Back in World War II, the Army had no qualms about letting officers go; at least 16 of the 155 generals who commanded divisions in combat during the war were relieved while in combat. George Marshall, the nation’s top general, felt that a willingness to fire subordinates was a requirement of leadership. He once described Gen. Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, as a fine man, but one who “didn’t have the nerve to get rid of men not worth a damn.”
Marshall had plenty of nerve: in 1940 and ’41, as war loomed, he forced into retirement several hundred officers he deemed too old and slow to be effective. When the commandant at Leavenworth, Brig. Gen. Charles Bundel, told him that updating the complete set of Army training manuals would take 18 months, Marshall offered him three months, and then four months, to do the job. It can’t be done, Bundel twice responded.
“You be very careful about that,” Marshall told him in a telephone conversation.
“No, it can’t be done,” Bundel repeated.
“I’m sorry, then you are relieved,” Marshall said.
We tend to remember those who were nearly relieved but ultimately weren’t, most notably Gen. George Patton, who came closest to being fired during the war after slapping two American soldiers suffering from combat fatigue. But that sort of exception illustrates another aspect of the lost tradition of relieving commanders: the military had some flexibility in enforcing it. Patton was seen by his superiors as having unusual weaknesses but equally rare strengths, so he was kept on.
One advantage of having a more flexible attitude toward removal from combat command was that it did not necessarily mean the end of one’s career. During World War II, three Army division commanders — Orlando Ward, Terry de la Mesa Allen and Leroy Watson — were relieved of command of divisions in combat but went on to lead different divisions later in the war.
The old system may seem harsh in today’s light, and certainly some men were treated unfairly. But keep in mind that job losses were dwarfed by combat losses: In the summer of 1944, 15 of the 20 battalion and regimental commanders in the 82nd Airborne were either killed or wounded. In World War II, a front-line officer either succeeded, became a casualty or was relieved within a few months — or in some cases, within days.
The tradition of swift relief provided two benefits that we have lost in today’s Army: It punished failure and it gave an opportunity to younger, more energetic officers who were better equipped to adapt to the quickening pace of the war. When George Marshall heard of a major who really was doing a general’s work, he stepped in to make the man a brigadier general overnight. Under this audacious system, a generation of brilliant young commanders emerged, men like James Gavin, an innovator in airborne warfare who became the Army’s youngest three-star general.
But that tradition was somehow lost in the Korean War and buried conclusively in Vietnam. Nowadays, dynamic young leaders can’t emerge as quickly, because almost no one is fired. In a much-discussed 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, most of our commanders have “rotated in” for a year, led their units and gone home. This skews incentives away from risk-taking and toward not making waves. Consequently, the only generals who are fired are those at the very top, who do not serve one-year tours of duty and so must be removed by firing or forced resignation.