April 16th 2007, 33 killed Virginia Tech
April 18th 2007, nearly 200 killed in Baghdad bombs
April 24th 2007, 9 U.S. Soldiers killed 20 injured
In Iraq it could be considered a good day if only 32 people were
murdered; here in the United States people get all worked up when 32
people are killed. It is quite sad that very few people bother to get
worked up when 200 Iraqi’s become collateral damage or that U.S.
service personal get blown up but let 32 college students get killed
and the media goes nuts.
I suppose that is what happens when all life is not valued the
same. In Iraq it was just more time in a hell hole. At Virginia Tech it
was shocking, traumatizing, fearful: in Iraq it was just another day.
A Failure in generalship
April 28, 2007
By Lt. Col. Paul Yingling for the Armed Forces Journal
"You officers amuse yourselves
with God knows what buffooneries and never dream in the least of
serious service. This is a source of stupidity which would become most
dangerous in case of a serious conflict." — Frederick the Great
For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the
prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the
U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate
at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq's grave and
deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory
and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.
These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but
rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer
corps. America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for
war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to
achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three
elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to
provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic
probabilities. Second, America's generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to
perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American
generalship requires the intervention of Congress.
The Responsibilities of Generalship
Armies do not fight wars; nations fight wars. War is not a
military activity conducted by soldiers, but rather a social activity
that involves entire nations. Prussian military theorist Carl von
Clausewitz noted that passion, probability and policy each play their
role in war. Any understanding of war that ignores one of these
elements is fundamentally flawed.
The passion of the people is necessary to endure the sacrifices
inherent in war. Regardless of the system of government, the people
supply the blood and treasure required to prosecute war. The statesman
must stir these passions to a level commensurate with the popular
sacrifices required. When the ends of policy are small, the statesman
can prosecute a conflict without asking the public for great sacrifice.
Global conflicts such as World War II require the full mobilization of
entire societies to provide the men and materiel necessary for the
successful prosecution of war. The greatest error the statesman can
make is to commit his nation to a great conflict without mobilizing
popular passions to a level commensurate with the stakes of the
Popular passions are necessary for the successful prosecution of
war, but cannot be sufficient. To prevail, generals must provide
policymakers and the public with a correct estimation of strategic
probabilities. The general is responsible for estimating the likelihood
of success in applying force to achieve the aims of policy. The general
describes both the means necessary for the successful prosecution of
war and the ways in which the nation will employ those means. If the
policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are
insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of
this incongruence. The statesman must then scale back the ends of
policy or mobilize popular passions to provide greater means. If the
general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with
insufficient means, he shares culpability for the results.
However much it is influenced by passion and probability, war is
ultimately an instrument of policy and its conduct is the
responsibility of policymakers. War is a social activity undertaken on
behalf of the nation; Augustine counsels us that the only purpose of
war is to achieve a better peace. The choice of making war to achieve a
better peace is inherently a value judgment in which the statesman must
decide those interests and beliefs worth killing and dying for. The
military man is no better qualified than the common citizen to make
such judgments. He must therefore confine his input to his area of
expertise — the estimation of strategic probabilities.
The correct estimation of strategic possibilities can be further
subdivided into the preparation for war and the conduct of war.
Preparation for war consists in the raising, arming, equipping and
training of forces. The conduct of war consists of both planning for
the use of those forces and directing those forces in operations.
To prepare forces for war, the general must visualize the
conditions of future combat. To raise military forces properly, the
general must visualize the quality and quantity of forces needed in the
next war. To arm and equip military forces properly, the general must
visualize the materiel requirements of future engagements. To train
military forces properly, the general must visualize the human demands
on future battlefields, and replicate those conditions in peacetime
exercises. Of course, not even the most skilled general can visualize
precisely how future wars will be fought. According to British military
historian and soldier Sir Michael Howard, "In structuring and preparing
an army for war, you can be clear that you will not get it precisely
right, but the important thing is not to be too far wrong, so that you
can put it right quickly."
The most tragic error a general can make is to assume without
much reflection that wars of the future will look much like wars of the
past. Following World War I, French generals committed this error,
assuming that the next war would involve static battles dominated by
firepower and fixed fortifications. Throughout the interwar years,
French generals raised, equipped, armed and trained the French military
to fight the last war. In stark contrast, German generals spent the
interwar years attempting to break the stalemate created by firepower
and fortifications. They developed a new form of war — the
blitzkrieg — that integrated mobility, firepower and
decentralized tactics. The German Army did not get this new form of
warfare precisely right. After the 1939 conquest of Poland, the German
Army undertook a critical self-examination of its
operations. However, German generals did not get it too far
wrong either, and in less than a year had adapted their tactics for the
invasion of France.
