Future Generals Posted by: McQ
on Thursday, May 22, 2008
Victor Davis Hanson wonders if the next group of officers promoted to brigadier general by the Army will contain any Grants or Shermans:
Who becomes a general — and why — tells us a lot about whether our military is on the right or wrong track. The annual spring list of Army colonels promoted to brigadier generals will be shortly released. Already, rumors suggest that this year, unlike in the recent past, a number of maverick officers who have distinguished themselves fighting — and usually defeating — insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq will be chosen.
For example, scholar-soldier Col. H. R. McMaster, Special Forces Col. Ken Tovo, and Col. Sean MacFarland — all of whom helped turn Sunni insurgents into allies — could, and should, make the cut.
These three colonels have had decorated careers in Iraq mastering the complexities of working with Iraqi forces in hunting down terrorists and insurgents. And they — like David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq — in the past have not always reflected the Army establishment in Washington. Their unconventional views about counterinsurgency warfare do not hinge on high-tech weaponry, tanks, artillery, and rapid massed advance.
But most wars are rarely fought as planned. During the fighting, those who adjust most quickly to the unexpected tend to be successful. And in almost all of America’s past conflicts, our top commanders on the eve of war were not those who finished it.
I really don't know Tovo or MacFarland that well, but I've followed McMasters' career with interest. As a CPT, he was written up by Tom Clancy about a classic conventional force on force engagement in Desert Storm where his company size unit of armored cavalry destroyed a battalion size unit of Iraq's Republican guard. Later in Iraq, as a COL commanding the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he successfully implemented the COIN strategy that served as a model (Tal Afar) for its development and use later when the surge was executed. He's also written a couple of books. Sometimes, and this is just me talking, I think he may have gotten "too famous" for his own good.
But it is clear that McMasters is comfortable in both the conventional and unconventional application of military force, is a thinker and is general officer material.
VDH tends to think of them as "mavericks", and perhaps they are. But, at least as far as I can tell, McMasters has mastered the art of war in both critical areas and that's very important now. So:
Now we will see whether the former mavericks can become incorporated into the military establishment. Will this wartime change in Pentagon thinking be enough — and in time? It depends on how many of the forward-thinking colonels get promoted and how much influence they wield.
With the promotion and success of Petraeus, my guess is we may see them promoted. If they're not (and there may be very good reasons not to promote them, but they're not evident to me) it will, unfortunately, tend to reinforce my belief that the Army hasn't yet purged all the peace-time generals (what Hackworth called "perfumed princes")- those who want new generals to "look like them" - and replaced them with generals who understand the type of officer the Army needs to lead it in the future. And that would be a shame. Because it would indicate institutional impetus won out over practical necessity:
[T]he issue is whether the military still remains flexible enough to find the right commanders for the right type of fighting at the right time — and is preparing for all sorts of diverse scenarios in an increasingly competitive and unpredictable world.
I agree and hope the next promotion list demonstrates exactly that.
And people wonder why junior officers are leaving the service in droves. One officer’s opinion is that our current crop of leaders are driving them out. Not intentionally (one would hope), but their actions as leaders do little to nothing to foster an environment where a critical thinking officer would want to stay in the service. When your ideas and opinions are always irrevalent, because apparently you’re not smart enough to have ideas and opinions, that is an environment that is not conducive to your young intelligent people staying around.
Questioning decisions, asking about basic assumptions - these are just not done. It is not that one is told not to, it is just that there are no answers to simple questions. Or the answer has political overtones (we do not, ever, imply that our leaders do not know what the hell they are talking about) hence not to be spoken aloud.
I truely hope that this new crop of general officers is just that: a new crop. This officer, for one, is very pessimistic though.
Officers like Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Nimitz, Halsey, labored as junior field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, lieutenant commanders and commanders) mostly in schools and staff positions during the twenties and thirties. All were in their fifties when WWII came along. Marshall had kept his own list of officers who had impressed him for many years and used it to good advantage after Pearl Harbor jumping these talented leaders over erstwhile "perfumed princes". Thankfully, Roosevelt gave Marshall wide leeway in this regard.
CPT G: Thanks for your service. Do you think putting Petraeus on the current promotion board will do anygood to improve the general officer promotion process?
vnjagvet: I have no idea whether GEN Petraeus will positively influence, or has as the case may be, this board. I would hope so. Couple of problems with looking for immediate improvements. First, those selected will not be placed into general officer positions for probably at least a year. There are a lot of variables involved, and a lot of people, so there is no telling what will really happen. The system is set up so that our newest get some additional professional development and someone has to decide where the will go. Second, these brand new GOs will be junior GOs. You take the new one-star who goes to a division, he will influence but is most definitely not the ultimate decision maker at that division.
If there is going to be significant change, I would not expect to see anything for another 4-5 years minimum. Might happen faster, I remain pesimistic.