Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

No, what Lt. Col. Dave Fivecoat found was that division command hurt one’s chances of promotion, not time in combat

By Wes Morgan Best Defense guest respondent I think you’re incorrect in taking the conclusion away from Fivecoat’s article that the Army isn’t promoting commanders with combat experience, or surge-era officers with combat experience. What the Army isn’t doing is promoting division commanders, specifically, with those experiences (and to me it seems like it has ...

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By Wes Morgan

Best Defense guest respondent

I think you're incorrect in taking the conclusion away from Fivecoat's article that the Army isn't promoting commanders with combat experience, or surge-era officers with combat experience. What the Army isn't doing is promoting division commanders, specifically, with those experiences (and to me it seems like it has shown a bias in recent years toward promoting Afghanistan division commanders over Iraq division commanders). It is promoting lots of officers who commanded brigades and battalions under those very division commanders. Just look at the Army's colonel and brigadier general promotion lists over the past couple of years -- the amount of downrange experience in them is huge.

By Wes Morgan

Best Defense guest respondent

I think you’re incorrect in taking the conclusion away from Fivecoat’s article that the Army isn’t promoting commanders with combat experience, or surge-era officers with combat experience. What the Army isn’t doing is promoting division commanders, specifically, with those experiences (and to me it seems like it has shown a bias in recent years toward promoting Afghanistan division commanders over Iraq division commanders). It is promoting lots of officers who commanded brigades and battalions under those very division commanders. Just look at the Army’s colonel and brigadier general promotion lists over the past couple of years — the amount of downrange experience in them is huge.

So a good question to ask would be: Why are those tactical-level commanders being promoted and the operational-level commanders not? I don’t know, but here are a couple ideas. 

One, the optimistic idea from an institutional standpoint, is that those division commanders in the ‘06-‘08 surge period did not perform as well as their subordinates, and as a result the Army has not rewarded them because it recognizes that it should promote those who have done well in these wars, not just those who have been there. 

Why might division commanders have done less well? Maybe because their subordinates had already accumulated a bunch of Iraq and Afghanistan experience in lower-level units, while they were already brigadier generals or post-command colonels by the time they started going to war and never "got" the war in the way that guys who commanded battalions downrange did. 

Or maybe the nature of the Iraq campaign in the surge period (as opposed to the early years in Iraq when a lot of division commanders were promoted, like Petraeus, Odierno, Dempsey, and Chiarelli) lent itself more to battalion and brigade commanders standing out and proving their abilities because it was a devolved, lower-level fight and brigades were much more empowered than in ‘03-‘05, and division commanders didn’t have as important of a role to play anymore or couldn’t figure out their role. While working on Michael Gordon and Mick Trainor’s history of the Iraq War, The Endgame, one thing I learned is that some of the division commanders in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 were much slower to embrace key developments like the Sunni Awakening movement than either their subordinate deputy commanders and brigade commanders or their superiors. It would be smart of the Army not to promote guys like that. 

A second, a more pessimistic idea: Maybe the Army is promoting officers who were really good battalion and brigade commanders, and then some of the same officers are not turning out to be good division commanders. Maybe these wars have churned out a lot of really great tacticians but have not been preparing commanders well for operational-level command in wars where the operational level is complex, hard to define, and perhaps even absent, so when these guys hit two-star, they don’t shine like they did at battalion and brigade.

Third: Maybe the two-stars with combat experience who are being promoted are ones who served in other jobs besides division command. Just look at the many one-stars and two-stars who served in SOF and advisor roles downrange who have continued to be promoted. That’s an article in itself: the spread of SOF commanders with lots of experience downrange into various key non-SOF jobs in the Army, like deputy commanders of regular Army divisions, and also the spread of senior infantry officers into key slots in the SOF world via the Ranger Regiment and its hugely expanded role in the most secret SOF task forces in these wars.

It’s also worth pointing out that a higher proportion of officers who commanded divisions in the Afghan war have continued to rise than Iraq division commanders. All three corps-level commanders in Afghanistan commanded divisions there — Rodriguez, Terry, and Milley — and the Army’s new vice chief, Campbell, was a division commander there. 

What does that mean? Have better division commanders been sent to Afghanistan? Does Afghanistan lend itself better to the division role because of the bigger distances and greater air and other support resources required by tactical-level units in the fight? Or is that, compared to the division commanders in the ‘07-‘08 Iraq surge period, those in the 2009-‘11 Afghanistan surge period had more on-the-ground experience as brigade commanders and division deputy commanders and therefore did better jobs? 

An important takeaway from all this, I think, is that while it’s important to promote commanders with combat experience, it’s a bad idea to promote them just because they have combat experience — it is successful experience, not just experience, that you want to reward. If the Army just promoted every division commander who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, that would be disturbing, because as you may have noticed, a lot of things have not gone right on some of those commanders’ watches.

Wesley Morgan helped Michael R. Gordon and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Bernard E. Trainor write The Endgame, and is now writing a book for Random House on the American military experience in Afghanistan’s Pech valley. Since 2007 he has embedded with twenty U.S., British, and Afghan combat battalions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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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