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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Since Donald Rumsfeld's departure from the Pentagon, American military officers are starting to speak their minds again—and what some of the best of them are saying is even darker than expected.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The latest outburst of frankness came on May 12, when Maj. Gen. Benjamin "Randy" Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told reporters, via teleconference from Tikrit, that he didn't have enough troops to stem the growing violence in Diyala province, east of Baghdad.

Under Rumsfeld's reign, commanders were effectively under orders not to request more troops in private, much less in front of the press.

Yet in the scheme of things, Gen. Mixon was merely filing a complaint. Two weeks earlier, a lower-ranking officer, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling—deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment—issued a jeremiad.

In a blistering article in the May issue of Armed Forces Journal,  published on April 27, Yingling likened the debacle in Iraq to the disaster in Vietnam and blamed them both on "a crisis in an entire institution, America's general officer corps."

Yingling's essay is the most stunning—and maybe the most fiercely intelligent and patriotic—public statement I have ever read from an active-duty officer.

Were Rumsfeld still secretary, Yingling would likely find himself reassigned to some humdrum logistical-supply depot. Even now, his prospects for getting promoted to general have been dealt a severe setback.

Tomorrow's generals are chosen by today's generals, and Yingling charges most of this generation's generals with lacking "professional character," "moral courage," and "creative intelligence."

The author is no crank. At 41, a veteran of both Iraq wars and a graduate of the School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, the Army's elite postgraduate strategy center, Yingling is widely thought to be one of the brightest, most dedicated up-and-coming officers. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was the unit that brought order to Tal Afar through classic counterinsurgency methods (at least until the unit left, at which point things fell apart). Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has cited the Tal Afar campaign as the model of what he is now trying to do—with less adequate resources, under more dire conditions—in Baghdad.

Yingling's argument is tightly reasoned. Policy-makers go to war to accomplish political objectives. Generals must provide the policy-makers with an estimate of the war's likely success. "The general," he writes, "describes both the means necessary for the successful prosecution of war and the ways in which the nation will employ those means. If the policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of this incongruence. … If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means, he shares culpability for the results."

Sound familiar?

"America's generals," he goes on, "have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s, our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America's generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq." Finally, "the military never explained to the president the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq."

He finds it "almost surreal" that "professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters." The real problem, he writes, is a shortfall of moral courage—reinforced by institutional incentives.

The "tendency of the executive branch [is] to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals," he writes. But, he adds, the services "are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. … In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to … expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties."

Yingling proposes an overhaul in the military's system of promotion, allowing generals to be selected by junior, as well as senior, officers. In combat, he writes, junior officers "are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly." Therefore, they are also more likely to recognize—and reward—innovative, adaptive commanders.

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."

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.)