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.
To be sure, both Hansell and Lucas made their share of mistakes. General Lucas’s hesitation is the stuff of legend, and he didn’t exactly endear himself to the troops by staying away from the front lines. By comparison, Hansell was faulted for his quiet nature (senior Air Corps officers said he lacked the “temperament” to be an effective commander) and his advocacy of precision bombing against Japan. That put him at odds with Air Staff rivals and some political figures who believed that Japan “deserved” fire-bombing in retaliation for starting the war.
While Lucas and Hansell haven’t been completely vindicated by history, their reputations seem less tarnished through the passage of time. Many military analysts feel that Lucas was given an untenable position, almost guaranteeing his failure at Anzio. Meanwhile, many of the precepts that General Hansell fought for eventually became the doctrinal foundation for the successful air campaigns in Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan.
Will General McKiernan enjoy a similar rehabilitation in the years to come? That remains uncertain, but one thing is clear. Like the dismissals of Lucas and Hansell almost 70 years ago, the firing of McKiernan was the result of multiple factors, some of them beyond his control.
Indeed, many would argue that the general’s “greatest sin” was advocating more troops for a war that had been neglected by the Pentagon and the White House. McKiernan also predicted a “tough year” in Afghanistan, recognizing the limits of our commitment to the fight and that of our NATO allies.
In the end, President Obama elected to send only a portion of the forces requested by his commander. There is a perception that “too many” troops might turn the civilian population against us. So far, however, neither the president nor his defense secretary have found the number needed to blunt the Taliban’s resurgence while securing the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
As General McKiernan prepares to exit, the military spin machine is already in overdrive, offering justification for this week’s dismissal. By various accounts, McKiernan (a career armor officer) was the “wrong man for the job,” someone who lacks the strategic vision of a David Petraeus, or a man without the dynamism of a Stanley McChrystal, who is already tapped as the next commander of our forces in Afghanistan. Others suggest that McKiernan was “slow to react” when Obama recently announced a new “strategy” for that county.
Never mind that the White House is still working on key details of that strategy or that templates of the successful Iraq campaign can’t be easily transferred to the Afghan theater. And there’s the little matter of NATO. McKiernan couldn’t exactly shelve alliance plans for Afghanistan and risk losing the little support supplied by alliance members.
It’s the kind of thankless juggling act that often falls to military leaders in complex contingencies. General McKiernan’s failure in Afghanistan wasn’t pre-ordained, but it became more likely as the Taliban re-gained strength, military rivals began pushing alternate plans, and the White House began using the “change” word. By our reckoning, McKiernan had direct influence over one factor (the battlefield in Afghanistan), limited impact on another (sniping within the military command ranks), and no control over the political factors that led to his dismissal. Call it a perfect storm.
John Lucas and Possum Hansell would certainly understand.