How our generals got so mediocre.

Military analysis.
May 16 2007 5:30 PM

It's Patriotic To Criticize

How our generals got so mediocre.

(Continued from Page 1)

He also proposes measures of accountability. For instance, generals who fail in their responsibilities should be demoted so they don't receive their full rank's retirement pay. "As matters stand now," he writes, "a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

Yingling's essay has received scant attention in the mainstream American press. (Several papers and magazines printed a couple of sentences about it, but, as far as I can tell, only Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post devoted an entire article to its contents and significance.) But the essay has been avidly discussed in military blogs and, very much for the most part, endorsed. One typical entry, from a soldier at Fort Knox: "He's only putting to paper what has been said in most every TOC [tactical operations center] and chow hall in the last 4 years."

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The key question is whether the piece has been discussed in general officers' dining quarters, in the E Ring of the Pentagon, or among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nobody in those realms has contacted Yingling, in any case.

A little-realized fact is that, though President Bush keeps saying we're in a war for Western civilization, the military is still operating under its normal, bureaucratic, peacetime promotional system. There is no way a combatant commander can summarily dismiss an incompetent general; no way he can bump a brilliant lieutenant colonel up four steps * to lieutenant general.

At the outset of World War II, U.S. commanders fired 55 generals and 245 colonels—and that was during a severe shortage of senior officers. (The numbers come from Newt Gingrich, who is, besides his more famous attributes, a serious military historian.)

There are, of course, some extremely talented strategists and tacticians among today's general officer corps. Which leads us back to Maj. Gen. Mixon, who said publicly what many officers have been saying privately for some time now: that there aren't enough troops to keep order in Iraq, or at least not in his sector.

Mixon is no doomsayer, simply a practical commander. "I'm going to need additional forces," he said during his teleconference, "to get [the violence] to a more acceptable level, so the Iraqi security forces will be able in the future to handle that."

He has just one U.S. combat brigade, about 3,500 troops, in Diyala province, compared with four brigades in Anbar and 10 in Baghdad.

And, as he no doubt knows, there are no plans to send more troops his way—mainly because no such troops exist. Of the five extra brigades that President Bush ordered to Baghdad as part of his "surge" back in February, only three have arrived; the fifth won't be on the ground until late summer. Why not? Because they won't be ready until then; they won't be fully manned, trained, or equipped. When critics and retired officers say that the U.S. Army is at the end of its tether, they're not exaggerating. If a crisis in another hot spot erupted, and if the president wanted to send ground troops to deal with it, he couldn't without transferring units from Iraq or Afghanistan. There is no slack.

And here is where the messages of Maj. Gen. Mixon and Lt. Col. Yingling intersect. Yingling makes clear that it's the political leaders who decide whether to go to war. Once the policy-maker receives military advice that there aren't enough troops to achieve the war's strategic objectives, he or she "must then scale back the ends of policy or mobilize popular passions to provide greater means."

President Bush has done neither. He has evaded this calculation from the beginning and continues to do so now that everyone plainly realizes there are not, and never were, enough troops. The next president will have to take up the big questions: What kind of threats do we face? What kind of military forces—and military leaders—do we need? How much will that effort cost? If we don't have the resources (in troops, money, or will), should we whip up the passions to get more—or scale back to a more realistic policy? The current course—pursuing grand global visions with depleted means—is a surefire road to disaster.

Correction, May 17, 2007: This article originally misstated the number of rank steps between lieutenant colonel and lieutenant general. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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