There were two media performances of note in recent days, illustrating (once again), that new media dictum that he who laughs last has the latest publishing date, the best book deal, or the biggest publicity campaign. Most of the attention has been paid to former CIA Director George Tenet’s appearance on 60 Minutes last night, but there was another event that caused a media splash on Friday, and is worthy of its own critique.
So, we’ll begin with a gentleman who doesn’t have a book contract or TV appearance (at least not yet), but I’m sure the media types will be in touch. Army Lt Col Paul Yingling’s op-ed in the most recent edition Armed Forces Journal generated a significant amount of attention in the MSM, largely because it dovetails with various templates on our “failed” effort in Iraq.
Lt Col Yingling, who currently serves as Deputy Commander of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment (ACR), believes that the U.S. is on the verge of losing in Iraq, and places the blame squarely at the feet of the general officer corps. According to Lt Col Yingling, our most senior officers have sown the seeds for defeat by (a) concentrating on conventional warfare and high-tech weaponry; (b) failing to train and equip our forces for the challenge of counter-insurgency operations, and (c) refusing to adjust tactics to meet changing conditions in Iraq. Lt Col Yingling likens the performance of current and recent flag officers to those who served in the Vietnam era, when the generals and admirals not only failed to produce a strategy for victory, they also remained silent while civilian leaders developed–and implemented–a strategy that ensured defeat.
It’s a damning indictment, and Yingling believes the underlying cause is the system that develops and promotes general officers. Instead of fostering innovation and moral courage, he believes that today’s system stifles reasoned dissent and creativity. As he notes, our civilian leaders tend to prefer senior officers who are “team players” and don’t rock the boat, traits that are only reinforced by today’s military culture.
“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.”
There’s certainly an element of truth in Yingling’s arguments, but his critique merits some cautionary notes as well. First, the “problem” he describes–careerism–has been the bane of our military for more than three decades. In 1970, then-Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland commissioned a study on professionalism in the service that revealed many of the same problems cited by Lt Col Yingling 37 years later (emphasis mine). And, the subject has hardly been ignored; over the past four decades, there have been plenty of articles in military journals and discussions at the War Colleges on those very subjects. While the system which rewards conformity and silence remains unchanged, Yingling seems to view the general officer corps as the disease, and not the symptom of a larger military culture that needs reforms in selected areas. Without corresponding changes in recruitment, training and military education, Yingling’s reform plan is tantamount to treating cancer in its terminal stages.
Likewise, Lt Col Yingling’s prescribed “cures” also leave much to be desired. He advocates a greater role for Congress in the selection of general officers, increased oversight by the House and Senate in military matters, and finally, holding retired generals accountable by retiring them at a lower rank, if they fail to perform adequately. At first blush, those recommendations seem quite sensible, but (as always) the devil’s in the details.
Consider the prospect of increased Congressional participation in the selection of our military leaders and greater oversight authority. Such a system would quickly illustrate why the founding fathers insisted that there be only one commander-in-chief, instead of legions of would-be emperors in the halls of Congress. Fact is, Congress has (traditionally) viewed military matters through the twin prisms of politics and pork, and there’s no reason to believe those practices would change under the system advocated by Lt Col Yingling.
Indeed, while our current military personnel model has produced its share of “yes men” (and women) at the flag ranks, it has one saving grace: by restricting Congress to a confirmation role, it has largely avoided the politicization of the process. Getting Congress “more involved” in the selection of flag officers is a recipie for disaster, with key members of the House and Senate touting their “favorite” candidates, and prospective flag officers actively courting our elected leaders, or even using their political connections to improve performance reports or assignments. Our previous experience with “political generals” (during the Civil War era) was an utter failure, and contributed to a number of battlefield defeats. In a global war on terror–and a looming threat from China–we simply can’t afford to make the same mistake again.
Likewise, Yingling should be more skeptical about Congress’ record in the oversight role. While there are a few members of the House and Senate who are experts in defense matters, the majority in both houses are politicians in search of a “hot” issue or sound bite that can enhance their stature, and denigrate the opposition. Just last week, a House committee held hearings into the alleged “cover-ups” associated with the friendly fire death of Army Ranger (and former NFL star) Pat Tillman, and the manufactured heroics of PFC Jessica Lynch. After the attention-grabbing hearings (and subsequent headlines), the House panel has already moved on, with no regard for “fixing” the process that led to the cover-ups. In today’s political environment, can anyone really expect Congress to be more judicious in its oversight of larger military issues, and abandon the parochial interests that often dominate that oversight process?
