July 1, 2007  

Defending the generals

Argument fails to make case objectively and unemotionally

One of the biggest dangers to anyone who criticizes senior leaders within an organization is to lose objectivity to emotion. This is the primary fault of Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in his article “A failure in generalship” in the May issue of AFJ. I believe that his genuine frustration regarding both the perceived inequity of treatment between the junior and senior ranks and the overall lack of accountability in some of the senior ranks has led to his inability to articulate a specific problem and a specific recommendation for fixing it. Instead, he chooses to blame everyone and make recommendations that are both illogical and infeasible.

I also recognize the inevitable rift that such an article creates within the military institution. I’m sure junior officers throughout the Army are cheering the author for blaming those senior officers at the top for all of their woes, while the senior officers are lamenting over being blamed by the author. This, too, is an emotional standoff, serving the institution of the military — and the current fight in Iraq — absolutely no tangible benefits. I have watched with great disappointment the proliferation of comments on blogs since the publication of this article, and the intense emotions that such an article elicits. It has opened old wounds from Vietnam and created misplaced merit for an author who could justifiably be charged with insubordination, but, more logically, denied command because his seniors will lack confidence in his loyalty to lead troops given his overt disrespect for his (and their) senior commanders.

Given this brief situation estimate, here is my attempt from the cheap seats to critique this paper, given the fact that by criticizing the author I fall into one side of the great chasm he creates.

Within any organization, there will invariably be incompetence — the real issue is how the organization deals with it. The true measure of an organization is its ability to ensure that:

• Incompetence can be tangibly measured.

• Training and promotions are used to mitigate incompetence and reward performance.

• Incompetent performers are held accountable.

The author has chosen to formulate an institution (all the generals) and, without categorization, blame them all for the undefined failings of the entire larger institution (the military). In other words, the author argues that every senior leader is both incompetent and to blame for the larger institution’s poor performance. Ironically, to blame the organizational failings on everyone at the top, implies that all of those below the level of general are absent from blame and simply following the directions from their seniors. It also implies that within the organization, no one at the top will listen to any of the concerns voiced by juniors. Therefore, if I were really trying to be objective, it would be clear that the author, his peers and his subordinate officers have been a part of an institution that does not allow for any forwarding of alternative ideas, and is composed of subordinates who blindly follow the incompetent, uncourageous and cowardly decisions of their seniors.

Our officer corps is the best educated and trained in our nation’s history, and arguably in the world. By the time an officer becomes a general, he or she has attended entry-level schools, and a year each at career- , intermediate- and top-level schools within the joint professional military education hierarchy. Virtually every level of these schools is today professionally accredited and offers opportunities for advanced degrees. These schools provide superb educational insight into the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war, in addition to studies in the art of war, the history of war, campaign studies, as well as specific service and military occupational specialty information. In other words, by the time an officer is a general (about 25-30 years in service), he or she has spent about one-fifth of that time in school. Few professions or corporations can boast such a plethora of training. We must remember that the only difference between a lieutenant colonel and a general officer in terms of education is the short capstone training that all generals go through. If this system has failed the general officers, then it has clearly failed the myriad officers who are also products of this system.

Embedded within this argument is that our general officers require more social science and humanities training. I am unaware of any study, or any historical evidence, that would suggest this to be true. The converse of this argument, that if they had more diverse training we wouldn’t be where we are today, is simply untenable. Do we really mean that for a general officer to be effective, he must forego critical operational and tactical experience, as well as exposure to the operational and strategic level staffs, to pursue a humanities degree or a doctorate? In concept, it might sound good, but do we really think that the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division would have been more successful in the invasion of Iraq if he had a Ph.D. in philosophy?

I recently was privileged to hear a retired general officer discuss the challenges he faced when, as a senior commander, he had to confront civilian leadership over operational decisions. In each case, there was a professional dialogue and his opinions were solicited. These instances are rarely reported, and even more poorly documented, but I believe it wholly inaccurate to think that general officers are not questioning difficult issues many times every day. I’ve worked for a great number of general officers and they never failed to ask the hard questions. I always knew their rationale for such dialogue: They clearly understood the immense responsibilities they held and the ultimate impacts of their decisions. Moral courage means much more than Iraq. Our general officers require moral courage every day in a plethora of issues. Think of the challenges associated with acquisition decisions, promotion boards, re-enlistments, discharge characterizations, selection for command. Included are the agonizing line-of-duty/misconduct determinations, or deciding whether to retain a service member as a part of administrative separation proceedings. Moral courage goes well beyond the strategy for Iraq, and I do not concur that our senior leaders lack this trait. If they do, this would translate into the author serving nearly 20 years in an institution in which his senior officers were incompetent cowards who were incapable of providing the necessary direction and policy for their subordinate commands to accomplish their mission.

