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.


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.]

It's worth noting that Gates' military assistant, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former commander of multinational forces in Iraq, is among the officers who have written articles calling for a shift in priorities among the Army's missions and a shift in personnel policies to promote commanders who are well-disposed to reform.

Whether this shift takes hold of the Army establishment is another matter. Defense secretaries come and go, but the Army staff stays forever—and this defense secretary is leaving in a little more than a year. But in part owing to articles by several creative officers—Chiarelli, Lt. Col. John Nagl, and especially Lt. Col. Paul Yingling—the critique of the promotion system has been percolating for the past year or so in defense-policy circles of both parties. The winds are blowing; the ground is shaking. At least on this level of things, change might really be in the offing.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge


The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.