Beware of Boldness
At a counterterrorism conference in September
2004, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard
B. Myers stated that the key question senior officials needed to
ask about their conduct of the Global War on Terrorism was, "Are
we being as bold and innovative as we need to be?"1
Army Field Manual 7.0, Training the Force, states that the goals
of operational deployments and major training opportunities are
to enhance unit readiness and "produce bold, innovative leaders."2
These adjectives have now become accepted as key components of the
lexicon of defense transformation. But before the words become etched
in stone, the Army and the other services should seriously think
about what these terms mean for leaders, and their historical role
in the American military experience. The colloquial caution, "Be
careful what you ask for, because you just might get it," is
As any serious student of military history
knows, truly innovative ideas usually come from staffs and subordinates.
Leaders, especially at higher levels, rarely need to be innovative
themselves; instead, they must be prepared to recognize valuable
contributions from others and incorporate them into the practices
of the larger organization. Timothy Lupfer's seminal study on the
evolution of German tactical doctrine in World War I describes how
senior German leaders incorporated the best ideas from staff officers
and junior leaders throughout the army (and from the French) to
develop doctrines and practices for elastic defense-in-depth and
new offensive tactics that provided the basis for later blitzkrieg.3
In contrast, American leaders in Vietnam often
actively resisted initiatives for improvement proposed by subordinates.
John Nagl's insightful study of counterinsurgency lessons from the
war in Southeast Asia concludes that "the US Army generals
who commanded MAAG-V [Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam]
and MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] repeatedly rejected
innovative suggestions for changes in American counterinsurgency
doctrine in Vietnam." He concludes that these senior leaders
were very capable professionals, but their experience and organizational
culture limited their vision. Nagl contrasts that example with the
British Army in Malaya, which adapted much more readily to unfamiliar
conditions and quickly embraced new ideas.4
There are plenty of examples of American military
leaders before Vietnam who appreciated the contributions that innovative
subordinates and staffs had to offer, especially in World War II.
Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry "Hap" Arnold
organized an advisory council of three to five young staff officers,
"the brightest I could get," and set them up in an office
close to his. His instructions to them were straightforward: "What
I want you to do is sit down and think. Think of the problems confronting
us. Think of the solutions to those problems. Bring in new ideas.
If you bring in one idea every two or three days, I will be satisfied."5
A well-known example of American wartime innovation
is the development and application of the "Rhinoceros"
or "Rhino" hedgerow buster. This was typical of the process
of decentralized adaptation that made the American Army in Europe
so successful in World War II. The brainstorm of Sergeant Curtis
G. Culin, Jr., of the 102d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in July
1944, the device consisted of prongs fashioned from a German roadblock
that allowed a Sherman tank to force its way through a hedgerow
without having to expose its vulnerable underbelly. Fifth Corps
commander Major General Leonard Gerow recognized the Rhino's significant
potential, and he invited General Omar Bradley to view a demonstration.
The First Army commander was so impressed that he instructed his
ordnance chief to comb England for arc welding equipment and to
mass-produce the devices from beach obstacles. By the time of the
great Operation Cobra attack in late July, 60 percent of American
tanks were equipped with Rhinos. To ensure surprise, none of those
Shermans were allowed to go into action before Cobra. Once the attack
began, German armor was restricted to the roads, while the Americans
flanked them through the hedgerows. The tactical and psychological
impact of Sergeant Culin's innovation, exploited by Omar Bradley,
was a major factor in the breakout from Normandy.6
Boldness in an organization, however, must
be created by the leadership, beginning at the top. The Army War
College recently adopted that characteristic as one of the key traits
desirable in senior leaders. Most doctrinal proclamations of the
advantages of bold leadership remain vague about the adjective's
specific definition, however, and such a disconnect is worth examining.
The copy of Webster's New World Dictionary on my shelf opens its
description of "bold" as "daring, fearless."
Cross referencing to "daring" gives us "having or
showing a bold willingness to take risks."7
So by definition, bold leaders are big risk-takers.
