The Navy is on a tear. Late last month, for the sixth time in six weeks, a skipper was relieved of command. The latest to get the sack was Cmdr. E. J. McClure of the guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke, which had a "soft grounding" while heading back to port in the well-charted waters off Norfolk, Va.
These firings have sparked debate in military circles, with some critics from other services charging that the Navy is guilty of a "zero defect" mentality that would have robbed it of such distinguished leaders as Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the World War II hero who grounded his first command in 1908.
But even if the Navy is going overboard, so to speak, there is a good case to be made that the ground-combat arms go too far in the other direction by not holding their commanders responsible for a lack of results.
Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote recently in the Armed Forces Journal that "a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war." Colonel Yingling was complaining about, as the title of his article had it, "A Failure in Generalship," and he was right to do so. But the same complaint could be lodged with equal justice about some of the lieutenant colonels and colonels who have commanded battalions and brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are positions roughly equivalent to a ship commander in the Navy, and in a decentralized war like the one in Iraq, they are the key combat leaders.
There are precious few examples of an Army or Marine tactical commander being fired for ineffectiveness. One of the few exceptions occurred during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 when Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis replaced a regimental commander he believed was not advancing fast enough. More commonly, it takes extreme misconduct, often of a sexual nature, to get a ground-forces commander fired.
For instance, there is Army Lt. Col. William H. Steele, a reservist who used to command Camp Cropper, the main U.S. detention facility in Baghdad. He faces possible prosecution for offenses including fraternizing "with the daughter of a detainee" and "possessing pornographic videos." Another, unrelated Steele - Col. Michael D. Steele of the 101st Airborne Division - had his career ended in 2006 when he was reprimanded for not doing more to investigate and expose an incident in which four of his soldiers were accused of murdering three Iraqi detainees. Then there is the case of Janis L. Karpinski, who was busted from brigadier general to colonel because of dereliction of duty in the command of Abu Ghraib prison, as well as for a prior charge of shoplifting.
All these disciplinary actions seem justified. But military observers wonder about holding to account those who aren't caught in public scandals but simply aren't effective leaders or who consistently fail to achieve results.
Conversely, promising young leaders who prove their worth in the line of fire need to be promoted more rapidly than they are today under a ponderous peacetime personnel system. James M. Gavin, the celebrated commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, became a brigadier general at 36. Curtis E. LeMay, one of the most successful airmen in history, was a major general at 37. Why is it that today such senior ranks are held only by grayheads with more than 30 years of service?
War imposes different demands on soldiers than does the routine life of the garrison. Some who are perfectly adequate peacetime soldiers fail the audit of conflict and have to be shunted aside (as happened to hundreds of generals in the Civil War and World War II), while others who were malcontents in peacetime (think of Ulysses S. Grant or George S. Patton) excel on the battlefield and rocket to the top. That winnowing-out process, which has been a hallmark of all of our previous major conflicts (at least the ones we won), has not occurred since 9/11.
A good deal of the blame rests with President Bush, who has refused to punish incompetence until it's far too late, and sometimes not even then. Senior generals who have failed to get results in Iraq have received medals and promotions, not pink slips. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was kept around long after his miscalculations had become plain.
But accountability can't stop at the top. It has to extend down the chain of command. Otherwise, our soldiers will pay a terrible price for a failure of leadership.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.