Copyright John T. Reed
The 6/29/07 Wall Street Journal tells about an essay called “A Failure in Generalship” written by Ltc. Paul Yingling and published in the Armed Forces Journal, a private periodical. You can read the essay at http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2007/05/2635198 and you should if you care about such matters.
Both the Wall Street Journal article and the essay say about the same things I have been saying.
The military is a an inept bureaucracy that does not know how to fight wars like Vietnam and Iraq and that thinks they can bullshit their way through it rather than improving their approach. Furthermore, good officers have a moral obligation to tell their superiors when they are wrong and to resign their commission and tell the public when their private efforts within the chain of command fail.
Those are my words, not theirs, but close enough.
The Wall Street Journal article about Ltc. Yingling’s essay is better than Ltc. Yingling’s essay itself.
I think Yingling did a decent job of diagnosing the problem:
• lack of competence at fighting wars against people who pretend to be innocent civilians
• lack of moral courage on the part of career Army officers (he says generals—I say all career Army officers lack moral courage)
However, Yingling’s remedies strike me as naive at best and contradicted by his diagnosis at worst.
One of Yingling’s big points is that “statesmen” must “mobilize popular passion” for a war before committing the military into combat.
First, what the heck is a statesman? Someone once said that a statesman is a dead politician. By definition, dead politicians are not going to mobilize anything. Would he care to name the statesmen in question? Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid? George W. Bush? You gotta be no older than about ten to think these people are statesmen who have any interest in anything other than position and power.
Second, since when is it the responsibility of politicians to mobilize passion for war? French prime minister George Clemenceau said,
War is too important to be left to the generals.
It is also too important to be left to mythical “statesmen.”
There have been a number of historical precedents where political leaders did mobilize passions of the people for war including:
• the Catholic Church stirring up the passion for the Crusades
• Al Qaeda and the Wahhabis stirring passions for jihad against Israel and the West
• Adolf Hitler and the Japanese Army leaders like Tojo stirring up passions for World War II
• “Yellow journalists” stirring up passions for the Spanish-American War
The more appropriate role for a civilian political leader is to calm down people so they do not overreact as America did after 9/11. If I were president and thought we should go to war, I would make a speech to the people outlining why and ask Congress to declare war. If they did not, I would be done with the matter. I would not even think of mobilizing passions. In a matter as important as war, I would not want to get one millimeter out in front of the public. If the public wants to go to war, I would do my job as commander in chief. But I would not beg them or rabble rouse them to war. No salesman will call. If you want to go to war, I will command the military. If you do not want to go to war, we will not go to war. Period. End of discussion.
Yingling also puts into his essay the same professorial affectation that I mentioned in my review of General Rupert Smith’s book Utility of Force.
Why do career officers do this? I’m not sure. Here’s a theory. Military career officers have an intellectual inferiority complex vis a vis the educated anti-war crowd. That’s why they send their crown prince junior officers to Harvard and Princeton for advanced degrees. For example, Iraq American commander David Petraeus has a PhD in international relations from Princeton. The career officers do not obtain such degrees because it helps them win wars. Rather, it helps them hold their head up at Washington cocktail parties and in debates with the educated liberal elites.
Trying to talk like a professor instead of just communicating your point is a manifestation of that. For example, here is a statement from Yingling’s essay—a statement that he wrote and his editors at Armed Forces Journal did not edit.
If the policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of this incongruence. If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means, he shares culpability for the results.
I agree with the statement, but it should have been written in Plain English:
If politicians have champagne taste and a beer pocketbook when it comes to making war, generals need to say so. If generals sin by silence when they should protest, they must share responsibility for the resulting defeats.
Military personnel’s competence
The military man is no better qualified than the common citizen to [choose war or peace]. He must therefore confine his input to his area of expertise—the estimation of strategic probabilities.
That is a point I have been making. One of my criticisms of Retired General Batiste’s position was that we was arguing politics rather than sticking to his specific special knowledge from his military career.
Risk of speaking out
The general who speaks too loudly of preparing for war...places at risk his position and status.
There is no risk. It is a certainty. The general’s career is over instantly if he does that.
Risk of not speaking out
He also says,
...the general who speaks too softly places at risk the security of his country.
Amen, but his wording suggests that there are generals who speak out at all. In fact, that is extremely rare approaching non-existence.
...seeing [military dangers] clearly and saying nothing is an even more serious lapse in professional character.
Amen again. See my articles on the lack of moral courage in the military and the lack of integrity. And such “serious lapses of professional character” are now and long have been the almost universal behavior of career military officers.
The history of military innovation is lettered with the truncated careers of reformers who saw gathering threats clearly and advocated change boldly.