There are many reasons why senior American
military leaders have rarely been bold. Those commanders with a
preponderance of resources are less likely to feel obligated to
take risks than perceived underdogs. Operating within a coalition
also can restrict options. But conservative senior leadership has
been very successful for the United States, and it avoids the significant
costs and pitfalls that can result from operational and strategic
gambles gone wrong. American leaders at high levels appear to have
realized an important insight from military history that comes true
more often than not: Bold leaders end badly.
America's Bold Generals
This analysis is primarily focused at the higher
levels of combat leadership. Consequently, for the purposes of this
article, all American generals were examined who led in combat at
army level and above during the major wars of the 20th century.
In World War I, the American Expeditionary
Forces (AEF) were led by John J. Pershing. He also served as commander
of First Army until turning over that position to Hunter Liggett
in October 1918. During that same month, Pershing created Second
Army and gave it to Robert L. Bullard. This new leadership structure
finished the Meuse-Argonne campaign. Pershing eventually established
a Third Army also, but only for occupation duties after the Armistice.
One of the brigade commanders in the AEF rose
to become the supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southwest
Pacific area in World War II, Douglas MacArthur. Under him, Walter
Krueger commanded Sixth Army, and Robert L. Eichelberger led Eighth
Army. One other army, the Tenth, saw action in the Pacific theater,
where its commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner, was killed on the island
The supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary
Forces in the European Theater was Dwight D. Eisenhower. His senior
American ground commander in Northwest Europe was Omar Bradley,
who commanded First Army before advancing to lead Twelfth Army Group.
Jacob Devers commanded Sixth Army Group. Courtney Hodges commanded
First Army, George Patton the Third and Seventh, Lucian Truscott
the Fifth, Alexander Patch the Seventh, William Simpson the Ninth,
and Leonard Gerow the Fifteenth. Mark Clark commanded Fifth Army
before rising to take over Fifteenth Army Group in Italy.
Command climate can either engender or limit
boldness, and Eisenhower has received criticism for being too conservative
and restricting opportunities for audacity by his subordinates in
the European theater. British sources especially have claimed he
should have taken more military risks for a quicker victory or greater
political gain. Such criticism at the time was often motivated by
nationalistic sensitivities about Bernard Montgomery's status or
the British role in the coalition, and later by hindsight about
the future Cold War. Eisenhower's biographer grandson concedes that
the general "intended to proceed methodically, not boldly."8
But it is difficult to argue with success. His conservative approach
was based on a careful evaluation of many factors often explained
in great detail in his memoirs.9 Was
Eisenhower the SHAEF commander sometimes too cautious? Probably.
Was he also very successful? Definitely.
Douglas MacArthur again headed a combined force
in the Korean War, serving as commander of UN Forces and Far East
Command. When MacArthur was relieved in April 1951, Matthew Ridgway
took his place. Ridgway had been leading Eighth Army after the death
of Walton Walker in December 1950. Ridgway's successor in that post
was James Van Fleet. Their limited, controlled offensives regained
the initiative and drove back the Chinese.10
By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, Mark Clark was the
theater commander, and Eighth Army was commanded by Maxwell Taylor.
There were only a handful of senior American
combat leaders in the 20th century after Korea. William Westmoreland
and Creighton Abrams led the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam.
Norman Schwarzkopf commanded the Coalition forces that liberated
Kuwait in 1991, while John Yeosock was in charge of the subordinate
Third Army in that campaign.
Of those 25 individuals, only two, John J.
Pershing and Douglas MacArthur, fit the dictionary definition of
boldness. (More discussion of George Patton will come later.) And
both ended their combat careers badly.
