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Many years ago, a friend of mine who was an aide to the Marine Corps Commandant asked his boss how many Marine generals he thought could command competently in combat. The Commandant came up with six, out of about sixty.
That figure of ten percent should not surprise any historian. Militarily competent generals have always been in short supply. One need only think of either side in the American Civil War; as J.F.C. Fuller wrote, the main reason the Federals won is that they came up with two competent generals while the Confederacy had only one. Toward the end of that war, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis selected General Braxton Bragg to command the defense of the South’s last remaining port, Wilmington, North Carolina, a Richmond newspaper’s headline read, “Bragg sent to Wilmington; Good-bye, Wilmington.”
Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s article in the latest Armed Forces Journal, “A failure in generalship,” should therefore not surprise us. His argument that the failure in Iraq is due in part to bad generalship is valid. We have no reason to expect America’s military to be an exception to history’s rule that bad generals are more common than good generals. Especially in peacetime, few officers make general because of their military abilities. A comfortable pair of knee pads and an unlimited supply of lip balm are far more useful for attaining flag rank than an ability to defeat an enemy.
More worrisome is Yingling’s other observation, also valid, that American general officers pay no price for military failure. When he writes, “As matters now stand, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war,” he is not exaggerating. Quite the opposite; our previous commander in Iraq, under whose command our situation there got steadily worse, paid the penalty of returning home to become his service’s chief of staff. One suspects that, in the shades, Graziani is jealous.
The two central questions Lt. Col. Yingling’s article raises are,
1) why do we promote so many military incompetents and
2) how can we alter the pattern? A thesis written by one of my former students, an Air Force captain, reveals part of the answer to the first.
He found that the Air Force administers the Myer-Briggs Personality Inventory test at both the Air Force Academy and the War College levels. At the Academy, the bureaucratic personality type (ISTJ) is just one among many. But by the War College, ISTJs are completely dominant. Why? Because one of the characteristics of that type is that they will only promote others like themselves. As the old French saying goes, “The problem with the generals is that we select them from among the colonels.”
As to altering the pattern, there is no single solution. Basing promotions at least in part on the results of free-play field exercises and war games would help. Perhaps the most helpful step would be to reduce greatly the number of generals (and colonels). That way we could pay more attention to the few we would select.
Let’s take the Marine Corps as an example. It now has three divisions and seventy-some generals. What if, instead, we had a general to command each division (3), a Commandant and an Assistant Commandant (2), and one more to oversee the vast rabbit-warren at Quantico? What about the MEFs? Abolish them; no military benefits by having parallel chains of command. The air wings? The senior aviator rank should be colonel, with each division having one dual-hatted as wing commander and division air ops officer. Throw in one more general as general factotum; he could be stationed in Washington to attend cocktail parties. With just seven general officer slots to fill, it is not unreasonable to suppose the Marine Corps would be somewhat more careful as to the military ability of those seven. Civilian overseers, both in DOD and in Congress, could devote time to considering the record of each candidate. Hint: never promote anyone who does not have at least one bad fitness report.
If our new Secretary of Defense wants to show that he really is different, there is one action he could take that would speak volumes. Instead of sending Lt. Col. Yingling to Adak, he could put him in charge of a project to change the kind of people we promote, not just to general but to all ranks above the company grades. One of the project’s goals might be to ensure we have no more ISTJs than we have billets for logisticians and adjutants.
WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.