A failure in general

Byline: | Category: Iraq, Military | Posted at: Monday, 30 April 2007

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling made waves this past week with an article in the Armed Forces Journal, a periodical few outside of military circles had ever before heard of:

. . . throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly.

. . . The armed forces fought the global war on terrorism for the first five years with a counterinsurgency doctrine last revised in the Reagan administration. Despite engaging in numerous stability operations throughout the 1990s, the armed forces did little to bolster their capabilities for civic reconstruction and security force development. Procurement priorities during the 1990s followed the Cold War model, with significant funding devoted to new fighter aircraft and artillery systems. The most commonly used tactical scenarios in both schools and training centers replicated high-intensity interstate conflict. At the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. is fighting brutal, adaptive insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, while our armed forces have spent the preceding decade having done little to prepare for such conflicts.

Another of Lt. Col. Yingling’s discontented peers lambasted the Army’s leadership of the nineties when he gave voice to a similar complaint more than five years ago about the Army’s inability to “peer into the future,” instead leaving the Marines to pick up the Army’s slack in Afghanistan:

The Marines are doing what needs to be done in an ever changing world-adapting. The Army, meanwhile is simply content to build a smaller version of its former self.

My Army is operating equipment designed to fight Soviets in the Fulda Gap, and the stuff in the pipeline is just a more expensive version of the same. My Army has a personnel system that was built to defeat the Kaiser. My Army is structured with an organization designed to defeat Lord Wellington. My Army trains to fight fictional forces in make-believe lands instead of focusing on real-world enemies and missions. My Army has one-half the number of generals as we did at the height of WWII, even though the force is one-tenth the size. The resultant leadership inertia bogs decision-making down in a bureaucratic morass, as more chiefs fight to protect their hallowed turf. The end result of all this is we get to watch the Marines perform Army missions because they can do them better.

It’s uncommon, but not unheard of for active junior and mid-grade officers to challenge the generals about their decision-making.  I should know.  I was the author of that 2001 article.

Yingling was right about the Army treating stability operations as a distractor from the ”real” missions.  In the late nineties–nearly a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was training my cavalry troop to fight against an enemy that used Soviet tactics, Soviet organizations, and was equipped with specially modified Sheridan tanks so that they resembled Soviet T-72s and BMPs–just as I had five years before that when I was assigned to Germany after the wall came down, and five years before that during my first training exercise when there actually still was a Soviet Union. 

What we were doing in the former Yugoslavia was thought to be a temporary diversion.  The President even said that we would be gone by Christmas the following year, so why should the Army be concerned that stability operations were the future?  Cities were to be bypassed, civilians were to be passed to “follow-on forces” to deal with, and the media was to be avoided except by specially trained “Public Affairs Officers.”

Few probably did recognize the changes afoot in the first decade after Desert Storm–a war, by the way, we lucked in to.  By an accident of geography, Fort Irwin, the largest and most prominent training ground the Army used to prepare for a fight against the Soviet Union, was not in Germany, but in a desolate corner of California’s high desert.  There, we learned through repetition how the Army’s tanks, helicopters, and personnel could better adapt to a harsh desert environment.  The years of practice in an environment not at all like Central Europe, paid off, when Saddam challenged us to a fight on terrain we were more than ready for.

However, out of that victory arose complacency.  Not complacency in the sense that the Army didn’t improve, instead we improved in the areas where no improvement was necessary.  For example, in Desert Storm, the M1A1 tank’s main gun demonstrated its accuracy beyond the range of its sights.  The new M1A2, therefore, was equipped with an improved thermal viewer that allowed the tank’s crew to take advantage of the 120 mm. cannon out to its full range of well beyond two miles.  Never mind the fact that, while we were improving our guns’ ranges, the lesson America’s enemies learned from the first Gulf War was not to challenge an American tank at any range except close range–where improved sights offered no advantage.

However, while few were probably aware of our enemy’s changes and our vulnerabilities, the Army’s senior leaders, should have numbered themselves among that few.  That, after all, was their job.  Instead, as both Yingling and I pointed out, the Army spent the nineties preparing for the eighties.

One area where I do differ with Lt. Col. Yingling is his assertion that leadership change needs to come from Congress.  As a matter of principle, I simply do not believe that a committee of 535 is capable of making the hard decisions and providing the visionary guidance that the military–especially the Army, the most hidebound of the services–needs as it moves into the future. 

Furthermore, I would also add that the military’s fixation on new and ever-more expensive weaponry is a direct reflection of Congress’ first priority, which is a fixation on pork spending.  For as long as that constant remains, Congress is just plain incapable of demanding that military “procurement priorities reflect the most likely threats we will face.” 

I would also remind readers that, for all the faults attributed to Secretary Rumsfeld by his detractors, this was one area where he undoubtedly got it right when he eliminated the Comanche helicopter and the Crusader artillery piece, two weapon systems in search of a post-Cold War enemy, over the objections of the Army’s senior leadership and Congress.

Visionary change has to come, as it always has, from the top.  And that means that it is up to the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Department Secretaries to make their first priority the appointment of generals and admirals who won’t spend the 21st century preparing for the 20th. 

Still, Lt. Col. Yingling is correct about the nature of the problem confronting America’s military forces now and in the future.  It is a failure of leadership, and even if we manage to muscle our way successfully through this war, that does not mean that a complete re-evaluation of everything that goes into creating a general isn’t necessary.

Finally, another (then) active duty officer Col. Douglas MacGregor, was even more direct in his criticism of the highest levels of command when, two years ago, he asked:

Why, after three years of inconclusive action in Iraq, have none of America’s top generals been fired?

It’s a good question.  And still worthy of an answer.  However, even more important as we move forward is the question implicit in Lt. Col. Yingling’s article:

What can we do now to make sure that the “right” people are promoted to general in the future?

Max Boot pens an important piece
Jules Crittenden
Small Wars Journal
Angry Bear
Annika’s Journal who notes a Ralph Peters article outlining lessons for an occupation doctrine
and CDR Salamander who adds:

A more political GO/FO corps? You do that and you will have a disgrace like we had when all through the 1990s the Joint Chiefs made Happy-talk until 1999 when they all of a sudden cried that they were starved to death. Only General Krulak kept his integrity in that time. More Generals and Admirals afraid of telling the truth to Congress? No thank you. More Krulak, that would be nice.

Not surprisingly, Former Commandant of the Marine Corps GEN Krulak wrote to me in support of much of what I wrote in my essay.


Phil Carter:  “[Yingling's article] is precisely the kind of ruthless self-examination which is so necessary for an army at war.”

And “the wrong lessons from Vietnam

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One Response to “A failure in general”

  1. Bob Krumm » A loss in the battle for hearts and minds Says:

    [...] If you want the ground truth, you can still go to a Marine. Sadly for my service, that’s often been the [...]