Serving Officer Blasts Generals’ Failures
The current Armed Forces Journal features a devastating critique of America’s generals by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Thomas Ricks runs down the highlights:
An active-duty Army officer is publishing a blistering attack on U.S. generals, saying they have botched the war in Iraq and misled Congress about the situation there. “America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq,” charges Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an Iraq veteran who is deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. “The intellectual and moral failures . . . constitute a crisis in American generals.”
Yingling’s comments are especially striking because his unit’s performance in securing the northwestern Iraqi city of Tall Afar was cited by President Bush in a March 2006 speech and provided the model for the new security plan underway in Baghdad. He also holds a high profile for a lieutenant colonel: He attended the Army’s elite School for Advanced Military Studies and has written for one of the Army’s top professional journals, Military Review.
The article, “General Failure,” is to be published today in Armed Forces Journal and is posted at http://www.armedforcesjournal.com. Its appearance signals the public emergence of a split inside the military between younger, mid-career officers and the top brass.
Many majors and lieutenant colonels have privately expressed anger and frustration with the performance of Gen. Tommy R. Franks, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and other top commanders in the war, calling them slow to grasp the realities of the war and overly optimistic in their assessments.
Some younger officers have stated privately that more generals should have been taken to task for their handling of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, news of which broke in 2004. The young officers also note that the Army’s elaborate “lessons learned” process does not criticize generals and that no generals in Iraq have been replaced for poor battlefield performance, a contrast to other U.S. wars.
“After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public,” he writes. “For reasons that are not yet clear, America’s general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq.”
The article has been read by about 30 of his peers, Yingling added. “At the level of lieutenant colonel and below, it received almost universal approval,” he said.
Yingling advocates overhauling the way generals are picked and calls for more involvement by Congress. To replace today’s “mild-mannered team players,” he writes, Congress should create incentives in the promotion system to “reward adaptation and intellectual achievement.”
He does not criticize officers by name; instead, the article refers repeatedly to “America’s generals.” Yingling said he did this intentionally, in order to focus not on the failings of a few people but rather on systemic problems.
He also recommends that Congress review the performance of senior generals as they retire and exercise its power to retire them at a lower rank if it deems their performance inferior. The threat of such high-profile demotions would restore accountability among top officers, he contends. “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war,” he states.
An interesting critique and one that has a long tradition in modern militaries, which tolerate respectful dissent as part of their constant learning process. Indeed, a young Winston Churchill first came to public attention with a series of essays his wrote as a second lieutenant for the London Daily Telegraph criticizing the tactics used in the India frontiers wars. The resulting 1897 book, Story of the Malakand Field Force, was derided by some as “A Subaltern’s Advice to the Generals” but it was nonetheless read.
That there is a divide between the field grade officers and the generals is not particularly surprising. It is always thus when the nature of warfare is undergoing a radical change. Those who have spent thirty or more years learning to do things one way are much slower to change than the young bucks who have come to professional maturity in that new environment. Majors and lieutenant colonels have enough experience, training, and education to fully grasp the moment, whereas too many generals are holding on to old ways.
I’ll give the piece a looksee and might have more detailed comments later. My neighborhood has a power outage and I’m blogging on the remaining power in my laptop’s battery via a balky Verizon wireless card. Oddly, despite living in a densely populated and relatively affluent area, our cellular coverage is horrendous.
UPDATE: I’ve read the article and overall it’s a pretty good one. It reads a bit like a master’s degree student’s course paper, with far too many references to the classical literature to make points that are otherwise obvious to the intended audience. Interestingly, he doesn’t cite the late Carl Builder, who wrote about this phenomenon in his 1989 classic Masks of War:
The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer’s potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer’s advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.
While that’s absolutely right (indeed, my analysis noted that above before I’d even read the article), Yingling’s proposed solutions are naive.
To improve the creative intelligence of our generals, Congress must change the officer promotion system in ways that reward adaptation and intellectual achievement. Congress should require the armed services to implement 360-degree evaluations for field-grade and flag officers. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly. They are also less wed to organizational norms and less influenced by organizational taboos. Junior leaders have valuable insights regarding the effectiveness of their leaders, but the current promotion system excludes these judgments. Incorporating subordinate and peer reviews into promotion decisions for senior leaders would produce officers more willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and less likely to conform to outmoded practices.
Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.
