Press reports assert that General George Casey, chief of staff of the Army, and the other chiefs have advised President Bush to reduce forces in Iraq dramatically next year. Casey has publicly questioned the current strategy and stated that the surge will have to end in April because of strains on the Army. Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, the commanders of those forces, have repeatedly indicated that they cannot now commit to a clear timeline for any such reduction, while recognizing the strains on the Army and Marine Corps. The media has been quick to describe this apparent dispute as a battle of the generals: “The chief of staff’s position on the surge reflects a divide in opinion on the Iraq war among the top leadership in the American military,” one article noted. In reality, it is nothing of the sort. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have one job — looking after the institutional well-being of the armed forces. Commanders in the field have another — winning the war. Both must advise the secretary of defense and the president within the scope of their duties, and the nation’s top two civilian commanders must decide how to balance competing priorities.
The actual disagreement between Casey and the other chiefs on the one hand and Petraeus and Odierno on the other is less obvious than drama-seeking news stories have made out. After the New York Times reported that Pace would advise the president to draw down tens of thousands of U.S. forces in Iraq next year, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs issued a public statement denying the claim. And a sensationalist article in the Wall Street Journal attempting to pit Casey against Petraeus nevertheless claimed that Casey wanted to pull six brigades out of Iraq by the end of 2008 — in other words, to return to pre-surge levels. That is what both Petraeus and Odierno have been suggesting that they would like to do as well, if it is possible. It is by no means clear from the public record, therefore, just how much space there actually is between the chiefs and the commanders in the field.
As the national discussion unfolds and everyone involved in the process offers advice, however, it is important to understand the profound differences between the duties of the Joint Chiefs and those of the commanders. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 created the foundation of the current U.S. military structure at the highest levels. It has received much praise for improving the cooperation among the services — its original purpose — but it has had a number of unintended consequences, including the development of tensions between the Joint Chiefs and field commanders in wartime.
The American military system today works like this: The chain of command — people who can actually give orders to combat units — runs from the president to the secretary of defense to the Unified Combatant Commander (Admiral Fox Fallon of U.S. Central Command, in this case; previously General John Abizaid) to the field commanders (General Petraeus and his subordinate, General Odierno). The job of the combatant commanders is to use American military force to pursue U.S. interests, including but not limited to fighting and winning the nation’s wars.
The Joint Chiefs have a different job. They are explicitly excluded from the chain of command. Instead, each individual service chief has the task of being a “force provider” — training and equipping the military units of his service so that they are ready for use by combatant commanders. In addition, the chiefs collectively are the president’s military advisers, although Goldwater-Nichols eliminated some earlier confusion in this regard by specifying that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the president’s principal military adviser and the only chief with the right of direct access to the president.
To put it simply: The Joint Chiefs have the task of preparing American armed forces for present and future combat, while the combatant commanders have the job of fighting the wars. Or, to put it another way, there is no uniformed military officer in the Pentagon whose primary job it is to win wars. Only two people in Washington actually have that job: The secretary of defense and the president.
This situation is markedly different from the famous example of World War II, for instance. General George C. Marshall was the chief of staff of the Army, and he took his job of building, training, equipping, and preparing that force to fight very seriously. But he was also responsible for actually winning the war, and so he balanced concerns about the well-being of the Army with the needs of combat within his own staff and within his own mind. The current chiefs do not have any such mandate. Their job, by statute, is to think about the well-being of their services, and that is what they do.
There are trade-offs with either system, but now is not the place to consider what might be better. As the debate over Iraq progresses, however, we must keep constantly in mind the perspective that the various generals bring to bear on the problem. The chiefs would be remiss if they did not advise the president and secretary of defense about the strains that this war — like all significant wars — put on the armed services. The commanders in the field would be failing in their task if they did not provide honest advice about what forces they need to win. The ultimate burden of decision falls upon the president. He must evaluate the relative danger of withholding necessary forces from commanders engaged in an important struggle against the damage that keeping more forces deployed for longer is doing to the military.
His problem is made more complex by the fact that, although removing U.S. forces from Iraq would relieve the immediate pressure on the ground forces, it would also almost certainly lead to a humiliating defeat of those forces. Such a defeat will inflict its own damage on the well-being of the U.S. military, which has not yet lost a war since it became an all-volunteer force after Vietnam. And the president must also weigh the damage now being done to the military against the possibly greater damage that might result from a need to reengage in the Middle East in coming years after Iraq has collapsed and spread greater chaos through a region of vital national interest to the United States. These are difficult decisions that will require the president soberly to evaluate all of the advice he is given. The American people and Congress must do the same. Above all, we must avoid succumbing to the temptation to portray a battle of the generals as some kind of political theater or strife within the military. Choosing rightly at this critical pass in American history is too important for that.