Best Defense

Parsing the new promotion list for Army 2 stars: There are some good signs here

By Douglas A. Ollivant Best Defense department of Army-ology Determining the state of cultural change in the Army is not an exact science. However, if you believe, as I do, that "personnel are policy," then who the Army selects as its next generation of senior leaders is an important — even critical — indicator. This ...


By Douglas A. Ollivant

Best Defense department of Army-ology

Determining the state of cultural change in the Army is not an exact science. However, if you believe, as I do, that "personnel are policy," then who the Army selects as its next generation of senior leaders is an important — even critical — indicator.

This is not to say that reading any particular promotion list is a clear lens into the inner workings of the Army — far from it. I once memorably heard it said that interpreting messages from any one promotion list is akin to the old Sovietology of trying to determine who is up and coming in the USSR’s leadership by observing their positions on the stand at a May Day parade. Another mentor compares it to deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. But bringing it back to the General Officer list, there are lots of factors in play — the existing pool of candidates from which the board can choose, the projected requirements (by specialty) in the near future, the relationships of candidates to the board members, diversity preferences and etc. That said, nothing speaks to what the Army values more than who it promotes. Those who hope to someday be among those promoted are watching closely.

There are a number of surprises in the latest 2-star (Major General) selection list. For purposes of determining future leaders, I will focus on the combat arms officers and pass over those with specialties in personnel, logistics, and acquisition. Not that they are not important, but they are not future combatant commanders or Army Chiefs of Staff — and they know it.

There is a well-known track to becoming a Major General. You command a tactical battalion and a tactical brigade in succession, preferably spending time as the Operations Officer (G3) and/or Chief of Staff of one of the ten tactical divisions just before or after these jobs. Upon promotion to one-star, you serve either as the Deputy Commanding General of one of these same divisions, or (in rare cases) command one of the three Combat Training Centers, in California, Louisiana or Germany. Time as an executive officer to a four-star general is desirable, and time on a Joint Staff is necessary to fulfill Goldwater-Nichols requirements. These are the rules of the game as generally understood, particularly for Armor and Infantry Officers. Aviators, Artillery and Air Defense Artillery have slightly more relaxed rules, but the path is recognizable and all tend to follow it. Recently retired GEN Petraeus, for example, followed this path without variation from Lieutenant Colonel through Brigadier General.

The majority of the officers on this list successfully followed this path (or a near variant) — Paul Funk, John (Mike) Murray, Bryan Owens, John Rossi, Ross Ridge, Jeff Bailey, Kenneth Dahl, James Pasquarette, Jeff Colt, and Joseph DiSalvo. This remains the widest, most traditional path for success. I do not mean to imply by this that those who take this path are somehow undeserving, or that promotion based on this path is automatic. General Dahl, for example, stayed on this script (though without being a divisional G3 or Chief of Staff), but still managed to build on his experience as a leadership instructor at West Point (with a grad degree in Organizational Management from North Carolina) by layering both a year at Harvard’s JFK School and a year as the Senior Army Fellow at Brookings. Dahl was hardly shirking, however, as these two academic "tours" were separated by a two-year brigade command that included a tour in Iraq. It is definitely possible (though difficult) to play by the rules and still engage in one (or more) of the "broadening experiences" that the Army frequently talks about. For that matter, it is equally possible to have no particularly novel assignments and still be a first-tier strategic leader.

But there are far more exceptions on this list that I would have expected. Brigadier Generals H.R. McMaster (rightly or wrongly seen as the litmus test for rewarding the eclectic) and Mike Shields were each selected despite not having duty "with troops" since their brigade level commands. The former spent time working on doctrine at the Training and Doctrine Command, then went to command the Anti-Corruption Task Force (Shafafiyat) in Kabul, where he still labors. Mike Shields, on the other hand, has over the past three years become one of the leading experts on high-level Operations-Intelligence Fusion, first for the Joint Staff and now at JIEDDO, the counter-IED command. It will be interesting to monitor whether either (or both) are selected for divisional-level command.

John Uberti appears on this list, despite having had "only" a garrison command as a Colonel, usually regarded as a career-ending assignment. But his selection pales in surprise next to that of Gordon Davis. Davis’ resume is rich in operational assignments, in no small part due to his assignment in Italy in the mid-‘90s, which took him to now largely forgotten deployments in Mozambique, Zaire, Liberia, Congo and Rwanda. Having fluency in three European languages to talk to coalition partners in these locations probably didn’t hurt. However, General Davis’s resume has what most officers would consider not one, but two fatal flaws — he commanded a training battalion as a Lieutenant Colonel, and a training support brigade as a Colonel. Simply put, training battalion commanders — let alone training support brigade commanders-are generally seen as having culminated their careers, destined to top out as full colonels. That Davis’ talents have been recognized despite being placed in these commands (commands are slotted by a very obscure formula, not necessarily by merit) of course speaks incredibly well of Davis, but is also a welcome crack in the rote formula to success.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a principal at the O2 Group (a strategic consulting and technology firm), and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is a retired Army officer.

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

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