Well, that sounds like Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell, but I have trouble naming another one. If Yingling can name others, I would be interested to hear the list. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover boldly advocated change, namely the creation of nuclear-powered submarines, and got it. He is right that your career will be over if you dare advocate change. He is wrong to suggest that many have tried. Hardly anyone has tried. Again, I would like to see the names if anyone disagrees with me on this.
Only the generals?
Yingling seems to suggest that the problem in Iraq and previously in Vietnam is almost entirely caused by the generals. In fact, there is no moral courage at any ranks of career officers in the military, not just at the general level. And the politicians above the generals are, if anything, worse.
This essay almost sounds like a campaign document designed to get Yingling “elected” general. He condemns the men who are in his way—current generals—and lets off the hook the big shots who have the power to promote him—Congress and the future president.
He also decries the lack of generals who have advanced degrees in the humanities and who can speak a foreign language. Let me guess. Yingling has such a degree and can speak a foreign language. Other than the above-mentioned cocktail party debates, I know of little reason why the Army should be sending officers to get degrees in humanities. And I see little benefit to knowing how to speak a foreign language unless it’s Arabic. General John Abizaid, the retired, recent failed Centcom head was Lebanese and fluent in Arabic. He still seemed to make little or no progress in the Iraq and Afghan wars and he was replaced.
Yingling calls for 360-degree evaluations of officers. Now, the only evaluations are from the officer’s boss. That produces an Army officer corps of ass kissers. I previously said that. Yingling agrees albeit using a different phrase.
His solution is to supplement evaluations by superiors with additional evaluations by peers and subordinates. I agree as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. The 360-degree evaluations would substitute promoting politicians for promoting sycophants. At West Point when we were cadets, we had a 270-degree evaluation of cadets: just peers and superiors, not subordinates. It was derided by most cadets as a “popularity contest.” Identifying politicians rather than sycophants is an improvement, but it does not go far enough.
The 360-degree evaluations should also be supplemented by test scores in objective areas like physical fitness, job knowledge, years of experience, and so forth. But most importantly of all, the evaluations must place the greatest weight on results. Yeah, I know that can be difficult, but it is the most important thing. We are talking about the national defense here. Not some process that must be made simple for the convenience of government bureaucrats.
The evaluation system used should not be one that would have short-circuited the careers of undeniably successful leaders like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, George Patton, General Billy Mitchell, and so forth. There is no evidence or logic to indicate that 360-degree evaluations would have identified and blessed those men.
Yingling also wants officers evaluated on their “intellectual achievement” including education and “professional writing.” Once again, I wonder if he wants to have the criteria changed to match his own resume. He certainly is into professional writing, e.g., the essay in Armed Forces Journal. Armed Forces Journal should have seen these references and asked the obvious questions as to whether he would look good by the criteria he is advocating. Whether he did or did not have the sort of qualifications he says should be adopted should have been disclosed in an “about the author” note accompanying the essay. Their “about the author” only notes that he has a masters in political science—a humanities subject—from the University of Chicago. They do not comment about whether he speaks a foreign language or about other published writings.
Yingling also says that Congress has been rubber-stamping the list of generals to be promoted to three- or four-star rank. He says they should make inquiries into the qualifications of the generals in question. Sounds reasonable. But once again, the Congress is not made up of statesmen. Rather, they are shrill politicians whose goal in life is to get on the evening news and be reelected or elected to higher office. They have little or no interest in the national defense.
More Yingling in the essay:
While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage.
‘Less certainty?” How about giving us a non-Billy Mitchell example of any active-duty U.S. general in the history of the nation who exhibited any moral courage. As far as I can tell, there have been none.
For the record, most U.S. military officers have exhibited some form of physical courage if only going to a combat zone. However, I am not ready to stipulate that the physical courage of all U.S. generals is “not in doubt.” But that is beside the point for this article.
They were intimidated by Rumsfeld
Yingling says that these men whose physical courage is “not in doubt” complain that they were intimidated by Donald Rumsfeld into not telling the truth about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yingling said,
In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters.
Poor babies. Was that Donald Rumsfeld mean to you? I’ll call his mother tomorrow.
Didn’t these guys get yelled at in basic training? Shot at in war? But they cannot be expected to stand up to Donald Rumsfeld? And they like to refer to themselves as “warriors?”
Yingling’s moral courage
What about what Yingling did in writing and publishing this essay? Was that moral courage?
You bet. And he is toast careerwise because of it unless some Congressman or Senator decides to save him and can pull it off. I doubt that will happen. (A month or so after I wrote that, I talked to a young officer who knows Yingling. He agreed that Yingling is done as far as an Army career is concerned. He also said that Yingling has passed the twenty-year point so he gits his pension unless he is court martialed.)
