Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A 1983 Army War College study found 1/4 of Army brigadier generals shouldn’t be

My intrepid book researcher, J. Dana Stuster, helped me unearth a 1983 study done at the Army War College by Lt. Col. Tilden Reid. I’d heard about this study, and seen it cited once in Parameters by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, but had actually never been able to find a copy. (If you find it ...

547414_111104_vader3.jpg
547414_111104_vader3.jpg

My intrepid book researcher, J. Dana Stuster, helped me unearth a 1983 study done at the Army War College by Lt. Col. Tilden Reid. I'd heard about this study, and seen it cited once in Parameters by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, but had actually never been able to find a copy. (If you find it online, please send me a link -- along with an application to be my next researcher.)

It's pretty strong stuff. Reid looked at the Army's new class of 25 new brigadier generals, most of them from the infantry and artillery branches, and asked the 110 battalion commanders who had served under them to assess them. Consistently, about one-third were rated by name as incompetent, not caring about their people, not developing subordinates, and more managers than leaders. Most significantly, about one-third of the battalion commanders said they would not want to serve under that general again or be led by him in combat. About a quarter of the new BGs should not have been promoted to that rank, Reid bravely concludes.

The voluntary comments at the end are especially striking. Clearly, the top third of the new generals were real leaders. "COL ---- was the type of commander I would want my son to serve under." "In the field, he knew his stuff better than anyone and he reacted to changing situations with the confidence of Rommel." "I would go to combat under his leadership anytime."

My intrepid book researcher, J. Dana Stuster, helped me unearth a 1983 study done at the Army War College by Lt. Col. Tilden Reid. I’d heard about this study, and seen it cited once in Parameters by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer, but had actually never been able to find a copy. (If you find it online, please send me a link — along with an application to be my next researcher.)

It’s pretty strong stuff. Reid looked at the Army’s new class of 25 new brigadier generals, most of them from the infantry and artillery branches, and asked the 110 battalion commanders who had served under them to assess them. Consistently, about one-third were rated by name as incompetent, not caring about their people, not developing subordinates, and more managers than leaders. Most significantly, about one-third of the battalion commanders said they would not want to serve under that general again or be led by him in combat. About a quarter of the new BGs should not have been promoted to that rank, Reid bravely concludes.

The voluntary comments at the end are especially striking. Clearly, the top third of the new generals were real leaders. “COL —- was the type of commander I would want my son to serve under.” “In the field, he knew his stuff better than anyone and he reacted to changing situations with the confidence of Rommel.” “I would go to combat under his leadership anytime.”

But the bottom third are scary, especially considering this was not a survey looking at all brigade commanders, but only that fraction promoted to brigadier. “COL —- said he would teach us the secrets of success that he learned. They were deceit, misguided loyalty, finely-tuned demonstrations for VIPs, and concentration on everything but training.” “How an officer could be selected for BG who did not know the names of his captains is beyond me.” “He lied all the time. Not once in nearly two years did I feel sure of what he was really saying.” “Several times I risked my own self-interest for what I knew was the ethical thing to do. Other times I succumbed to his pressure and I hate him for that.” “He is pinning on stars but he lost his honor.” This is the cream of the crop?       

Reid’s bottom line: “The Army cannot afford a 25-30% error rate in selecting its General Officers.”

I wonder what a survey today would find. Better, I think. Anybody at the Army War College looking to demonstrate they care more about the Army than they do about their own career?   

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. Twitter: @tomricks1
Tag: War

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.