The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H109 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.


November 2, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. While the French-based meritocracy approach to General Officer selection contrasts significantly to the Prussian approach of the General Staff track, the reality of limited job opportunity versus professional development must be incorporated into any military hierarchy. At the end of the day, the United States Air Force only has around 400 General Officers; the large pool of Colonels aspiring to these scarce billets drives the requirement for a process with delineated milestones in order to frame the professional officer’s career approaching the O-7 level. The American system is imperfect but it tries to embody both the merit-based French approach and the professional staff officer’s approach of the Prussians. A more systematic solution is to make more of existing institutions – JPME I/II certification in ILE should concentrate on the joint aspect and future war planning. Rely on the Captain’s Career Course to teach frontal assaults and Army Design Methodology. Utilize ILE to apply resources to problems and invite innovation and inspiration by offering surgical workshops to tackle joint issues and leverage field grade officers to forge the service of tomorrow.

    Yingling’s Congressional solution to General Officer selection is troubling. Observing the current political paradigm of Congressmen and Congresswomen advocating along strict regionally-interested party lines in accordance with lobbyist intent demonstrates a definitive myopia on domestic and foreign issues. Envisioning these same policy-makers proffering and ratifying General Officers invites the same regionally-divisive attitudes and interests into the military’s senior echelons.

    Bottom-line, if the military truly desires a better product then invest in strategy-oriented leaders who are encouraged to innovate at all levels. Utilize IDE and SDE to invite flexible and agile thinking in the joint leaders of tomorrow. And discourage corruption by keeping Yingling’s suggestions away from fruition.

    Comment by Matt Wunderlich, 19A | November 3, 2015

  2. The issue is not in the promotion system in today’s Army. The problem is, there is no track to generalship. In today’s army, being promoted means that you did an excellent job within your specific warfighting function and the Army has hopes that you will continue to excel at the next level. The problem is, you continue to be promoted until you reach a level where you do not do an excellent job and then the Army says they do not have high hopes for you at the next level and you retire. The aspiring smart staff officers have no way to be identified early in their career and perhaps aren’t the best at a specific warfighting function so they are passed over for promotion. The aspiring Commanders are identified and promoted and then it is too late when the Army realizes they are terrible planners at the strategic level. There needs to be a track to generalship, period. It needs to be a separate career path with early identification and separate schooling and assignments.

    Comment by Laura Pangallo, 19A | November 4, 2015

  3. The US army is very similar to the French way of promotion where the Army promotes on how well the generals do as battalion and brigade commanders. However it rarely takes into account how educated the Generals are. The Army now requires every general to have a masters degree but many usually get the free one from the War College and is just a check in the box. Generals of our past were well educated and knew several different languages. The reality is that our Officers do not receive the proper education to promote to generals and the smart officers, who go off the beaten path, usually do not make it far in the command track.

    Comment by James Stall, 19A | November 11, 2015

  4. In my view, there are two principles for the selection and promotion of generals: (1) promotion should be based on merit; and (2) the professional development of generals should be a deliberate process that begins as early as possible.

    On (1), the current US promotion system based on “year-groups” is not congruent with a merit-based system. A merit-based system will promote individuals when they are assessed to be ready for the next higher appointment. Theoretically, a major with the potential to be a general should develop the competencies required for a lieutenant colonel job much faster than another major with a lower potential. A merit-based system will then promote the major with the higher potential earlier. This allows every individual to develop and progress based on his abilities, instead of the current one-size-fits-all system.

    On (2), generals need to be developed from an early stage in the career to prepare them for their future appointments. This requires early identification and assessment of potential. The pool of individuals identified should be large enough to mitigate possible attrition and errors in assessment. These individuals can then be systematically rotated through important appointments and functions in the military as a grooming process. In addition, this group of individuals can also be provided additional developmental opportunities. This could be in the form of education in top civilian universities (e.g. Harvard, Yale, etc) to provide future military leaders the opportunity to learn from and network with future civilian and business leaders in the country.

    Comment by Luke Goh, SG 19B | November 13, 2015

  5. I believe that the current US system for selecting general officers does not select the best candidates and create vulnerabilities in the Army. One major thing I think has to go away is year-groups. Like Luke, I feel that promotion by year-groups ignores the fact that the best are ready to move on before others. At the same time, some officers do not take opportunities for broadening assignments because it does not fit into the timeline for career progression. Eliminating year-groups requires significant restructuring in areas like the promotion board process, career progression and requirements for retirement eligibility, but it would also allow officers the freedom to select jobs and career paths outside the operational command structure.
    Many people commented on an education system for potential general officers. I don’t know that I would establish a special track or dictate education either. This would just create a bunch of identical generals, like we have now, with a different set of biases. I do think that education is important, but daily OPTEMPO makes it difficult for officers to go to school while working. I feel that more opportunities to take a hiatus from active duty to pursue a degree would be beneficial. Officers could use their education benefits on themselves to help the Army instead of passing benefits on to children or spouses that may not pursue a career within the Army.
    I agree with Matt that general appointed by politicians is a bad idea. People outside the military value characteristics that may not be compatible with running a military organization, but I think there is some utility in getting outside assistance when selecting our general officers. Diplomats and businessmen are successful for a variety of reasons and can often spot leadership talent quickly. Perhaps we should include some of those types into our board procedures/selection process.

    Comment by Laura Proffit, SG 19C | November 16, 2015

  6. For me, the idea of putting the general promotion system in the hands of Congress resembles the model of political appointees as ambassadors. Ambassadors should have to prove their competence at diplomacy through an exemplary career, yet more than half of them are political appointees (many with no diplomatic experience at all). If you are friends with the president, or donate a lot of money to his (or her) campaign, there is a good chance you can land the top diplomatic position in a foreign country. There is a long debate over the use of political appointments for ambassadors, but the idea that a similar type of politics should trickle into the promotion of general officers is troubling.

    Although the military system would be far different from that of the political ambassadorial appointees and still require significant time in uniform for officers to be eligible for general officer rank, the requirement for congressional support would inherently politicize the promotion system. When one party controls Congress, would they promote more general officers that support their views on foreign policy, national security, or the use of the force? Would the political temperament of the general officer ranks change with the political stances in Congress?

    The political neutrality of the uniformed services is a sacred responsibility rooted deep in American values. The idea of potentially injecting partisanship into the promotion of the highest ranks within the military is dangerous. Although the military can implement new incentives to develop and groom better general officers from an earlier stage, a congressional promotion system seems dangerous to the fabric of the American military.

    Comment by Kyle Johnston | November 30, 2015

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