The question then arises what did he give up by becoming a career suicide bomber? Continued promotions and desirable assignments. He may have forfeited his current assignment which is the sought-after job of battalion commander.
Living up to the West Point Cadet Prayer and motto
By writing this essay, did Yingling fulfill the ideals espoused in the West Point Cadet Prayer and the West Point motto (Duty Honor Country)?
I think so.
Did he learn those ideals at West Point? Nope. He is not listed in the U.S. Military Academy Register of Graduates.
‘Hadn’t done more to push for change’
The Journal article says Yingling had an epiphany at a purple heart medal award ceremony. It said he was “...ashamed he hadn’t done more to push for change.”
That is one of the recurring themes in my military Web pages. I’m glad a career officer finally feels that way and express it publicly, but it’s been an awfully long time coming. As far as I know, the only other military leader who expressed a similar sentiment is Vietnam Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The number of dead including and since the Vietnam war is around 65,000 with no victories other than Desert Storm and only two guys are ashamed?!
Reaction in the Army to Yingling’s essay
The Journal says the director of the Army’s war planner school scrapped his lesson plan and spent a day discussing Yingling’s essay. That’s good, depending on how they discussed it. The discussion leader, Col. Kevin Benson said most of the majors who were students there reacted to Yingling’s essay by saying, “Right on!”
Again I wonder exactly when the hell those majors were planning to reveal this feeling to the American public whose sons were dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Benson said he, “counseled” [he used that word] the majors, “to be cautious about judging their superiors.”
That’s the whole freaking problem, you idiot! Too much caution, which is a code word for “shut up.” Not enough integrity and moral courage.
Jeff Hammond, Fort Hood base commander
How the commander of Fort Hood, Yingling’s base, discussed the essay was dead wrong. That would be one Major General Jeff Hammond. He brought 200 captains from that base to the post chapel and tried to attack the essay.
I believe in our generals. They are dedicated, selfless servants.
I know absolutely nothing about Jeff Hammond other than what I read in the 6/29/07 Wall Street Journal. but I know the type. I believe Jeff Hammond is a damned liar. He’s just spouting the party line. Generals are, in fact, a bunch of pompous asses who regard themselves as a sort of royalty. They are about as selfless as sultans.
Hammond also said that Yingling was not qualified to judge generals because he had never been one.
Oh, really? Gee, Jeff, doesn’t that sort of contradict one of the most fundamental bases for the U.S. military: civilian control. Doesn’t Congress have a Constitutional duty to judge generals? Are any Congressmen former generals? I don’t think so. Doesn’t the Commander in Chief George W. Bush have to judge generals? He was never a general. He never even got close to Ltc. Yingling’s rank. How about the American people? Almost none of them were ever generals.
And if only generals can judge generals, aren’t we in a foxes-guarding-the-hen-house situation?
And I’m pretty sure we lost the damned Vietnam war. It was in all the papers. I am also pretty sure that generals like Westmoreland and Abrams were in charge. I was there actually. But you’re saying I can't judge those generals because I never was a general.
Can I judge O.J. Simpson even though I never murdered my wife? Can I judge Saddam Hussein even though I was never dictator of a Middle Eastern country or Adolf Hitler, etc. etc.
President Abraham Lincoln, who was never a general, was famous for judging generals and finding them wanting early in the Civil War. He demoted, marginalized, or fired ineffective generals like George G. Meade and Geroge B. McClellan before he found effective ones like Grant and Sherman. (McClellan ran against Lincon as the unsuccessful, anti-war Democrat candidate of 1864.) Lincoln also won the Civil War. An argument can be made—a strong argument—that Commanders in Chief since Lincoln have been far too reluctant to judge generals and the generals have been far less effective than Grant and Sherman as a result.
Johnson and Nixon fired no generals and lost the Vietnam War. Clinton fired no generals except Wes Clark and he lost in Somalia and sputtered in Bosnia. George W. Bush fired no generals other than Shinseki, the guy who accurately said you would need several hundred thousand troops to pacify Iraq. And Bush does not appear to be knocking them dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Had I, a little old non-general, been president for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I would have given a bunch of generals different geographic areas, promoted and enlarged the areas of the successful ones and replaced the ineffective ones. I further would have made it clear what the reasons for the various personnel moves were. None of the “spend more time with my family” bull.
I would want all the generals in the military and the American people to know to a crystal-clear degree that getting it done militarily gets swiftly rewarded and not getting it done gets swiftly punishd. All the pussy-footing around that presidents have been doing with regard to the performance of generals since the Civil War has ill served the nation and its military personnel.
