CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid's planned retirement in the middle of a war reflects a business as usual mentality on the part of our senior leaders, who seemingly find it impossible to fight and kill the enemy all the way to victory. There were no such inhibitions on the part of Ike and Patton in WW II. Comparing the current leadership with the way Ike held together a complex coalition, while getting the most out of his brash and colorful general, shows how far we have slipped into military-academic skullduggery, meant to excuse incomplete victories behind a veneer of professional elitism.
In our previous global conflict, failures of military leaders in a combat zone would have never have been tolerated by a theater commander, and would have nearly always been handled within the military chain of command. Decisions on keeping flag officers in their jobs rested on one criterion alone: having commanders focused on the total defeat of the enemy.
Popular myth holds that Ike and Patton were forever at odds both personally and professionally. In fact, they became close friends during the inter-war years, and that relationship continued throughout WW II. Another myth holds that Eisenhower was an old fogy in his understanding of tactics; that is, he was judged to be a bumpkin when it came to modern armored warfare principles. Actually, Ike commanded one of the first American heavy tank companies in the 1920s; and although he was not a dedicated tank expert like Patton, he certainly wasn't a neophyte either.
Both men would exemplify a singular focus on victory and a willingness to make the tough decisions to make it happen; and they did not have long to wait to make their mark. In February of 1943, the Americans and the Germans first met in battle in North Africa, resulting in a thrashing for the American II Corps commanded by the hapless General Lloyd Fredendall. As corps commander, he had a bad habit of parking his command post 70 miles behind the front lines in a cave burrowed into the side of a cliff. His concept of a sanctuary CP was way ahead of its time, and if he were around in the 90s, he would have been hailed as a forward thinking strategist.
Notwithstanding what might have been, his incompetence resulted in a humiliating defeat at the Kasserine Pass against Rommel's Africa Corps. Eisenhower personally investigated the situation, got input from General Bradley, and made his decision: Fredendall was canned and replaced by Patton. It would not immediately be evident to outside observers, but Ike's decision to put Patton in charge had less to do with countering the Desert Fox with Patton's tank expertise, than it did with assuring that Ike had a field general who would not tolerate any excuses for failure to kill the enemy and capture territory.
After successfully commanding the II Corps in battle, Patton was promoted to command of the 7th Army for the invasion of Sicily. The infamous "slapping incident" occurred at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital during this campaign, and Ike's close relationship with Patton made for an agonizing decision that could have resulted in sending his toughest field commander back to the States.
Today, there is no doubt that the rambunctious general would have been shipped out on the next flight home in disgrace; his sad story and probably his childhood psychological profile splattered all over the New York Times. But for Eisenhower, the decision to retain Patton for future employment was really a no-brainer. Harry C. Butcher, Naval Aide to Ike, wrote about how his boss justified keeping his best general, especially in dealing with an Army largely composed of draftees:
Ike (Eisenhower) makes a point that in any army one-third of the soldiers are natural fighters and brave; two-thirds inherently are cowards and skulkers. By making the two-thirds fear the possible public upbraiding such as Patton gave during the campaign, the skulkers are forced to fight. Ike said Patton's method was deplorable but his result was excellent. He cited history to show that great military leaders had practically gone crazy on the battlefield in their zeal to win the fight.
Concerning Iraq, we often hear the now-tired excuse of "there are mistakes made in any war." True; and Patton made his share, such as his stubborn campaign against the fortresses at Metz, and his ill-advised raid on the POW camp at Hammelburg. Absent Eisenhower's successful drive for total victory, these operations would have been viewed as flawed decisions made in the fog of war, and the Patton legend would have been relegated to the same dustbin of history as the disgraced General Fredendall.
How serious were Ike and his field generals in their focus on total victory? It was not unheard of for some US divisions and corps to have a substantial percentage of leaders relieved for failure to achieve success in battle if they were found to have a continuing pattern of indecisiveness or self-doubt, or if they had a habit of avoiding decisive engagements.
The campaign in Iraq is now what could be called at best a stalemate; or at worse, a rear guard action designed to minimize US casualties while Iraqi forces struggle to find their mettle. Meanwhile, the buck is passed to the Joint Chiefs, retirees, and government civilians as evidenced by the never ending stream of wartime Whitehouse policy sessions, form-over-substance military PR campaigns, Pentagon studies, think tank symposiums, retired flag officer "advice", ad infinitum.
Unity of command this ain't.
There is a strange disengagement from the history of our past wars and the leaders that have made the momentous and sometimes nerve-racking decisions that have led us to victory. The inconclusive, pseudo-military operations in Iraq are so evident, that military professionals and historians offer up alternative plans to substitute for the lack of purpose and passion in our wartime headquarters. While the analytical thoroughness and conclusions are sound, they will do little to alter the current situation.