Did Politics Cost Afghanistan Commander His Job?

In 1943, few American officers had brighter prospects than John Lucas and Haywood "Possum" Hansell. But developments on the battlefield -- and other events -- derailed their appointment with greatness, leaving them as little more than historical footnotes -- two more names on the long list of failed military commanders.

Six decades later, Army Lieutenant General David McKiernan appears destined for the same, historical ash heap. McKiernan was fired earlier this week as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, amid a surge in Taliban activity and the Obama administration's desire for a "fresh approach" in that country.

But history also reminds us that the dismissal of senior military leaders is almost inevitably linked to politics. It was true in the days of the Roman legion and the early days of World War II, and it was evident in Washington again this week.

Consider the parallels between McKiernan's firing and those of his counterparts during the Second World War. Like General McKiernan, John Lucas had a reputation as an outstanding leader, seemingly destined for greater things. He led the Third Infantry Division during the early days of the war. Eighteen months later, Lucas was a corps commander in charge of Operation Shingle, the amphibious landings at Anzio on the Italian coast.

Haywood Hansell enjoyed a similar, rapid rise in the wartime military. One of the Air Corps' leading planners and strategists, Hansell helped devise and direct the Allied bombing campaign against Hitler's Germany. He was commander of a medium bomber wing and then the first operational B-17 wing in Europe, leading dozens of missions personally.

Hansell's impressive accomplishments made him a logical choice to lead the bomber offensive against Japan. In 1944, Hansell (then a brigadier general) was installed as leader of XX Bomber Command, based in the Marianas Islands. Equipped with B-29s, the new command would apply the concepts of strategic bombing, developed in part by  Hansell himself, to the Japanese homeland.

But even casual students of military history know that Lucas and Hansell failed at their assigned missions. Despite a successful landing at Anzio, General Lucas failed to seize the initiative. The planned breakout from the beachhead bogged down, leading to months of bloody fighting. Winston Churchill famously summarized the stalemate: "I thought we were hurling a wildcat on the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale." At the insistence of Churchill (and others), Lucas was relieved of his command in February 1944, barely six weeks into the campaign.

General Hansell was also sacked after early B-29 raids failed to achieve desired results against Japanese cities. Critics pointed to Hansell's repeated raids against Japan's aircraft engine industry as justification for his firing. Early intelligence suggested that the attacks were ineffective.  Hansell was dismissed in January 1945, only five months after he assumed leadership of XX Bomber Command and just seven weeks after its first bombing mission against Japan.

However, a closer examination of the record suggests that Lucas and Hansell were, to some degree, the victim of intra-service struggles and old-fashioned politics. General Lucas expressed grave misgivings about "Shingle," noting that invasion forces would be outnumbered by German defenders, limiting their ability to achieve the desired break-out towards Rome. Lucas was further constrained by orders from his superior, General Mark Clark, who told the corps commander "don't stick your head out."

Hansell faced similar challenges in getting his bombers into combat. Unlike other commanders in the South Pacific, General Hansell didn't work for Admiral Chester Nimitz or General Douglas MacArthur. His boss, located eight thousand miles away in Washington, D.C., was none other than the impatient General Arnold.

Making matters worse, the B-29 had severe development problems that followed the  aircraft into combat, reducing its early effectiveness. Hansell also faced unforeseen problems like the jet stream, powerful, high-altitude winds that made it difficult for the Superfortresses to reach targets and bomb accurately.