Despite that reality, Lt Col Yingling also wants elected officials to “create” a promotion system that rewards intellectual achievement and adaptation by implementing a 360-degree evaluation system, and making professional writings and academic achievements a benchmark for potential flag officers. The proposed evaluation model would allow inputs from the officer’s peers and subordinates, but Yingling doesn’t address the pratical aspects of that approach. For example, the brigade and battalion commanders who might assist in the “evaluation” of a division commander still need the general’s input and endorsement for their own efficiency reports. How many of those Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels would be willing to risk their own careers by criticizing the commander’s performance, even under a system that allowed some degree of anonymity?
Additionally, there’s the very real possibility that “peers” could use the process to undercut potential competitors, even if they’re assigned to a different unit. Evaluating fellow officers or NCOs is a dicey process, one reason that cohort reviews are used sparingly (and informally) in training environments like ROTC, or professional military education schools. They’re called “peer smears” for good reason, and it’s not surprising the armed services have elected to exclude them from the formal evaluation process.
Intellectual and educational achievements represent an equally thorny issue. It’s worth noting that many of America’s greatest military leaders–Washington, Lee, Grant, Pershing, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton–made do without a graduate degree. Fact is, graduate degrees have become a check-list item for today’s officers corps, securing the “tie breaker” that is sometimes used by promotion boards in determining who is selected for advancement. Lt Col Yingling is correct in his observation that the military could use more officers who can speak a foreign language, and have an advanced education in the social sciences. But, he offers no design for determining who actually needs those skills–and preventing the mass “rush” for part-time graduate schools that have produced a generation of officers with “square-filler” master’s degrees, and few opportunities to apply that knowledge.
Yingling is also (slightly) off the mark when he suggests that many general officers lack the requisite knowledge or skill for fighting a war like Iraq. The recently-retired CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid, is a West Point grad who earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, he speaks fluent Arabic, and spent years as a special forces operator, with extensive training in counter-insurgency operations. The new commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was the Army’s most successful division commander in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the author of the service’s new counter-insurgency manual. General Petraeus holds a Ph.D in international relations from the Wilson School at Princeton. General Peter Schoomaker, who served as Army Chief of Staff until last month, spent virtually his entire career in special operations, and was another of the service’s counter-insurgency experts. Schoomaker’s replacement, General George Casey, is a graduate of the foreign service program at Georgetown University.
Whatever their faults in prosecuting the Iraq War, these generals were (as a group) well-educated and trained for their mission. And ironically, the same evaluation and promotion system that Lt Col Yingling faults put these officers in line to be confirmed by the Senate, and lead our ground campaign. No system is perfect, but in the case of Abizaid, Schoomaker and Petraeus, it found officers with seemingly the right mix of education, skills and experience to carry out the Iraq mission. It’s difficult to see how a model with “greater” Congressional participation and oversight would find more qualified officers.
In fact, Yingling’s call for wider participation by Congress is the most alarming part of his commentary. By making that suggestion, Lt Col Yingling seems to imply that the Army in particular (and the military as a whole) are incapable of reforming themselves. History suggests otherwise. After Pearl Harbor, George Marshall cleaned house, orchestrating the rapid advancement of men like Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton, creating the team that was instrumental in winning World War II. In the late 1970s, men like Don Starry, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf transformed the post-Vietnam Army into the world’s most lethal ground force. Today, the same spirit of innovation, courage and determination can be found among the Captains, Majors and Lieutenant Colonels who are leading soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not all of those officers will reach the flag level; some will see their careers ended by an evaluation and promotion system that has its flaws. But I still believe that the best of that group will reach the top, providing the leadership and vision required to win the long war. Reform within the military is the key to that process; increased “oversight” and meddling by Congress is not.
Addendum: After reading Lt Col Yingling’s critique, I thought about filing a grievance with my last Air Force promotion board. I’ve got a master’s degree in one of the social sciences (poly sci), I’ve got all my PME squares filled, and with a little refresher training, I can get by in French. But obviously, it takes more than that to make a great general officer; that’s why the Air Force made the correct decision when it put me out to pasture as a field-grader.