Command Relations at the Operational Level of War

By Griffith, Thomas E., Jr. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Command Relations at the Operational Level of War

Griffith, Thomas E., Jr., Air & Space Power Journal

AS GEN DOUGLAS MACARTHUR'S air commander in the Southwest Pacific theater during World War .II, Gen George C. Kenney applied operational insights, intellectual acumen, and innovative drive that made airpower a vital part of the Allied victory. An important, indeed critical, part of Kenney's success was his ability to juggle the demands placed on him by the theater commander, MacArthur, with those imposed by Gen Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Forces. Establishing MacArthur's trust and confidence proved essential to gaining the flexibility and authority Kenney needed to employ airpower effectively, but he remained dependent on Arnold for the supplies, people, and planes necessary to fight the war, making his association with the commanding general equally important. Balancing the demands levied by officers with very different perspectives and goals created a source of tension and conflict for Kenney throughout the war. In the end he decided that he owed his primary loyalty to MacArthur, a decision highlighted in Kenney's debates with fellow airmen over the use of B-29s in the Pacific.

The fact that personal relationships among commanders are important and have an impact on military affairs in both peace and war is not new. Although the armed forces spend a great deal of time and energy designing organizational relationships and arrangements that will ensure success, harmonious relationships among commanders and other senior leaders often provide the necessary lubrication for making the military machine run smoothly. In the face of less-than-optimum circumstances, good working relations can make a military operation effective. Conversely, even the best-designed organization cannot overcome problems created by personal friction. Although Kenney's dilemma is important for understanding the war in the Pacific, it also points out a more enduring lesson: the considerable weight that personal relationships bear in any theater of war.

Kenney and MacArthur

When, as a newcomer, Kenney assumed command of Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific in August 1942, gaining MacArthur's backing was his top priority as well as his greatest challenge. During meetings in Washington, D.C., before leaving for the Pacific, Kenney heard plenty about the considerable friction between MacArthur and Lt Gen George Brett, the incumbent air commander.

Although many problems in Australiasuch as the lack of supplies, a paucity of trained staff officers, and ill-equipped aircraft-were not entirely Brett's fault, as the commander of the American air units, he bore the brunt of the blame. MacArthur's reports to Washington made his unhappiness with Brett clear. In May 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt sent a three-man team to investigate conditions in Australia. When Lt Col Samuel Anderson returned to Washington at the end of June, he told Gen George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, that Brett had to be relieved: "As long as Brett is there, you won't have any cooperation between ground and air, and I don't think you plan to relieve General MacArthur."' In early July Marshall offered either Brig Gen James H. Doolittle, "who had impressed all of us as an organizer, as a leader and as a dependable type," or Maj Gen George Kenney, "who is rated tops by General [John L.] DeWitt [Kenney's immediate superior officer],"2 as a replacement for Brett. MacArthur opted for Kenney because, he said, "It would be diffcult to convince the Australians of Doolittle's acceptability."3 MacArthur claimed that the Tokyo Raider's break in service during the 1930s would be viewed "unfavorably" by the Australians. More likely, MacArthur did not want Doolittle because he would take publicity away from MacArthur.

Extenuating circumstances might have explained the problems in Australia, but Arnold clearly blamed Brett, telling Kenney that "Brett should have done the `getting along' since he was the junior."4 In addition to the problems between MacArthur and Brett, Marshall cryptically warned Kenney about some "personality clashes" in the headquarters that were causing problems. …

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