The 360-degree evaluation process has become quite popular in the management literature in recent years and it has some merits. Still, having experience with peer evaluations as an ROTC cadet and student evaluations as a college professor, I’ve seen the dark side of the process. While it’s true that peers and subordinates have unique insights into character unavailable to superiors (let alone the bosses’ boss, who is the most important person in the officer rating chain) they also tend to reward people with a go-along-to-get-along attitude and punish those who push the envelope.
And the idea that the United States Senate is going to read term papers written by hundreds of officers to evaluate their intellectual acumen is patently absurd. Even if they were qualified to perform that task, they surely don’t have the time.
Further, while I’m sympathetic to the desirability of having officers foreign language qualified, I’m not sure we’d have been more successful in Iraq if Ricardo Sanchez were fluent in Arabic (let alone German or Spanish, which are also, after all, foreign languages). Indeed, John Abizaid is a native caliber Arabic speaker and cultural expert and he didn’t fare so well, either. Generaliship isn’t about the mastery of such technical details.
UPDATE: My friend and Iraq War veteran Phil Carter terms this “an incisive and brilliant article.” He laments that the spirit of careerism has kept more of Yingling’s cohorts from speaking out publicly.
The U.S. Army trains tactical leaders very well. You will not find better tactical leadership schools than what the Army runs in places like Fort Benning and Fort Leonard Wood. Its apprenticeship and mentorship system (aka the company-grade ranks) is second-to-none. However, something has broken at the upper echelons of the military. Instead of producing generals today, the Army is producing bureaucrats and managers. America’s private sector is producing visionary leaders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Carly Fiorina and Larry Ellison. The military system gave us Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez. Huh?
The problem is that the military system requires people to excel–in the opinion of their senior raters–at varying assignments for twenty-odd years before becoming eligible for selection for general officer. Getting one boss who thinks you’re too intellectual or too much of a maverick can be a career ender.
Plus, the Peter Principle is often at work. I’m sure Franks and Sanchez were superb colonels and did many things right at the one-, two-, and three-star level. One could be a brilliant general and not be able to adapt to the demands of regional command, which requires superb political judgment in addition to strategic competence. Indeed, George Patton would have failed miserably at Dwight Eisenhower’s job of Supreme Allied Commander.
Steve Bainbridge thinks Yingling’s criticism is misdirected:
I gather Col Yingling respected the principle of civilian control of the military so much that he failed to point out that it was Bush and Rumsfeld who bear ultimate responsibility for “going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization,” as well as the other failures he identifies. In any case, you’ll remember that when a group of retired generals criticized the administration over Iraq, the warbloggers viciously attacked the generals. It’ll be interesting to see how the warbloggers respond to Yingling.
While I defended the retired generals’ criticisms of the administration, I had some reservations as well given their influence over recent subordinates. This strikes me as a different animal, though: An active officer offering a respectful call for change in the institution he’s serving in a professional forum. That’s not only permissible, it’s highly desirable.
Yingling criticizes the civilian leadership obliquely in the piece but rightly focuses his attention on the uniformed leadership. That’s absolutely appropriate. Not because President Bush and others don’t deserve a lot of blame for the failures in this war–they do and have been getting it for years–but because it’s not his place. Field grade officers don’t get to speak out against their elected leadership. Four-star generals, on the other hand, have a duty to provide their best military advice to the president, JCS chairman, SECDEF, and Congress. Yingling has every right to voice his opinion that they failed in that duty.
UPDATE: Jim Henley takes a few steps back to look at the bigger picture:
I’m sure some version of Yingling’s reforms can give us a better officer corps, even if they’re imperfectly implemented, but the truth is that the Army can only ever get so good because, at bottom it’s a bureaucracy responding to the laws of bureaucracies.
A fair point and one that reform efforts necessarily ignore. It doesn’t, of course, mean we shouldn’t try to gt things as right as possible.
Jim’s second point, though, is more important:
By and large, a country like the United States only needs to commit to an ongoing posture of counterinsurgency if it is also committed to serial military domination of foreign populations. In fact, the United States is currently so committed, on a bipartisan basis. But that’s an unwise and immoral posture that will lead to national ruin in the medium to long term. The Iraq defeat offers one of those rare moments for real national reappraisal, an openness to genuine reform. Rather than work at getting better at executing an unwise and immoral grand strategy, let’s choose a different one.
While we differ at the margins here, we’re in general agreement. Bush came to office promising to eschew nation-building and yet we’ve not only undertaken perhaps the biggest nation-building project in history but done it in a completely half-assed way. That’s the worst of both worlds.