The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H109: Grooming and Picking General Officers

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?

November 3, 2017 Posted by | H100, leadership, military history, Professional Military Education, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

American Military Leadership –Carl or Antoine?

Jomini and Clausewitz coexist in many modern militaries. Jomini, with his emphasis on principals and application may dominate at the tactical level of war. Clausewitz, with the emphasis on ambiguity, complexity and politics tends to become more important at the more senior leadership levels. The break point logically seems to be at the level of brigade command. Brigade commanders are the military’s senior tacticians. They are involved in the day to day operations and maintenance of the force and have the responsibility to planning, leading, and executing operations. Brigade commanders live in the tactical environment. Cause and effect relationships at the brigade level are more direct and the certainty of factors influencing decisions is higher. Some general officers operate in the tactical environment as well –depending on the operational situation. However, at the general officer level the tendency is for issues to become more complex and for effects to become more separated from causes. Politics, media, and other factors beyond the military’s control begins to intrude on decision making at the general officer level.

Do you agree or disagree with the above analysis?

A challenge facing the effectiveness of general officers is two-fold. First, how does one select the best officer to operate in the Clausewitz world (senior leader) based on the performance of officers who are typically operating in the Jominian world (tactical)? In addition, how does the army train senior leadership (Clausewitzian) thinking before the leader makes the general officer ranks, if there is little or no opportunity to practice it for most of an officer’s career at the tactical level?

Some analysts believe, whether the above described relationship exists or not between Jomini and Clausewitz’s ideas, its irrelevant because American culture demands a demonstrated, positive, scientific approach to all activity and thus the Jominian approach to war dominates the American way of war at all levels. Do you agree?

October 12, 2012 Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment