The End of the Fighting General
America’s top brass should abandon dreams of battlefield glory—and focus on paperwork instead.
It’s widely understood that warfare evolves with the technology available to combatants. But it’s often forgotten that tactical leadership—the art of command in battle—likewise evolves. For centuries, fighting generals such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Hannibal, and Saladin exemplified tactical leadership, creating great reputations in the process. Today, however, lieutenants and corporals play the battlefield roles once held by these famous leaders.
The U.S. military uses the term “strategic corporal” as shorthand to capture the growing battlefield responsibility held by leaders of junior rank. That responsibility has become both immense and increasingly routine. For years now, corporals and lieutenants as young as 20 years old fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have regularly made split-second, life-altering decisions with staggering amounts of firepower at their disposal and have been expected to do so in accordance with the national interests, policies, and strategy of the United States.
This shift has also changed the role of these troops’ military superiors. Consider Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg during the U.S. Civil War. On July 3, 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered three of his subordinate generals to execute a direct attack on Union forces. Lee was steeped in Napoleonic tactics that emphasized the advantages of a direct attack. But given the advances in firepower since Napoleon’s time, Lee’s plan was obsolete in ways he didn’t fully understand; the charge failed, and the Confederates suffered a disastrous 6,000 casualties. The outcome of the battle may well have been different if the Confederacy’s tactical decisions were made closer to the front lines.
Military disasters on the scale of Pickett’s Charge are an anachronism today, in part because generals no longer enjoy the tactical authority they once did. Today, the decision to attack, and how, is usually made by lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, and sometimes even more junior soldiers, who have quietly become the military’s most important battlefield leaders. As for the fighting general, if he isn’t yet dead, he may be fatally wounded.
The destructive force of armies has always been forged from the collective potential of individuals. Prior to the development of gunpowder, it took the combined muscle power of thousands of soldiers to muster meaningful force. Troops fought in mass formations alongside others with similar weapons: spearmen with spearmen, archers with archers, cavalry with cavalry. Each of these units was obliged to fight in coordination with others to leverage their capacity for violence to the fullest. A single general, or monarch, led each ancient army, with unchallenged responsibility for devising tactics and issuing orders.
With the advent of firepower, however, individual soldiers suddenly attained much more destructive potential. And as that capacity for individual violence grew, leadership could, and did, devolve closer to the individual level. Over time, the general was joined by subordinate generals, brigadiers, and an ever more professional officer corps, including captains and lieutenants. In the early 19th century, Napoleon divided his armies into corps that could maneuver and fight completely independently, a decision critical to his unprecedented victories.
The development of artillery, and the refinement of rifled firearms, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries allowed division commanders to assume ever more tactical leadership. In World War II, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower typified the trend; he oversaw the planning of the invasion of France while allowing specific attacks to be run by officers as junior as captains. While large battles still occurred during Vietnam, most of the day-to-day combat was conducted by platoons of around 40 soldiers deployed independently, with the platoon commander (usually a lieutenant in his early 20s) making the tactical decisions.
Today, most of the combat undertaken by the U.S. military happens at the squad level, involving just 14 soldiers or fewer. Officers have been displaced almost entirely from tactical leadership, in favor of enlisted service members—staff noncommissioned officers (SNCOs) and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). This trend isn’t necessarily bad. Officers, by virtue of having acquired a college degree, typically have a broader range of knowledge and skills that allows them to evaluate the big picture; they also have relatively less military experience. By contrast, NCOs (corporals and sergeants) and especially the more senior SNCOs (staff sergeants and above) have deep experience in their roles and are better equipped for practical, detailed execution.
It is precisely the fact that the U.S. military has such a highly skilled and dependable NCO corps that it’s able to operate so effectively in small units. This is to its great benefit on the battlefield. Smaller units move faster and are more likely to avoid detection by enemy forces. And if a squad is detected and neutralized, the loss is less disastrous for the army as a whole.
As authority moves down the military’s chain of command, what happens to those at the top?
Many generals still consider themselves warriors above all else and attempt to micromanage tactical units in battle. As the analyst Peter W. Singer has documented, this temptation is encouraged by communications technologies that can deliver real-time access to the battlefield anywhere in the world. It has never been easier for a general to intervene in tactical decisions.
Even as such involvement has gotten easier, however, it has also become more disruptive. No major military is designed to be led solely by generals. The U.S. Army is structured to fight in brigades (made up of about 3,000 soldiers, although the size varies) commanded by a colonel, while the Marine Corps usually deploys battalions (around 500 Marines) commanded by a lieutenant colonel or colonel. Both services can fight in larger units, such as divisions (roughly 12,000 troops), should war break out against a major power. But even if brigades and larger units do enter combat these days, smaller units will likely retain battlefield authority because of the devastating power and pinpoint accuracy delivered by adversaries’ modern artillery and airstrikes. In the combat zones of eastern Ukraine today, for instance, the Ukrainian army’s movements are typically carried out by units composed of just a few soldiers. Anything larger invites crushing artillery strikes.
Meanwhile, Washington’s existing wars are dominated by platoon- and squad-level tactics directed by lieutenants, sergeants, and corporals. Effective tactical leadership by troops of such low rank requires that the chain of command empower and trust them. Micromanagement undermines that trust.