Current and former generals do have a unique and legitimate perspective that should be sought in judging generals, but so do lieutenant colonels and captains, not to mention the need to take into account objective facts like lack of victories or 65,000 dead American soldiers.
Hammond’s dishonest, inept attempt to quell the uprising was about as well received by the captains at Fort Hood as it was by me according to the Journal. Plus I suspect that Hammond’s blatant sucking up to his superiors by holding this meeting and then publicly commenting on it to the Journal will have the opposite effect on his career than what he sought when he decided to take this boldly, publicly sycophantic action. Sucking up is what the higher officers are all about, but as in civilian corporations, one is expected to camouflage it more than Hammond did. I doubt the Army will want to elevate him hereafter because every time they do journalists will once again turn up and remind the public of his Fort Hood chapel speech. He’s done.
The Journal says the essay, “quickly made [Yingling] something of a cult hero among the Army’s junior and mid-grade officers.”
I had a little taste of that when I was in the Army. Although I did not publish anything, my views were well and widely known. At Fort Monmouth when I was a student in the signal School, the Army got the typically Army idea of stopping the scandalous flow of junior officers out of the Army by starting the Junior Officers Council which would advise the brass how to make the junior officers happier.
All the junior officers at Fort Monmouth were in an auditorium together. The Officer Student detachment was in the center section of three sections. The other sections were of officers “permanently” (three-year tour) stationed there. After an explanation of what the JOC was, they ordered elections to be held on the spot. One of the permanent groups went first and seemed to take too long. The OSD was next and they quickly decided that I was the guy and they were going to elect me unanimously as soon as it was our turn. I refused the job on the grounds that the JOC had no power, could be dismantled at any time without cause by the local commanding general, etc. In other words, I thought it was public-relations eyewash.
Had I done it, I simply would have been volunteering myself for additional “counseling sessions” where I would get told, “You can’t change the Army” and all that. Besides, I didn’t need no stinkin’ council. I had already been raising maximum hell ever since I got commissioned.
My reputation back then also got me contacted by the Concerned Officers Movement, a secret anti-war group within the Army officer corps. They wanted me to join. I refused. For one thing, secret is not my style. Secondly, I was not then or now against the Vietnam War. I was only against losing it once we got into it.
I was no cult hero, but the OSD darned sure knew that I would have fought harder for reform than any other junior officer at the time. The experience probably told me what Yingling is going through right now: contacts from peers who tell him privately,
Paul, you know I agree with what you said in your essay and I’m glad somebody said it. But I’m scared about what’s going to happen to you. It wasn’t worth it, Paul. You busted your ass for twenty years. You’re a battalion commmander. You might have become a general. Now you’re throwing it all away. I admire what you’ve done, but it’s just not worth it.
Actually, it is worth it. Those who do not understand why never will.
‘Put in print’
Col. Matthew Moten, a history professor at West Point is quoted in the Journal as saying that
[Yingling] was speaking some truths that most of us would talk about over beers. Very few of us have the courage or foolhardiness to put them in print.
Again I point out that soldiers are dying and have been since the sixties because the military does not know what it’s doing in wars against enemies pretending to be civilians. And all the most knowledgeable leaders will do it discuss it privately among themselves over beers?! They have a profound moral obligation to protest strenuously and privately to their superiors and to come out of the closet regardless of the harm to their careers if those private protests are unsuccessful! Duty, honor, and country require that they do so.
Moten’s statement that “few of us have the courage or foolhardiness to put [such thoughts] in print” is another theme I have repeated many times in this Web site including in my articles about the all but total lack of moral courage and integrity in the military officer corps.
As a journalist, I am bemused at Moten calling Yingling’s essay foolhardy for putting such thoughts in print. Uh, excuse me, Matthew, but what do you think you did being quoted like this on the front page of the Wall Street Journal? Didn’t you know your comments were on the record? Moten may be in almost as much trouble as Yingling for his published comments supporting the “truths” in Yingling’s essay.
Air Force has it right
According to the Journal, the general consensus among officers in that service is that the U.S. should avoid wars like Vietnam and Iraq. I agree although I would add “until they figure out how to fight them effectively.” The Journal says the Army’s answer is that such wars are inevitable. That is arguably irrelevant to the question of whether we should fight them. Had we not fought in in the “inevitable” guerilla war in Vietnam, for example, what would have changed in the world other than the loss of lives, money, and respect for the U.S.?
‘Conformity and risk avoidance’
Yingling said in his essay that U.S. Army generals are the product of a promotion and assignment system that encourages conformity and discouraged risk takers.
