Petraeus Picks the Next Generation

  • November 17, 2007
  • U.S. Army, General Military

Abu Muqawama woke up this morning to an email from the editors of Small Wars Journal calling attention to this article in the Washington Post on a development he thinks has the potential to be as important as they do. Abu Muqawama's comments can be found below this extract:

The Army has summoned the top U.S. commander in Iraq back to Washington to preside over a board that will pick some of the next generation of Army leaders, an unusual decision that officials say represents a vote of confidence in Gen. David H. Petraeus's conduct of the war, as well as the Army counterinsurgency doctrine he helped rewrite.

The Army has long been criticized for rewarding conventional military thinking and experience in traditional combat operations, and current and former defense officials have pointed to Petraeus's involvement in the promotion board process this month as a sign of the Army's commitment to encouraging innovation and rewarding skills beyond the battlefield.

Some junior and midlevel officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly outspoken in their criticisms, saying the Army's current leadership lacks a hands-on understanding of today's conflicts and has not listened to feedback from younger personnel.

"It's unprecedented for the commander of an active theater to be brought back to head something like a brigadier generals board," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College. A senior defense official said Petraeus is "far too high-profile for this to be a subtle thing."

The board, composed of 15 Army generals, will examine a pool of more than 1,000 colonels to select about 40 brigadier generals, expected to lead the service over the next decade or longer. Although each board member has an equal vote on the candidates, Petraeus will be able to guide the discussion.

This is good news in some important ways. Over the past few years, some of America's finest counterinsurgency minds have been passed over for selection to brigadier general -- despite the fact that we're in not one but two counterinsurgency fights, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. (And Dave Kilcullen would argue a third, globally.) Colonel Peter Mansoor, for example, is rumored to be retiring from the Army after having been passed over for promotion. Colonel H.R. McMaster, meanwhile, arguably America's most gifted counterinsurgency field commander, has been passed over for promotion twice because he has yet to serve in a joint billet -- a block you have to "check" for promotion to general. Who the %$#@, you're asking, cares about whether or not you've checked the block on a joint assignment when we're in the middle of two wars we're losing?! The McMaster case is a prime example of an army that would, in Tom Ricks's immortal words, rather keep its personnel system than win the war. We are fighting this war, one counterinsurgency expert is fond of saying, with our varsity team on the sidelines.

So this business about Petraeus helping pick the new flag officers is all good news. Hopefully people like McMaster and Colonels Mike Kershaw and Sean MacFarland will be generals sooner rather than later. But this -- promoting talented colonels to general -- is the easiest fix. The bigger problem is, the U.S. and its military are still mired in a peacetime mentality. Do you have any idea how many generals George Marshall fired at the beginning of the Second World War because they were unfit for the rigors of combat? Dozens. Do you have any idea how many members of the West Point Class of 1939 ended the war as regimental commanders?* This Petraeus initiative should be the beginning of a process to identify and select talented individuals from all ranks and promote them, personnel system be damned, into positions from where they can better affect the fight. Note here the eighth principle of Kilcullen's maxims for counterinsurgency warfare:

Rank is nothing: talent is everything. Not everyone is good at counterinsurgency. Many people don’t understand the concept, and some who do can’t execute it. It is difficult, and in a conventional force only a few people will master it. Anyone can learn the basics, but a few “naturals” do exist. Learn how to spot these people and put them into positions where they can make a difference. Rank matters far less than talent – a few good men under a smart junior non-commissioned officer can succeed in counterinsurgency, where hundreds of well-armed soldiers under a mediocre senior officer will fail.

If that means you take an O-3 company commander who has enjoyed success in Iraq and make him a battalion operations officer without sending him to Fort Leavenworth first, so be it. If that means you promote a good battalion commander directly to brigade command, so be it. If that means you promote O-5 John Nagl to O-7 without him ever pinning on O-6 -- do not pass GO, do not collect $200 -- so be it. Hell, Nate will hate Abu Muqawama for saying this, but recall this man to active duty and put him in charge of a battalion. Whatever you have to do, do it. But get your varsity team on the field. During Vietnam, the U.S. waited years before replacing William Westmoreland with the more competent Creighton Abrams. Why? Because in the opinion of the mandarins of the U.S. Army, it wasn't yet Abrams's turn. If that doesn't reflect the mentality of a professional officer corps that deserves to taste defeat, Abu Muqawama doesn't know what does.

What Abu Muqawama is trying to say here, though, is that the quality of its generals is not the only reason the U.S. military has struggled in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military needs to identify and promote its best and brightest young officers as well, rather than allow them to get out and go work for Booz Allen. If you want to win, start Tom Brady at quarterback and sign Randy Moss in the off-season. Take a risk and trade away Nomar for Orlando Cabrera at the trading deadline. But whatever you do, do what it takes to get the best team on the field.

*Yes, this was largely due to the attrition rate among infantry officers. But the point Abu Muqawama is trying to make here is that the U.S. Army was not always so reluctant to put 25-year olds in such positions of authority. This only happened after the post-war professionalization process of the officer corps, which was largely a good thing but also made the officer corps rigid and a slave to its man-made regulations and doctrine.