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he obligation of service from the general to the President has to be one that is honored by the general, and respected by the President. Many times the politician and the warrior have clashed, and it is the soldier on the field who pays the price.
When researching the obligation of service from the military commander to the President of the United States, one discovers a long history of politicians directing warriors on the battlefield and generals resisting what may be perceived as political decision making at conflict with their obligation to military decision making.
In a government where the ultimate authority belongs to that of its civilian leadership, the chief military advisors to the President can be swayed by national and international politics, and in the worst case scenario make national security decisions based on self-preserving political thought rather than sound military judgment.
In this article, I will discuss the roles of the National Command Authority and how it has related to the uniformed commanders-in-chief through the military history of the United States. I will give examples of different instances in time when the White House has influenced the battlefield, and show the obligation of service as demonstrated by certain general officers toward their commander-in-chief.
The President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense make up what is known today as the National Command Authority. National Command Authority is the bottom line authority in the use of America's military forces. The President's role is as the single primary authority as the military's commander-in-chief. He appoints and commissions his military and national security advisors. The Secretary of Defense is appointed to be the President's primary civilian advisor on military matters relating to the deployment of operating forces. Together the President and the Secretary of Defense make up the top of the chain of command with regards to military operations around the world.
The entities that make up the next level or tier of command are the National Security Council, which is led by the President's National Security Advisor and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These are the direct link authorities to the uniformed commanders-in-chief of the unified combatant commands.
The final link in the execution of the President's military authority lies with the uniformed officer who is appointed to be one of the unified combatant commands commander-in-chief. Since the National Security Act of 1947, the chain of command as I have just described it has been tweaked a bit in terms of the roles that have been played by those who have held these various positions. In the end it is the general officer who is commanding the troops in the field that gains the President's priority of attention.
The role of the combatant commander in chief has been one in which he must balance the unique and specific needs within his command along with the intent of the President's military and foreign policies for the region within his purview. This has proven to be a timeless relationship, in which the chief leader of a country calls on the military leadership to carry out the national interests of his country.
Sun Tzu talks about this relationship in this manner, "Normally, when the army is employed, the general first receives his commands from the sovereign. He assembles the troops and mobilizes the people. He blends the army into a harmonious entity and encamps it."
This gives a clear understanding that at the strategic level of decision making, the general is given his national command authority's intent, and for the most part the how is left to the general.
There have been many examples in history of a President, or other national leader, and a general not seeing "eye-to-eye" on issues of strategy and operational employment of the military. In General Colin Powell's book, "My American Journey," and in General Norman Schwarzkopf's book "It Doesn't Take a Hero," we see a candid and relevant illustration of the functions of general officers in relation to their commander-in-chief.
The pairing of these men in history makes reading their stories an invaluable resource since it provides a look inside the link from the Oval Office and the Pentagon to the Central Command war room. To contrast these two generals, Powell and Schwarzkopf, is to see careers that ended up on different ends of the "red phone" during a time of national crisis. Powell the 'Beltway Insider' and Schwarzkopf the battlefield commander. Both men had seen combat in Vietnam, and both men had held command billets. In the end, at the final defining moment of their military careers they found themselves trying to work the issues of winning a war while meeting the wishes of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary Richard Cheney.
Some strange parallels are addressed in both their stories when they describe the Desert Storm build up and recount the events that led some to accuse Schwarzkopf of being a "McClellan." The comparison being made during the planning stages of Desert Shield was in reference to Union General McClellan during the Civil War, in which when asked by President Lincoln why he had not pursued or attacked the enemy. General McClellan's answer was that he needed more troops. In the mean time, the troops McClellan did have on hand were not being used. McClellan was eventually relieved of his command by President Lincoln.
The issue of the accusation of "McClellan-ism" came from a civilian advisor to the President, and did cause some second-guessing of Schwarzkopf's planning and abilities. This was not to be done without some shielding and screening from Powell acting as the liaison from the CINCCENT (Commander-in-Chief US Central Command) to the President. Schwarzkopf's requests for additional forces were met, and even exceeded his requirements. This served to build trust between the two generals, but there were also a few heated discussions.
Powell, as Cheney and Bush's link to Schwarzkopf, and the senior military officer on matters of national security and military operations was under tremendous political pressure to move things along in order to appease the White House. Conversely Schwarzkopf was under equal amounts of pressure in managing an international coalition of forces and his own subordinate battlefield commanders who were "pinging" him with information related to the best time to proceed with breaching of the borders of southern Kuwait and Iraq.
Schwarzkopf needed more time, and the President wanted this kicked off as decisively as possible. Powell pressed the issue with Schwarzkopf and the exchange has been described as extremely heated. The two generals eventually conceded to an agreeable solution, and in the end the President told Schwarzkopf directly of his trust in him.
The interesting thing is that all the initial planning done at CENTCOM was constantly being second-guessed by then Secretary Cheney, and a special "think-tank" came up with a plan that also had the interference of the SecDef (Secretary of Defense). Secretary Cheney even went so far as to develop his own battle plans for Operation Desert Storm. Such is the extent to which civilian leadership has been involved with military planning and operations.
This is just a glimpse into the relationship between the politician, the warrior and the natural internal struggle that takes place when dealing with the three major aspects of waging war. These aspects are the physical, such as the actual destruction to enemy infrastructures; the mental, such as relates to the enemies will to fight and our ability to break his will; and the moral, of which one aspect is the backing of the nations people and politick for agreeing to pay the price of victory.
For the soldiers in the teams and squads, companies and battalions, the mission won't change. They will continue to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy as ordered. The obligation to not waste their lives lies with the leadership of the President and in his relating to his generals and allowing them to wage a winning war.