At the senior level, Pershing's boldness first
manifested itself during the Punitive Expedition into Mexico chasing
Pancho Villa. He employed new technology such as motorcars and airplanes
while sending "flying columns" deep into Mexico and ignoring
normal tactical deployments. Historians generally have depicted
the mission as a failure, but more objective military analysts have
pointed out that Pershing did disperse Villa's bands and eliminate
that threat to the United States. Even such sympathetic observers
have to admit, however, that Pershing's high-handed activities severely
antagonized the Mexican government and brought the two countries
to the brink of war. Almost all Mexicans, regardless of their sentiments
about the ongoing revolution, were unified in their resentment of
The campaign in Mexico also helped prepare
a cadre of officers for leadership in World War I, and probably
encouraged Pershing's disdain for tactics he felt were responsible
for stalemate on the Western Front. While Pershing has deservedly
been praised for creating and maintaining an independent American
Army, his operational record has received severe criticism. His
training programs were ineffective and sometimes counterproductive,
he ignored the hard lessons his Allies had learned in favor of a
vague concept of "open warfare" that confused his subordinates
and got many killed, and he continually demanded too much from inexperienced
staffs forced to deal with complicated schemes of maneuver that
would have challenged even a much more seasoned army. The final
American campaign in the Meuse-Argonne featured broken-down logistics
that produced sick and hungry troops along with immense transportation
logjams, and inept tactics that achieved any success strictly by
"smothering German machine guns with American flesh."
Despite gratuitous comments from Allies after the war about doughboy
bravery, foreign leaders still considered the American Expeditionary
Forces poorly organized and ignorant of modern warfare. Pershing
had failed to produce an instrument of policy capable of strengthening
Woodrow Wilson's leverage at the peace talks.12
One of Pershing's more talented subordinates
in France was Douglas MacArthur, and the two would have a rocky
relationship until the latter rose to become Chief of Staff of the
Army in the 1930s. Even as a brigadier general in the trenches,
MacArthur took great personal risks, earning seven Silver Stars
and the Distinguished Service Cross with oak leaf cluster. When
he achieved theater-level command in World War II, he proved equally
willing to take risks at the operational level of war. Edward Drea's
superb study of MacArthur's use of ULTRA intelligence reveals that
the general continually ignored any evidence that went against his
preconceived strategic vision. The historian expected to find that
generalship in the Pacific theater was influenced by the same "ULTRA
state of mind" as in European operations, but instead bold
MacArthur decisions such as those regarding Biak, Leyte, and Kyushu
seemed to be made in spite of intelligence reports. According to
Drea, "A sense of destiny, not revelations from ULTRA, propelled
MacArthur through the Southwest Pacific campaigns." Often MacArthur's
instincts were right, but at other times he benefited from Japanese
ineptitude or fortuitous moves from Central Pacific forces that
drew the enemy away. Yet his risk-taking always seemed to pay off.
He tried to foster a similar attitude in his senior ground commanders,
but was disappointed that Robert Eichelberger and Walter Krueger
always seemed too cautious.13
MacArthur established a command climate to
encourage audacity in his subordinates, but that could not motivate
his army commanders to become daring risk-takers. In fairness to
Eisenhower, his subordinates in Europe probably would have similarly
remained cautious even if Eisenhower's nature had tended more toward
boldness. Though Krueger and Eichelberger did not meet MacArthur's
expectations in that regard, they still must be considered very
MacArthur continued his bold ways in Korea
in 1950. Inchon was his masterpiece, though it can be argued the
September operation was actually too surprisingly successful, since
it forced hasty strategic decisions from unprepared policymakers
in Washington and Beijing. But the dark side of boldness was less
than three months away, at Kunu-ri and Chosin Reservoir. By early
November, MacArthur's intelligence staff was estimating Chinese
strength in Manchuria at 868,000. Denied accurate aerial reconnaissance
by the intervention of Soviet-piloted MiG-15s, MacArthur still drove
his divided forces toward the Yalu River. Seizing upon the promises
of his Far East Air Forces (FEAF) to create a zone of destruction
in North Korea to block Chinese entry, he cabled Washington on 9
November that he was confident "unrestricted" airpower
would provide security. He believed, or hoped, the Chinese would
never intervene, anyway. But any fears about MacArthur's "over
reliance" on airpower, and faith in his destiny, would prove
Though MacArthur was not satisfied with the
boldness of his ground commanders in World War II, he got along
very well with leaders of other components in the Southwest Pacific.
