Last November, when Gen. David Petraeus was named to chair the promotion board that picks the Army's new one-star generals, the move was seen as, potentially, the first rumble of a seismic shift in the core of the military establishment.
The selections were announced in July, and they have more than fulfilled the promise. They mark the beginnings, perhaps, of the cultural change that many Army reformers have been awaiting for years.
Promotion systems, in any large organization, are designed to perpetuate the dominant culture. The officers in charge tend to promote underlings whose styles and career paths resemble their own.
Most of today's Army generals rose through the ranks during the Cold War as armor, infantry, or artillery officers who were trained to fight large-scale, head-to-head battles against enemies of comparable strength—for instance, the Soviet army as its tanks plowed across the East-West German border.
The problem, as many junior officers have been writing over the last few years, is that this sort of training has little relevance for the wars of today and, likely, tomorrow—the "asymmetric wars" and counterinsurgency campaigns that the U.S. military has actually been fighting for the last 20 years in Bosnia, Panama, Haiti, and Somalia, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2006 and again in 2007, the Army's promotion board passed over Col. H.R. McMaster, widely regarded as one of the most creative strategists of this "new" (though actually quite ancient) style of warfare. In Iraq, he was commander of the unit that brought order to Tal Afar, using the classic counterinsurgency methods—"clear, hold, and build"—that Petraeus later adopted as policy. When I was reporting a story last summer about growing tensions between the Army's junior and senior officer corps, more than a dozen lieutenants and captains complained bitterly (with no prompting from me) about McMaster's rejection, seeing it as a sign that the top brass had no interest in rewarding excellent performance. The more creative captains took it as a cue to contemplate leaving the Army.
This was why many Army officers were excited when Petraeus was appointed to chair this year's promotion board. Rarely, if ever, had a combat commander been called back from an ongoing war to assume that role. It almost certainly meant that McMaster would get his due. (Some referred to the panel as "the McMaster promotion board.")
McMaster did get his star—but so did many others of his ilk. That's what makes this list an eyebrow-raiser. Among the 40 newly named one-star generals are Sean MacFarland, commander of the unit that brought order to Ramadi; Steve Townsend, who cleared and held Baqubah; Michael Garrett, who commanded the infantry brigade that helped turn around the "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad; Stephen Fogarty, the intelligence officer in Afghanistan; Colleen McGuire, an officer in the military police (a branch of the service that almost never makes generals). At least eight special-operations officers are on the list (though not all of them are identified as such), as well as the unit commanders of various "light" forces—in Stryker light-armor brigades or the 10th Mountain Division—that have tended to be ignored by the Army's "heavy"-leaning armor and artillery chiefs.
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