Great Generations.... and Others

I am a member of the greatest generation and am a decorated veteran of World War II. I have the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the appropriate campaign ribbons, and assorted medals of lesser significance. For most of my adult life I considered the collection simply hokum, part of the braggadocio noncombatants created to manifest their patriotism and screen the fact that they missed the big show. In my heart I knew I was no hero. My unit, 273rd Infantry Regiment, 69th Division, had seen combat during the last three and a half months of the war. We had always outnumbered the enemy -- except for the rare counterattack -- we had absolute control of the air, our artillery was always there when needed, and though we had incurred casualties we were aware that fatalities occurred in the peaceful United States as well. Besides, most of us were in our late teens or early twenties and considered ourselves immortal.  We were destined to win the war and our job was to make it happen.

We won the war, came home, and a remarkably generous government paid for our college educations, provided  cheap, easily attainable mortgages for houses greater in size and comfort from what we had grown up in, and gave us unemployment insurance when we weren’t quite ready to work. I did not want to puncture the tranquil joyride we were in and did not laugh at the greatest generation’s malarkey although I still could not believe it.

But now in my old age and decrepitude, after a series of wars which we have not won, I am beginning to wonder. I have long felt that today’s volunteer army, particularly the grunts, is superior in physical aptitude and professional capability than we, the greatest generation, ever were. If true, why can’t they win any wars?

I served eighteen months in Vietnam in a non-military capacity, and still remember a conversation I had with a battalion commander of artillery. He kept boasting that in the six months there they had not suffered one enemy induced casualty. I congratulated him, of course, but wondered why he had come to Vietnam. He could have achieved the same success by staying in the States. I also played tennis at the same club as General William Westmoreland, who commanded Allied forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. I found him to be  polite, urbane, and highly energetic, all traits that I admired. Yet his period of command was not one that could be pointed to as commendable; it was worsened no doubt by a secretary of defense whose most notable achievement was the creation of the Ford Motor disaster, the Edsel.

Yet, we have also had remarkably good generals. Matthew Ridgeway, whose genius cannot be overstated, changed the disastrous course of events in Korea simply through his forceful personality. Creighton Abrams arrived too late in Vietnam to do the same, but his leadership was certainly a positive factor in ensuing events.

The two generals of the first Gulf War, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, came out of that conflict with glowing reputations. Yet that victory, so-called by everyone, rectified nothing and simply brought on another war.General Schwarzkopf, in preparation for his long awaited counterattack, called in a series of experts from the Pentagon to do the planning. Logistics for a modern armored offensive being as involved as it is the need for experienced personnel is clear. But equally necessary is a realistic appraisal of the enemy’s strengths founded on thorough reconnaissance and the history of contact with it. Such an appraisal should have been made by those commanders on the scene, not by new arrivals from Washington, but it was not made. The Marines’ early victory through air power over a well- equipped armored division was completely ignored, as were the Marines’ subsequent comments. Our generals seemed to rely on media reports to assess the strength and intentions of the enemy rather than the experience of the Marines on the ground. As a result, when the counterattack finally began, the powerful left hook that was to obliterate the enemy hit nothing but empty air.  A truce was quickly achieved which left the Saddam regime intact with most of its best troops within its borders. Nevertheless, we treated it as a resounding victory. The subsequent invasion of Iraq, brought on in part by the lack of foresight during the Gulf War, demonstrated once again our superb fighting qualities. We routed the large Iraqi army and conquered the country in record time. But once again we didn’t know what to do with our victory. 

As I sit here brooding over the decline of our nation I am beginning to think that possibly, just barely, maybe we were the greatest. Not that we in fact were so great but at least we knew what in fact we were doing. For this, we are indebted to the chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, a strong, forthright individual who was not afraid of firing people when they proved inadequate to the task, and did so frequently. Victory was the goal, not celebrity or medals, and we all, grunts included, knew it. His views of celebrity are best illustrated by his press conferences. They were in his office where he sat behind his desk and the reporters stood. This made the conferences refreshingly brief and free of elaborate language or nitpicking questions. But to give the media credit General Marshall’s reputation did not suffer.

Victory as defined by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill meant unconditional surrender. This was understood by everyone and precluded a lot of dithering and back and forth messaging. Unconditional surrender may not be the goal of every conflict but whatever the goal is it should be clearly defined and stated. Greatness begins by knowing what one is doing and why.  We, the greatest generation, in our own bumbling way  knew, sort of, exactly that without much explanation. 

Today’s superbly trained and awesomely powerful army has been given a number of tasks, not all of which are military in nature. Being all volunteer and American, they saluted and said yes sir, will do. But they are not very good at nation building. They are the defenders of our country and led by a Secretary of Defense, not a Secretary of Nation Building. The Greatest Generation didn’t build any nations. We tore a few evil ones apart and as a result a few free nations reappeared and we were idolized and mistakenly called heroes. Great. Let us all be called heroes, including the poor souls out on the limb in Afghanistan. And let our civilian leaders have the courage and brains to explain clearly in concrete, not abstract language what our aims are and how we can reach them. If they can do that, and forgive me but I am beginning to doubt it, the American Army will accomplish whatever is needed.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer