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.  Retired MG Scales wrote an article which seemed to back up Yingling’s view.   Numerous other analysts believe that Yingling’s general point is accurate.  Defense analyst Tom Ricks has just published a book on the subject called The Generals –I suspect somewhat inspired by Yingling’s article (see the Atlantic  article related to the book –click here).

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 12, 2012 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Assessing the US Army promotion system is vital in determine who should be promoted to general with many venues to consider in doing so. While I believe the current system is doing a satisfactory job in our selections, we must consider who and where these bright officers stem and come from. As we all know, our Army is composed of many different cultures and backgrounds from all walks of life, and in saying so, some of us come from an elite background with impeccable education. Such education that most of us aren’t privy to, discreet math is an example of my argument. Those elite officers come into the army with a concrete foundation where it’s easy to build upon, while the remainders are forming their foundations during the process of officership. Not to mention the amount of mentorship that takes place daily by leaders who in fact, throughout the years, have chosen exceptional prospects throughout the pack to lead, guide and groom on the general track. In saying so, I strongly agree with choosing the elite to lead our Nation, that is, if in fact they come with qualities that balance them as fine officers such as; having a moral and ethical compass, interpersonal skills (personal and professional) to include intellectual gifts. I believe that our current system does an effective job of choosing and writing the proper “buzz” words in our evaluation documents which set the elite among the rest. With that said, I find no need to go back to the Prussian system of 19th Century in picking U.S Generals.

    Comment by Detrice Mosby | November 5, 2012

  2. I continue to struggle with understanding the way our military selects general officers. Recently our class got into a discussion regarding the compitency of generals in the army. During that discussion I made the point that unless you have worked with/for or personally know a general officer, who are we to question thier compitency? That is not to say that we should not be critical concerning our leaders and thier decisions. I trust that the leaders can see “behind the curtain”. Therefore they have more insight and information to guide the dicision they make. We do not have access to most of this information at our level. What frustrates me most is if a Soldier meets a general officer and doesn’t get a coin and as a result the general is considered poor or a joke. I have seen this too many times. And in the same regard I have seen general officers give great briefs with funny side tones, but this does not make them great leaders.

    Dee made a great point, there are some who join the military with a strong foundation. They were either children of general officers or given great opportunities early in their career. So they have an edge and are groom for success, and if they are bright they should make great general officers. I am ok with this. However, I think our army is slowly creating a culture where it is not grooming leaders who have potential or desires for greatness.

    There is something to be said about the prussian system of the 19th century. Using rigor, testing, and training to identify the best and brightest sounds like a good way to groom compitent generals. However, the merit based approach from the french armies of the 18th and early 19th century, under ther right conditions, can help identify great leaders. The problem today is that we have too many leaders who are clearly failing thus making us all question whether or current system of selecting general officers works. Ultimately I am not informed enough to say that the promotion system needs to change. I do believe that good commaders should be the best candidates for general officers. But, a successful command does not mean that you should lead as a general officer.

    Comment by Ryan J. Scott | November 6, 2012

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