28 October 2012

A Chimp’s-Eye View of a Forecasting Experiment

For the past several months, I’ve been participating in a forecasting tournament as one of hundreds of “experts” making and updating predictions about dozens of topics in international political and economic affairs. This tournament is funded by IARPA, a research arm of the U.S. government’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and it’s really a grand experiment designed to find better ways to elicit, combine, and present probabilistic forecasts from groups of knowledgeable people.

There are several teams participating in this tournament; I happen to be part of the Good Judgment team that is headed by psychologist Phil Tetlock. Good Judgment “won” the first year of the competition, but that win came before I started participating, so alas, I can’t claim even a tiny sliver of the credit for that.

I’ve been prognosticating as part of my job for more than a decade, but almost all of the forecasting I’ve done in the past was based on statistical models designed to assess risks of a specific rare event (say, a coup attempt, or the onset of a civil war) across all countries worldwide. The Good Judgment Project is my first experience with routinely making calls about the likelihood of many different events based almost entirely on my subjective beliefs. Now that I’m a few months into this exercise, I thought I’d write something about how I’ve approached the task, because I think my experiences speak to generic difficulties in forecasting rare political and economic events.

By way of background, here’s how the forecasting process works for the Good Judgment team: I start by logging into a web site that lists a bunch of questions on an odd mix of topics, everything from the Euro-to-dollar exchange rate to the outcome of the recent election in Venezuela. I click on a question and am expected to assign a numeric probability to each of the two or more possible outcomes listed (e.g., “yes or no,” or “A, B, or C”). Those outcomes are always exhaustive, so the probabilities I assign must always sum to 1. Whenever I feel like it, I can log back in and update any of the forecasts I’ve already made. Then, when the event of interest happens (e.g., results of the Venezuelan election are announced), the question is closed, and the accuracy of my forecast for that question and for all questions closed to date is summarized with a statistic called the Brier score. I can usually see my score pretty soon after the question closes, and I can also see average scores on each question for my whole team and the cumulative scores for the top 10 percent or so of the team’s leader board.

So, how do you perform this task? In an ideal world, my forecasting process would go as follows:

1. Read the question carefully. What does “attack,” “take control of,” or “lose office” mean here, and how will it be determined? To make the best possible forecast, I need to understand exactly what it is I’m being asked to predict.

2. Forecast. In Unicorn World, I would have an ensemble of well-designed statistical models to throw at each and every question. In the real world, I’m lucky if there’s a single statistical model that applies even indirectly. Absent a sound statistical forecast, I would try to identify the class of events to which the question belongs and then determine a base rate for that class. The “base rate” is just the historical frequency of the event’s occurrence in comparable cases—say, how often civil wars end in their first year, or how often incumbents lose elections in Africa. Where feasible, I would also check prediction markets, look for relevant polling data, seek out published predictions, and ask knowledgeable people.

In all cases, the idea is to find empirical evidence to which I can anchor my forecast, and to get a sense of how much uncertainty there is about this particular case. When there’s a reliable forecast from a statistical model or even good base-rate information, I would weight that most heavily and would only adjust far away from that prediction in cases where subject-matter experts make a compelling case about why this instance will be different. (As for what makes a case compelling, well…) If I can’t find any useful information or the information I find is all over the map, I would admit that I have no clue and do the probabilistic equivalent of a coin flip or die roll, splitting the predicted probability evenly across all of the possible outcomes.

3. Update. As Nate Silver argues in The Signal and The Noise, forecasters should adjust their prediction whenever we are presented with relevant new information. There’s no shame in reconsidering your views as new information becomes available; that’s called learning. Ideally, I would be disciplined about how I update my forecasts, using Bayes’ rule to check the human habit of leaning too hard on the freshest tidbit and take full advantage of all the information I had before.

4. Learn. Over time, I would see areas where I was doing well or poorly and would use those outcomes to deepen confidence in, or to try to improve, my mental models. For the questions I get wrong, what did I overlook? What were the forecasters who did better than I thinking about that I wasn’t? For the questions I answer well, was I right for the right reasons, or was it possibly just dumb luck? The more this process gets repeated, the better I should be able to do, within the limits determined by the basic predictability of the phenomenon in question.

To my mind, that is how I should be making forecasts. Now here are few things I’ve noticed so far about what I’m actually doing.

1. I’m lazy. Most of the time, I see the question, make an assumption about what it means without checking the resolution criteria, and immediately formulate a gut response on simple four-point scale: very likely, likely, unlikely, or very unlikely. I’d like to say that “I have no clue” is also on the menu of immediate responses, but my brain almost always makes an initial guess, even if it’s a topic about which I know nothing—for example, the resolution of a particular dispute before the World Trade Organization. What’s worse, it’s hard to dislodge that gut response once I’ve had it, even when I think I have better anchoring information.

2. I’m motivated by the competition, but that motivation doesn’t necessarily make me more attentive. As I said earlier, in this tournament, we can see our own scores and the scores of all the top performers as we go. With such a clear yardstick, it’s hard not to get pulled into seeing other forecasters as competitors and trying to beat them. You’d think that urge would motivate me to be more attentive to the task, more rigorously following the idealized process I described above. Most of the time, though, it just means that I calibrate my answers to the oddities of the yardstick—the Brier score involves squaring your error term, so the cost of being wrong isn’t distributed evenly across the range of possible values—and that I check the updated scores soon after questions close.

3. It’s hard to distinguish likelihood from timing. Some of the questions can get pretty specific about the timing of the event of interest. For example, we might be asked something like: Will Syrian president Bashar al-Assad fall before the end of October 2012; before the end of December 2012; before April 2013; or some time thereafter? I find these questions excruciatingly hard to answer, and it took me a little while to figure out why.

After thinking through how I had approached a few examples, I realized that my brain was conflating probability with proximity. In other words, the more likely I thought the event was, the sooner I expected it to occur. That makes sense for some situations, but it doesn’t always, and a careful consideration of timing will usually require lots of additional information. For example, I might look at structural conditions in Syria and conclude that Assad can’t win the civil war he’s started, but how long it’s going to take for him to lose will depend on a host of other things with complex dynamics, like the price of oil, the flow of weapons, and the logistics of military campaigns. Interestingly, even though I’m now aware of this habit, I’m still finding it hard to break.

4. I’m eager to learn from feedback, but feedback is hard to come by. This project isn’t like weather forecasting or equities trading, where you make a prediction, see how you did, tweak your model, and try again, over and over. Most of the time, the questions are pretty idiosyncratic, so you’ll have just one or a few chances to make a certain prediction. What’s more, the answers are usually categorical, so even when you do get more than one shot, it’s hard to tell how wrong or right you were. In this kind of environment, it’s really hard to build on your experience. In the several months I’ve been participating, I think I’ve learned far more about the peculiarities of the Brier score than I have about the generative process underlying any of the phenomena about which I’ve been asked to predict.

And that, for whatever it’s worth, is one dart-throwing chimp’s initial impressions of this particular experiment. As it happens, I’ve been doing pretty well so far—I’ve been at or near the top of the team’s accuracy rankings since scores for the current phase started to come in—but I still feel basically clueless most of the time. It’s like a golf tournament where good luck tosses some journeyman to the top of the leader board after the first or second round, and I keep waiting for the inevitable regression toward the mean to kick in. I’d like to think I can pull off a Tin Cup, but I know enough about statistics to expect that I almost certainly won’t.

Youth Skills and Aspirations in India

SOURCE: AP/ Channi Anand

India needs livelihood- and skills-building programs that will help young people realize both their aspirations and the need for a more skilled workforce.

By Keren Nazareth | October 11, 2012

Over the past decade the Indian economy experienced an increasing gap between the types of jobs available and the people with skills needed to fill these jobs. The rest of the world, of course, also struggles to create enough good jobs for its citizens, but India is looking at a daunting task of identifying and training 500 million skilled workers by the year 2020.

The reason: A demographic dividend combined with increasing urbanization will lead to fewer low-skill agricultural workers and more workers in industry and services that require specialized training. And these new, skilled workers will need to have “ just jobs,” complete with good pay and social protections.

India’s youth are the key to addressing the nation’s concerns about the lack of skilled workers. But as we begin to address this need, it is not enough to apply an assembly-line approach to churning out trained youth and placing them in jobs without taking their aspirations and their professional and personal prospects for growth into account.

India’s National Youth Policy 2012 “seeks to ensure that youth needs and concerns are mainstreamed into overall national development policies, underscoring the need for the wholesome development of the young people and optimum utilization of their potential for national development.” Organizations working with youth must incorporate this guidance into their work. How? By obtaining answers to questions such as:

§ What are the youth of India, especially the most vulnerable, looking for?

§ Does the current strategy for training and placement of youth address some of the aspirations they have for themselves?

Engaging youth in their communities—whether they are in cities, urban slums, or rural areas—is the first step to obtaining answers to these questions. Creating platforms for young people to engage with policy practitioners, nongovernmental organizations, activists, and other stakeholders from their own communities will give voice to the youth’s perspectives and ideas.

Youth meetings, groups, and clubs are an excellent starting point as an informal way to bring youth together. These gatherings can flourish into more organized forms of engagement. Youth do not always have such opportunities, and when they do the meetings are generally designed exclusively for one gender or one particular activity—not for female and male participants and not incorporating the range of subjects that young people might want to discuss.