Higher-ranking officers have plenty of other work to focus on, including logistics, intelligence, and the coordination of tactical actions across multiple units. These are not unimportant roles; given the large volume of supplies that modern military operations demand, logistics is a major factor in maintaining troops’ morale. That’s why, as generals’ tactical role has declined, their staffs of intelligence officers, logisticians, and other support personnel have grown—and an increasing share of their time is devoted to managing their teams of direct subordinates.
If the U.S. military wants to stay effective, it needs to exploit, rather than resist, this trend; generals will have to fully give up their role as tactical commanders and embrace their role as combat enablers and policy advisors. During operations, generals should focus on providing institutional leadership—that is, they should think of themselves as supervisory managers responsible for coordinating between units and command and ensuring supplies flow to their destinations. They should also redouble their commitment to serving policymakers. Their advice should be rooted in their military experience and expertise—but not limited to it. Civilian officials making decisions about war and peace need information filtered through conceptual lenses such as strategic theory, international relations, and other disciplines. A pure tactician can never offer policymakers the level of insight and wisdom that they require.
Acknowledging the newfound role of generals requires changing how the U.S. military selects, trains, educates, and promotes its officers. The failure to make such changes has already produced some disastrous outcomes in recent and ongoing wars. The U.S. military’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t primarily been on the level of tactics but of strategy: the decisions, more influenced by generals than by any other military officers, about whether to enter these wars at all and how to determine their objectives in the broadest sense. Those failures have already produced tensions along the military’s chain of command and with the country’s civilian leadership. In 2007, for instance, Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote a highly influential and controversial article in the Armed Forces Journal taking the general officer corps to task for giving poor military advice in Iraq.
The situation has not gotten any better since then. Officers still exhibit almost uniform enthusiasm for the intractable conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and frequently base their assessments on body counts, territory controlled, and operations completed. A can-do attitude is admirable when it comes to tactical leadership, but those metrics are more relevant to the individual battlefield than to the success of complicated and deeply political wars.
Neither their enthusiasm nor their preferred tactical metrics offer much insight to civilian policymakers, especially in the face of almost two decades of strategic failure.
Policymakers need and deserve the kind of military advice that can only be acquired over a career of studying foreign policy and the use of military force, not just being engaged in its execution. Unfortunately, the U.S. military continues to prepare its officers to become tactical generals. Military education focuses on tactical planning, not strategic or political knowledge. Most officers receive some basic education in strategic studies but rarely get to exercise those skills in their day-to-day work until they become generals.
The military needs to better prepare its officers to become policy generals. The education of officers currently centers on the war colleges and defense universities. Officers typically spend about one year at these institutions, which generally do a very good job of providing quality education. There is a limit, however, to how much scholarly knowledge can be absorbed in a single year that is divided between study and practical military training. That’s why the military’s existing educational institutions should remove training from their curriculums. Doing that would free up time for academic study in subjects including international relations, strategic theory, geopolitics, and conflict analysis and resolution. Refocusing military curriculums in this way would have the added benefit of steeping officers in the values of scholarship and liberal education. Having previously been trained to obey a strict chain of command, they would have a greater opportunity to learn how to respectfully disagree, balance multiple viewpoints and opinions, and present complex arguments—critical skills for any policy general.
The military’s schools will also have to change their methods for evaluating students. Today, officers’ performances at war colleges do not bear on their future careers; the officer who do just enough work to get by comes out on the other side with the same official report as the officer who works diligently to learn the material. As a result, most officers think of time at a professional military education institute as time off or a break from the normal frenetic pace of operations. If officers’ grades at the war colleges were taken seriously by their superiors, those officers would have greater incentive to put as much effort into their academic education as they do their practical training. Such a shift would also allow the military’s top leaders to better decide which officers are truly qualified to serve as generals.
Generals, and aspiring generals, will resist this. Many prospective officers in today’s military want to fight, not to scheme over policy. They have often held leadership positions prior to joining the military, whether on sports teams, in student government, or other group activities, and the military has only further encouraged them to associate leadership above all with a can-do attitude, bravery in battle, and professionalism in the tactical execution of missions. Those values should not be discounted. As officers rise in rank, however, the nature of generalship itself demands a different form of leadership, one that privileges persuasion, deliberation, and reflection.
Even if the officer corps consented to formalized changes in the training and job descriptions of generals, those changes would still require the approval and cooperation of Congress. Military promotions are mostly dictated by the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, and officer education is determined by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. Goldwater-Nichols centralized the military advice provided to policymakers in a single person—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The world has changed vastly since these laws were passed. Congress should modernize both officer promotions and officer education by replacing both of the existing acts with one piece of new legislation designed to help educate and promote the kinds of officers that civilian policymakers actually need.
Robert E. Lee failed at Gettysburg because he was trained and educated for a bygone era. Since his time, the best generals have looked more like Eisenhower in 1944. The trend should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity. Getting modern generalship right would offer a much-needed balm to soothe civil-military relations, as well as tensions inside the military itself. The most advanced and far-reaching military in the world will do little good if led by generals who would rather fire a rifle than plan with paperwork.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.