September 1, 2007  

Making generals

The military, historically, is a conservative institution, and no more so than in the general officer corps. Conservatism rises through the ranks, and the survivors tend to embody the conservative values that got them into the upper ranks. Apart from that, generals have their own ranks, positions and survival to conserve. This last is key to everything else. Once they "have theirs," they don’t want to endanger it or risk their pensions at their highest ranks. This is not a culture that stimulates innovation, creativity or leadership.

It is axiomatic that the general officer corps’ responsibilities, in addition to recruiting, training and equipping our military forces, and operational planning, is to inform and advise the president and Congress on all matters military. In this advisory capacity, generals have woefully failed, especially during the past two decades. They were caught unawares after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. They had become comfortable with the nuclear stalemate and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. The lessons of Vietnam were shelved in favor of their conventional attitudes toward warfare.

The use of "cowardly" is somewhat appropriate when discussing the general officer culture. Looking out for No. 1, they are less than courageous when faced with the necessity for change and, worse, informing their civilian masters. Gone are the days when commanders kicked ass and took names, and generals today tend to be lapdogs of the politicians. Yes, we’ve recently had a rash of retired generals who (belatedly) have spoken out against our policies and strategies in the Middle East, in particular Iraq and Afghanistan. This is an example of generals who were in positions that could have made a difference and who wimped out, much to their disgrace.

This brings us to the systemic failure of the military promotion system. Even to be considered for general officer, his politics have to be clean, and he must have demonstrated his team-playing and social skills (read: kissing the right butts). This is no place for an imaginative, creative or innovative officer, or the maverick who has made waves in his career.

By Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s standards ["A Failure in Generalship," May], who has ever qualified as the quintessential general officer? Well, to narrow the field and the era, the names of Gens. Billy Mitchell, Clair Chennault, Jimmy Doolittle, Patton, MacArthur and LeMay spring to mind, along with a few combat admirals and a handful of others. Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall were brilliant strategists, planners and administrators who qualify but weren’t, strictly speaking, combat generals.

In the here and now, it remains to be seen whether Gen. David Petraeus will turn out to be a "general’s general," by Yingling’s implicit definition. We know that he has all the "squares filled," a great track record, and thus seems eminently qualified to take over the Iraq war. Most of those other elements of ideal generalship — imagination, personal courage, creativity, innovativeness, charisma, etc. — are in the process of being demonstrated to us laymen. In particular, I have no idea how he relates to his staff and to the troops in terms of leadership and communication or of his foreign language skills. It also remains to be seen how he will perform in the big upcoming showdown with Congress — a glib bureaucrat or an inspiring, knowledgeable, big-picture combat leader?

I am nagged by the thought that the solution could be minimalist and easier than meets the eye, at least for starters. Sometimes less is more. What if just a few senior officers in all branches mentally shift gears and consider opening their eyes and minds and looking beyond the traditional "square-filling" that hampers the military system today? Our current military strength, especially in the brass-to-worker-bee ratio, should allow the services to find some wise old guys who miraculously got promoted to take careful, close looks at upcoming crops of mid-grade officers and identify the unconventional thinkers and the diamonds in the rough who typically get passed over, get them onto tracks that can serve the military and the country better, and reward and promote them accordingly.

Can we continue to accept our future war-fighting capabilities being hobbled by obsolescent, past-century philosophies, doctrines and methodologies? Only at our very grave risk.

Col. Derel Schrock (ret.), Air Force

Colorado Springs, Colo.