After visualizing the conditions of future combat, the general
is responsible for explaining to civilian policymakers the demands of
future combat and the risks entailed in failing to meet those demands.
Civilian policymakers have neither the expertise nor the inclination to
think deeply about strategic probabilities in the distant future.
Policymakers, especially elected representatives, face powerful
incentives to focus on near-term challenges that are of immediate
concern to the public. Generating military capability is the labor of
decades. If the general waits until the public and its elected
representatives are immediately concerned with national security
threats before finding his voice, he has waited too long. The general
who speaks too loudly of preparing for war while the nation is at peace
places at risk his position and status. However, the general who speaks
too softly places at risk the security of his country.
Failing to visualize future battlefields represents a lapse in
professional competence, but seeing those fields clearly and saying
nothing is an even more serious lapse in professional character. Moral
courage is often inversely proportional to popularity and this
observation in nowhere more true than in the profession of arms. The
history of military innovation is littered with the truncated careers
of reformers who saw gathering threats clearly and advocated change
boldly. A military professional must possess both the physical courage
to face the hazards of battle and the moral courage to withstand the
barbs of public scorn. On and off the battlefield, courage is the first
characteristic of generalship.
Failures of Generalship in Vietnam
America's defeat in Vietnam is the most egregious failure in the
history of American arms. America's general officer corps refused to
prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars, despite ample
indications that such preparations were in order. Having failed to
prepare for such wars, America's generals sent our forces into battle
without a coherent plan for victory. Unprepared for war and lacking a
coherent strategy, America lost the war and the lives of more than
58,000 service members.
Following World War II, there were ample indicators that
America's enemies would turn to insurgency to negate our advantages in
firepower and mobility. The French experiences in Indochina and Algeria
offered object lessons to Western armies facing unconventional foes.
These lessons were not lost on the more astute members of America's
political class. In 1961, President Kennedy warned of "another
type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by
guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead
of by combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by
evading and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him." In response
to these threats, Kennedy undertook a comprehensive program to prepare
America's armed forces for counterinsurgency.
Despite the experience of their allies and the urging of their
president, America's generals failed to prepare their forces for
counterinsurgency. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Decker assured his
young president, "Any good soldier can handle guerrillas." Despite
Kennedy's guidance to the contrary, the Army viewed the conflict in
Vietnam in conventional terms. As late as 1964, Gen. Earle Wheeler,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated flatly that "the essence
of the problem in Vietnam is military." While the Army made minor
organizational adjustments at the urging of the president, the generals
clung to what Andrew Krepinevich has called "the Army concept," a
vision of warfare focused on the destruction of the enemy's forces.
Having failed to visualize accurately the conditions of combat
in Vietnam, America's generals prosecuted the war in conventional
terms. The U.S. military embarked on a graduated attrition strategy
intended to compel North Vietnam to accept a negotiated peace. The U.S.
undertook modest efforts at innovation in Vietnam. Civil Operations and
Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), spearheaded by the State
Department's "Blowtorch" Bob Kromer, was a serious effort to address
the political and economic causes of the insurgency. The Marine Corps'
Combined Action Program (CAP) was an innovative approach to population
security. However, these efforts are best described as too little, too
late. Innovations such as CORDS and CAP never received the resources
necessary to make a large-scale difference. The U.S. military
grudgingly accepted these innovations late in the war, after the
American public's commitment to the conflict began to wane.
America's generals not only failed to develop a strategy for
victory in Vietnam, but also remained largely silent while the strategy
developed by civilian politicians led to defeat. As H.R. McMaster noted
in "Dereliction of Duty," the Joint Chiefs of Staff were divided by
service parochialism and failed to develop a unified and coherent
recommendation to the president for prosecuting the war to a successful
conclusion. Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson estimated in 1965
that victory would require as many as 700,000 troops for up to five
years. Commandant of the Marine Corps Wallace Greene made a similar
estimate on troop levels. As President Johnson incrementally escalated
the war, neither man made his views known to the president or Congress.
President Johnson made a concerted effort to conceal the costs and
consequences of Vietnam from the public, but such duplicity required
the passive consent of America's generals.
Having participated in the deception of the American people
during the war, the Army chose after the war to deceive itself. In
"Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife," John Nagl argued that instead of
learning from defeat, the Army after Vietnam focused its energies on
the kind of wars it knew how to win — high-technology
conventional wars. An essential contribution to this strategy of denial
was the publication of "On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam
War," by Col. Harry Summers. Summers, a faculty member of the U.S. Army
War College, argued that the Army had erred by not focusing enough on
conventional warfare in Vietnam, a lesson the Army was happy to
hear. Despite having been recently defeated by an insurgency, the
Army slashed training and resources devoted to counterinsurgency.
