The issue of the quality of our generals interests me greatly.
I had a considerable amount to do with Army generals in the Nineties—and again after 9/11, and I formed the view that we didn’t have enough of caliber. I wasn’t the only person to have that opinion.
There was also serious concern about the quality of the generals promoted under the then Chief of Staff of the Army, General Shinseki.
The Army general officer promotional system is essentially geared to promoting clubbable soldiers who will go along to get along rather than the diverse range of thoughtful, intelligent, creative warriors it really needs. Innovators tend to be mavericks and the Army isn’t comfortable with such people. They can be difficult to the point of being demanding. They are intellectually restless. Innovators tend to question the status quo—and generals (both serving and retired) tend to be very comfortable with the existing system. After all, it made them generals.
True, a few outstanding officers do make it into the club—but the prevailing anti-intellectual culture makes them less than common. In fact, there isn’t any career path for military thinkers. The promotional system is based near exclusively on command. For instance if you don’t command a brigade (Brigade Combat Team today) first, you will never make general—even if your ideas have revolutionized the Army (Here I can think of a number of specific cases including those of Colonel Douglas Macgregor and Major Don Vandergriff—both now retired).
Does the promotional system have to be this way? Certainly not. Bureaucratic systems are man made and can be man changed.
The quality of Army generals is a serious problem which doesn’t get nearly enough attention. It’s hard to think who will raise the issue. The Army generals themselves won’t raise the issue for obvious reasons; the Secretary of Defense has weightier issues on his mind; and the Secretary of the Army tends to be too dependent on the generals to want to rock the boat.
Yet the consequences of picking the generals tend to be severe. We had the wrong man in charge of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the wrong men in charge afterwards for some time. We will be paying for those errors for decades.
Yes, on balance, I would have left McChrystal in charge.
I just felt you should know.