Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Keeping The Best and Brightest

At NRO's The Corner, Victor Davis Hanson notes the "crop" of brilliant Army and Marine Corps Colonels that have emerged during the War in Iraq--and the need to keep them in uniform. The issue has become so important that the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was recently recalled from his post to chair a recent promotion board, which will select the Army's next group of brigadier generals.

Retired Major General Bob Scales, the former head of the U.S. Army War College, told the Washington Post that summoning a theater commander to run a promotion board is simply unheard of. Both Scales and other defense officials (past and present) believe that Petraeus' selection to chair the board is aimed at promoting the "right" officers--those with a strong track record as commanders and innovators in Iraq:

"It's unprecedented for the commander of an active theater to be brought back to head something like a brigadier generals board," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College. A senior defense official said Petraeus is "far too high-profile for this to be a subtle thing."

[snip]

Petraeus, a four-star general with a doctorate in international relations, has spent three of the past four years in Iraq and has observed firsthand many of the colonels under consideration for promotion. He is well-regarded by military officials for his political skills in Iraq and at home, including winning support from a skeptical Congress for a U.S. troop increase in Iraq.

"Dave Petraeus in many ways is viewed as the archetype of what this new generation of senior leader is all about," Scales said, "a guy . . . who understands information operations, who can be effective on
Capitol Hill, who can communicate with Iraqis, who understands the value of original thought, who has the ability through the power of his intellect to lead people to change."

There are also clear concerns that the "current" Army promotion system isn't up to the task. General Petraeus's executive officer, Colonel Peter Mansoor, was recently passed over over for Brigadier General, as was Colonel H.R. McMaster, who (as a brigade commander) cleared insurgents from Tal Afar in 2005, during an operation that, in some respects, became a model for the subsequent troop surge.

Mansoor and McMaster were also instrumental in developing the military's new counter-insurgency doctrine and they have been described as genuine soldier-scholars; both earned doctorate degrees and have authored critically-praised books on military history and military-political affairs. McMaster's damning indictment of the lies, deceit and feckless decision-making by military and political leaders during the Vietnam War (Dereliction of Duty), became an instant classic, and required reading at all the service schools. Mansoor's The GI Offensive in Europe, the Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-45 is a well-crafted account of the (supposedly) inferior units that ultimately prevailed against the German Wehrmacht.

And, from an institutional perspective, that may be part of the problem. While the Army (and the other services) prize advanced degrees and academic training, there is a fine line between "filling" the necessary squares, and spending too much time "away from the troops." Historically, the military has often viewed officers with Ph.Ds as some of an oddity, better suited to training posts than senior leadership positions (General Petraeus, who earned a doctorate at Princeton, is an obvious exception to that rule).

Additionally, officers with PhDs find themselves at another disadvantage in facing promotion boards. Very few of the officers on the panel have doctoral degrees, and many "mark down" a candidate for spending three to five years in a PhD program--time they believe would have been better spent in command or staff assignments.

General Petraeus' return for that recent promotion board is clearly aimed at reversing such thinking--and ensuring that the Army's best combat leaders continue to advance. As the Post noted in its account, all members of the promotion board had an equal vote, but as chairman, Petraeus was in a position to steer the discussion, and personally attest to the skills of individual officers. Having spent three of the last four years in Iraq, General Petraeus knows all of the brigade commanders who have served there. More than a few of those officers were considered by the promotion board that Petraeus chaired.

Names of those selected won't be released for several months. Roughly 1,000 Colonels met the board and only 40 or so will be promoted, so the selection criteria is exceptionally rigorous. The results of that board will provide an early indication of how the Army views its counter-insurgency "experts" that have produced recent, dramatic security gains in Iraq, and what sort of future those officers have in the service. It's a safe bet that many of Petraeus's brigade commanders will be on the list, but the rejection of Mansoor and McMaster remains troubling; suggesting that some still have a "traditionalist" view of what a general should be. Using that template, officers who are both warriors and scholars may not make the cut.

***

ADDENDUM: As Max Boot, Dr. Hanson (and others) have noted, the Army faces an even greater challenge in retaining--and promoting--combat leaders at the lower ranks. Anecdotal evidence suggest that more junior officers, notably at the Captain and Major level, are leaving the service because they feel alientated from senior leaders who lack their combat experience, and haven't institutionalized the lessons from Iraq. As one Army officer told the Washington Post:

"There are some great captains and majors who have great insight into this type of warfare. They are not leaving because they don't have enough money; they are leaving because no one is listening to them. They don't trust the people above them," said an Army officer who served two tours in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

We should also point out that the issue of retaining (and promoting) the right people may be equally acute in other services, including the Air Force. While most of the USAF's senior leaders are fighter pilots, the service's greatest contributions in the War on Terror have been provided by UAV units (and the associated intel architecture), special forces personnel (pararescuemen, combat controllers and aircrew members), EOD teams and support specialists, including thousands of airmen who handle security and convoy operations in Iraq. Keeping those combat airmen in uniform represents an equally vital task for the Air Force.

6 comments:

The Duck said...

This post and the one above touch on what I see as the major problem in all the military services that is rarely addressed; departing from the WWII model of massive formations confronting the enemy state's massive formations in set piece battles and confronting the non-state combatants of the post WWII world, often covertly fielded and supported by enemy states, that threaten us with a strategy of death by a thousand cuts.

There is lots of power and promotion potential for officers who shepherd massive new weapons systems through development and procurement. And there is lots of pork in these systems for politicians to hand out to their constituents in exchange for continued campaign contributions. But our recent wars have not been fought with these systems or have not utilized them in anything like the manner in which they were intended.

There is little career reward for the officer who goes to Jabipistan, learns the language, culture, political factions and can operate effectively to advance the interests of America in that environment. But that is the officer we need, not the hero responsible for the Crusader.