By the early 1990s, the Army's focus on conventional
war-fighting appeared to have been vindicated. During the 1980s, the
U.S. military benefited from the largest peacetime military buildup in
the nation's history. High-technology equipment dramatically increased
the mobility and lethality of our ground forces. The Army's National
Training Center honed the Army's conventional war-fighting skills to a
razor's edge. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the demise
of the Soviet Union and the futility of direct confrontation with the
U.S. Despite the fact the U.S. supported insurgencies in Afghanistan,
Nicaragua and Angola to hasten the Soviet Union's demise, the U.S.
military gave little thought to counterinsurgency throughout the 1990s.
America's generals assumed without much reflection that the wars of the
future would look much like the wars of the past — state-on-state
conflicts against conventional forces. America's swift defeat of the
Iraqi Army, the world's fourth-largest, in 1991 seemed to confirm the
wisdom of the U.S. military's post-Vietnam reforms. But the military
learned the wrong lessons from Operation Desert Storm. It continued to
prepare for the last war, while its future enemies prepared for a new
kind of war.
Failures of Generalship in Iraq
America's generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in
Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the
conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly.
Second, America's generals failed to estimate correctly both the means
and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning
the war in Iraq. Finally, America's generals did not provide Congress
and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.
Despite paying lip service to "transformation" throughout the
1990s, America's armed forces failed to change in significant ways
after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In "The Sling and the
Stone," T.X. Hammes argues that the Defense Department's transformation
strategy focuses almost exclusively on high-technology conventional
wars. The doctrine, organizations, equipment and training of the U.S.
military confirm this observation. The armed forces fought the global
war on terrorism for the first five years with a counterinsurgency
doctrine last revised in the Reagan administration. Despite engaging in
numerous stability operations throughout the 1990s, the armed forces
did little to bolster their capabilities for civic reconstruction and
security force development. Procurement priorities during the
1990s followed the Cold War model, with significant funding devoted to
new fighter aircraft and artillery systems. The most commonly used
tactical scenarios in both schools and training centers replicated
high-intensity interstate conflict. At the dawn of the 21st century,
the U.S. is fighting brutal, adaptive insurgencies in Afghanistan and
Iraq, while our armed forces have spent the preceding decade having
done little to prepare for such conflicts.
Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war,
America's generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary
to succeed in Iraq. The most fundamental military miscalculation in
Iraq has been the failure to commit sufficient forces to provide
security to Iraq's population. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimated
in its 1998 war plan that 380,000 troops would be necessary for an
invasion of Iraq. Using operations in Bosnia and Kosovo as a model for
predicting troop requirements, one Army study estimated a need for
470,000 troops. Alone among America's generals, Army Chief of Staff
General Eric Shinseki publicly stated that "several hundred thousand
soldiers" would be necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Prior to
the war, President Bush promised to give field commanders everything
necessary for victory. Privately, many senior general officers both
active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency
of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in
tell-all books such as "Fiasco" and "Cobra II." However, when the U.S.
went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win,
these leaders did not make their objections public.
Given the lack of troop strength, not even the most brilliant
general could have devised the ways necessary to stabilize post-Saddam
Iraq. However, inept planning for postwar Iraq took the crisis caused
by a lack of troops and quickly transformed it into a debacle. In 1997,
the U.S. Central Command exercise "Desert Crossing" demonstrated that
many postwar stabilization tasks would fall to the military. The other
branches of the U.S. government lacked sufficient capability to do such
work on the scale required in Iraq. Despite these results,
CENTCOM accepted the assumption that the State Department would
administer postwar Iraq. The military never explained to the president
the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq.
After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq,
America's generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency theory prescribes providing continuous security to
the population. However, for most of the war American forces in Iraq
have been concentrated on large forward-operating bases, isolated from
the Iraqi people and focused on capturing or killing insurgents.
Counterinsurgency theory requires strengthening the capability of
host-nation institutions to provide security and other essential
services to the population. America's generals treated efforts to
create transition teams to develop local security forces and provincial
reconstruction teams to improve essential services as afterthoughts,
never providing the quantity or quality of personnel necessary for
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. The Iraq Study Group concluded that "there is significant
underreporting of the violence in Iraq." The ISG noted that "on one day
in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence
reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day
brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to
make when information is systematically collected in a way that
minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals." Population security is
the most important measure of effectiveness in counterinsurgency. For
more than three years, America's generals continued to insist that the
U.S. was making progress in Iraq. However, for Iraqi civilians, each
year from 2003 onward was more deadly than the one preceding it. 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. Moreover, America's generals have not explained clearly the
larger strategic risks of committing so large a portion of the nation's
deployable land power to a single theater of operations.