Creating such platforms for female and male youth—platforms that allow for discussion and interaction on a wide range of subjects—are just a starting point, but they are nonetheless a crucial step toward helping India’s youth build confidence, ownership, citizenship, and an understanding of both their rights and their duties. This will ultimately lead to a trained workforce in jobs that young workers want to be engaged in with prospects for their own development as well as that of the nation.

Saath is a multi-issue nonprofit organization that works with youth populations to help realize their full potential. We work specifically with youth in urban slums. As large numbers of young people migrate from rural to urban areas in search of work, urban slums are a target for many vocational education and skills-training programs.

Decreasing options for higher education, fewer job opportunities in the rural economy, and changing aspirations of youth is causing an unprecedented migration of young people from the Indian countryside to cities. But there are also youth who are concerned about farming and keeping up traditional livelihoods in order to rebuild the rural economy and keep family farms in the family. These youth are hoping to find options that will bring them more money while staying in the village. They would prefer to stay closer to their families rather than moving during the nonagricultural season into cities to make some fast money and then returning.

Over the last several years, Saath has held consultations with youth from over the Gujarat and Rajasthan states that provided interesting insights into the aspirations, influences, and obstacles of youth in urban slums. The consultation revealed that young people are motivated by their desire to:

§ Do something new independently

§ Do something for their communities

§ Achieve a better socioeconomic status

§ Make their families proud

§ Pursue higher education

§ Attain financial independence

§ Develop a distinct identity

§ Get involved in politics and serve their country

India needs livelihood- and skills-building programs that will help young people realize both their aspirations and the need for a more skilled workforce. Indeed, the practicality of securing jobs and developing careers must also be addressed but the two must be integrated. We need more programs that are built by listening to youth.

Keren Nazareth is executive director of Saath and an Aspen Institute Fellow for Emerging Nonprofit Leadership. She recently visited with the Just Jobs Network to talk about her work.

The Purpose of Presidential Debates

October 24, 2012

By George Friedman

Monday night's presidential foreign policy debate probably won't change the opinion of many voters. Proponents of President Barack Obama are still convinced that Mitt Romney is a fool and a liar. Proponents of former Gov. Romney have the same view of the president.

Of course, this is normal in any American presidential race. Along with the eternal conviction that the party in power is destroying the country, we have regarded Abraham Lincoln, during the 1860 election, as a simple-minded country bumpkin with a touch of larceny; Franklin Roosevelt as a rich dilettante and socialist; and Dwight Eisenhower as a bumbling fool who is lazy and incapable of understanding the complexity of the world -- this about the man who, during World War II, led the most complex military coalition on the planet to victory.

We like to think that our politics have never been less civil than they are today. Given that Andrew Jackson's wife was accused of being a prostitute, Grover Cleveland was said to have illegitimate children and Lyndon Johnson faced the chant "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" I will assert that the Obama-Romney campaign doesn't even register on the vilification scale.

The founders wouldn't have minded this culture of contempt for politicians. In founding the republic, their fundamental fear was that the power of the state would usurp the freedoms of the states and individuals. They purposefully created a political regime so complex that it is, in its normal state, immobilized. They would not have objected if professional politicians were also held in contempt as an additional protection. Ironically, while the founders opposed both political parties and professional politicians, preferring to imagine that learned men take time from their daily lives to make the sacrifice of service, many became full-time politicians and vilified one another. Thomas Jefferson's campaign said of John Adams that he had a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams' campaign stated that Jefferson was "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw sired by a Virginia mulatto father." And Jefferson and Adams were friends. I would suggest suspending the idea that we have never had so vicious a politics.

Let me move to a more radical thought. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are capable men, as well intentioned as ambitious men seeking power can be. Just as I doubt that Jefferson and Adams were as stupid and malicious as their campaigns tried to portray one another, the same can be said of Romney and Obama. I am not suggesting for a moment that the circus of accusations stop, however. To the contrary, seeing how one endures slander is an outstanding measure of a leader's character and an opportunity to learn how the candidate will react to the sorts of unreasonable and unfair conditions that the president is sure to encounter.

A president will face a world that does not wish the United States well in all cases and an opposition that will try anything, fair or foul, to make the president fail. A president who breaks down when he is mistreated -- as Edmund Muskie, a senator running for president in 1972, did over charges made against his wife -- is a non-starter. Muskie's campaign immediately collapsed, as it should have. A president who expects to be treated fairly is an immediate liability.
The True Objective of Debates

A debate is not about policy. It is impossible to state a coherent policy on any complex matter in 90 seconds. The debates between Lincoln and Steven Douglas did go far in that direction, but then it wasn't on national television, and it was for senator of Illinois, not the presidency. That left room for contemplation. It should be remembered that prior to the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, there were no debates, partly because there was no television and partly, perhaps, because the ability to debate was not seen as the appropriate measure of a president.

Debates test one thing: the ability to quickly respond to questions of numbing complexity that are impossible to answer in the time available. They put a premium on being fast and clever but don't say much about how smart a candidate is. Nor are they meant to, in part because being smart, in an academic sense, is not essential to be president -- as many have demonstrated. At their best, debates test a candidate's coolness under pressure and ability to articulate some thought at least vaguely connected to the question while convincing the viewers that he or she is both personable and serious.

That is, after all, what leadership is about. We have had enormously intelligent presidents who simply couldn't lead. Here, I think of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, both of whom had substantial and demonstrable intellects but neither of whom, when confronted by the disastrous, could rapidly contrive both a response and a commanding and reassuring presence in public. In that sense, their intellects betrayed them. Each wanted the right answer, when what was needed was a fast one. Each was succeeded by someone who could provide a fast answer. FDR's famous first 100 days did not solve the Depression, but they did give the sense that someone was in charge. FDR and Ronald Reagan could reassure the country that they knew what they were doing while they rapidly tried things that might or might not work.

Therefore, the question of who won Monday's debate is not one that a viewer who spends his time focused on foreign policy can answer. The candidates weren't speaking to those who make their livings involved in or watching foreign affairs. Nor can we possibly extract from the debate what either candidate intends to do in foreign policy, because conveying that was not what they were trying to do. They were trying to show how quickly and effectively they could respond to the unexpected, and that they were leaders in the simplest sense of being both likeable and commanding, which is the incredibly difficult combination the republic demands of its presidents.
Technology's Impact

It is important to remember that for most of our history there were no televisions and no debates. Knowledge of the candidates filtered through speeches and letters. The distance between the president and the public was even greater than today. In a sense, the imperial presidency -- the president as first among equals of the three branches of government -- really began with FDR, who used radio brilliantly. But there were no debates or public press conferences in which to challenge him.

The distance collapsed with television and rapid-fire interplays, yet at the same time increased in another way, as the president became the most public and pseudo-known character in government. I say pseudo-known because, in fact, the president's greatest skill lies in revealing himself selectively, in a way and to the extent that it enhances his power.

What could be sensed in debates were things like meanness of spirit, ability to listen, willingness to improvise and ultimately, there was a chance to look for humor and good will. There was also a danger. The debate put a premium on articulateness, but it is not clear that the well-spoken candidate -- or at least the candidate who could speak most clearly most quickly -- also thought more clearly. There are many people who think clearly but speak slowly while acting quickly. They are not meant for Bob Schieffer or Candy Crowley's meat grinder.

The point of this is to continue a previous argument I have been making. The issues-based candidacy is a fallacy, especially because events determine the issues, and the most important events, such as 9/11 and the financial crash, are not always expected. Therefore, reality divides the candidate's policy papers from the candidate's policies.

I am arguing that the subject of the debate and the specific answers in the debate are doubly unimportant. First, the nature of these debates makes coherent presentation impossible. Second, the stated policies, such as they are, have little to do with the results of the debate. Nor will the better debater win. The winner of the debate will be the one whose soul, when glimpsed, appears able to withstand the burdens of the presidency. Romney's surge had less to do with Obama's performance and more to do with what the viewer learned of Romney.

This has always been what American presidential campaigns are about. All that has happened is that television intensified it and the debate purified it. A debate is a 90-minute opportunity to see a candidate under pressure. What the viewer determines he saw will be critical.

I am also making a parallel argument that our perception of today's political campaigns as uniquely vicious is untrue. We have always been brutal to our candidates, but this served a purpose. We may not know what his policy on trade reform is, but we need to know what kind of person he is for the unexpected issues that will come faster and be more deadly than any moderator's questions. I think this is the purpose debates serve. They are not some public policy review but a dissection of the soul of someone who wants to be president. It is not necessarily a good one, or always an accurate one. It is, however, why we have them.

The question may come up as to who I think won the debate. My opinion on that is no better than anyone else's, nor, as I pointed out, do I think it really matters. The winner of the debate may or may not have persuaded enough voters of his virtue to be elected. But in the end, our response to the debate is idiosyncratic. What moved me may not have moved others. After all, the country appears divided down the middle on this election, so obviously we are seeing different things. Therefore, who I think won the debate is as irrelevant as who I think should be president. Besides, there are more important questions than our own opinions on the candidates. For me, one of those is trying to understand what we are doing when we elect a president.