George Kenney was an audacious air commander with MacArthur's own
instincts for risk-taking. One reason MacArthur was so willing to
accept unachievable FEAF promises in November 1950 was because he
had gotten so used to Kenney's creative competence in World War
II. MacArthur particularly enjoyed working with the aptly nicknamed
William "Bull" Halsey, whom MacArthur considered "a
real fighting admiral," very much like himself. There was no
bolder naval commander in World War II than Halsey. His aggressive
risk-taking helped win the key campaign at Guadalcanal that started
the advance to Tokyo, though American naval losses totaled 24 capital
ships. Even when successful, boldness can be costly.16
Halsey's last combat left a controversial cloud
over his reputation. At the climactic and complicated naval Battle
of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese purposefully designed a plan to exploit
Halsey's bold nature. Luring his covering task force away with aircraft
carriers virtually denuded of planes, the Japanese managed to get
a battleship force into the staging area for MacArthur's Leyte landings.
If not for the last-minute faintheartedness of Admiral Kurita, brought
on by kamikaze-like attacks by small American escort vessels, the
Japanese could have destroyed much of the landing force and extended
the war. Historians still debate the degree of Halsey's culpability
for the near-disaster, but the fact remains that his well-known
penchant for boldness was exploited by a competent enemy.17
Good Examples, Wrongly Labeled
Many leaders touted as examples of boldness
were really not daring risk-takers. A good example is George S.
Patton, Jr. He was aggressive, and willing to take advantage of
opportunities the situation presented, but as his leadership matured
he also diligently pursued methods to mitigate risk. His dash across
France is often portrayed as an illustration of audacious boldness,
but in reality it was far different. Patton was an ardent student
of ULTRA, exhibiting that "ULTRA state-of-mind" lacking
in MacArthur, and he paid careful attention to all sources of intelligence.
Patton's two tours as an intelligence officer prepared him well
to integrate those assets into his operations. His Third Army G-2
(intelligence officer), Oscar Koch, always had the first say in
any planning. Patton also fostered a very close relationship with
O. P. Weyland and his XIXth Tactical Air Command, using their planes
to clear the way for his tanks and to provide security. In addition,
French Resistance fighters helped cover exposed flanks and conducted
reconnaissance. Patton was not a gambler, and he used superior information
and mobility to avoid enemy strengths and exploit their weaknesses.
He also appreciated the advantages that accurate friendly situational
awareness provided, and he established his 6th Cavalry Group as
the "Third Army Information Service." Liaison patrols
throughout the area of operations provided a steady stream of tactical
and operational data to Army Headquarters. Patton's reputation for
having an uncanny sense of the battlefield was not a product of
instinct or destiny, but instead resulted from the reports of his
Words like "bold" and "innovative"
have become buzzwords to apply to any successful commander, but
the historical record often presents a different portrayal. For
instance, in October 2003 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld addressed
units at Fort Carson, Colorado, extolling them to exhibit the same
"bold, courageous, and innovative" traits of Christopher
"Kit" Carson, for whom the post was named.19
Though Carson's courage cannot be disputed, his conduct in his most
senior commands was very conventional, and usually cautious. He
commanded the First New Mexico Volunteer Regiment at the Battle
of Valverde in February 1862, where Union forces under E. R. S.
Canby tried to halt the advance of Henry Hopkins Sibley's Texans.
