Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Did commanding an Army division in Iraq hurt one’s chances of promotion?

Apparently it did. That’s one of the many interesting conclusions Army Lt. Col. David Fivecoat offers in a terrific essay in the new issue of Parameters. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but nonetheless am really pleased to see Fivecoat’s article, because it is exactly the type of work I hoped my book The ...

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Apparently it did. That's one of the many interesting conclusions Army Lt. Col. David Fivecoat offers in a terrific essay in the new issue of Parameters.

I don't agree with everything he writes, but nonetheless am really pleased to see Fivecoat's article, because it is exactly the type of work I hoped my book The Generals would provoke. I thought that Gen. Brown's articles in ARMY magazine might launch such a discussion, but that magazine shied away from engaging, without explaining why. Maybe it just isn't interested in the future of the U.S. Army.

Most of all, I am fascinated by Fivecoat's finding (on p. 74) that leading a division in combat seems to have hurt one's chances of promotion. That worries me. What does it mean? That discovery of his indicates that the Army of the Iraq-Afghanistan era is out of step from the historical tradition that, for an officer, time in combat is the royal road to advancement. I can't think of other wars in which service in combat hurt an officer's chance of promotion. It is, as Fivecoat kind of (but not quite) says, worrisome evidence that the Army for close to a decade persisted in using a peacetime promotion system in wartime.

Apparently it did. That’s one of the many interesting conclusions Army Lt. Col. David Fivecoat offers in a terrific essay in the new issue of Parameters.

I don’t agree with everything he writes, but nonetheless am really pleased to see Fivecoat’s article, because it is exactly the type of work I hoped my book The Generals would provoke. I thought that Gen. Brown’s articles in ARMY magazine might launch such a discussion, but that magazine shied away from engaging, without explaining why. Maybe it just isn’t interested in the future of the U.S. Army.

Most of all, I am fascinated by Fivecoat’s finding (on p. 74) that leading a division in combat seems to have hurt one’s chances of promotion. That worries me. What does it mean? That discovery of his indicates that the Army of the Iraq-Afghanistan era is out of step from the historical tradition that, for an officer, time in combat is the royal road to advancement. I can’t think of other wars in which service in combat hurt an officer’s chance of promotion. It is, as Fivecoat kind of (but not quite) says, worrisome evidence that the Army for close to a decade persisted in using a peacetime promotion system in wartime.

In additional to breaking new ground intellectually, it is also a courageous piece. It is one thing for me, a civilian author, to question the quality of American generalship in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is quite another thing for an active duty lieutenant colonel to do so, especially since the Army’s official histories have tiptoed around the issue of the failings of senior leadership in our recent wars. (I mean, did the authors of On Point II even read the articles Military Review was publishing then?) Fivecoat writes, "I agree with Mr. Ricks’s assessment that there was plenty of good and bad generalship exhibited in both theaters."

A few final observations:

  • I have to wonder if the specific lack of promotion of surge and post-surge commanders reflects the dislike of Petraeus by his peers, or, differently put, Petraeus not working sufficiently to support former subordinates (an accusation Joe Anderson made on the record in my book The Gamble).
  • I also think Colonel Fivecoat lets today’s Army off too easily on its lack of transparency. To me this reflects a bit of drift in the service, a loss of the sense of being responsible to the nation and the people. Being close-mouthed about its leadership problems gives the impression that the Army’s leaders care more about the feelings of generals than the support of the American people.
  • Finally, I have to question Fivecoat’s assertion that minimizing disruption optimizes performance. It wasn’t the case in World War II. Why would it be the case in Afghanistan or Iraq? It may be — but it remains an unproven assumption, and to my mind, a questionable one. The opportunity cost of averting disruption can be large, because such passivity (or "subtlety," as he terms it) results in the apparent rewarding of risk-averse or mediocre commanders. What would Matthew Ridgway say about such a policy of minimizing disruption?

Bottom line: Go read the article.

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

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