July 1, 2007  

The 20/20 hindsight gift

Criticizing mistakes of a few generals is unfair to the majority

As a career Army officer, I found many elements of Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s assessment of our general officers’ leadership to ring true, but his use of history and facts are selective, his expectations of Congress as a solution are naïve and his stance a bit self-righteous. This rebuttal does not excuse those few generals who are culpable in failing to stand up to a secretary of defense and the U.S. administrator in Iraq, but Yingling’s scathing assessment doesn’t apply to the great majority of our generals.

Although it is reasonable to debate a crisis of leadership and moral conviction among our general officers, let’s put Yingling’s characterization in perspective. His assertion that our generals failed to plan and have neglected their strategic role is a myopic view and the product of selective memory. Our generals are exceptionally well-educated in the profession of arms by any standard. They are students of history and products of the same professional education system that produced Yingling and me.

It is important to contradict Yingling’s assertions and emphasize that military strategic planning is usually exceptional. The Joint Staff had a competent, well-developed plan for Iraq, and U.S. forces executed it very well. There were a few generals who yielded to pressure to conform to the decisions of Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld that contributed to the current situation, and we should judge both the politicians and the generals harshly. The current environment in Iraq is not the failure of military strategic planning. Rather, the situation is the product of poor decisions by political appointees that forced soldiers and Marines to transition to an unconventional fight we had planned to avoid and the failure of a few general officers to prevent it.

It is also a fair assessment that our senior leaders are products of a culture that suppresses objection and difference of opinion, and rewards those who conform and play along. However, Yingling and I grew up in this same culture, and so it is disingenuous that his pointed assessment somehow rationalizes that our generals don’t possess the same conscience, moral clarity or ability to employ free will that he and I do. His contention that Congress is capable of changing this culture is naïve in supposing it would. Congress will not do so. Our election cycle dictates that politicians remain acutely focused on getting re-elected, and they have little time to devote to these issues except when posturing for the media and lip service on their way to the next fundraiser. They would not even declare war following Sept. 11. The solution to this crisis of leadership may be found in history, and I offer that the only way to fix our leadership problem is from within the services.

Yingling’s contention that our generals failed to train our forces to fight irregular warfare is at best a gross oversimplification of circumstances and at worst irresponsible ignorance of the facts. Yingling falls into the trap that many post-Vietnam critics did, gifted with the same 20/20 hindsight. He is also apparently a born-again counterinsurgency disciple. The historical fact is that only when Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military did U.S. forces find themselves forced to attempt to secure the country with too few troops. It was then that our troops found themselves in an environment in which they hadn’t been prepared to fight. We lingered there, frantically executing a “Whac-a-Mole” operation, because we were too small to replace the entire Iraqi Army. We quickly lost the trust of the population, appeared vulnerable and gave al-Qaida all the incentive it needed to enter Iraq, and Baathists reason to fight. Had our forces executed our strategy and fought the type of operations we planned, we would have left the Iraqi Army intact, and we wouldn’t be fighting an insurgency.

Yingling knows and apparently ignores that our military trains for both unconventional and conventional warfare. He now appears to enjoy unimpaired hindsight and preaches the merits of counterinsurgency as though he experienced a bolt of bright light from the heavens on the road to Damascus. The reality is that before the war, the services operated as we do now, in a resource-constrained world that forces each to make difficult strategic choices about the scope and types of training they undertake. The Army balances our mix of conventional and unconventional training based on consideration of frequent threat assessments and the limitations of our resources. Before Sept. 11, our leadership was rightly focused on the most likely national threats and the difficult task of positioning our forces to counter them. The slowness with which we transitioned to the unconventional environment we now find ourselves in is purely the result of having to shift operational gears in the middle of a fight.

The failure of our generals in Iraq was a failure to stand up to the defense secretary, the administration and their appointed leader in Iraq — who changed the plan. One can reasonably assume that had the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and service chiefs of staff collectively screamed loud and long that Rumsfeld and Bremer were ignoring their professional judgment, the U.S. would not be in this position, nor would we be having this debate. Recall that then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki had a focused plan and was largely alone in forcefully speaking up about the level of troop commitment required and the need for achievable objectives. He was summarily marginalized, his retirement prematurely announced. Interestingly enough, while American citizens have heard plenty of post-retirement criticism from generals culpable in the questionable decision-making on Iraq who were unwilling to speak out while in uniform, Shinseki has maintained a quiet dignity, apparently satisfied to let history judge the heroes and the irresponsible.


How do we go about changing our military culture to develop great generals and reward the moral leadership we expect? Our own military history offers a solution to the current crisis and perhaps the only one that can truly effect cultural change. In the buildup to World War II, newly appointed Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall faced a similar dilemma. Marshall inherited a stable of generals who were part of the “good ol’ boy” network and a culture that Marshall did not believe was suited to meet the monumental challenges that faced the Army. He solved it by firing a large number of them, replacing them with a new generation of young, talented field-grade officers who understood the emerging types of modern warfare in which they would have to fight and win. The result was the emergence of a group of strong, innovative generals who won the war and led us into the position of superpower we still enjoy.

Today, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey and Defense Secretary Robert Gates could certainly employ a similar approach. Were they to do so, it would be interesting to assess these new generals’ decisions and performance after they walked a few miles in the shoes of the leaders they replaced, having experienced the competing pressures, conflicting advice and myriad competing agendas they will face.

Yingling might well be one of those to wear stars someday, and I offer that his vision ahead might not be as clear as his hindsight, particularly after having walked a few miles in the shoes of the general officers he disparaged.

Let’s hope our next generation of generals is up to the task to do what many of us accuse the current generation of failing to do. Let’s hope they have the moral constitution and fortitude to put their stars on the line to do the right thing for the Army and the nation.

Lt. Col. John Mauk is deputy chief of the Army Modeling and Simulation Office for the Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations (G3). He has served as a staff officer at the three-star level and as a strategist in the headquarters of Multi-National Force-Iraq.