“General Failure”

An article by Thomas E. Ricks in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine characterizes today’s military leadership as “inept” and a “culture of mediocrity.” While Ricks specifically discusses Army leadership, his criticisms at times apply across the services:

Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders.

Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars—each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history—and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/general-failure/309148/.

Ricks is a former reporter on military affairs and currently writes a blog at ForeignPolicy.com. He received a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting (on Wall Street Journal team) in 2000 for articles on how the U.S. Military might change to meet twenty-first century demands, and another Pulitzer in 2002 for National Reporting (on Washington Post team) for reporting about the beginnings of the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism.

While the longest war in our nation’s history continues, it is hard not to believe that Ricks has a point: the top tiers of our military are rewarded with promotions–but for what? Keeping us at war for more than ten years?

Meanwhile, the Army is beginning to hear criticism from its own officers.

Army Lt.Col. Daniel Davis appeard on the PBS show “NEWSHOUR” February 17, 2012, charging that the effort to create a sustainable Afghan force is failing, and agreeing with the words of the interviewer, Margaret Warner, that the “senior military leadership has used what you call omission and outright deception in order to prevent the American public from knowing the truth.”

Davis went to members of Congress, the media, and the Army’s Inspector General to make his complaints. When asked by Warner why he did not bring the complaints to his chain of command, Davis replied,

“I have frankly lost my confidence in the ability of some of the senior leadership of the Army to police itself.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bZo1YHssEG4.

Col. Lawrence Sellin, a 61-year-old Army reservist, was dismissed from his post in headquarters with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in August 2010, less than 48 hours after he published an op-ed, via UPI, complaining that the “war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.” Col. Sellin was a popular and widely-read public affairs officer. Yet he committed career suicide in order to say:

“Little of substance is really done here, but that is a task we do well.”

Col. Sellin was not alone in his criticism. In 2009, retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes wrote in Armed Forces Journal that the Powerpoint application, now ubiquitous in the military, is “actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making” and “has fundamentally changed [military] culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them.” http://www.veteranstoday.com/2010/08/27/army-colonel-in-afghanistan-fired-for-criticizing-powerpoint/. (See also Jim Placke’s blackly humorous “PowerPoint Pogue Homepage,” http://www.nbc-links.com/powerpoint.html.)

The slide below was created for an actual Powerpoint presentation on how to win the war in Iraq’s Al Anbar province:


The opposite in complexity is a slide shown to General Stanley A. McChrystal in Kabul in 2009:

We have met the enemy

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal is reported to have said, as the room erupted in laughter.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said at a military conference in April 2010 according to the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html.

But to get back to my point:

In the same New York Times article, “Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005 (emphasis added), followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“‘It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,’ General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. ‘Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.’

So, the questions: Has the Army become a “culture of mediocrity” instead of a meritocracy? Must critical information about the war be dumbed down into words that even a general can understand? Has the military failed in purging its upper ranks of incompetent, or at least unsuccessful, officers?

The dilemma of pursuing success and successful generals reminds me of President Lincoln’s comment about General Grant:

“I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

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4 Responses to “General Failure”

  1. Aridog says:

    Very interesting and falls in line with my own opinions. I comment further after I’ve read everything a couple times. Thanks for finding the article. Full disclosure: I linked the Atlantic article and your blog post on the Althouse “Inquiry Into Libya Attack Is Sharply Critical of State Dept” thread in response to two other commentators that I generally am willing to consider as sincere. I didn’t ask your permission, so if I erred, you have my apology in advance. I think both Ricks’ and your remarks are germane to the overall accountability malaise in governance, and you and Ricks said better than I could. .

    I find is somewhat amusing that Gen McChrystal joked about the complex Powerpoint chart, since it actually relayed his own strategy and tactics in all their complexity. A far far cry from the “spreading ink blot” thinking of USMC General Victor Krulak and the CAP program
    (Combined Action Program) of the Vietnam War….which I suspect you are already familiar with yourself.

    • bloggingusmc says:

      The McChrystal remark stunned me. I know he was making a joke, but it seemed such a bad joke. Why would anyone even tolerate a briefing like that? Where is the plan? To paraphrase what a lawyer said about a long, complex question: “That slide should be taken out and shot.” I thought it apt to follow-up with General Mattis’s comment.

      • Aridog says:

        I am still reading and re-reading, as well as watching and listening, to the links in your post. All I can is WOW. The Margaret Warner & LTC Davis interview by itself is stunning. Unfortunately, almost everything you’ve posted mirrors my own experience, but at a much higher command level….in most cases, but not all. More later. Good job, though…damn good job.

        BTW…I did try to respond belatedly & briefly to your email, but what I got was this:

        Reporting-MTA: dns; qmta01.westchester.pa.mail.comcast.net []
        Received-From-MTA: dns; omta04.westchester.pa.mail.comcast.net []
        Arrival-Date: Wed, 19 Dec 2012 23:21:41 +0000

        Given your “dot mil” email address that you used I will never express my opinions via that system. If I run off at the mouth it will be here or on Althouse. As I said in my attempted email response, I’m even a little leery of the Army’s AKO personal commo system for active and retired personnel. But, then again, I have reason to be.

        Have a great Chirstmas and New Years. Take care of all those dear to you and celebrate with simple joy.

        Final-recipient: rfc822; leslyn.erickson@usmc.mil
        Action: delayed
        Status: 4.1.1
        Last-attempt-Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2012 02:37:31 +0000

      • Aridog says:

        Oh, well…I messed up the closing html a bit and split the email notice in half. I figure you will know that.

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