India To Get New Intel Chiefs


By Rajeev Sharma

October 24, 2012




The Indian government has an onerous task on its hands: to name new chiefs to its three premier Central agencies – Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The government is likely to announce the appointments very soon.

RAW is India’s external intelligence agency, not unlike the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), albeit the CIA has far more power, funds and personnel at its disposal. IB is India’s internal intelligence agency, while the CBI is an investigative agency. In many ways, IB and the CBI combines the responsibilities and duties of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the U.S.

The importance of these three agencies for the Indian government cannot be overstated. RAW and IB have a direct bearing on Indian national security. Their professional rivalries are legendary and they often times resisting sharing intelligence with each other. In fact, this debilitating factor was criticized at length by the Kargil Review Committee, headed by the late K Subrahmanyam, which was set after the 1999 Kargil War.

In contrast to the secrecy that pervades RAQ and IB, the CBI has been a very visible public presence. Because the CBI, unlike RAW and IB, is a prosecuting agency, it has to maintain a public profile through such activities as holding regular media briefings.

There is another important difference between the CBI on the one hand and RAW and IB on the other. The CBI is a politically-loaded agency and is often seen as a tool of government in power, much to the disdain of the opposition parties.

The CBI’s political clout has increased enormously over the years, particularly in the current tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The UPA II has witnessed some high-profile scams like 2G telecom auctions, massive financial irregularities concerning the Commonwealth Games at Delhi and the coal blocks auction scam, popularly referred to in India as Coalgate. Sitting ministers, members of parliament, political leaders and corporate supports have been fingered in these scams which are investigated by the CBI.

However, recently activist Indian courts, led by the Supreme Court, have been monitoring several important cases being investigated by the CBI. This has strengthened the CBI’s autonomy from the sitting government as the agency has been directed to give regular status reports to the courts directly.

The current chiefs of RAW, IB and CBI – Sanjeev Tripathi, Nehchal Sandhu and Amar Pratap Singh respectively – are all set to retire by the end of the year. Of the three officers, IB’s Sandhu appears to be the only one who is likely to get an extension and even this will only be for three months. Sandhu’s stock is the highest among these officers. His prominence rose sharply after Saudi Arabia deported the terrorist leader, Abu Jundal, in June of this year, which gave India more leverage in dealing with Pakistan. Sandhu’s possible successors include both of the current Special Directors: Ram Niwas Gupta, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer from Himachal Pradesh or Yashovardhan Azad, another IPS officer.

The most likely candidate to succeed the current RAW Chief is Alok Joshi. Of the three agencies which are going to see changes at the top, RAW is the only one where the succession process appears to be smooth and hassle-free. Joshi’s resume has one especially noteworthy qualification for the Manmohan Singh government—he previously served as the RAW station head in Nepal, an important country for any Indian government.

There are many individuals contending for the post of CBI Chief. These include Ranjit Sinha, currently the head of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), CBI special director VK Gupta and National Investigation Agency (NIA) chief SC Sinha. The present incumbent, AP Singh, may get a lucrative post-retirement assignment if he is called upon to head the soon-to-be-created investigation wing of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Singh’s seen as extremely qualified for this position because he has handled a large number of high-profile cases like 2G, Commonwealth Games, Coalgate and Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai, ever since he took over as the CBI chief in November 2010. During this time he has also helped improve the CBI’s conviction rate.

Still the Best

The decline of the U.S. armed forces has been greatly exaggerated.
BY PETER R. MANSOOR | OCTOBER 24, 2012




In the wake of victory in the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. armed forces were widely acknowledged to be the best in the world. Indeed, the combination of suitable doctrine, exceptional training and discipline, and technological dominance provided such overmatch against conventionally armed opponents that onlookers posited a coming age of American military supremacy. A revolution in military affairs underpinned by precision-guided munitions and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems would provide battlespace dominance and enable rapid, decisive operations that could quickly collapse an enemy armed force or regime by directly attacking its center of gravity. A "Pax Americana" would guarantee peace and prosperity for the indefinite future.

Wars against irregular opponents in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade have tempered such visionary notions. After dramatic conventional operations that quickly dispatched the Taliban and Iraqi armed forces, the U.S. military and its allies found themselves enmeshed in guerrilla conflicts for which they were ill-prepared. The focus on technology and conventional warfighting left all too many military leaders intellectually unprepared to adapt to the kind of wars they faced, rather than trying to mold the conflicts into the kind of wars they wanted. After several years of drift, a number of leaders stepped forward to fashion new doctrine, improve training, and create viable operational concepts to wage counterinsurgency warfare. The result was a military victory during the surge in Iraq and the reversal of the Taliban tide in Afghanistan. The outcomes of both conflicts are still uncertain, but this has more to do with strategic failings concerning the decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place and our inability to force Pakistan to close down insurgent sanctuaries on its soil than with inadequate operational capabilities of the U.S. armed forces.

Just because American military superiority did not lead to the desired outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan does not mean that we should swing to the other extreme and believe that the expense of maintaining conventional dominance has not been worth the cost. American naval and air forces dominate the seas, skies, and space of the global commons, creating a stable environment for interstate commerce and international exchange. American land power has stabilized a number of regions, among them Europe and Northeast Asia, that for centuries were among the most volatile in the world. These manifest accomplishments were the result of astute diplomacy backed by American military superiority. The absence of major interstate war today is the result of American strength, not weakness.

American strength relies to a great degree on the capabilities of its military forces. There are a number of factors that go into determining their combat effectiveness, among them leadership, discipline, morale, doctrine, command and control, adaptability, intelligence, interservice cooperation, fire support, endurance, and technology. Many of these factors are determined more by brainpower, organization, and good training than by large military budgets. Furthermore, a greater percentage of U.S. soldiers have combat experience today than in the armed forces of any other major power, a not negligible advantage that the U.S. military will retain for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, advanced technology is crucial to the effectiveness of military forces, and those militaries that fail to adapt to new technology are likely candidates for defeat in battle. Although U.S. military forces in the Gulf War might have been able to switch equipment with the Iraqi military and still prevail, the outcome would no doubt have been much bloodier. The cost of exceptional arms and equipment is a small price to pay to prevent filling tens of thousands of body bags on the battlefield.

Few weapons emerge from the design and experimentation stages without flaws. This observation especially applies to new types of weapons, such as remotely piloted vehicles. Looking at an M1A2 Abrams tank today, it is hard to envision that its predecessor was the slowly, clunky machine of World War I vintage that could travel at less than 5 miles per hour and that broke down after a few dozen miles of use. The same applies to modern fighter jets, which originated from biplanes built of canvas, wood, and wire. The complaints of some observers that the performance of the MQ-9 Reaper is "pathetic" miss the entire point that a new era of air weaponry has dawned. The remotely piloted vehicles in the U.S. Air Force of the future will dwarf the capabilities of those now in service -- that is, unless the United States decides to stop their development. In that case, the same technological outcome will occur, but the most effective weapons on the planet will be Chinese or Russian instead of American.

Technological prowess is of more than just passing interest to soldiers at the sharp end of combat. The last time that U.S. ground forces came under air attack was the spring of 1953, during the Korean War. Nearly 60 years on, American soldiers can still fight without worrying about attack from manned enemy aircraft. As a result, the U.S. Army has been able to economize thousands of soldiers by disbanding short-range air defense units. If the F-22 fighter is necessary to ensure that happy situation extends into the future, then it is worth the cost. Exercises rigged to display the aircraft's vulnerability in short-range combat miss the point that enemy aircraft will rarely be able to close the distance to gun range. Shooting down enemy aircraft with long-range missiles may not be as sexy as a dogfight, but the outcome is the same. Dead is dead. If the problem with the F-22, rather, is lack of training time for its pilots, then cutting their flying hours by reducing the Air Force budget is hardly the answer.

As the United States enters another interwar era with the 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan, the question is not whether military budgets will decline, but by how much. There are some benefits to be gained from forcing the military services to economize. Budget shortfalls have a unique way of forcing military leaders to open themselves to more creative ideas. Having acknowledged this truism, the benefit of declining resources has its limits. The U.S. military in the 1920s and 1930s, bereft of funding by an isolationist public, focused its efforts on professional military education and created such forward-looking concepts as strategic bombing, armored warfare, and carrier aviation. On the other hand, lack of funds for equipment, testing, experimentation, and training left the armed forces critically short of modern tanks, escort fighters, and carrier aircraft. Even after 18 months of mobilization that began after the fall of France in June 1940, the U.S. armed forces were woefully unprepared when war came with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The United States today no longer enjoys the space and time provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to mobilize military forces once war begins. The impact of modern technology in a globalized world means that America will go to war with the military forces it has, not the forces it can build. Reductions in the defense budget will require policy makers to make difficult trade-offs or reduce defense commitments. Political leaders might say they are willing to assume more risk, at least until defeat stares them in the face. The final arbitration of war is harsh indeed.

