Best Defense

C’mon man! Meathead generals and some other things that are driving me crazy about life in this man’s post-9/11 Army

By "Army of Anon" Best Defense guest column After ten years of war, the path to general officer retains an extreme emphasis in two areas: Command and staff assignments at the tactical level, and schmoozing on a general staff as an aide-de-camp or executive officer. White, male, Republican, Evangelical Christian, sole family income provider, poorly ...


By "Army of Anon"

Best Defense guest column

After ten years of war, the path to general officer retains an extreme emphasis in two areas: Command and staff assignments at the tactical level, and schmoozing on a general staff as an aide-de-camp or executive officer. White, male, Republican, Evangelical Christian, sole family income provider, poorly read, obsessed with physical fitness, and extremely concerned about risks — what a perfect recipe for groupthink. C’mon man!

We promote meatheads. Too many officers are promoted who have already demonstrated limited intellect, hyper-aggressive tendencies, and incompetence during their watch — or on the other hand, extreme subservience.  The Army that wisely promoted intellects such as General David Petraeus and Lieutenant General Dan Bolger also promoted Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez! In today’s Army, only general officers can screw up and move up. C’mon man! The Division Commander of the 4th Infantry Division, who probably did more to inflame the Iraqi insurgency than anyone outside Abu Ghraib, was not only rewarded with command in Iraq again, but is now the Chief of Staff of the Army. Why is the main culprit of the Rolling Stone McChrystal debacle (Part I), Charlie Flynn a brigadier general? The same battalion commander in OIF whose command shot down two friendly aircraft and suffered the shame of the decimation of the 507th Maintenance Company was also later elected for brigade command. His brigade commander at the time was later selected to be a general officer. This would never happen in the other services, particularly the Navy, where being in command literally entails responsibility for everything your unit does or fails to do.

Our officer corps doesn’t read, and isn’t bothered by the fact. $500 in book purchases for each senior leader may have saved the Army thousands of lives lost. Take the example of General George Casey. According to David Cloud and Greg Jaffe’s book Four Stars, General Casey, upon learning of his assignment to command U.S. forces in Iraq, received a book from the Army Chief of Staff. The book Counterinsurgency Lessons Learned from Malaya and Vietnam was the first book he ever read about guerilla warfare." This is a damning indictment of the degree of mental preparation for combat by a general. The Army’s reward for such lack of preparation: two more four star assignments. C’mon man!

For the tiny fraction of our Army that actually fights, we have made too little effort and taken too long at reducing the soldier’s load. The quality of the equipment is superb, but why did it take so long to get lighter machine guns and mortars? Close with and destroy the enemy under a minimum seventy pound load? C’mon man!

There is no strategic corporal in the Army, and the squad is an insignificant maneuver unit. Commanders are reluctant to employ squads on independent missions because the squad is likely led by a soldier with too few years of experience and contains too few men. Our platoons are not employed on doctrinal missions because commanders doubt the leadership of their lieutenant, the platoon lacks sufficient medical capability to handle massive bleeding and stabilize wounded, and the platoon has insufficient communications. Commanders don’t want to risk enemy contact with only eight to nine riflemen with only one medic available to support a platoon.  Instead of Army squads and platoons being a force to reckon with, they remain nearly equal in firepower, medical capability, and communications to their predecessors of the last thirty years. C’mon man!

Never have so few been supervised by so many doing so little. For the last ten years, the terms "field grade oversight" and "adult supervision" have been used entirely too often. Whether it be the Rangers blowing up a radar tower in Desert Storm, the rescue of Scott O’Grady in Bosnia, the Ranger parachute assault outside Kandahar in 2001, or the stereotypical deployment of the 82nd Airborne Division commanding general to accompany even a brigade minus mission, U.S. military commanders increasingly accompany the smallest elements of their command in combat. There are times when a lieutenant colonel or above needs to lead Hal Moore-style, being the first one on the ground. But the overwhelming majority of combat situations do not warrant this senior presence.  Field grade officers do not need to be leading fire teams, squads and platoons. They need to do their job, staying away from room clearing. And ensuring subordinates are getting what they need. C’mon man!

Ten years into war and the Army still treats combat deaths as potential criminal negligence. If losing soldiers in combat warrants always an official investigation, then by all accounts the D-Day planners and the leadership on Omaha Beach should have been sacked in 1944. The Army should stop formally investigating American combat deaths immediately! Senior leaders should provide cover for the operations they sanction. Does reading soldiers their rights send a signal that they are potential subjects versus participants in a small unit action? Reading anyone their rights never sends a signal that you are on their side. C’mon man!

The United States Army focuses excessively on demonstrating physical fitness over any other attribute. "PT is the most important thing we do all day," goes the maxim. Yes, physical training is extremely important, but war skills like battle drills, and marksmanship get much less emphasis. The U.S. Army has arguably not lost a battle due to poor soldier fitness since the Chinese intervention in Korea in November 1950, yet the Army appears to rewards commanders for more for their running ability than their mental ability.  Too often, officers who are mental wind tunnels get a pass because they can run fast and do a lot of pull-ups. The reputations for general officers such as Petraeus and McChrystal highlight their intensity and sharp intellects, yet the overwhelming majority of their careers were defined by their reputation as fitness fanatics and political savvy. Without a doubt General Petraeus possessed the intellect and generalship we desperately needed in our combat commanders, he was notorious for sizing up subordinates solely on how they impress him on their ability to keep up with him on grueling runs. The penalty for not being fast enough for General Petraeus was being held back another year in a non-career enhancing job, rather than moving on to the key developmental position. Yet when General Petraeus needed to surround himself with extraordinary brainpower, the pool of senior field grade officers meeting that criterion was limited. He had to reach out for help to particularly smart Australian and British scholars. How many quality officers failed a Petraeus "check ride" in the 1990s and were professionally marginalized? Who would have been there to advise General Petraeus that was no longer "competitive?" C’mon man!

Our non-commissioned officer corps today is too political and focused on its own selfish promotion. We’ve established senior non-commissioned officer positions at every level. The senior non-commissioned officers have metastasized into a mirror of their senior officer counterparts. I use the word counterparts because many officers see their senior noncommissioned officer as an equal in command, someone whose endorsement must be sought at every decision. In our non-commissioned officers, there is an ever-increasing sense of entitlement: change of responsibility ceremonies, inflated evaluation reports, security detachments, demand for challenge coins, and their own senior non-commissioned officer-specific in briefs. Note to those sergeants who don’t read history: It’s not about perks! Changes of responsibility ceremonies have no historical basis in the Army. Today’s Army non-commissioned officer evaluation report is far more inflated than the officer evaluation report. Who would have seen that coming two decades ago? C’mon man!

The Army’s efforts to develop an advisory capability remain half-hearted. The Security Force Assistance Brigade concept is foundering. What ought to be the brigade’s decisive operation overseas is an afterthought. Could the Army just be waiting it out for two more years? The Army belief is that the best officers are selected to command battalions, brigades, divisions and corps. It rewards what it values. The Army’s golden boys are largely absent in the advisory effort.  Too often our advisory teams were filled by those who weren’t politically connected enough to avoid advisory duty! The combat advisor augmentees the brigade does receive are often parceled out to be liaison officers. There is no effort Army-wide to look deep enough at individual backgrounds, personalities, and aptitudes to ensure the right manning. Our advisory team manning remains a mess: you might receive a talented former light infantry first sergeant, and you might receive a former Bradley Stinger air defender who has never led a dismounted patrol in his life. C’mon man!

"Army of Anon" is an old infantry major.

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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