The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Grooming and Picking Generals

In his article, A Failure in Generalship, Paul Yingling argues that the American army’s process for selecting generals is flawed.  He advocates taking the general officer promotion system away from the military and making  it a task for Congress.  Recently, retired MG Scales wrote an article which seemed to back up Yingling’s view (see previous blog).  Numerous other analysts believe that Yingling’s general point is accurate. 

 There are essentially two different military philosophies regarding the system used to pick general officers.  One view is a view that comes from the French revolutionary armies of the 18th and early 19th century.  That view is promotion should be based strictly on merit.  In this system officers are selected from among their peers for promotion based on their demonstrated performance  of duty.  Ultimately, this promotion by merit system results in the most competent officers achieving the highest rank.    

A second system comes from the Prussian army of the 19th Century.  That view is to identify through rigorous testing a small elite cadre of the most intelligent officers in the army.  These officers then are specially educated and assigned for the rest of their careers.  They are specifically groomed to lead the army at the  highest levels.  Promotion in this system is based on intellectual ability, special education, and talent.

The promotion by merit system assumes that the best qualifications for command are demonstrated by success in command.  This philosophy is traditionally the bedrock of promotion in the naval service (both in the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy) where time in command of ships and at sea are the ultimate test of fitness for command.

Which system does the U.S. army promotion system seem to follow?  Is Yingling right?  Is there a failure of generalship in the U.S. Army?  If so, is it because of  the selection philosophy the army uses, or, is it just that the execution of the process is flawed?  If the selection process is flawed, how does that explain Generals like Patraeus and McCrystal?  What process or philosophy do you believe produces the best senior leaders? Does the senior officer promotion system need to change?    


October 19, 2009 - Posted by | H100, leadership, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. To my mind it makes sense to select the best officer for the job…at any level. The US system of promotion works in this way and it is not a broken system. It is easy to take pot shots at those at the top (and many do), furthermore, it is easy to suggest that the system is broken but there is a long list of extremely capable recent US generals: Powell, Shinseki and Petraeus among them – which suggests otherwise.

    Some suggest that the German selection system is the best. It certainly works well for them and obviously has some merit but it would be short sited to suggest that their system would work well everywhere. In the US system SAMS goes some way to provide the level of training afforded to German staff trained officers – in fact it is worth noting that the German army send their best students to SAMS for continued education having already completed German Staff College.

    My belief is that, with a few exceptions, the best officers will rise to the top and promote to general officer. It doesn’t matter in which army you serve if you are good you are good: I suspect that Napoleon, Lee, Rommel, Montgomery and Eisenhower would have been generals in any army!

    Comment by Maj S E A Cates British Army | October 20, 2009

  2. While I agree with Sam that good will be good, I also believe that a better system will better weed out the bad (ones that suck up air and collect paycheck). Now, I can straddle the fence and say that both systems are good (but what fun is that). Or I can use the term of the century “HYBRID” and combine the two, which I believe is overused word for people who are not creative or analytical.
    Let say someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to choose one or the other. In this rare and not likely situation, I would pick the US system. I could go on and on about the pros and cons, but since I am getting small participation credits for this blog, I will just mention one of many things. I do not like the idea that generals are chosen so early in their career. I believe that what you have done as a lieutenant and captain cannot determine whether you will be a good or bad general fifteen plus years later. Also, focusing on staff and not on command might lead to another Gen von Schlieffen and his plan (as we discussed in class). Okay, I mentioned two; however, they were short. Anyway, that is my initial thinking on the subject. Which one would you pick?

    Comment by Lee, 17B | October 23, 2009

  3. I would like to add to the conversation. First, I like the current officer system, but do understand that we might not be able to get the best generals out of this system. We our promoted on merit and potential for added responsibility, but that may not be the best thing for our General officers. I believe our current system works very well for tactical and operational level leaders, but on the strategic level it might not be the best. At the strategic level, leaders need to have a different skill set, which might not be apparent to a tactical level leader.
    I believe there should be some sort of system that starts to groom officers at the field grade level similar to the German staff officer system. Take officers out of the line to specifically train them, giving them the additional training needed in our current environment. Continue to promote how we do now, but create a General Officer Staff Corps. This corps would be where we would get most of our general officers, but still allowing the best of the line officers to enter the general officer corps. The only way to get into the Corps would be a group of testing that would start at ILE. Once entered into the corps officers will enter SAMS. These officers would complete assignment after SAMS and return for additional training and would be placed on EAC, echelons above corps, for further assignments.
    I believe this will be the best way to ensure we have the best trained and qualified general officers that can work on the strategic level.

    Comment by MAJ Byron Dobson, 17A | October 26, 2009

  4. To begin, I would like to state that I think the U.S. Army system, which is based on merit, is the better method. This said, I must agree with Yingling that we have some problems. No system is perfect, but I believe our focus is off. This focus can be shifted to ensure promotion is based on merit and strategic potential. Though not an expert at the U.S. Army’s promotion process, I can not imagine that these changes would be difficult to execute. The problem as I see it is not that we have programs like SAMS that are or are not effective, but that we begin this grooming process on selected individuals at the field grade level. DiMarco’s article on the U.S. Army General Staff touched upon improving SAMS. I would argue that the SAMS curriculum could be improved if the officers selected already learned some of the basic strategic concepts. Based on my staff group it seems that few field grades have experience with division or higher staffs. What if the branches changed the advancement requirements to include time at these higher headquarters? Would this experience make field grades stronger tactically? In this day and age where a company can have strategic implications, I would argue yes. So these new experienced field grades would be smarter tactically, based on their strategic experience, they would come to CGSC better prepared and improve the basic level of the SAMS selectees. Not only would a more advanced level of SAMS graduates be available, but you would also improve the core of field grades as well. These two changes could resolve our current issues and improve the strategic understanding throughout our forces.

    Comment by LCDR Marc Davis | November 2, 2009

  5. with that, I think the Army’s selction process for General officers need to be adjusted or have separate boards for the reserve component. Not lessoning the requirements, but shaping them to better meet the overall dual missions as outlined above.

    Comment by Darin E. Huss SG 17C | November 2, 2009

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