There is no doubt that America's armed forces will face competent, intelligent enemies in the future. All the more reason to adequately fund the type of research, experimentation, testing, and training that go into the creation of effective military forces. On the other hand, we could instead decide to rely on superior intellect, morale, and discipline to decide future conflicts, in which case the words of historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart in The Ghost of Napoleon come to mind: "The failure to adapt theory to reality has been matched by the failure to adapt armament to technical progress -- to adopt new weapons that invention made available at the time when they promised a decisive advantage." To say that the human factors that underpin military forces are more important than technological prowess is all well and good, but one must also remember that the spirit is powerless when the body is riddled with shot. Just ask those terrorists whose ranks have been decimated by the supposedly ineffective MQ-9 Reaper drone strikes during the last four years.

Just as history holds examples of technologically inferior militaries emerging victorious in war, it contains just as many if not more examples of armed forces getting crushed by larger and more technologically capable opponents. The British destruction of the Zulu impis at Ulundi, the U.S. Navy's destruction of the Spanish Pacific Fleet at Manila, the allied offensives in France and Belgium in the fall of 1918 that drove the Imperial German Army to defeat, the U.S. Navy's destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, the Allied victory in Normandy, the Red Army's destruction of Army Group Center, the North Vietnamese offensive that overran the southern part of the country in 1975, and Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Gulf War are all examples of why, in the end, it is better to be both effective and strong. The goal of the U.S. military should be to win the next conflict in a walkover.

Having the best armed forces in the world, however, does not make the United States invulnerable to defeat. Good strategy is still the sine qua non of victory in war. The German army is an example of a tactically and operationally brilliant force that lost two world wars because of the strategic ineptitude of German political and military leaders. If it is not careful, the United States may tread the same path in the 21st century. As Allan Millett and Williamson Murray point out in their superlative study of military effectiveness in the first half of the twentieth century, tactical and operational shortfalls can be corrected over time, but mistakes in strategy tend to live on forever.

This is the level at which the debate between the presidential candidates should be conducted. Instead, the public is treated to a steady diet of inflammatory rhetoric. Did the Obama administration deny additional security to the U.S. ambassador to Libya after repeated requests? Which candidate is more aligned with Israeli policy? Who would be tougher on China? Is al Qaeda dead yet? Should sequestration happen?

These matters are important, but they don't ask -- or answer -- the broader and more important questions concerning national security policy and strategy. What is the guiding grand strategy that underpins U.S. policy toward the rest of the world? What should be the role of the United States in protecting the global commons? Is "leading from behind" really in the best interests of the United States and its allies? What is the relationship of the United States to the new governments spawned by the Arab Spring? How can the United States and its allies help China rise peacefully given that no other major power in history has done so without conflict? Should the United States be content to contain a nuclear-armed Iran, or is preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon worth plunging the Middle East into a nasty and prolonged war?

The answers to these questions are neither easy nor simple. Some of them, indeed, are wicked problems that have no solutions -- policy makers can only put forward a series of unattractive policies to produce less-than-optimal outcomes. But if the United States approaches the future from a position of economic, military, and diplomatic strength, the national security dilemmas it faces become more manageable.

Increased military spending alone cannot solve all of America's national security woes, but if one believes that the U.S. armed forces are no longer the best in the world, it is hard to understand why cutting their budget would produce a better product. Budget cuts could lead to more innovative thinking and procurement reform, noble goals that all Americans should applaud. But we should be under no illusion that cutting the defense budget will somehow lead to the creation of a more effective military. Less is not more; less is less. The president can compare U.S. Navy warships to bayonets and horses, but the fact is that policing the world's oceans requires more, not fewer, of them. The U.S. Air Force is operating tanker aircraft built more than a half century ago. The technology of the U.S. Army's tank and infantry fighting vehicles hails back to the 1970s. The list of needs is long and growing.

The U.S. military requires recapitalization, an expensive but necessary proposition to maintain its superiority in a world that is increasingly volatile and dangerous. Whether lawmakers are willing to risk reducing U.S. military capabilities to fund other budgetary priorities is perhaps the key question with which they will have to wrestle in upcoming months. If the answer is yes, then the perceived decline of the U.S. armed forces may indeed become reality in the next administration, with all the ramifications that such an unhappy outcome portend for the future of U.S. national security.

A Short History of World War III

I lost the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuked the world from my couch ... and you can too.
BY MICHAEL PECK | OCTOBER 26, 2012




Come closer to the fire, my friend. It will keep the chill of nuclear winter away. Are you hungry? I have some canned food that is not radioactive. I checked it with a Geiger counter myself.

You came here from Washington, D.C.? I have heard rumors of strange creatures living among the ruins. Ground Zero was the White House, and I am told that a peculiar blue light glows from the bottom of the crater.

But people tell many stories. You have traveled a long way, and I will tell you the story you came for. You desire to learn how World War III started? I will teach you with the help of a friend. A board game called Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps you will make better decisions than Kennedy and Khrushchev did.

Help me set up the map. You see the island of Cuba, long and narrow like one of Castro's cigars, and divided into hundreds of hexagons? There are two players, one controlling the Soviets and Cubans, and the other for the Americans. Let us now place the little cardboard pieces. Now you see the prime cause of the war. Lack of information.

Do you notice that like the game of Stratego, the Cuban and Soviet forces set up face down, so that the Americans only see a hundred or so faceless brown pieces across the map? Each piece might be a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) battery. Or a surface-to-air missile (SAM) unit, or a rather inconsequential Cuban Army battalion. The Americans can only scan a sea of anonymous brown until their reconnaissance aircraft overfly a hexagon and flip the pieces to their revealed side. Until then, they can't bomb missiles sites that they can't spot.

How thick the fog of war is, as dense as a mushroom cloud. There are also Soviet convoys that arrive during the course of the game. They have their true nature hidden on the back side unless the American Navy intercepts them. Some carry regular cargo, but others carry intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). And to make the fog truly opaque, the Soviets secretly roll dice to determine when the missiles in Cuba become operational, so the gringos don't even how much time they have to remove the missiles before they can be fired.

Now we set up the Americans. The game begins October 16 -- each turn equals one day -- and the United States only has a few air squadrons in south Florida until mobilization is declared. Unlike the Soviet side, the American pieces are always face-up and known.

Would you like some crackers? I found them in a fallout shelter. They are dry but nutritious. Where was I? Ah, yes, now comes the heart of the game. Each side has a deck of event cards that it can choose to play, one per turn. Many cards can only be played at higher alert levels, which span Defense Condition 1 to 5 for the United States, and a state of Peace, Crisis, and War for the Soviets. Each card allows certain actions, and adds or subtracts victory points for the United States or the USSR.

At the start of the game, the Americans start at a relaxed Defcon 5 and the Soviets at Peace. Neither side can attack each other, and America can fly only one reconnaissance mission each turn turn. If only things had remained that way...

Keep your hand away from that green blob on the floor. I swear that I have seen it move at night. Now we begin the game:

It is October 16. It was a Tuesday, I think. I was going to surprise my wife with a ... no, best not to think too much of the past. The present is hard enough. But it is the first day of the crisis, and the Americans move first. They change their alert level to Defcon 4, which allows them to play the Increased Reconnaissance card that allows two overflights per day. The reconnaissance aircraft detect some SAM sites, some Mig fighters and Ilyushin bombers, and a medium-range ballistic missile site. The MRBM site is not yet active, but now President Kennedy has proof of Soviet missiles!

The Soviet response is to raise their alert level from Peace to Crisis (as if there wasn't a crisis already?) -- and play a Cuban Mobilization Card to strengthen local forces in case the Americans launch a ground invasion.

October 17. Perhaps some quiet negotiation could have averted tensions at that point. But the Americans order Defcon 3. They play a Low-Level Reconnaissance card to improve the results of their overflights. Another MRBM site is detected, plus more SAMs and a Soviet mechanized regiment.

The Soviets did not play a card that day. Perhaps they thought time was on their side. They would wait out the Americans until the missiles were operational and then be in a much stronger bargaining position.

Have some water. I apologize for the quality. I filter it as best I can, but the black rain gives it the texture of mud.

October 18. Two Soviet cargo ships arrive that day. They were actually carrying food and industrial machinery, but how was Washington to know that? The Americans maintain Defcon 3, but now they play U.S. Army Mobilization. For the next several days, so many troops and aircraft pour into Florida that the state nearly sinks into the ocean. Aircraft are quickly deployed to airbases, and a Marine division is readied to invade Cuba, but it will take several days to prepare Army divisions for an amphibious and airborne assault. One should not be in a hurry to invade another country. These things often don't end well.

Seeing the U.S. mobilize and fearing an American surprise attack, Moscow orders mobilization of the Warsaw Pact.

October 19. That was a Friday, wasn't it? We should have been looking forward to the weekend, not war. While its forces mobilize, Washington intensifies paramilitary operations with the Operation Mongoose card, which disrupts Cuban defenses.

Now Moscow crosses the Rubicon. It plays Air Alert card, which allows air defenses to fire on American aircraft. A U-2 spy plane is shot down that day.

October 20. Infuriated by the loss of the U-2, the Americans go to Defcon 2 and declare a naval quarantine of Cuba. A Soviet convoy is stopped and inspected for missiles, but none are discovered.

The Soviets respond by stationing missile-armed submarines off the East coast.