Having watched the Second New Mexico get shattered in its first
action the day before, Carson was careful to bring his own unit
into combat slowly. When Canby deployed his forces to the battlefield,
Carson requested to be put into a flank blocking position. There
he allowed his green troops to watch the developing battle. When
Canby mounted his main attack, the First New Mexico performed very
steadily in the advance. When Union forces retreated, Carson's New
Mexicans maintained good order, unlike the Second New Mexico, which
again broke. As a reward for his steady leadership, Carson was brevetted
as a brigadier general of volunteers in March.20
He soon raised another regiment, the First
New Mexico Cavalry, and commanded it in campaigns against the Mescaleros,
Navahos, Kiowas, and Comanches. Though Carson might have preferred
to parley with the Indians and come to a peaceful agreement that
way, he responded to the paternal prodding of his new commander
James Carleton with the typical scorched-earth, overwhelming-force
operations usually mounted to defeat belligerent Native Americans.
Against the Navahos in 1863, for example, Carson persuaded friendly
Utes to help him, kept a strong force of New Mexico volunteers in
the field, and proceeded to destroy the Navaho villages, fields,
and herds. By January 1864, most of the starving and bedraggled
tribe had surrendered, without having fought a single major battle.
Carson had no great battlefield success in any of his Indian campaigns,
but he did wear his enemies down. His tactics and operations were
very effective, but they were not really innovative, and they were
definitely not bold.21
The Future of Boldness
The main argument of this article is that the
US military does not need a culture that encourages daring risk-taking,
especially at senior levels. We may already be paying a price in
Iraq for this new emphasis on boldness. In a post-invasion meeting
discussing the planning and force structure for reconstruction and
stability operations, General Tommy Franks' first slide for his
field commanders read, "Take as much risk coming out as you
took going in." Such talk about accepting postwar risks alarmed
retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner of the Office of Reconstruction
and Humanitarian Affairs, but it was too late for him to affect
the course of events. The daring planning that helped bring swift
success in major combat operations did not effectively deal with
the aftermath, and contributed to the ongoing problems that continue
to bedevil us in Iraq.22
In a television interview, defense analyst
Andrew Krepinevich described the Army's transformation efforts focusing
on lighter, more agile units, used in daring operations, as "Getting
Custer to the Little Big Horn faster." There has been no military
leader in American history bolder than George Armstrong Custer,
and his fate emphasizes the common eventual cost of boldness. Arguing
against this trait, which permeates current transformation doctrine,
is not just an exercise in semantics. This is not a problem that
the military can just redefine away. There are already accepted
meanings of "boldness," and its emphasis encourages a
mindset that accepts high risks for the potential of great gain.
But this mindset too often neglects to consider the downside of
such actions, and that eventually the odds catch up with daring
commanders. And one wonders how our society, or military, would
respond to a modern Little Big Horn.
George Patton remains a fine role model for
future leaders. Instead of promoting boldness, we should be advocating
the aggressive exploitation of opportunities, with due concern to
mitigate risks. The US military still does not do well with systematic
risk assessment, as was revealed in Iraq, and this is a fertile
field for future research and doctrine development. Commanders must
also encourage innovation throughout their organizations and be
prepared to recognize and reward the ideas of subordinates, to create
the same atmosphere of decentralized adaptation that was so successful
for the American Army in World War II. As the Commander of the US
Army Training and Doctrine Command, General William Wallace, is
fond of saying, "No one of us is smarter than all of us together."
In the end, there is no substitute for decisionmaking
based on a thorough evaluation of intelligence, comprehensive situational
awareness, and sound judgment. Destiny is not a method.
1. Jim Garamone, "Chairman
Poses Question to Counterterror Experts," DefenseLINK News,
27 September 2004, http://www.defenselink.mil/news/
2. US Department of
the Army, Training the Force, Field Manual 7.0 (Washington: GPO,
October 2002), p. 1-5.
3. Timothy T. Lupfer,
The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine
During the First World War (Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: Combat Studies
Institute, July 1981).
4. John A. Nagl, Learning
to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya
and Vietnam (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 192-204.
5. H. H. Arnold, Global
Mission (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), pp. 356-57.
6. Russell F. Weigley,
Eisenhower's Lieutenants (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1981),
pp. 218-19, 240; Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit (Washington:
GPO, 1961), pp. 205-07.
