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 15, 2010 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , ,


  1. I feel like I’m about to walk out on to a frozen lake and I have no idea how thick the ice is….

    I think our GO promotion system gives us what we ask for. In 2005 Dr. Leonard Wong published an article called “Fashion Tips for the Field Grade” in which he noted that most up-and-coming senior leaders did not have “broadening” assignments, rather, they were sticking to the “muddy boots” track.

    Accordingly, we have many GOs whose experience is primarily at the division or below – i.e. the tactical level. The underlying premise is that successful tactical leaders make good operational and strategic leaders. The real question we should be asking is if we think this premise is true?

    One thing I think is for certain is that our more successful strategic leaders are officers with somewhat non-traditional career paths (not always “muddy boots”). Many of them have advanced degrees, and have served in developmental assignments, such as teaching at USMA.

    The problem with the muddy boots track (as I see it) is that leaders never get an opportunity to see the Army from the outside. They see everything from an inside perspective, and that tends to limit creative thought. They are good at Army stuff, but when it comes time to innovate to address novel situations, these leaders seem to be lost.

    The solution is to offer more broadening opportunities for officers, and perhaps even make it mandatory. In order to accomplish this, we need to get rid of this one-size-fits-all officer/key developmental timeline, which is completely arbitrary, and allow our officer corps the flexibility to go out and get a wide variety of experiences.

    Comment by MAJ Trent Lythgoe | October 16, 2010

  2. I believe we should not let the United States Congress select our general officers because this would turn to nothing more than promoting army officers based on politics rather than merit. How would this system be any different than the system we’ve been studying with the monarchs?

    Our system of selecting general officers may not be a perfect one, but this system is more merit based than any political type of system previously seen in history. Wouldn’t allowing Congress to take our general officers really turn the military leaders and two political appointees? Don’t we already have political appointees with the civilian leadership of the military? I believe that we must have career leadership and the Department of Defense that is independent of whoever is in charge of this country’s political agendas.

    Finally, I do believe that our current system could use some improvements, but I know that’s a political solution is simply a bad one. So let’s look at improving the criteria on which we promote our officers and ensure that this system remains a merit based one.

    Comment by MAJ David Price - SG 17D | October 17, 2010

  3. This is a double edged issue. Merit or special talent? Which do we want? I believe that although the current general promotion sysytem may have some flaws, we should strive to create generals based on merit. The Pursian system of selecting an elite group and then educating them to become generals may be appealing to some but what message does this send? What incentive does it give to “be all that you can be”? How competent do we expect them to be at the end of the day? Will they be capapble of leading soldiers in combat?

    Sure, education and career broadening experiences are good to have but when it comes to someone who will have to make life-changing decisions for me, I’d much rather it be someone who has been in my shoes at some point rather than someone who has read about my experiences in a book or in a classroom somewhere.

    Despite how much we claim to differ, who you know and who you are plays heavily in the promotion sysytem. It always has been and always will be. Allowing Congress to deterime who’s promoted to General will not fix the issue. Army promotions will then become a political process much like political elections. They will still be based on who you know and who knows you or who knows your daddy.

    I truly beleive that there is no experience like hands on experience. General promotions should be based on merit. How well can you perform as a soldier and leader. Has the leader proven himself in combat, the true test of a soldier, or did he fold like a deck of cards? At the GO level,officers are sometimes expected to be the SME on certain issues. That subject matter expertise often comes from personal expereince that can only be gained from having walked the walk. If someone wants to be promoted based solely on knowledge, they should go join the Air Force.

    Comment by MAJ Eric Morris | October 19, 2010

  4. The U.S. Army promotion system follows the promotion by merit. The officers are selected from among their peers for promotion based on their duty performance according to the OERs in their records. The current promotion system may have flaws, but as a result of the system it has promoted soldiers that I believe are worthy of the next rank. Yes, there are those few that may slip through the cracks, but that’s with any system. No system is perfect.
    I believe that the promotion by merit produce good senior leaders. General officers normally have commanded at many levels which demonstrates they are competent. The officer has also received some special education. They have attended CGSC, SAMS, the War College, and/or attend a civilian school of higher learning. They are groomed to be both competent and intellectual through their education and career experiences.

    Finally, I agree with MAJ Morris comments, that education is good, but when it comes down to choosing merit or special talent, I rather have the person who has been in my shoes; the soldier promoted based on performance.

    Comment by MAJ Lisa Robinson | October 22, 2010

  5. I have two comments that fall under the same general (no pun intended) category. LTC Klingman and I were discussing the idea of congress approving the list for GO’s. I agree with MAJ Price that the professional Army should be responsible for selecting the senior leadership with Congressional oversight. But then again, Congress just approves what we send them. And do we always send them the best professional Soldiers we have, or the ones who were at the right place at the right time and knew the right people. Only when our leadership has the intestinal fortitude to look someone in the eye and let them know they just haven’t made the cut will we get the quality of leadership we deserve. T.S. Fehrenbach discusses this in great detail in “This Kind of War”.

    Secondly, we need professional military leadership that will stand up to the national civilian leadership and say “yes, we can do this, but so and so department is more capable of this type of operation (nation building comes to mind). If you insist that we carry out this mission, here’s what we will need to get the job done.” GEN Shenseki tried it, but obviously Rumsfeld wanted to surround himself with yes men sycophants. As long as we stand around and say “Yes sir, we can get it all done”, we’ll be stuck in hell holes like Iraq long after we’re done kicking tail. And THAT is what our nation needs from its military. Let someone else build up a failed nation…we’ll secure them!