Our procurement and personnel policies have not kept up with the changes in the threat environment we face. Involving Petraeus so visibly in this promotion board is a necessary, but very far from sufficient, condition for making this transition. Seeing Petraeus become Chief of Staff, Chairman of JCS, and POTUS should bring us much closer to the appropriate solution to our many misprioritizations.

George Smiley said...

Duck--Your comments are spot on. In my own career as a spook (which never came close to the flag level), I saw my own version of this generalist mindset, which encourages careerism and broad-based experience, at the expense of specific expertise that may be vital in winning the next war.

Consider this: most intel officers who reach the flag rank are similar to their operational or combat arms counterparts. They reached the upper ranks by becoming managers and technocrats; their days of particular expertise are long since past. And, if they spend too much time in a particular area or gain additional training or education (say, a PhD), they are pigeonholed as "too narrow" in terms of their background.

I will give the credit for one thing: they're ahead of the Air Force (and other services) in recongnizing the need for a cadre of officers with foreign language and cultural expertise. The Army has an MOS or special experience identifier for those officers, and there is a career track for them. Unfortunately, most of them don't reach the upper ranks, but it's a step in the right direction--as was General Petraeus chairing that promotion board.

BTW, the fact that Petraeus's exec didn't make flag rank is very telling. After a successful tour as a combat brigade commander (and selection as the theater commander's right-hand man) Mansoor's promotion should have been automatic. Either Mansoor has some sort of career stain from years past (highly unlikely, considering that he was screened for command), or it's an example of the hidebound Army bureaucracy promoting the usual technocrats and managers over innovators and soldier-scholars like Mansoor and McMaster.

If I had to read the tea leaves, I'd guess that Mansoor's rejection on the past board resulted in a phone call from his boss to Gen Casey and the SecDef, with a simple message: I won't tolerate this crap for another moment. Under today's promotion system, the Chief of Staff (or a theater commander) can't hand-pick flag officers (and end careers) the way George Marshall did in WWII, but letting Petraeus chair the board allows him to exert a needed degree of influence.

As for the Air Force, we've got a real problem. We only have one general officer with a "true" SF background (he came up the ranks as a combat controller), and the service is still dominated by fighter mafia. It's going to be a real challenge to see how the service "treats" those officers and senior NCOs who are making the difference in the GWOT, and for the most part, they don't fly fighters.

George Smiley said...

Duck--Your comments are spot on. In my own career as a spook (which never came close to the flag level), I saw my own version of this generalist mindset, which encourages careerism and broad-based experience, at the expense of specific expertise that may be vital in winning the next war.

Consider this: most intel officers who reach the flag rank are similar to their operational or combat arms counterparts. They reached the upper ranks by becoming managers and technocrats; their days of particular expertise are long since past. And, if they spend too much time in a particular area or gain additional training or education (say, a PhD), they are pigeonholed as "too narrow" in terms of their background.

I will give the credit for one thing: they're ahead of the Air Force (and other services) in recongnizing the need for a cadre of officers with foreign language and cultural expertise. The Army has an MOS or special experience identifier for those officers, and there is a career track for them. Unfortunately, most of them don't reach the upper ranks, but it's a step in the right direction--as was General Petraeus chairing that promotion board.

BTW, the fact that Petraeus's exec didn't make flag rank is very telling. After a successful tour as a combat brigade commander (and selection as the theater commander's right-hand man) Mansoor's promotion should have been automatic. Either Mansoor has some sort of career stain from years past (highly unlikely, considering that he was screened for command), or it's an example of the hidebound Army bureaucracy promoting the usual technocrats and managers over innovators and soldier-scholars like Mansoor and McMaster.

If I had to read the tea leaves, I'd guess that Mansoor's rejection on the past board resulted in a phone call from his boss to Gen Casey and the SecDef, with a simple message: I won't tolerate this crap for another moment. Under today's promotion system, the Chief of Staff (or a theater commander) can't hand-pick flag officers (and end careers) the way George Marshall did in WWII, but letting Petraeus chair the board allows him to exert a needed degree of influence.

As for the Air Force, we've got a real problem. We only have one general officer with a "true" SF background (he came up the ranks as a combat controller), and the service is still dominated by fighter mafia. It's going to be a real challenge to see how the service "treats" those officers and senior NCOs who are making the difference in the GWOT, and for the most part, they don't fly fighters.

Frank said...

It seems to me that contractors are taking advantage of this situation and grabbing a lot of these guys straight out of military service. Of all of my friends and family involved in the war on terror, most are out of the military and now work for contractors. I agree with the spirit of this article. Everyone is better served by keeping these people in the military (except the contractors). We pay for them out of taxes either way and it hurts us when contractors compete against the military.
Great stuff to write about. It's gonna be an interesting time when all of these troops come home. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms.blogspot.com/2007/11/re-keeping-best-and-brightest.html

Rich said...

I am a little pessimistic about the chances of this actually happening. The current General and Flag selection system seems to really be based on the manager model and the ability of a Flag or General Officer to bring in the money from Washington to the company he or she works for after their days in the suit are over. That means you have to change or eliminate entire lines of hangers on, CEO's, Congressmen/women, staff, etc. If you are fighting and winning the war but not sending the right signals and hitting the right targets for the Military/Industrial/Congressional complex of use are you to the system? And how long will this take because time is of the essence.

Except for a relative few I do not know that fighting/winning the war are even on the agenda in D.C.

If we keep them in uniform are they really going to be in an arena that encourages intellectual boundary pushing AND IMPLEMENTATION OF THE RESULTS? It may up to a point but when push comes to shove and that star is nigh will they get it?

I know it sounds all doom and gloom but these are questions that have to be answered.