October 21. Washington declares that its aircraft will attack any SAM site that fires on U.S. planes. Perhaps someone forgot to tell the Soviet air defense crews, because they do fire on a U-2, and are bombed for their pains.

But someone also forgot to tell the Americans that Cuba wasn't the only battleground. Moscow plays the Blockade Berlin card.

Dusk is falling. I have little fuel left for my lantern. We must hurry.

October 22. And so it begins. Four MRBM sites and an IRBM site have been detected so far. The Americans gamble that the nuclear missiles in Cuba will become operational soon. They play the Surgical Strike card, which allows airstrikes against nuclear missile sites. Two MRBM sites and an IRBM location are destroyed by Air Force and Navy aircraft.

But if America can attack their missiles, they can attack ours. The Soviets raise their alert level to War status, and Soviet bombers strike Jupiter missile sites in Turkey.

October 23. There were options, you know. There are always options. Look at the event cards. The Americans could have played gone to the United Nations, pledged not to invade Cuba, agreed not to place any missiles in Turkey. The Soviets could have withdrawn their missiles, or stopped sending convoys. But both sides were drunk on a cocktail of pride and fear. Perhaps the lesson is, don't drink with your finger on the nuclear button.

That day, the United States went to Defcon 1 and invaded Cuba. Marines and paratroopers landed near Havana. Within hours, the Soviets invaded Western Europe. And then there was only one last card to be played: Initiate Nuclear Warfare. Whether it was America or Russia who first played it doesn't matter. The results were the same.

Who won the war? Look around you. Do these ruins look like victory?

Go to sleep. You must rest before your long journey home.
Michael Peck is games editor at Foreign Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @Mipeck1.



The World in Photos This Week


Obama and Romney finally tackle foreign policy, Muslims journey to Mecca, and Benghazi celebrates a year without Qaddafi.
OCTOBER 26, 2012




Above, President Barack Obama debates foreign policy with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS looks on during the final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida on Oct. 22. The debate focused on foreign policy, although observers noted that some major topics -- from the eurocrisis to climate change -- did not come up.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images




U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned 65 on Friday, Oct. 26th. The secretary is now suggesting that while "unlikely," it's "possible" she'll maintain her position in a new administration.

Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images



Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir greets anti-Israeli demonstrators in Khartoum on Oct. 24 after the Sudanese cabinet held an urgent meeting regarding a missile strike on a military factory. Sudan has accused Israel of the attack and has threatened to take action.

ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images



Following heavy fighting in Damascus, the Syrian government agreed to observe a four-day truce during this week's Muslim Eid al-Adha holidays, but as of Friday morning, the tenuous ceasefire had already been broken. Above, a Syrian rebel fires toward an army position in the Karm al-Jabal district of the northern city of Aleppo on Oct. 22.

FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images



A Pakistani youth stands with a goat at a livestock market in Quetta on Oct. 23, ahead of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice. The Muslim holiday honors Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his so

n Ishmael on the order of God, who according to tradition then provided a lamb in the boy's place.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images




Israeli air strikes killed two Gaza militants as they clashed with troops who crossed the border on the eve of a landmark visit by the Qatari emir, the first foreign head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas took control. In this photo, Palestinian girls watch the funeral procession of Yasser al-Tarabeen, who was killed in the Israeli strike on Beit Hanun, in northern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 22.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images




Over two million Muslims from around the world flood the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. In this photo, Muslim pilgrims perform their evening prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Oct. 22. For more photos of the march to Mecca, click here.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images



Armenian clergymen attend the funeral procession of the 96th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Torkom Manougian II, at St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem's old city on Oct. 22. Manougian, who passed away on Oct. 12 at the age of 93, was buried in a funeral attended by representatives of all the Christian Churches of the Holy Land.

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images



A group of 480 ethnic Tamil men and women have been recruited for service in Sri Lanka amid calls from minority Tamil parties to increase the number of Tamil police in a force dominated by the majority Sinhalese. Above, an ethnic Tamil Sri Lankan police recruit aims his assault rifle at a police training college in Kalutara, near the capital Colombo, on Oct. 24.

S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images



South Korean troops and riot police prevented activists from launching anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border after North Korea threatened a "merciless" military response. Above, Park Sang-Hak, an activist and former defector from North Korea, scatters anti-Pyongyang leaflets as police block his planned rally near the tense border on a roadway in Paju, north of Seoul, on Oct. 22.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images



Libyan girls wear traditional outfits during celebrations to mark the first anniversary of the country's liberation from ousted leader Muammar al-Qaddafi on Oct. 23 in the coastal city of Benghazi.

ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images



Indian Hindus dressed as deities pose during a religious procession on the grounds of Durgiana temple in Amritsar on Oct. 24 during a celebration of the Hindu festival of Dussehra. Firecrackers and stuffed effigies of the demon-king Ravana are set alight in open grounds across the country on the night of Dussehra, which symbolizes the victory of good over evil in Hindu mythology.

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images



Indian labourers thresh rice in a field on Oct. 25 in the village of Attari, which is part of the Indian state of Punjab, the country's biggest producer of paddy rice.

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images




More than 1,500 athletes from 73 countries and regions took part in the five-day 9th Zhengzhou International Shaolin Wushu Festival, which celebrates the ancient martial art. Above, kungfu students welcome guests by performing at the Shaolin Temple in Zhengzhou, the largest city in central China's Henan Province.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images



Park Jae-sang, better known as Psy, the South Korean pop star whose song "Gangnam Style" has become an international sensation, visits United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. in New York City on Oct. 23.

General Failure

By Thomas E. Ricks

Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank—if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.
Darren Braun 
 

On June 13, 1944, a few days after the 90th Infantry Division went into action against the Germans in Normandy under the command of Brigadier General Jay MacKelvie, MacKelvie’s superior officer, Major General J. Lawton Collins, went on foot to check on his men. “We could locate no regimental or battalion headquarters,” he recalled with dismay. “No shelling was going on, nor any fighting that we could observe.” This was an ominous sign, as the Battle of Normandy was far from decided, and the Wehrmacht was still trying to push the Americans, British, and Canadians, who had landed a week earlier, back into the sea.

Just a day earlier, the 90th’s assistant division commander, Brigadier General “Hanging Sam” Williams, had also been looking for the leader of his green division. He’d found MacKelvie sheltering from enemy fire, huddled in a drainage ditch along the base of a hedgerow. “Goddamn it, General, you can’t lead this division hiding in that goddamn hole,” Williams shouted. “Go back to the [command post]. Get the hell out of that hole and go to your vehicle. Walk to it, or you’ll have this goddamn division wading in the English Channel.” The message did not take. The division remained bogged down, veering close to passivity.

American troops were fighting to stay alive—no small feat in that summer’s bloody combat. One infantry company in the 90th began a day in July with 142 men and finished it with 32. Its battalion commander walked around babbling “I killed K Company, I killed K Company.” Later that summer, one of the 90th’s battalions, with 265 soldiers, surrendered to a German patrol of 50 men and two tanks. In six weeks of small advances, the division would use up all its infantrymen, requesting replacements of more than 100 percent.

General Collins removed MacKelvie on the very same day that his tour revealed no fighting in progress. Collins instructed the 90th’s new commander, Major General Eugene Landrum, to fire the commanders of two of the division’s three regiments. One of those two, the West Point graduate Colonel P. D. Ginder, was considered by many to be a disaster. One man, a mortar forward observer, remembered that Ginder “almost constantly made the wrong decisions.” He had been in command of his regiment for less than a month when he was replaced.
MacKelvie’s successor, Landrum, was given a few weeks to prove he was an able commander, but by midsummer he too was judged to be wanting. Before he was relieved, Landrum fired the assistant division commander he had inherited, Sam Williams, with whom he had clashed. “I feel that a general officer of a more optimistic and calming attitude would be more beneficial to this division at this time,” Landrum wrote. General Omar Bradley, the senior American general in France at the time, concurred. He topped off the dismissal by demoting Williams to colonel.

Within a few weeks, Bradley relieved Landrum as well, and sent Brigadier General Raymond McLain, whom he had brought from Italy to England to have on tap as a replacement when someone was fired, to take over the 90th Infantry Division. “We’re going to make that division go, if we’ve got to can every senior officer in it,” Bradley told him. Two days later, McLain gave him a list of 16 field-grade officers he wanted out of the division.

The swift reliefs of World War II were not precise, and while many made way for more-capable commanders, some were clearly the wrong move. Nonetheless, their cumulative effect was striking. The 90th Division, for instance, improved radically—transforming from a problem division that First Army staff wanted to break up, into “one of the most outstanding [divisions] in the European Theater,” as Bradley later wrote. Retired Army Colonel Henry Gole, in his analysis of the 90th Division, directly credits the policy of fast relief:
Because incompetent commanders were fired and replaced by quality men at division and regiment, and because the junior officers of 1944 [who were] good at war … rose to command battalions in a Darwinian process, the division became an effective fighting force.
Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders.

Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars—each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history—and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Relief of generals has become so rare that a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of the war.
 
To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers, placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished, creating a perverse incentive system that drives leaders toward a risk-averse middle where they are more likely to find stalemate than victory. A few high-profile successes, such as those of General David Petraeus in Iraq, may temporarily mask this systemic problem, but they do not solve it.

Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military. The Bush administration has been roundly (and fairly) criticized for its delusive approach to the war in Iraq and its neglect of the war in Afghanistan. Yet the serious failures of our military leaders in these conflicts have escaped almost all notice. No one is pushing those leaders to step back and examine the shortcomings of their institution. These are dangerous developments. Unaddressed, they could lead to further failures in future wars.

Generals are born, and generals are made. The promotion from colonel to brigadier (or one-star) general is one of the largest psychological leaps an officer can take. It is richly symbolic: the promoted officer removes from his or her uniform the insignia of an Army branch (the crossed rifles of infantry, for example, or the tiny triple-turreted castle of engineers) and puts on a single star. As brigadier generals, the newly promoted officers are informed that they no longer represent a part of the Army, but now are stewards of the entire service. They are expected to coordinate and control multiple branches, such as artillery, cavalry, and engineers—that is, to become generalists.

These people are given powers we accord to few: to save and take lives; to advise presidents on our most fundamental national issues; to shape their own institution by deciding how to select and groom their successors.

During World War II, top officials expected some generals to fail in combat, and were prepared to remove them when they did. The personalities of these generals mattered enormously, and the Army’s chief of staff, George C. Marshall, worked hard to find the right men for the jobs at hand. When some officers did not work out, they were removed quickly—but many were given another chance, in a different job. (Ginder, Landrum, and Williams were all given second chances, for instance—and all, to varying extents, redeemed themselves.) This hard-nosed but flexible system created a strong military, not only because the most competent were allowed to rise quickly, but also because people could learn from mistakes before the results became crippling, and because officers could find the right fit for their particular abilities.

In World War II, the firing of a general was seen as a sign that the system was working as planned. Yet now, in the rare instances when it does occur, relief tends to be seen, especially inside the Army, as a sign that the system has somehow failed. Only one high-profile relief occurred during the American invasion of Iraq, and the officer removed was not a general but a Marine colonel. Relief has become so unusual that even this firing made front-page news.

How did this transformation occur? Why has relief become so rare, and our military leadership rank so sclerotic? The nature of the wars the nation has fought since World War II is one reason. Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq were all small, ambiguous, increasingly unpopular wars, and in each, success was harder to define than it was in World War II. Firing generals seemed to send a signal to the public that the war was going poorly.

But that is only a partial explanation. Changes in our broader society are also to blame. During the 1950s, the military, like much of the nation, became more “corporate”—less tolerant of the maverick and more likely to favor conformist “organization men.” As a large, bureaucratized national-security establishment developed to wage the Cold War, the nation’s generals also began acting less like stewards of a profession, responsible to the public at large, and more like members of a guild, looking out primarily for their own interests.

In Vietnam, the consequences of this shift in Army practices became painfully evident. Almost no generals were fired in that war, and those few who were removed were only the top men, ousted by civilian leaders in Washington—generals did not fire other generals. Not coincidentally, appropriate risk-taking diminished (the art of combat pursuit was almost lost in Vietnam), and a “cover your ass” mentality took hold.

These corrosive tendencies were reinforced by a new policy of officer rotation after six months in command, which encouraged many leaders to simply keep their heads down until they could move on—and likewise encouraged superior officers to wait out the tours of bad officers serving beneath them. Instead of weeding out bad officers, senior leaders tended to closely supervise them, encouraging habits of micromanagement that plague the Army to this day. Mediocrity also led to mendacity: Almost forgotten now is that an Army investigation of the 1968 massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by troops of the 23rd “Americal” Division concluded that 28 officers, including four colonels and two generals, appeared to have committed offenses in covering up the incident. Even after the extent of the massacre and the subsequent cover-up were revealed, Major General Samuel Koster, who had commanded the Americal and who had been implicated in the cover-up, was allowed to remain in uniform for another 23 months, and was never brought to trial (although he was eventually demoted).

The Army famously rebuilt itself after the Vietnam War ended. It improved training; reequipped itself with a new array of tanks, helicopters, and armored vehicles; and, most significant, learned how to live without a draft, relying instead on a more professional “all volunteer” force. These developments, combined with a successful offensive in the 1991 Gulf War, led to a resurgence of American pride in the military, and a newfound veneration for military leaders.

Yet despite this otherwise magnificent rebuilding effort, the Army did not change its approach to generalship. The generation of leaders trained in the 1980s and ’90s were smart and energetic, but also conformist and relentlessly tactical, conceiving their role narrowly. Relief remained exceedingly rare.

Nor did the relationship between an officer’s battlefield performance and his or her subsequent promotions grow any stronger. As an American civilian official then based in Afghanistan put it in 2007, “The guys who did well didn’t get treated well, and the guys who did badly didn’t get treated badly.” One-year rotations meant officers came and went without seeing the consequences of their actions, enabling almost all to claim that they presided over progress.

Many Americans remember the Iraq War as a string of mistakes by the Bush administration—from overestimating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to underestimating the difficulty of occupying the country. While that perception is correct, it hardly tells the entire story. In 2007, Philip Zelikow, who had been the State Department’s counselor as the war in Iraq descended into chaos, told me, “I think the situation is worse than people realize, and the problems are primarily with the military.” Discussing American generalship in Iraq over the course of the war, he added: “I don’t think people realized how bad this was … The American people believe the problem is, the civilians didn’t listen to the generals. This is very unhealthy for the Army.” The U.S. Army in Iraq, Zelikow said, reminded him of the French army before World War I: “The military is venerated. It is the inheritor of Napoleon. The general is decorated with gold braid—but there’s no ‘there’ there. There is an aversion to deep thinking.”

The failures of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan were not the failures of frontline soldiers. American troops deployed to these wars fit and well trained. However, training tends to prepare one for known problems; it is the job of military leaders to prepare for the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unexpected. Many of the generals leading the Army were not mentally prepared for the wars they encountered.

“The troops were good at what they were told to do, from day one,” observed retired Army Colonel Robert Killebrew, a longtime student of strategy and leadership, in a correspondence we had about Iraq. “Had counterinsurgency been invoked on day two, [the soldiers] would have adapted.” For an example, Killebrew pointed to the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, which in 2003, under General Petraeus, moved quickly to a counterinsurgency strategy and kept Mosul surprisingly quiet for almost a year. The problem everywhere else in Iraq, Killebrew continued, was not the troops but the senior leaders, who were unable to tell their soldiers how to counter an insurgency. “As is often the case in war, the question is not whether the troops can adapt, but whether the leaders can. The troops, as always, paid the price of educating their leaders.” In Iraq, it took more than three years for Army leaders simply to begin listening to units on the subject of what wasn’t working—that is, about as much time as the U.S. military spent fighting World War II.

American generalship in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was too often a tale of ineptitude exacerbated by a wholesale lack of accountability. Both wars began badly, with General Tommy R. Franks failing to understand what he was wading into. In many ways, Franks is the representative general of the post-9/11 era. He concerned himself principally with tactical matters, refusing to think seriously about what would happen after his forces attacked. “I knew the President and Don Rumsfeld would back me up,” he wrote in his memoir, “so I felt free to pass the message along to the bureaucracy beneath them: You pay attention to the day after and I’ll pay attention to the day of.” Franks fundamentally misunderstood generalship, which at its topmost levels must link military action to political results.

Most generals get the opportunity to lose, at worst, one war. Franks, who from mid-2000 to mid-2003 oversaw the U.S. Central Command, the headquarters for operations in the Middle East, bungled two. Warning signs began flashing in late 2001, with his tepid effort to capture Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, about 90 miles southeast of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Coming just three months after the stunning attacks of 9/11, the Tora Bora fight provided the best early chance for American forces to kill or capture the al‑Qaeda leader. Yet Franks seemed inattentive, almost as if the battle were someone else’s problem. The Centcom commander did not see bin Laden’s capture as crucial to his campaign, or as a goal for which he should risk casualties and a messy fight. He was content to provide air power, which dropped 700,000 pounds of bombs in the area of Tora Bora over a few days in December 2001.

Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military.
 
The CIA officer in charge at Tora Bora was certain he had bin Laden cornered, though his team remained outnumbered on the ground. He repeatedly requested a battalion of Army rangers to help press the attack and seal the escape routes into Pakistan. But Franks declined the requests, citing several reasons, among them his desire not to inject more troops, the time it would take to send them, and his sense that the intelligence on bin Laden’s location was less reliable than the CIA believed. The best evidence indicates that bin Laden walked south into Pakistan in mid-December 2001, perhaps wounded in the shoulder.

Four months later, Franks made a similar mistake during Operation Anaconda, declining to provide adequate artillery support to light-infantry units that had pinned down several hundred al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. Again, the al-Qaeda men escaped into Pakistan. “I thought it was a very successful operation,” the general said afterward. “I thought the planning that was done was very good planning, and I think the result of the operation was also outstanding.” He seemed to believe that it was a net strategic gain to push the Islamic extremists from Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan, a far more populous country that suffered from a shaky security situation—and possessed a nuclear arsenal estimated to contain scores of warheads.

