June 1, 2007  

Generalship and statesmanship

Even if everything Lt. Col. Paul Yingling says about America’s generals is true, few, if any, of America’s great military leaders have shown the broad understanding of war and its political dimension that he expects [“A Failure in Generalship,” May]. As Eliot Cohen has shown, success in war and strategy depends on having skilled statesmen at the helm. Indeed, depending on soldiers, rather than statesmen, to provide this understanding is even more likely to lead to disaster.

We justly venerate George Catlett Marshall, yet he originally recommended against providing Lend-Lease aid to Britain, predicted the defeat of the Soviet Union and advocated a direct assault upon Fortress Europe in 1942, if not earlier. President Roosevelt overruled him, we won the war, and Marshall won encomiums as the “organizer of victory.” Even the Marshall Plan was at least as much Truman as Marshall. Ulysses S. Grant simply implemented the military strategy Lincoln had been pressing on his resisting generals since 1862; the post-Civil War Reconstruction failed to establish even the degree of political and social change that now appear inevitable in Iraq. Winfield Scott’s brilliant campaign to take Mexico City still left American forces immersed in a quagmire for almost two years, until Nicholas Trist’s freelance peacemaking efforts salvaged a reasonable settlement. Matthew B. Ridgway gets a lot of credit for recommending against intervention in Vietnam, but as the near-contemporary Joint Chiefs of Staff history of the “Indochina Incident” reveals, he did so because he thought those military resources would be better used to strike directly at China!

Even the German generals of World War II, whom Yingling cites for not “getting it too badly wrong,” actually got it egregiously and awfully wrong, preparing their military instrument for short, sharp wars for limited objectives instead of the awful, industrialized “materialschlacht” that Hitler’s policies would clearly provoke, refusing even to change course until well after Stalingrad.

There is a reason that Clausewitz makes the conduct of war the province of the statesman, and not the general. War is a political act; as Yingling justly points out, waging it requires a profound and visceral understanding of culture and politics. While study can help develop such understanding, it cannot substitute for a lifetime of experience. We won the Civil War because of Lincoln, not Grant, and we won World War II because of FDR, not Marshall. Pitt and Metternich, not Wellington and Blucher, defeated Napoleon. We lost in Vietnam not so much because Westmoreland was no Eisenhower, but because LBJ was no FDR. So while it behooves America’s military leaders to seek a better understanding of war’s political dimension, in the final analysis we must depend on our statesmen to wage war successfully.

Lt. Col. M. Wade Markel, Army

Army Capabilities Integration Center (Forward)

Arlington, Va.

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s comments regarding the intellectual and moral failures of American generals come to the junior officer corps as a fresh breath of air after long years of living in a vacuum of senior officer incompetence and denial.

Based on my experiences as an infantry officer serving in Iraq in 2003 and 2005, I would add to his statements by saying that they reflect the majority opinion of junior officers. I, for one, was constantly enraged and demoralized by the inability of the general officer corps to extract lessons from military history and properly apply them to the conflict in Iraq. Why did so many fail to grasp the lessons of Algeria, Malaysia, Vietnam and Bosnia, which show that administering a country and counterinsurgency requires many more times the forces than for conventional war, and that technology is often nullified as a force multiplier in these instances? Gen. Shinseki got it; Gen. Franks did not.

Even now, after it is abundantly clear that the Iraq mission is going to fail, not a single general officer is providing worthwhile guidance on how to strategically reposition ourselves to bolster Afghanistan and be ready for a multitude of future threats. I would say this is fairly disconcerting because, thanks to their mishandling of Iraq, things are going to get worse before they get better. It’s time to clear the slate. Like Lt. Col. Yingling, I advocate a decimation of the current general officer corps so our military can finally get the right leadership team to carry us into the future. There are lieutenant colonels and full colonels in the ranks that are more than capable of assuming the mantle of generalship now. We cannot afford to keep around super-egos who attempt to justify past decisions with even more bad decisions. The Eisenhowers, Pattons, Van Fleets, and Ridgeways are waiting. Let’s give them the chance.

Former Capt. Jason A. Blindauer, Army

Sidney, Ohio

Lt. Col. Yingling has put the cart before the horse in ascribing the generals’ failings to their professional training, when in fact the generals have behaved in precisely the manner required of them by the political system they serve.

The U.S. is a democracy with an institutionalized limitation on the political role of the professional military. The passiveness of the high-ranking generals has been instilled into them by their exclusion from the political decision-making process. They dare not speak out publicly against their political masters lest they be accused of interfering in a field from which they are banned. It is therefore simplistic to blame the generals’ professional parochialism for the quagmire in Iraq.

The author’s view that the generals’ inappropriate professional training leaves them ill-equipped to provide wise policy advice in Iraq is contradicted by the author himself. He notes that, “many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq.” That they only privately or upon retirement revealed their opinions is held against them. However, it is not their inability to analyze the military landscape for which they are being criticized. Rather the author is holding them to account for not having intervened in the political process, an act from which they are explicitly forbidden. Their professional training is not the problem the author suggests. Many of them seem fully capable of providing an accurate analysis of the problem. The problem is the political structure of the U.S. that penalizes them for doing so.

The real problem is, and has always been, the poverty of political leadership. Whether it’s been the political focus on the Soviet “threat” during the Cold War, the repudiation of “nation building” as a task unfit for the nation or its military, or Rumsfeld’s fostering of gee-whiz silver-bullet technological answers, democracy drives our military choices.

Until we acquire a more militarily knowledgeable and responsible political process, the moral courage that the author desires to see demonstrated by generals is nothing short of asking them to commit professional suicide. Long-serving, ambitious officers may not always be politically courageous, but surely they are not stupid.

L. “Pete” Lehmann


There is a culture of mendacity in the military that contributes to the failures of generalship. One example among many is the system of performance reviews; an officer’s professional survival relies on gross exaggeration in his written performance appraisal — an honest review would kill a career. Intellectual dishonesty is an integral part of the system. Some would argue that to make or break careers, senior officers are less than honest in their reviews.

In an institutional culture of mendacity, there is no limit to the corruption. One recent example — the reporting of Pat Tillman’s death. There are hundreds of examples, but that one tragedy illustrates the mendacity of the system. The mendacity is insidious and corrosive to leadership — as a consequence, innovation, intellectual honesty, loyalty to the troops and critical analysis all suffer. As Lt. Col. Yingling points out, you cannot expect people in their 40s to suddenly change a lifetime’s habits just because they receive a general’s star. They are now a part of the system, and it is very difficult for them to change the system.

That culture of mendacity also exists in our government — who takes a politician’s pronouncements at face value? — and in American lives — who of us hasn’t told lies? The tragedy is that we expect more from our military, and it has become a reflection of the American culture.

Supporting Yingling’s conclusions, I believe that Congress needs to use its confirmation powers to force intellectual diversity in the senior officer ranks. Additionally, the military needs to make the voices of junior officers heard through inclusion of subordinate reviews in the promotion process. While current general officers will fight these steps, the civilian leadership has to force changes in the system to stop this culture of mendacity.

Steve Fleischer

Monument, Colo.