The intellectual and moral failures common to America's general
officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American
generalship. Any explanation that fixes culpability on individuals is
insufficient. No one leader, civilian or military, caused failure in
Vietnam or Iraq. Different military and civilian leaders in the two
conflicts produced similar results. In both conflicts, the general
officer corps designed to advise policymakers, prepare forces and
conduct operations failed to perform its intended functions. To
understand how the U.S. could face defeat at the hands of a weaker
insurgent enemy for the second time in a generation, we must look at
the structural influences that produce our general officer corps.
The Generals We Need
The most insightful examination of failed generalship comes from
J.F.C. Fuller's "Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure." Fuller was
a British major general who saw action in the first attempts at armored
warfare in World War I. He found three common characteristics in great
generals — courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness.
The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general
officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war
is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and
four-star generals shows that only 25% hold advanced degrees from
civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities.
Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is
essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army's senior
generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of
America's generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding
their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military
men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management
style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately
concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding
their voices. They may have waited too long.
Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are
likely to remedy the shortcomings in America's general officer corps.
Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered
team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The
services themselves are equally to blame. 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.
If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in
its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these
qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper
oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the
system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees
must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and
pursuing appropriate ways for applying America's military power. Third,
the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those
officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost
in blood and treasure.
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 non-commissioned 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.
To reward moral courage in our general officers, Congress must
ask hard questions about the means and ways for war as part of its
oversight responsibility. Some of the answers will be shocking, which
is perhaps why Congress has not asked and the generals have not told.
Congress must ask for a candid assessment of the money and manpower
required over the next generation to prevail in the Long War. The money
required to prevail may place fiscal constraints on popular domestic
priorities. The quantity and quality of manpower required may call into
question the viability of the all-volunteer military. Congress must
re-examine the allocation of existing resources, and demand that
procurement priorities reflect the most likely threats we will face.
Congress must be equally rigorous in ensuring that the ways of war
contribute to conflict termination consistent with the aims of national
policy. If our operations produce more enemies than they defeat, no
amount of force is sufficient to prevail. Current oversight efforts
have proved inadequate, allowing the executive branch, the services and
lobbyists to present information that is sometimes incomplete,
inaccurate or self-serving. Exercising adequate oversight will require
members of Congress to develop the expertise necessary to ask the right
questions and display the courage to follow the truth wherever it leads
Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its
little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers.
By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or
four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all
but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights
scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired
at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who
fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of
strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters
stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences
than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the
retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability
among senior military leaders.
This article began with Frederick the Great's admonition to his
officers to focus their energies on the larger aspects of war. The
Prussian monarch's innovations had made his army the terror of Europe,
but he knew that his adversaries were learning and adapting.
Frederick feared that his generals would master his system of war
without thinking deeply about the ever-changing nature of war, and in
doing so would place Prussia's security at risk. These fears would
prove prophetic. At the Battle of Valmy in 1792, Frederick's successors
were checked by France's ragtag citizen army. In the fourteen years
that followed, Prussia's generals assumed without much reflection that
the wars of the future would look much like those of the past. In 1806,
the Prussian Army marched lockstep into defeat and disaster at the
hands of Napoleon at Jena. Frederick's prophecy had come to pass;
Prussia became a French vassal.
Iraq is America's Valmy. America's generals have been checked by
a form of war that they did not prepare for and do not understand. They
spent the years following the 1991 Gulf War mastering a system of war
without thinking deeply about the ever changing nature of war. They
marched into Iraq having assumed without much reflection that the wars
of the future would look much like the wars of the past. Those few who
saw clearly our vulnerability to insurgent tactics said and did little
to prepare for these dangers. As at Valmy, this one debacle, however
humiliating, will not in itself signal national disaster. The
hour is late, but not too late to prepare for the challenges of the
Long War. We still have time to select as our generals those who
possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral
courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for
our security. The power and the responsibility to identify such
generals lie with the U.S. Congress. If Congress does not act, our Jena
Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling is deputy commander, 3rd Armored Calvary
Regiment. He has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a
fourth in Operation Desert Storm. He holds a master's degree in
political science from the University of Chicago. The views expressed
here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army
or the Defense Department.
© Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.