Not long after the Anaconda battle, Franks spoke at the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island. A student heard his talk and then posed the most basic but most important sort of question: What is the nature of the war you are fighting in Afghanistan? “That’s a great question for historians,” Franks said. He then went on to discuss how U.S. troops cleared cave complexes. It was a sergeant’s answer, not a general’s. Franks “really was comfortable at the tactical level,” concluded an officer who was in the audience that day.

Privately, Army strategists agreed with that verdict, according to an after-action review of the first part of the Afghan War, completed at the Army War College the following summer. Franks’s headquarters suffered from “many disturbing trends,” including “a short-term focus,” the report stated. “The lack of a war plan or theater campaign plan has hindered operations and led to a tactical focus that ignores long-term objectives.”

If Afghanistan hinted at Franks’s shortcomings, Iraq revealed them fully. Historically, thinking about war and then arriving at actionable conclusions has been the core task of generals. Yet Franks seemed to believe that thinking was something others did for generals. In his memoir, he refers to his military planners, with a whiff of good-old-boy contempt, as “the fifty-pound brains.”

Part of the problem was Franks’s personality. He was a military version of Donald Trump, both dull and arrogant. His memoir, with its evasions and omissions, is not reliable as a historical record, but it reveals the man well. In it, for example, Franks claims that the troubled aftermath of the Iraq invasion “was actually going about as I had expected—not as I had hoped, but as I had expected.” Yet this assertion contradicted the formal planning documents produced by his subordinates before the war. For example, one classified PowerPoint briefing given shortly before the invasion stated, under the heading “What to Expect After Regime Change”:
Most tribesmen, including Sunni loyalists, will realize that their lives will be better once Saddam is gone for good. Reporting indicates a growing sense of fatalism, and accepting their fate, among Sunnis. There may be a small group of die hard supporters that [are] willing to rally in the regime’s heartland near Tikrit—but they won’t last long without support.
Not long before the invasion began, General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, expressed concern that the U.S. force lacked sufficient troops to occupy Iraq. When I asked Franks in August 2004 about Shinseki’s concerns, he dismissed the question, saying that Shinseki “didn’t provide anything that all of us didn’t already know.” Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who took over the Iraq War from Franks, states in his own memoir that Franks told him in June 2003 that American forces would be out of Iraq later that year.

In his book, published in 2004, Franks dwells on the variety of ways he had devised to start the Iraq War, but he has little to say about how he thought it should end. He insists that he did a lot of hard thinking about post-war Iraq, but a chart he proudly reproduces in the book, outlining his “basic grand strategy,” shows nothing to support that claim—it is all about attacking, nothing more.

Franks and his staff devoted almost all of their energies to the mission of removing a weak regime and almost none to the more difficult task of replacing it. This omission became disastrous, because no one in the Bush administration was focusing on the problem either. In 2004, an official Pentagon review led by two former defense secretaries, James Schlesinger and Harold Brown, unambiguously concluded, “The October 2002 Centcom war plan presupposed that relatively benign stability and security operations would precede a handover to Iraq’s authorities.” The following year, the head of the Rand Corporation sent a memorandum to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stating that after extensive review of internal documents, his researchers had found that “post conflict stabilization and reconstruction were addressed only very generally, largely because of the prevailing view that the task would not be difficult.”

Despite the large strategic costs of his leadership in two separate wars, Franks retired, not long after the fall of Baghdad, to enjoy the American version of a Roman triumph, going on the road to make speeches for large sums and issuing his preening memoir. He passed command of the Iraq War to Ricardo Sanchez, a fellow Texan and the Army’s newest lieutenant general, who understood the conflict perhaps even less than Franks did. “I came away from my first meeting with [Sanchez] saying ‘This guy doesn’t get it,’ ” recalled Richard Armitage, who was the deputy secretary of state at the time.

Sanchez was a tragic figure, a mediocre officer placed in an impossible situation. Iraq was boiling over, the Pentagon and the Bush administration were in denial, and he was operating within a confused command structure.

An inveterate micromanager, Sanchez sank into the details of his job, constantly correcting subordinates but failing to provide overarching guidance. Like many micromanagers, Sanchez also tended to criticize harshly in public. “He would rip generals apart on the tacsat”—the military’s tactical satellite-based communications network—“with everybody in the country listening,” an officer who served on his staff told me in 2005.

Sanchez inherited no real war strategy from Franks or the Bush administration, and he did nothing to remedy that deficit. This lack of any coherent strategy manifested itself in the radically different approaches taken by different Army divisions in the war. Observers moving from one part of Iraq to another were often struck by the extent to which each division was fighting its own war, with its own assessment of the threat, its own solutions, and its own rules of engagement.


In western Iraq’s Anbar province, the 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment got tough fast, violently confronting local opposition. The 4th Infantry Division, based in Tikrit, in north-central Iraq, operated even more harshly, rounding up thousands of “military-age males” and probably turning many of them into insurgents in the process. Baghdad was its own separate situation, exceedingly complex and changing from block to block. Meanwhile, in far-northern Iraq, Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division made a separate peace, ignoring many of the anti-Baathist rules promulgated by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and conducting negotiations with the government of Syria to provide electricity to Mosul.

One reason for such distinctly diverse approaches was that conditions were very different in each of these areas. But another reason was that each division commander received little strategic guidance from Sanchez. Jeffrey White, a veteran analyst of Middle Eastern affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote early in 2004, “Some observers feel that the various U.S. divisions in Iraq have thus far waged more or less independent campaigns.”

Sanchez did not seem willing to learn from and adapt to the conflict. Some commanders at the tactical level took effective approaches, but these were ignored or even discouraged by Sanchez. For example, a Florida National Guard battalion stationed in Ramadi in 2003 was more adept at police work than most military units, because its ranks included many members of the Miami-Dade police force. It emphasized local policing, setting up an academy and an Iraqi force, and also helped cooperative sheikhs win contracts for reconstruction projects, as an Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq recalled to me in 2010. But, the officer noted, “the efforts of [the Guard unit] were consistently undermined at the theater level by military leadership that lacked a campaign plan,” as well as by the failings of the Coalition Provisional Authority. When General John Abizaid, who had replaced Franks as the chief of Central Command, visited Ramadi, he was so impressed with operations that he told Sanchez to go there and get the same briefing. Sanchez did so, apparently rather unhappily. “Sanchez came in pissed off that he’d been ordered to get a clue from [colonels and other field-grade officers] in the hinterland, and was in full attack mode,” the officer recalled. “He lit up the staff, told us we didn’t know what we were doing, and went back to Baghdad having learned nothing.”

Sanchez’s biggest failure was that on his watch, some units acted in ways that were not only counterproductive but also illegal. Not knowing how else to put down an insurgency, some divisions indiscriminately detained thousands of Iraqis and shipped them off to Abu Ghraib prison and other detention centers, where the Army lacked sufficient guards and interrogators to hold and sort them. Short-term thinking guided many of these decisions. “In the summer of ’03, we all thought we were going home by Christmas, so there was no consideration for the long-term consequences of locking up the wrong guys,” recalled Lieutenant Colonel Russell Godsil, the senior intelligence officer for the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division. “Commanders just wanted all the ‘possible’ bad guys out of their neighborhoods until they left.” Where those Iraqis wound up was someone else’s problem.

When the world learned in the spring of 2004 that American soldiers had sadistically abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Sanchez treated the scandal as a breakdown of discipline among a few enlisted soldiers, rather than a problem caused by a series of leadership failures, most notably his tolerance of massive roundups. An Army intelligence expert later estimated that more than 85 percent of the detainees had no intelligence value.

During the Tora Bora fight, Franks seemed inattentive, almost as if the battle were someone else’s problem. He did not see bin Laden’s capture as crucial to his campaign.
 
Even if widespread detentions were the right approach—and to this day, some Army officers maintain that they were—Sanchez failed to ensure that he had a back office capable of processing all those prisoners. Because detainees were not sorted by political orientation, hard-core insurgents and al‑Qaeda terrorists were able to use the prisons as recruiting and training centers. Worst of all, Abu Ghraib was run by a small, undertrained, poorly led Army Reserve unit that amused itself by playing brutal games with prisoners. The revelation of its crimes was the biggest setback of Sanchez’s year of command in Iraq—a black eye for the American military and the United States, and a major boost for the insurgency.

In a 2009 study, a veteran Army intelligence officer, Major Douglas Pryer, reviewed Sanchez’s performance. “Perhaps most unforgivably,” he wrote, “based on his staff’s recommendations, Lt. Gen. Sanchez approved two interrogation policy memoranda that were, at best, poorly considered and poorly written.” The main cause of the Abu Ghraib scandal was not lack of resources or training, he concluded, but lack of ethical leadership. “The fundamental reason why interrogation abuse in Iraq occurred was a failure in leadership. The answer is that simple.”

After the scandal broke, Sanchez contemplated relieving Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commander of the American jailers at Abu Ghraib. But he did not do so, he said, in part because she was due to rotate home in less than two months.

Nor was Sanchez himself relieved, despite his dismal record. In a privately circulated essay on American generalship in Iraq, retired Army Lieutenant General John Cushman, a veteran commander and a leading Army intellectual in the post-Vietnam era, concluded that General Abizaid, Sanchez’s immediate superior at Central Command, should have relieved Sanchez of his post.

