Lloyd Fredendall was a general in the American Army in WWII, serving in North Africa.
He is known primarily for being a fuck-up. His early career may have been a sign: he dropped out of West Point twice.
He commanded II Corps in its advance into Tunisia, so his relative competence mattered.
He had a weird habit of talking in his own private slang. He called infantry units “walking boys” and artillery “popguns.” Instead of using the standard military map grid-based location designators, he made up confusing codes such as “the place that begins with C.” His subordinates had trouble understanding what the hell he was talking about.
He spent lots of effort building an underground fortress ( his headquarters) 70 miles behind the front lines and spent most of his time inside it, rather than visiting the front lines and talking with his commanders.
Tactically, also a mess: he split up units and scattered them widely. Which turned out poorly (Kasserine Pass).
After Kasserine Pass, Ike fired him. But how did Fredendall get anywhere in the first place, and why did removing him take so long?
Well, the most talented people didn’t much go into the American armed forces in those days, least of all the Army. The Army wasn’t prestigious, wasn’t well-funded, wasn’t very meritocratic. Promotion was slow, pay was lousy. The US Army was about the size of the German Army while it was still obeying the Treaty of Versailles – but the Black Reichswehr was an elite, taking only the best, secretly preparing for der Tag. Every sergeant was ready to be a captain. The US Army was not like that.
The Army leadership all knew each other. Most were West Pointers. It was fairly easy-going.
Put to the test in WWII, we found out that our generals often weren’t very good. Ike himself had to learn an important lesson: how to fire people, including old friends. After a while American leadership became fairly good at that, for example when Nimitz fired Ghormley.
The Soviets already knew how to fire people ( sometimes with extreme prejudice) but Stalin learned to judge by performance and fire people intelligently: promote the winners, fire ( and sometimes execute) the losers. Act as if winning is the most important thing.
Generally, the governing classes in the US, for the last generation or two, has not acted as if they think that winning, actually achieving your goal, is very important. Promotion follows failure: indeed, being right when almost everyone else is wrong just shows how undesirable you are. Iraq is a good example.
Covid-19 is another example. The professionals weren’t very good, aren’t very good. They didn’t know a lot of important, knowable things. Probably the most talented people were going into something other than epidemiology or virology.
We don’t have to make them unpersons, don’t have to send them to Kolyma. We don’t have to pull out their teeth and fingernails. There’s no reason to put on a black leather jacket and shoot them in the back of the head. That would be wrong.
But we can fire them. And we should.