth shut. Of course, he didn’t.

      MacArthur and McChrystal are incorrect as well. Unlike the present case, they explicitly chose to involve themselves in US domestic politics. MacArthur, as you surely must recall, was running for the presidency, declared or not. Having been the de facto emperor of Japan (and a damn fine one at that) he was ready to give HST a run for his money. Likewise, McChrystal felt compelled to denigrate sitting US political leaders which is utterly inappropriate conduct for active military leaders.

      You failed to cite the strongest example that would buttress your point perhaps because of the aftermath: FDR, Stillwell and Chiang. Stillwell could not keep his mouth shut about the petty and venal Chiang, referring to him as “peanut” in FDR’s presence. FDR cashiered the highly respected Stillwell in a backroom deal with Chiang. Chiang led the Nationalist forces to defeat and today the communists are firmly in control.

      You also say that I “made the assumption that Fuller is Obama’s Grant.” I made no such assumption, nor even the inference, since to do so would be patently absurd. Obama has no general worthy of such a comparison.

      Finally, you come off as an Allen apologist, which is your perfect right, but your declining to offer a view on the merits of Fuller’s comments is unfortunate given your apparent special knowledge.

      Your fire service analogy is also wanting as there is simply no corollary. My point is that a US theater commander has an inherent right to discuss non-US politics if it demonstrably affects his operations as Karzai’s surely does.

      The one area where you are right is your assertion that Fuller was probably fired for something unrelated and they used this as an opportunity. Now, that’s just the kind of thing a sycophantic fire chief would do.

      Time for me to go study some military history.

      Eric

  • John says:

    Eric,

    I can see we see things very differently, but hey, it’s your blog.

    Kudos on the Stillwell reference. That is probably the best comparison, although I doubt anything he said or did would have changed FDR’s mind. Consider also that we fought WWII to win the war, not the peace. While Chiang failed to beat the Communists after the war, his troops did tie up considerable Japanese forces that we did not want to face ourselves. Note also that Truman didn’t bring Stillwell back.

    Patton did get fired by the way, during the post war occupation. His usefulness no longer exceeded his mouth. His death shortly afterwards drew attention from that fact. I caught a run and it interrupted my train of thought.

    As for domestic policy, Fuller’s comments certainly have an effect. Military officers are supposed to refrain from political opinions. By impugning our ally, he spoke against the President’s foreign policies. With a presidential election next year, you bet his comments have an effect. The Republicans are already using this to attack Obama. Interesting, given that the first 7 years we spent fighting there were under a Republican President.

    The accuracy of Fuller’s comments is irrelevant. He may have been right, but that doesn’t give him the right to say it in the press. It was his duty to bring those concerns to the commanding general, and tell him the unvarnished truth. Maybe Gen Allen agrees with him in principle, but had orders from above to fire Fuller. If Fuller wanted to speak out, he should have resigned his commission and called the newspapers. But speaking out in the media while serving in a position appointed by the President has effects on politics and foreign policy above his pay grade.

    The very fact you wrote this article is a comparison of Fuller’s situation to Grant’s.

    “How times have changed”

    “Abraham Lincoln may have joked about his fighting general’s “indiscretion”, were he thought it so. But fire him? Never”

    What do you think would have happened if Grant had run to the press and blamed Queen Victoria and Lord Palmerston for the British supplying arms to the Confederacy?

    Lincoln was a very patient man. Grant was accused of being a drunk, but he was a fighter and never said anything negative about the President or his policies. But Lincoln allowed George Mcclellan, who was brilliant in raising an army but poor in fighting it, to hang on in command for almost two years despite rank insubordination and leaks to the press that bordered on treason. Lincoln eventually fired him, more for his lack of fighting spirit than his insubordination and political opposition.

    I will agree that the fire service example was poor, but it’s tough to explain the chain of command relationships and the ramifications of stepping outside those structures to those who haven’t been in the military.

  • Eric Lamar says:

    I generally appreciate your (endless) deconstruction of my comments though its a bit tacky of you to insist that I was comparing Fuller and Grant. I could just as easily have been comparing Lincoln to Obama and using the Grant story as artifice.

    I am unpersuaded by your excruciating defense of FDR and HST and Lincoln wasn’t patient, he was a ditherer. David Donald famously points out that Lincoln led through procrastination. Often as not, decisions made themselves.

    Your attempt to mystify military relationships is downright humorous and reminds me about the POV concerning lawyers creating their own language and culture merely to obfuscate the populace and imply special-ness. Human nature trumps the divine pretensions of all professions every time.

    Thanks for reading and keep in touch.

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