Best Defense

Book excerpt: When McMaster’s former deputy challenged the Army’s generals

One day in late 2006, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, deputy commander of H. R. McMaster’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, attended a ceremony awarding the Purple Heart to soldiers in his unit who had been wounded in Iraq.


This is an excerpt from my book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. The appointment of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security advisor gives it new interest:

One day in late 2006, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, deputy commander of H. R. McMaster’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, attended a ceremony awarding the Purple Heart to soldiers in his unit who had been wounded in Iraq. It had been his second tour of duty there. Yingling, a 2002 graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies who had earned another master’s degree — in political science, at the University of Chicago — went home filled with emotion and began to write. From his computer emerged a blast at Army leadership that would be published in the spring of 2007.

“America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy,” Yingling charged. It was the responsibility of a nation’s generals to calculate and explain how force would be used: “If the policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of this incongruence.”

This, of course, was exactly what the generals had not done with the Bush administration in considering Iraq. Nor, Yingling continued, had the generals understood the war they were fighting or been candid about it with the American people. “After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public.” For more than three years, they had told the American public that they were making progress when they were not.

But it was too much to expect the generals to suddenly wake up and start thinking differently, he added, because they were products of a system. That system, he said, “does little to reward creativity and moral courage.” Given that, he wrote, “it is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”

To change the nature of American generals, Yingling called on the Army to use 360-degree reviews of officers and on the Congress to hold commanders accountable for failure:

A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. (Tom’s italics)

Perhaps most provocative — and most painful of all for the post-Vietnam generation of generals—was Yingling’s charge that the generals of 2006 were repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, having failed to prepare their forces for the war they fought or to provide Congress and the American people with “an accurate assessment” of the Iraq war.

One of Yingling’s closest friends, another Army lieutenant colonel, John Nagl, who had combat experience and a Ph.D. from Oxford, advised him to publish the essay anonymously. The two occupied adjacent offices when both were teaching at West Point in the late 1990s and then had been classmates at the Command and General Staff College together. Yingling declined to follow his friend’s advice — “which,” Nagl recalled, “I thought was a measure of poor judgment and strong character.”

Unsurprisingly, Army generals spoke out against the article. At Fort Hood, Texas, where Yingling was stationed, Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, assembled about two hundred captains in the base chapel to hear his response to Yingling’s charges. “I believe in our generals. They are dedicated, selfless servants,” Hammond said. At any rate, he added, Yingling “has never worn the shoes of a general.” In other words, only other generals were qualified to judge the performance of Army generals. To emphasize the point, he gave Yingling a mediocre performance evaluation.

Later that summer, a higher-ranking general, Richard Cody, the vice chief of staff of the Army, was speaking to a group of captains at Fort Knox, Kentucky, when one inquired about the Yingling article. Gen. Cody responded by asking the assembled captains for their opinion of the Army’s generals. He got an earful, including a follow-up question from Capt. Justin Rosenbaum, who had read H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, about whether any Army generals should be held accountable for the mess in Iraq.

That was enough for Cody. “I think we’ve got great general officers that are meeting tough demands,” he said. As for Rosenbaum’s query, he said that the people to blame were the politicians who had trimmed the size of the military during the post-cold-war reductions of the 1990s. “Those are the people who ought to be held accountable.”

Despite being rejected publicly by Army leaders such as Hammond and Cody, Yingling’s article went on to be cited in speeches by Defense Secretary Gates and other senior officials. It also appeared in the curricula of some of the military war colleges. Yingling stuck to his guns and elaborated on his indictment. Early in 2011, he delivered a lecture at a Department of Defense school that found today’s generals “guilty of three important failures”: to prepare their troops for irregular warfare, to develop war plans that achieved the aims of policy, and to provide candid advice to civilian leaders. Later that year, he commented that “officers have ceased to police our own ranks, especially at the field grade and flag levels.” Asked whether contemporary U.S. Army leaders reminded him of World War I’s British army supposedly being “lions led by donkeys,” he responded, “There’s a good case to be made that we are less adaptive than the generals of World War I.”

Yet the Army would have its revenge. Yingling was promoted to colonel, supposedly by the skin of his teeth and only after the direct intervention of the vice chief of staff of the Army, Peter Chiarelli. He wound up teaching at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, a joint effort of the American and German governments. It was not a bad place to land.

But in the summer of 2011, Yingling was informed that he had not been selected to be a student at the Army War College, even though his own writings were being studied there. He decided to retire and move to Colorado to teach high school social science.

Excerpted from The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by permission of me.

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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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