Army to Petraeus: Fix us!

Military analysis.
Nov. 21 2007 4:41 PM

Promoting Innovation

Can Gen. David Petraeus fix the Army's broken promotion system?

To an outsider, it may seem a mere bureaucratic blip that Gen. David Petraeus was called back from Iraq last week to chair the promotion board that picks the Army's next new one-star generals. But, in fact, the story (first reported by Ann Scott Tyson in the Washington Post) is a very big deal—potentially the first rumble of a seismic shift in the very core of the U.S. military establishment.

The promotion board is the vehicle through which the Army's dominant culture is perpetuated—a behind-closed-doors committee of 15 generals that each year selects the 35 to 40 colonels (out of 1,000 applicants) who rise to the rank with stars. As with all gateway panels in every profession, the members of this board are inclined, if not explicitly motivated, to seek candidates in their own image—officers whose careers look like theirs.

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.

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In the past year or so, several junior and field-grade officers have written critiques in military journals noting that this promotion system lies at the heart of what's wrong with the Army today. The career paths of today's generals—mainly armor and infantry officers who rose through the ranks during the Cold War and were trained to fight large-scale, head-on-head battles against enemies of comparable strength—are irrelevant to the sorts of small-scale, asymmetric, counterinsurgency conflicts that America is fighting now and is more likely to fight tomorrow.

The upshot of this critique is that, unless the promotion system is changed to reward officers whose paths have been very different from that of the current generals, the Army's future looks bleak—not only for fighting wars but for retaining creative officers.

"Everyone studies the brigadier-general promotion list like tarot cards," one colonel told me while I was reporting on a story this summer. "It communicates what qualities are valued and not valued." If innovative officers see that their innovations are not valued, they'll either conform or leave.

This is what makes Petraeus' chairmanship of the panel so intriguing. First, it is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, for a combatant commander to be placed in this role. Second, Petraeus is seen, up and down the Army's chain of command, as the living symbol of the innovative officer—a decorated soldier and a graduate-degreed scholar who wrote the official field manual (literally the book) on counterinsurgency warfare.

In the short run, the move probably ensures that the next crop of brigadier generals will include more innovative officers. Just how many more, we will see; it will be a huge surprise, and a crushing disappointment to many, if the promotion list does not include Col. H.R. McMaster. Besides being one of Petraeus' advisers, McMaster was commander of the unit that brought order to Tal Afar, the first successful counterinsurgency operation in Iraq. He has been passed over for promotion twice before—a fact that many officers regard as symbolic of the Army establishment's stodgy ways.

In the long run, Petraeus' appointment sends a signal—to the generals and to all the officers below—that the times may be changing, even in the upper echelons of the Army.

The first suggestion of a shift came last month when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered an address before the Association of the United States Army. Most speeches to this crowd are obligatory occasions for boilerplate. But Gates used his speech as a forum to call for drastic changes in the way the Army does business. Speaking of the junior and midlevel officers "who have been tested in battle like none other in decades" and who "have seen the complex, grueling face of war in the 21st century up close," Gates said:

These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced to the point that they can use their experience to shape the institution to which they have given so much. And this may mean reexamining assignments and promotion policies that in many cases are unchanged since the Cold War. [Italics added.]