Best Defense

Where is the next generation of generals?

Here’s a comment from Beau Cleland, who is now studying strategy at Johns Hopkins SAIS but used to play football for Georgia Tech, and later suited up for the U.S. Army in Sadr City and Oruzgan Province, among other places. It’s not often you get a column from an artillery officer who was attached to ...

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

Here’s a comment from Beau Cleland, who is now studying strategy at Johns Hopkins SAIS but used to play football for Georgia Tech, and later suited up for the U.S. Army in Sadr City and Oruzgan Province, among other places. It’s not often you get a column from an artillery officer who was attached to the SF, so gather round and listen up. 

By Beau Cleland
Best Defense deputy chief, military personnel policy bureau

The recent controversy over the remarks by and subsequent relief of Gen. Stanley McChrystal highlights a severe but seemingly intractible problem with the way senior leaders are developed in the U.S. Army. To be successful and have a chance at attaining a general’s stars, officers are expected to move sequentially up a series of positions, from platoon leader to brigade commander, “checking the block” at each level as they advance. Many of these positions are a requirement for advancement, limiting flexibility in assignment. This system has been in place for decades, and only the feeblest of changes have been made to it, despite nearly nine years of war.

The Army officer personnel management system rigidly creates excellent fighters and technicians whose skills, as Greg Jaffe notes, apply only tangentially to the requirements of being general officer in today’s conflicts. All along the chain, there is a fundamental mismanagement of talent. These days, unless you’re convicted of some sort of crime you stand an excellent chance of reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel as long as you still have a pulse, and very few assignments are competitive in nature before you reach that rank. What this means is that no matter how gifted an officer is tactically, no matter how inspiring a leader he is, no matter how intelligent, there is no way for him to be promoted more than a year or so sooner than he would be otherwise. The same applies to important duty assignments: across the Army units choose company-level commanders not based on who the best commander would be, regardless of age or time in service, but on whose turn it is, or who has managed to sneak away from a deployment to get the check-the-block “education” in order to take command. The result is frustration for a great many promising young officers, many of whom leave the service at the end of their initial obligation in search of more flexible opportunities.

The paucity of suitable replacements for Stanley McChrystal highlights where this hemorrhage of young talent leads after 20 to 30 years of relentless homogenizing (beyond David Petraeus, the cupboard is pretty bare at the 4-star level). 19th-century Prussia (later Germany) offers us an interesting alternative to our current crushing mediocrity: the Generalstab (General Staff) system of old. The old Prussians are usually depicted as mechanical, monocle-wearing stiffs, but they had a remarkable knack for identifying young, talented officers and placing them into the General Staff’s separate system of education and advancement. Certainly their system was not without its drawbacks (militarism, an insular, monkish outlook), but they were on to something with identifying and separating talent early on, and then training that talent in the skills needed for operating at the higher, operational and strategic levels of warfare. This decade’s parade of failed and mediocre generals prove that the United States is not doing a very good job of this — let’s create the next generation of strategic thinkers while they’re still young.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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