He’s got that right. Think about it. Army officer is a freaking government job. They are very close to civil service. The big attraction is the overgenerous half-pay-after-20-years pension and lifetime free medical benefits. What kind of people do you think would be attracted to such a situation? Sure as hell not the Army officers John Wayne played in the movies. See my article about “The U.S. military’s 30-year, marathon, single-elimination, suck-up tournament” alternatively titled “How America selects its generals.”
Yingling wrote a line that Ltc. John Nagl should read.
It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator.
Nagl wrote the book Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife which I reviewed at www.johntreed.com/Nagl.html. Nagl’s basic point is that the Army needs to become more of a “learning organization.” Ha!
I most note that there have been some innovators in the military like Nuclear Navy admiral Hyman Rickover and Charles Swede Monson, another submarine officer from the World War II era. I can’t think of any in the U.S. Army, which supports Yingling’s theory.
I hope that Yingling’s essay and the response to it causes other Army officers who have consciences and ideas on how to better fight our wars to speak up privately to their superiors about the need for change. If that fails, they have a profound moral obligation to resign their commissions in protest, regardless of loss of pensions and so forth, and publicly state their reasons. They must not continue to send soldiers to their deaths because they regard avoidance of embarrassing their superiors and thereby risking their promotions, pensions, and PX privileges as more important than duty, honor, country, and the welfare of the soldiers entrusted to them.
Private who loses a rifle
The best quote in Yingling’s essay was
As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.
That is 100% accurate. But what’s far worse it that it greatly understates the situation. The generals who led us to our first military defeat in American history—Westmoreland and Abrams—suffered no consequences at all. On the contrary, there were each promoted successively to Chief of Staff of the Army right after their time in charge of the Vietnam war. They were rewarded for losing the war. Why? Because they looked the part of the competent commander and talked a good game and that is all the U.S. military officer corps cares about. They are about their personal careers, not national defense.
I saw a 60 Minutes broadcast once that interviewed young black Army officers. I recall that they were complaining that things were not as wonderful as they seemed. They were wearing polo shirts.
I happen to love polo shirts. My collection of them rivals Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection. But apparently blacks do not care for them, or so said the guy being interviewed. So why were they wearing them? Because their Army superiors would not like it if they wore what they wanted to wear during warm weather.
Anyway, taking the black officers at their word, which matches my recollections of the military, the implication is that the consequences of not wearing the “right” casual civilian clothes, while off duty, hurts an Army officer’s career more than losing a war. Indeed, as we have already established, losing a war doesn’t hurt an Army officer’s career at all. Failure to wear a polo shirt while off duty during warm weather, however, could and probably would end your career. I kid you not. The black officers kid you not. The military officers corps is that sycophantic. It has some truth outside the military, too.
Remember how all the men in Iraq had the exact same mustache as Saddam Hussein before he was deposed? Not a coincidence. The U.S. Army officers corps is almost as bad.
In other words, Ltc. Yingling could have put his sentiment as follows and been even more accurate.
As matters stand now, a junior officer who wears a casual civilian shirt that his superior does not like while off duty during warm weeather is likely to get a career-killing efficiency report as a result, while a general who loses a war is likely to be promoted to Chief of Staff of the Army.
A private who lost a rifle would, in fact, be in less trouble than a captain who failed to wear a casual shirt that his commanding officer liked.
In Vietnam, I repeat, in Vietnam, one of my units wore civilian clothes on Sundays. But for some reason, there was a sort of unwritten, unspoken habit of wearing the uniform Sunday morning. Then they would change to civilian clothes at noon. There were no official duties on Sunday morning other than monitoring the radios and such. I thought the changing-clothes-at-noon habit was dumb and wore my civilian clothes all day. This greatly displeased my superiors. A lieutenant who heard the brass talking said they felt I was “defying” them. I repeat that there was no written or spoken policy on the matter. All I did was dress differently from the higher-ranking officers at Sunday breakfast. I just applied common sense to the situation. I was transferred to more dangerous duty with a more forward unit, apparently for that and other transgressions like refusing to sign a false motor vehicle maintenance report.
Superiors see any differences between you and them as a reproach of them. That’s why Iraqi men were terrified of not having the same mustache as Saddam. And the U.S. Army brass is outraged by even the slightest sign of a junior officer disliking or disapproving of anything the superior does. Things like this, not winning wars, are what the Army officer corps is about.
I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.
John T. Reed
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military
John T. Reed, a.k.a. John Reed, Jack Reed, 342 Bryan Drive, Alamo, CA 94507, Voice: 925-820-7262, Fax: 925-820-1259, Email: email@example.com