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Michael Maccoby
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Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.

When generals are wrong

There are good reasons to have confidence in the competence and integrity of our military leaders. They selflessly risk their lives to protect our nation. They embrace a patriotic culture of duty, loyalty, and honor, and they accept civilian command. But this trust in military leaders as defenders of the republic is not the same as trusting their strategic judgment.

Sometimes, as when General Eric Shinseki told Congress that winning the Iraq war would be much more costly than the Bush administration stated, their judgment has proved better than that of their civilian bosses. But throughout our history, military leaders have used their prestige to push questionable strategies.

If a poll had been taken in 1864 before Sherman took Atlanta, the public would have expressed more confidence in General George B. McClellan who wanted to bring the Civil War to a draw than in Abraham Lincoln who wanted to win it. Harry Truman had to fire General Douglas MacArthur because he wanted to expand the Korean war. After the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy learned he could not rubber-stamp military strategy. Lyndon Johnson was misled by General William Westmoreland, who assured him we could win the Viet Nam war with half-a-million troops.

Some military leaders who retire, leave the military culture and are hired by defense contractors become business leaders. We should keep in mind Dwight Eisenhower's warning about the power of the military-industrial complex that keeps on demanding more expensive hardware, even when civilian leaders at the DOD believe it is not needed. Our nation's well-being depends on leaders in government, business, education, and the press, as well as the military who are able to earn the public trust. The others won't do so by copying the military but only by demonstrating the value they uniquely contribute to the common good.

By Michael Maccoby

 |  November 3, 2009; 2:26 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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When I teach my classroom full of Air Force pilot trainees, I ask for any history majors to raise their hand (and usually get at least one). I then explain that every class needs at least one history major because some time in the students careers, the Air Force will order them to march off a cliff.

The students who are engineers will quickly figure out how many of them will go over the cliff per minute, what the accelertation rate of the fall will be, and how many "g's" will be encountered when they hit the rocks below.

The history major's job is to ask: "Why are we marching over this cliff?"

Posted by: lacklenj | November 4, 2009 12:57 PM
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So what you seem to be saying is that "Generals" like any other group of people (i.e. lawyers, Senators, left handed people) you can find some who are stellar, average and below average.

Wow. Who'd a thunk it?

Also, is there any evidence that "leaders in government, business, education, and the press," are "copying the military"? And what does that comment mean anyway?

Posted by: MDLaxer | November 4, 2009 8:37 AM
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As Little Mac and Stonewall J. demonstrated time and again, its not how many troops you have, it's what you do with them that matters. Westmoreland probably could have won with half a million troops if he was willing to take them into NVN. McClellan was a more recognizable name, thus held more public confidence, because he was an East coast leader of THE premier Army of the Potomac and Sherman was mostly a subordinate leader in the much neglected Western theater. One of the reasons why the Bay of Pigs was a disaster is that Kennedy, not the generals, withheld critical air support. As to the claim MacArthur wanted to expand the war, well, just what do we call the massive injection of millions of Chinese troops? He wasn't trying to expand it, he was trying to MATCH the already accomplish expansion.

Posted by: observer57 | November 4, 2009 12:04 AM
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People need to understand that just because military leaders may be more trustworthy and have a great deal of integrity and character doesn't mean they are infallible. Jimmy Carter had as much character as any president we ever had, but he was a lousy leader. Meanwhile Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were both integrity-impaired but in their own ways were excellent leaders. We may trust our military leaders more, but that doesn't mean we should have unreasonable expectations upon their ability and humanity. Everyone makes mistakes.

Posted by: kilgore_nobiz | November 3, 2009 6:40 PM
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The author hits the nail on the head. Let's not forget that Patton argued that we should drive to Moscow after defeating Germany, and that MacArthur wanted to go nuclear over Korea.

While military leaders are, by virtue of the culture they marinate in, perhaps more team-oriented and honor-bound, such admirable personal qualities hardly make them infallible.

Posted by: DupontJay | November 3, 2009 6:15 PM
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What a bag of gas. In one paragraph he manages to distort history three times.

Posted by: brendy1 | November 3, 2009 4:30 PM
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