I, like the author, was enthralled by the magnificent work in “Dereliction of Duty” by H.R. McMaster, but I also understand that, like anything else, it isn’t always that simple. We all know that there is never just one side to any story. The Five Silent Men chapter of the book is an example — one extreme of what really happened during this period. I would urge the reading of “Honorable Warrior” by Lewis Sorley, which details the contemptuous relationship that existed among the Joint Staff, the defense secretary and the president during the Vietnam War. Repeated examples show that the staff and many other officials tried to explain a counterpoint to the administration and were personally attacked and ridiculed by senior civilian officials. As detailed by Sorley, they did try to reiterate their concerns, but their civilian bosses believed that they lacked credibility and viability in their perception of how to succeed in Vietnam. Although there is clearly merit in the McMaster argument, there’s plenty of blame to be shared across the uniformed and civilian policy makers. One thing is clear: The climate for open dialogue did not exist. I think Yingling, like many career officers, has been in this environment before. Arguably, if taken literally, the author and his peers comprise the same “silent” men he criticizes, having worked an entire career for a corrupt organization.

Then there’s The Nagl Factor — or “if only we had a counterinsurgency Army.” Lt. Col. John Nagl’s book “Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife” requires a comprehensive review, simply because it ignores strategic reality. First, it must be understood that the Army’s resistance to President Kennedy’s focus on counterinsurgency had as much to do with resources and standing requirements as it did on the perceptions detailed by the author. This is just as true today. Our modern military is a compromise of many things. We do not have forces focused for any one mission, but tasked instead to be prepared to deploy and subsequently employ in support of a wide range of missions, from humanitarian assistance to major theater war. We do not have the resources to tailor forces to each mission within the spectrum, so we accept risk by asking units to plan for and be prepared for multiple missions. Over time, what has been learned is that there are certain mission sets that overlap. For example, logistics units that can support major combat units in large-scale operations require little adjustment for humanitarian-type operations. Most conventional combat forces are more than adept at providing small-unit training across the globe. Detailed analysis of shortfalls in the present structure for supporting Iraq, without providing too much risk to our capacity to support the myriad other missions in the spectrum, is happening daily. Each service is going through enormous efforts to validate structure and capabilities in active and reserve component structures. If the entire Defense Department forces were transitioned to a pure COIN structure, the risk to support of standing contingencies across the globe would be enormous.

Commanders, at any level, are expected to balance their emotions with the need to rapidly and succinctly present a problem and solution to their seniors. The ability to do this is the hallmark of a mature officer. Here is a sampling of Yingling’s statements:

• “America’s general officer corps refused to prepare the Army to …”

• “America’s generals failed to prepare their forces …”

• “Having failed to visualize accurately the conditions of combat in Vietnam, America’s generals prosecuted the war in conventional terms.”

• “ … also remained largely silent while the strategy developed by civilian politicians led to defeat …”

• “Having participated in the deception of the American people during the war …”

• “To improve the intelligence of our generals …”

Taken collectively, they sound more a part of an emotional, unprofessional rant rather than a cogent argument that addresses a specific problem and provides specific solutions. I believe the author meant to say that:

• Accountability needs to be enforced. Any time the junior enlisted personnel are getting more attention than their bosses, there’s trouble. The trouble with Iraq is that as a result of the rapid rotations and constantly changing mission, it is difficult to measure a commander’s success. Simply commanding in Iraq is not the key to promotion and success. Greater care must be taken in performance evaluations of commanders, and for all services, a return to combat readiness evaluations by an independent inspector general might not be a bad way to re-instill accountability at the operational and strategic levels.

• Force allocations need to be re-examined. The current process of assuming whatever is “left” outside of Iraq is available for outside contingency tasking may be flawed. Although we lack the resources to really fence any forces outside of Iraq, we also must understand the skills that atrophy and the skills that are accentuated in deploying to Iraq. From that analysis, we need to better formulate what forces are available to other combatant commanders for contingency planning.

• Joint professional military education requires further examination. Despite our enormous efforts to emphasize the art of warfare and the need to link the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war, we are still not achieving the levels of staff effectiveness we should be seeing from the investment. An independent analysis of all-service and joint schools should be done to see why our operational staffs are so challenged to play by the book when conducting operational level (campaign) planning.

• Our bureaucracy and its rewards must be eliminated. Our present military size, and its bureaucratic tail (to include civil service and contractual support), must be re-evaluated. I have seen an assortment of statistics, but suffice it to say, our present-day Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, service and combatant command staffs are not proportionate to our military structure. A mandatory cut of some specified percentage (25 percent? 50 percent?) applied to all such staffs might be the right signal to begin reversing the staff explosion that has happened in the past 10 to 15 years.

These are but a few specific examples of how the author could channel his emotion into a more productive dialogue and policy for improving the effectiveness of the military. They are all deserving of individual discussion and dialogue, but in the end, it is incomprehensible to throw the baby out with the bath water instead of providing a comprehensive dialogue among all ranks as to how best to improve the force.

A fellow officer forwarded to me an applicable citation from Anton Myrer’s “Once an Eagle,” a book provided to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. During a conversation between Sam Damon and his father-in-law — an Army general — the old man advises Sam: “Self-righteousness is the occupational disease of the soldier. Guard against it, for it breeds arrogance and indifference.”

Col. David F. Aumuller is an active-duty Marine Corps officer and a National Security Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.