7. David B. Guralnik,
general editor, Webster's New World Dictionary, 2d concise ed. (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 83, 192. The process of decentralized
adaptation that worked so well for the US Army in World War II is
described very well in Michael D. Doubler, Closing with the Enemy:
How GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945 (Lawrence: Univ. Press
of Kansas, 1994).
8. David Eisenhower,
Eisenhower at War 1943-1945 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), pp.
9. Dwight D. Eisenhower,
Crusade in Europe (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Books, 1948).
10. For a description
and explanation of Matthew Ridgway's conservative generalship in
Korea, see his book The Korean War (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986).
11. For one of these
sympathetic analyses, see Clarence C. Clendenen, Blood on the Border:
The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars (New York: Macmillan,
12. James W. Rainey,
"The Questionable Training of the AEF in World War I,"
Parameters, 22 (Winter 1992-1993), 89-103; David M. Kennedy, Over
Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford,
1980), pp. 191-205; John S. D. Eisenhower, Yanks: The Epic Story
of the American Army in World War I (New York: Touchstone, 2001),
pp. 198-209. Lieutenant Colonel Ty Seidule of the History Department
at the US Military Academy also has done much revealing work on
the shortcomings of the AEF in the Meuse-Argonne.
13. Geoffrey Perret,
Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur (New York:
Random House, 1996), pp. 108-10, 392-93; Edward J. Drea, MacArthur's
Ultra: Codebreaking and the War against Japan, 1942-1945 (Lawrence:
Univ. Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 228-35.
14. Krueger still
deserves a good biography, but for Eichelberger see John F. Shortal,
Forged By Fire: General Robert L. Eichelberger and the Pacific War
(Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1987).
15. Conrad C. Crane,
American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950-1953 (Lawrence: Univ.
Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 46-55.
16. Perret, pp. 340-42,
349-50; Samuel Eliot Morrison, The Two Ocean War (New York: Ballantine,
1974), pp. 139-78.
17. There are many
excellent accounts of the Battle of Leyte Gulf; for example, see
Thomas J. Cutler, The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23-26 October 1944 (New
York: HarperCollins, 1994).
18. Bradford J. Schwedo,
XIX Tactical Air Command and ULTRA: Patton's Force Enhancers in
the 1944 Campaign in France (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air Univ. Press,
May 2001); Carlo D'Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York: HarperCollins,
1995), pp. 637-38; Gary B. Griffin, The Directed Telescope: A Traditional
Element of Effective Command (Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: Combat Studies
Institute, July 1991), pp. 26-27; Ladislas Farago, Patton: Ordeal
and Triumph (New York: Obolensky, 1964), p. 493.
19. Donna Miles, "Rumsfeld
Thanks Troops, Likens Them to American Western Legend," DefenseLINK
News, 7 October 2003, http://www.defenselink.mil/news/
20. Conrad C. Crane,
"A Careful Examination of the Field of Battle: Military Lessons
from the Battle of Valverde," in Fort Craig: The United States
Fort on the Camino Real, ed. Charles Carroll and Lynn Sebastian
(Socorro, N.M.: New Mexico Bureau of Land Management, 2000), pp.
109-33; also Crane and Charles Kirkpatrick, The Prudent Soldier,
the Rash Old Fighter, and the Walking Whiskey Keg (Fort Bliss, Tex.:
US Army Air Defense Artillery School, 1987).
21. Robert M. Utley,
Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865
(Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1967), pp. 234-37, 237-45, 297-99;
Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the
American West (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971), pp.
22. John Barry and
Evan Thomas, "The Unbuilding of Iraq," Newsweek, 6 October
2003, p. 36; Michael Gordon, "The Strategy to Secure Iraq Did
Not Foresee a 2nd War: Catastrophic Success-First of Three Articles:
Then the Insurgency," The New York Times, 19 October 2004,
p. A1. The author interviewed a CENTCOM staff officer who attended
the briefing by General Franks and remembered that slide about risk.
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