The Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and perhaps a few Shi’ite militias are preparing for the largest battle in the war against the Islamic State: the seizure of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. They will be supported in this difficult endeavor by a U.S.-led coalition featuring combat advisers and a lethal mix of manned and unmanned aircraft ready to launch salvos of precision guided munitions onto the enemy below. The U.S. forces, operating as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, have been led for the past year by Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, a combat-experienced commander with loads of experience in Iraq. His most important assignment was as the commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, during operations to liberate Ramadi from the grip of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-7. He understands high-end combat as well as counterinsurgency warfare. He is the right person to command U.S. forces in Iraq as the coalition embarks on the critical battle ahead.
Only one problem—he won’t be in Iraq to see the mission through to its end. The Department of Defense, in its infinite wisdom, is relieving Lt. Gen. MacFarland of his command before the battle for Mosul begins. This would be like General Dwight Eisenhower being sent from England back to the United States before the Normandy invasion. Once again a personnel system that believes that the bureaucratic niceties that keep the wheels of the peacetime military grinding along should triumph over the strategic and operational needs of America’s wars has prevailed. And so Lt. Gen. MacFarland will trundle off to an assignment that may or may not have importance to the strategic issues the United States confronts today.
It has not always been this way. In the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, commanders stayed with their troops throughout the conflicts, taking short periods of leave as circumstances allowed. World War I was too short to draw conclusions, but in World War II commanders went overseas and remained there until victory released them from their labors. Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley, Patton, Kruger, Eichelberger, Truscott, and others were in it to win it. None of them expected to rotate home after one or two years overseas. When the Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were defeated, then they went home, not before.
World War II was the last conflict in which American commanders expected to remain with their troops until victory. In Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, commanders have rotated home after one to two years in the combat zone. Clearly, officers cannot be expected to remain away from their families for the duration of these conflicts, some of which have lasted a decade or longer. But it should not be too much to ask of a commander for him or her to remain for a few months past his or her designated rotation date to see a crucial battle through to its conclusion. Patton would not have left his troops to rotate stateside before the Battle of the Bulge. It is not asking too much of Lt. Gen. MacFarland to remain in Iraq until the fight against the Islamic State in Mosul is over. Washington, Grant, Eisenhower, and MacArthur would understand—and approve.