    Comment by MAJ Kyle Head 17-C | October 25, 2010

  6. I agree with David Price; I don’t believe that allowing Congress to select general officers is a good idea. We need to have a clear delineation between our civilian political leaders and our military leaders, senior and otherwise.

    I also wanted to observe that the Army promotion system is theoretically based, not on a leader’s performance in their current and past duties, but on his or her potential for success at higher levels of responsibility. Of course, past and current performance are indicators that senior leaders use while assessing this potential.

    Comment by Rachel Wienke, SG 17D | October 25, 2010

  7. My thoughts are similar to what is posted. Congress should approve, not nominate our generals. We are an apolitical organization. I believe our citizenry trusts this set up. Our promotion process would become too politicized if the Prussian model is followed and would inevitably weaken the trust our citizens would have in a general if he/she was considered backed by such-and-such party/agenda. What’s more, Congress is too removed from operations to effectively judge senior officers, and it would become too risky to hitch a cart to the wrong horse.

    As a Marine, I couldn’t be prouder of our general corps. Each time I work or interact with a general, I come away impressed with their intelligence, judgement, and leadership. And I think the Army has come a long way toward recognizing talent in “off-track” or diversified career path officers as evident in the number of SOF officers who command at the highest levels. This wasn’t always the case. I also see a number of bright colonels who have been passed over for a star. This tells me that selection to general is a highly competitive process that continues to promote only our best.

    Comment by Clinton Crosser | November 4, 2010

  8. In response to Paul Yingling’s argument, and in conjunction with the comments made by my esteemed classmate Major Crosser, Yingling missed the mark. I’m not sure if Yingling interacted with only a certain strata of general officers but, in my extremely limited experience, they are not only intelligent but extremely diversified in everything from personality to background.

    Comment by Dave Guida | November 5, 2010

  9. I am not an American officer, however; I met officers during Desert Storm and some in my country Saudi Arabia working with US Military Training Mission and OPM-SANG which is the program to train Saudi National Guard, and I met officers in several of courses that I attend her in USA. So I think I have little understand of the system and I for my opinion I am not going along with what MAJ David Price said “I believe we should not let the United States Congress select our general officers because this would turn to nothing more than promoting army officers based on politics rather than merit.” Because the most Important Mission for DOD is to make sure the NSS is supported and the NDS also include a lot of politic issue so the Generals should meet the politic goals Think of General McChrystal “War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president,” president Obama said

    Comment by LTC. Abdulla Alqahtani | November 5, 2010

  10. Whether Congress or senior military leaders select general officers, there remains an element of subjectivity. Yingling argues that the current system rewards conformity where one moves up by pleasing senior officers. One can only imagine the political games of senior officers if the task of selecting GOs fell on the shoulders of Congress.

    But do we want to promote general officers solely on their test taking abilities? In other words, would those officers who score highest on a series of tests create a better general officer corps? Imagine a bunch of O-6s cramming for their GO finals…

    According to Yingling, GOs should have advanced degrees in the social sciences or humanities along with the ability to speak a foreign language. While these educational backgrounds may be of critical importance in a COIN conflict, are they the same backgrounds necessary for other aspects of FSO? Can an engineer be an effective GO?

    I am certainly not convinced that Congress can do a better job in slecting tomorrow’s GOs.

    Comment by MAJ Tim Brower, 17C | November 9, 2010

  11. I agree with MAJ Lythgoe and his premise that the real question is whether successful tactical leaders make good operational and strategic leaders. I believe that often those who demonstrate success at the tactical level also find success at the operational and strategic level, but this is not always the case.

    Many studies have been conducted about the careers of Officers from different commissioning sources and what these Officers are able to achieve in their Army careers. Officers commissioned through OCS outperform all other commissioning sources at the Company grade level; however at the field grade level graduates from West Point and ROTC outperform OCS graduates. This could be due to the fact that West Point and ROTC commissioned Officer already have completed bachelor’s degrees prior to commissioning while OCS graduates up until recently could be commissioned 90 hours of college leaving them to complete the remainder of their degree on their own which may be a different task given the OPTEMPO. West Point graduates have historically held at least 1/3 of general Officer positions even though they have made up only 10-15% of Officers commissioned each year. This tends to support the premise that early identification of talent is a great predictor of success at the highest levels of leadership.

    I think that our current Officer Promotion system as it pertains to selecting general officers has served us well, but perhaps a greater reliance on early identification of talent and preparation for operational and strategic level assignments could result in even greater talent at the general officer level. Just as a caveat before the criticism begins I am not a West Point graduate. I am just stating facts based on previous studies from the Congressional Budget Office and other entities. Source:

    Additionally, I do not believe that Congress has the time or inclination to conduct a selection process to select all of the general officers. They are greatly involved in the Confimation process for those at the highest levels but to leave to Congress the responsibility for all general officer selections would effectively make all general officers political appointees and would be akin to going back to how it was done during the time of fuedalism when those closest to the king (or political elites) were selected regardless of their demonstrated ability or competency for the given assignment.

    Comment by MAJ Rick Mercer | October 16, 2011

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