Two interesting developments in the Russo-Ukrainian War have been the large number of both Russian generals who have been relieved, and senior Russian officers who have been killed by hostile fire. Recent reports indicate that 12 general officers have been killed during the two-month campaign, an astounding figure for such a short period of time. By way of comparison, just six U.S. generals died from hostile fire during all of the Vietnam War.
The two developments are related and both can be at least partially explained via something I wrote for American Greatness not too long ago. It appears that Russia sought to execute a coup de main with the rapid seizure of Kyiv and the installation of a Putin-friendly regime. But the Russian effort failed due to both Ukrainian resistance and systemic Russian military deficiencies, leading to the dismissal of multiple generals. Of course, they should consider themselves lucky. As a friend of mine quipped, Stalin would have shot every officer over the rank of major by now.
In short, the Russians proved themselves unable to execute modern, combined-arms warfare, which integrates air power, cyber resources, battlefield intelligence, armor, artillery and UAVs. Russian deficiencies have included failures in command and control as well as logistics. But something lies deeper: the unquantifiable moral factors Clausewitz identified, such as poor morale, the absence of unit cohesion, and lack of trust between superiors and subordinates.
The Russian approach differs from the U.S. approach in a fundamental way that helps to explain Russian deficiencies. The U.S. military is trained to execute war plans and conduct operations in a flexible manner, relying on the adaptability and initiative of subordinate commanders. U.S. operations are routinely based on mission orders, which provide the overall operational objective rather than the details of how to execute assigned tasks, allowing subordinates the maximum freedom of action in the context of a particular situation.
The current U.S. doctrine originated in the 1970s and ’80s when American planners concluded that we lacked the conventional capability necessary to defeat a Soviet offensive against NATO and that our threat to escalate to the nuclear level rang hollow. Led by young Army officers at Fort Leavenworth and elsewhere, U.S. land and air forces developed a battle-winning operational doctrine that came to be known as AirLand Battle or AirLand Operations, which represented a true doctrinal revolution. The success of that doctrine was based on developing the tactical instrument, to include well-trained and educated officers and men, flexible command and control, and operational planning. It proved its worth in both Iraq wars.
Conversely, Russian operational doctrine relies on a brittle top-down approach to command, which means that when (not if) a plan encounters unexpected setbacks, subordinates lack the flexibility and initiative to adapt to the new circumstances. Without a professional non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps and subordinate commanders who are expected and trusted to adapt to changing circumstances, senior Russian commanders, fearful of being sacked, have been required to expose themselves to hostile fire to direct tactical details rather than focusing on strategic or operational concerns. But the progress of the war thus far suggests that Russian problems are systemic and cannot be corrected by even the presence of senior officers doing the job of colonels and majors.
The relief of Russian commanders, which set this entire sequence into motion, has led some to suggest that a U.S. shortcoming in recent years has been our failure to fire unsuccessful generals. In the words of one critic, “a private who loses his rifle is subject to greater punishment than a general who loses a war.”
In his 2013 book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, Tom Ricks argued that a major—if not the major—reason for the decline in American military effectiveness since World War II is that generals are no longer dismissed as they were during that conflict. In World War II, he notes, relief of generals was seen as a natural part of generalship. Out of 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat during the war, 16 were relieved for cause; so were five corps commanders.
Ricks identified George Marshall—the Army’s chief of staff, who believed that the prospect of relief contributed to accountability on the part of commanders—as the architect of this successful management system during World War II. According to Ricks, Marshall held that “it was inevitable when selecting human beings for extraordinarily complex and difficult jobs that some percentage would fail. But he did not see [relief], usually, as disgraceful. On his watch, relief usually was not a discharge from the service but a reassignment.” For Marshall, “firing, like hiring, was simply one of the basic tasks of senior managers.” He saw relief as an indication that the system was working. But today, relief is seen as a sign of failure.
The commonly heard recent criticism of U.S. generals for not “winning” our recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan misses some important points. First, in the U.S. system of civil-military relations, the goal of any war is established by the civilian leadership. The uniformed military fight within the bounds established by overall policy. Military strategy is the application of means in order to achieve the ends of policy. In the U.S. system, the military provides advice, which civilian policy makers may accept or reject. The uniformed military does not have the right to insist that its advice be followed. If that advice is not accepted, the military is obligated to salute and obey. Resignation is always a possible response, but wholesale resignation is not part of the U.S. military tradition.
Critics of U.S. generalship rightly praise generals such as Ulysses S. Grant and George Patton, but to compare their generalship to that of such contemporary military leaders as James Mattis, David Petraeus, or Stanley McChrystal glosses over the fact that the policy objectives and environment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq differed considerably from those of the Civil War and World War II. Whether we like it or not, our wars since 1945 have been limited conflicts, both in terms of ends and of means. Both the Civil War and World War II were unlimited, not because of the military but because of civilian policy.
This is illustrated by President Harry S. Truman’s decision to relieve Douglas MacArthur of his command when MacArthur publicly criticized the administration’s policy of limited war in Korea. Truman’s concern was motivated by the possibility of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as by the belief that an unlimited war in the Far East would weaken the U.S. position vis-à-vis the Soviets in Europe.
Subsequent U.S. wars were also limited. We can question the prudence of fighting such wars, but the fact remains that the application of military force in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan was constrained by national policy. For instance, the Joint Chiefs of Staff presented President Lyndon Johnson with viable military options that could have enabled South Vietnam to survive while avoiding the massive commitment of U.S. ground troops that began in 1965. But such options had to be considered in the context of nuclear deterrence. When Johnson was weighing his options in Vietnam, the United States was only three years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Military options in Iraq and Afghanistan were also limited by political decisions. Whether these limits were prudent is a matter for debate, but the U.S. military’s problem was how to fight these wars within the limitations set by policy. During the first Gulf War, the military developed an operational plan to march on Baghdad, but the George H.W. Bush Administration chose to settle for the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
It is also not quite accurate to claim that no U.S. generals have been relieved as a result of combat failures in recent years. Both General George Casey as commander of the multinational force in Iraq and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sánchez, his predecessor, were pushed out, even though, like William Westmoreland in Vietnam, Casey was “kicked upstairs” as Army chief of staff. U.S. generals McChrystal, Petraeus, and Mattis were all successful as operational commanders within the limits set by U.S. policy. All would have been considered successful in any previous U.S. war.
The real problem that the U.S. military faces today is its loss of focus on the factors that underlie military effectiveness. “Diversity,” “inclusion,” and other buzzwords do not win wars. As the Russian experience in Ukraine suggests, neither does a broken system. The continued stalemate in Ukraine, which has dampened this year’s Victory Day celebration in Moscow, illustrates that the modern Russian general faces a task even more daunting than that of his American counterpart.