[February 14, 2019] Criticizing military leaders for their failures is not something I write about lightly. But, as all who have “been there and done that,” know that criticizing can have a meaningful and positive impact. The reason that thoughtful criticism is necessary is that people die when military leadership fails.
One good thing about U.S. military leaders is that they are willing to accept criticism and take action. This willingness is what prompts me to comment to avoid how this works. After 40 years of military service, I’ve seen plenty of mistakes made that caused some unfortunate things to happen.
Military failures of leadership can be broadly grouped into two categories. First, no matter how good you are as a leader, well prepared and supported, resourced, and ready, the enemy still has a vote and troops (and civilians) will still die. This is the unfortunate side of warfare. An examination of those decisions and circumstances are necessary. The idea is to make improvements that strengthen the fighting force and reduce all causalities.
Second, military leadership failures are also the by-product of decisions that were made by commission or omission. For example, if we were to have access to military Inspector General Reports, we would see that leaders make some awful decisions; busing their power and violating basic ethical and legal standards.
It’s the second, self-inflicted failures of interest to me today. A cursory reading of any Military Times newspaper gives us a variety of stories of special note about leaders in command positions. Several publicized senior commanders were removed from their jobs because of a “loss of confidence in their ability to command.” This is the most often stated reason (see examples Air Force, Navy, and Army).
A recent article in the Federalist (link here) highlights how leadership at high levels – acting to protect their careers – failed to ensure units sent into combat were ready. This is a serious charge and should be investigated fully. It is old as formal militaries existed that commanders are responsible for everything their command does or fails to do. That’s what I was taught and in my first command, the idea scared me.
I have found that some senior commanders believe that responsibility only rests on the shoulders of junior commanders. In the Federalist article, it identified Captain Perozeni, the team leader, as being held out for the mistakes made at higher levels. At first, the Captain was admonished for his “mistakes” and issued a reprimand. Then, the reprimand was withdrawn, and he was put in for a Silver Star medal for his bravery, then the reprimand was back on.
This on-again, off again saga is destructive in many ways. What bothers most of us, is that senior officers are abdicating their responsibilities and not taking the blame for actions taken under conditions they created. This should not stand, and the U.S. military needs to get their facts straight, stop using the Captain as a piñata, and fix how leaders are held accountable.