Best Defense

A brave lieutenant colonel speaks out: why most of our generals are dinosaurs

Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, one of the best officers I’ve encountered in Iraq, recently gave a talk at the Marine base at Quantico, Va., about military leadership and adaptation. Yingling is unusual but not alone in being willing to speak out about the flaws of the leaders of the U.S. military. Once you have ...


Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, one of the best officers I’ve encountered in Iraq, recently gave a talk at the Marine base at Quantico, Va., about military leadership and adaptation.

Yingling is unusual but not alone in being willing to speak out about the flaws of the leaders of the U.S. military. Once you have seen buddies be killed or maimed in Iraq on your first, second, and third tours there, you tend to realize that war is too important to be left to the generals. Yingling knows what he is getting into: In 2007, he got a lot of notice for an article he wrote asking why American generals weren’t held accountable for their failures in Iraq. “A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war,” he concluded. 

In his Quantico talk he explains, among other things, why the U.S. Army in Iraq has improved dramatically while the “institutional Army” back here hasn’t.

But let him tell it. 

Every time I return to the United States, I’m struck by how little the institutional military has adapted to the challenges of the wars we’re fighting. Our system of officer development remains essentially unchanged since the Cold War — the same system that produced the officers who for the last generation refused to prepare for irregular warfare. Our organizational structures remain essentially unchanged since 9/11 — the same organizations that we’ve identified as lacking the intelligence, civil affairs, linguist, and security force development capabilities necessary for irregular warfare. Our procurement priorities have deviated incrementally from their pre-911 patterns only after the Secretary of Defense publicly pleaded with the services to ‘fight the wars we’re in.’ After nearly four years of conducting counterinsurgency operations, the Army and Marine Corps published a counterinsurgency doctrine, and a pretty good one at that. While these modest changes are welcome, they pale in comparison to the rate of adaptation of combat forces.

Why is the institutional military so much less adaptive than combat forces in the field? It’s not the people — service members routinely rotate between the institutional military and the operating forces in the field. Instead, I believe it’s the incentive system, and it’s that system I’d like to discuss with you today.

Combat forces operate under a simple, brutal incentive system — adapt or die. Forces in combat are not by virtue of their location intellectually or morally superior to their counterparts in the institutional military. Rather, their priorities are clearer — when the failure to adapt carries a death sentence, every other consideration — service and branch loyalties, core competencies, organizational cultures — pales in comparison.

The institutional military operates under a different incentive system. Those responsible for acquisition operate under powerful incentives to procure expensive, high-tech weapons, even if those weapons are not the ones combat forces need. Those responsible for organizational design operate under powerful incentives to defend existing force structure from claims by other branches and services, even if the existing force structure does not meet the needs of combatant commanders. Finally and most importantly, military officers operate under powerful incentives to conform to senior officers’ views, even if those views are out of touch with battlefield realities. Unlike combat forces, the institutional military operates under an incentive system that rewards conformity and discourages adaptation. It’s simply not reasonable to expect that large groups of people operating over long periods to behave in ways contradictory to the incentives under which they operate.

Having described the problem, I’ll conclude with some proposed solutions that I hope will generate further questions and comments in our discussion:

First, our Armed Forces are incapable of internal reform on the scale necessary to prepare for the wars of the 21st century. Such reform will require political intervention; preferably by Congress, as statutory reforms are far more durable than executive ones. 

Second, the most urgently needed reform lies in our system for developing senior officers. Our current system suppresses innovation, punishes moral courage and is a strategic liability to our country. 

Third, we must institutionalize adaptation to build organizations that learn from the bottom up and the outside in; we cannot rely solely on battlefield experience to drive innovation. Peacetime militaries operate under the same incentive system as the institutional military does today. As current conflicts recede into memory, our hard-won adaptations may be lost in a rush to return to so-called ‘core competencies.’

Fourth, we must speed the pace at which we learn and adapt. We’ve lost thousands of lives and spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the last seven years in efforts to bring stability to two medium sized countries; we can’t afford to adapt this slowly in the future. 

Fifth and finally, junior leaders cannot wait on institutional change to build adaptive leaders. Leaders at the battalion level and below can take action right now to build the leaders we need for the wars of the 21st century. Among these are 360-degree counseling and evaluations, professional development programs focusing on unstructured problem solving, and all-ranks combatives.

I recognize these views are controversial, I appreciate your patience in hearing me out and look forward to your questions and comments.

Thank you.”

I am awed by Yingling’s moral courage. This is an active-duty officer speaking truth to power. My only question is, why isn’t this guy a brigadier general by now, charged with moving the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) into the 21st century? And while I’m at it, why isn’t H.R. McMaster moving from division to corps command about now? As Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller observed in Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure, “at least seventy-five per cent of the really great, not merely noted, generals in history, were under forty-five years of age.”

(Note: This post has been updated.)

David McNew/Getty Images

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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