The military scholar Andrew Bacevich’s verdict on Sanchez’s performance in Iraq is harsh but fair:
When Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez assumed command of coalition forces in Iraq in 2003, the first stirrings of an insurgency had begun to appear; his job was to snuff out that insurgency and establish a secure environment. When Sanchez gave up command a year later, Iraq was all but coming apart at the seams. Security had deteriorated appreciably. The general failed to accomplish his mission, egregiously so. Yet amidst all of the endless commentary and chatter about Iraq, that failure of command has gone all but unnoted, as if for outsiders to evaluate senior officer performance qualifies as bad form. Had Sanchez been a head coach or a CEO, he would likely have been cashiered.
Given the record of his command in Iraq, it is startling that one of the preoccupations of Sanchez’s memoir is how the Bush administration failed to elevate him to four-star rank. The end of the book dwells not on the mess he helped make of Iraq, nor on the American troops who were stuck there, nor on the American and Iraqi dead, but on how he did not get a promotion he believes he was promised. As he was trying to salvage that promotion with officials at the White House in May 2004, Sanchez turned to an aide and uttered that most tired of Army lines: “Boy, am I glad to be leaving Washington. At least in Iraq I know who my enemies are and what to do about them.”

He was wrong, of course: Sanchez was even more out of his depth in Iraq than he was in Washington. In the spreading war in Mesopotamia, he had only a dim idea of who his foes were, and even less sense of how to deal with them. There is perhaps no clearer sign of how radically America’s military culture has changed since World War II than Sanchez’s entitled whine, which speaks not only to the decoupling of poor performance from consequences in the Army’s leadership ranks, but to the expectation, civil service–style, that promotion should follow from merely putting in one’s time.

Sanchez was succeeded in Iraq in mid-2004 by General George Casey, a deeply conventional man who tried to persuade the Army to operate unconventionally. Casey was an Army insider—a four-star general and the son of the highest-ranking American casualty of the Vietnam War, a division commander who was killed in a July 1970 helicopter crash. He knew the Army needed to start operating differently in Iraq. He developed a formal campaign plan, something Sanchez had never done. More significant, he asked two counterinsurgency experts, Colonel Bill Hix and retired Lieutenant Colonel Kalev Sepp, to review the actions of individual units and make suggestions. Sepp, a Special Forces veteran of El Salvador with a doctorate from Harvard, reviewed the commander of every battalion, regiment, and brigade in Iraq and concluded that 20 percent of them understood how to properly conduct counterinsurgency operations, 60 percent were struggling to do so, and 20 percent were not interested in changing and were fighting conventionally, “oblivious to the inefficacy and counterproductivity of their operations.” In other words, a vast majority of U.S. units were not operating effectively.

His misgivings confirmed, Casey started a Counterinsurgency Academy at the large military base in Taji, just north of Baghdad. There, he gave newcomers a one-week immersion course in the basics of irregular warfare. “Because the Army won’t change itself, I’m going to change the Army here in Iraq,” he told subordinates. Just capturing a known insurgent is not necessarily a tactical gain, the academy taught the students, if it is done in such a way that it creates new enemies. As the course’s textbook put it, “The potential second- and third-order effects … can turn it into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals.”

Even so, both Casey and the Army were slow to adjust. For example, a key tenet of classic counterinsurgency theory is that troops should live in small outposts among the local people, to better understand them and to deter the enemy from controlling them. Yet in 2005 and 2006, Casey was determined to close small outposts and move his troops onto a few very big bases. “By and large,” concluded Francis West, a counterinsurgency expert and Vietnam veteran who studied American military operations in Iraq, “the battalions continued to do what they knew best: conduct sweeps and mounted patrols during the day and targeted raids by night.”

Torn and confused, trying to change course while under assault by a sophisticated group of enemies who adapted constantly, the American military under Casey did not make progress in Iraq. In 2004, it recorded 26,496 insurgent attacks. In 2005, that number increased to 34,131. Casey hopefully announced that 2006 would be “the Year of the Police,” but it turned out to be the year of bitter urban fighting, as Baghdad was consumed by a small-scale civil war. Fighting in Iraq intensified in July, especially in and around the capital. That summer there were an average of 50 insurgent attacks a day just in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. By the end of the summer, the capital had been largely ethnically cleansed, with Sunnis reduced to a few embattled enclaves on its western side. Insurgents were detonating about 1,000 roadside bombs a week. An estimated 2 million Iraqis, most of them Sunni, had fled the country, and an equal number had been classified as internally displaced.

Casey and those around him did not seem to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Admiral William Fallon, the American military commander for the Pacific, visited Baghdad in midsummer. When he returned home, he called retired Army General Jack Keane, an influential figure behind the scenes in Washington. “Jack, I just came out of Iraq,” Fallon began. “Could you help me to understand what the fuck is going on? … Casey is up to his ears in quicksand, and he doesn’t even know it. This thing is going down around him.” (The following year, Fallon was reassigned to run Central Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in early 2008 he was forced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to step down after making disparaging comments to a journalist about Bush-administration policy in the Middle East.)

Casey’s lack of awareness began to undercut his support at the top of the Bush administration. On August 17, 2006, during a video briefing to top national-security officials, he said he wanted to stick with his plan to turn Baghdad over to Iraqi security forces by the end of the year. Vice President Dick Cheney, watching from Wyoming, was troubled by that comment. “I respected General Casey, but I couldn’t see a basis for his optimism,” he wrote later.

In the wake of that briefing, the vice president began poking around for a different strategy—and different generals to lead it. Among those he met with was Colonel H. R. McMaster, the author of Dereliction of Duty, a book about the failures of top American generals in Vietnam. The colonel told Cheney that the U.S. government should abandon the view, held by Casey, that the American goal was to turn over control to the Iraqis as soon as possible.

In December, Casey was told to leave Iraq within weeks rather than in the spring of 2007, as he had planned. “I left not really understanding what the hell had happened,” Casey said. He was replaced by General Petraeus, who took a sharply different approach, moving his troops out to live among the people and getting insurgents to stop fighting Americans by putting almost 100,000 Iraqi fighters on the American payroll. Petraeus ultimately extracted the United States from Iraq, but hardly left behind a stable democracy.

Bizarrely, the tactical excellence of enlisted soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan may have enabled and amplified the strategic incompetence of the generals in those wars, allowing long-running problems in the military’s leadership culture to reach their full expression. The Army’s combat effectiveness let its generals dither for much longer than they could have if the Army had been suffering clear tactical setbacks. “One of the reasons we were able to hold on despite a failing strategy, and then turn the situation around, was that our soldiers continued to be led by highly competent, professional junior officers and noncommissioned officers whom they respected,” Sean MacFarland, who as a brigade commander in Ramadi in 2006 was responsible for a major counterinsurgency success, said at a 2010 Army symposium on leadership. “And they gave us senior officers the breathing space that we needed, but probably didn’t deserve, to properly understand the fight we were in.”

MacFarland’s point is rarely made, and worth pausing over, because its implications are far-reaching. Consider a U.S. military at the other extreme—tactically mediocre and manned with unmotivated troops. In such a circumstance, it is hard to imagine the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being allowed to meander for years without serious strategic review and redirection. Yet meander they did, at the cost of many thousands of lives—both American and Iraqi. Unless something changes at the top, it is not hard to see our future wars devolving into similarly rudderless messes, held together by the rank-and-file troops, who bear the heaviest costs.

A few reliefs might have broken the strategic logjam in Afghanistan and Iraq, but by now, even the vocabulary of accountability has been lost. A fine essay by Colonel George Reed on “toxic leadership” in the military, published in 2004 in Military Review, bravely analyzed the problem but tiptoed around the obvious solution, saying only, “If the behavior does not change, there are many administrative remedies available.” Similarly, a 2005 Rand study of Army generalship found many deficits and made many recommendations—but you will not find terms like firings or relief for cause within it. The report speaks vaguely and briefly of the need for more “performance departures.” And a study done at the Army War College by Colonel Steven Jones at about the same time pointed to persistent problems with rotation and officers’ unaccountability, as well as an assessment system that tended to reward abusive leadership—but, again, it never quite mentioned the need for firing such leaders.

The erosion of the Army’s performance culture—at least in its highest ranks—has not left the service devoid of talented leaders. But the Army continues to do too little to sort the average performers from the outstanding ones. That has long-term consequences for the caliber of military leaders. A recent survey by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that good young officers have left the military in large part because of frustration with military bureaucracy and the sense that the armed forces do not have a performance-oriented system for managing personnel.

If George Marshall, the superlative Army chief of staff during World War II, came back today to run the Army, the first thing he would likely insist upon is accountability. And that would produce more-adaptive leaders, a necessity in the post–Cold War, post-9/11 world.

Almost certainly, Marshall would also restore the sense that the needs of the nation should come before the needs of the individual or even the service. No one should get to be a general because it is his or her turn. Leading soldiers is a privilege. Our military should abide by the belief that the lives of soldiers are more important than the careers of officers—and that winning wars is more important than either. This fundamental truth is all that needs to be expressed to justify a policy of rapid relief. As Marshall understood during World War II, instilling that attitude is healthy for a military that protects a great democracy.

Thomas E. Ricks writes the Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy magazine and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Generals, out this month.