At NRO’s The Corner, Victor Davis Hanson notes the “crop” of brilliant Army and Marine Corps Colonels that have emerged during the War in Iraq–and the need to keep them in uniform. The issue has become so important that the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was recently recalled from his post to chair a recent promotion board, which will select the Army’s next group of brigadier generals.
Retired Major General Bob Scales, the former head of the U.S. Army War College, told the Washington Post that summoning a theater commander to run a promotion board is simply unheard of. Both Scales and other defense officials (past and present) believe that Petraeus’ selection to chair the board is aimed at promoting the “right” officers–those with a strong track record as commanders and innovators in Iraq:
“It’s unprecedented for the commander of an active theater to be brought back to head something like a brigadier generals board,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College. A senior defense official said Petraeus is “far too high-profile for this to be a subtle thing.”
Petraeus, a four-star general with a doctorate in international relations, has spent three of the past four years in Iraq and has observed firsthand many of the colonels under consideration for promotion. He is well-regarded by military officials for his political skills in Iraq and at home, including winning support from a skeptical Congress for a U.S. troop increase in Iraq.
“Dave Petraeus in many ways is viewed as the archetype of what this new generation of senior leader is all about,” Scales said, “a guy . . . who understands information operations, who can be effective on Capitol Hill, who can communicate with Iraqis, who understands the value of original thought, who has the ability through the power of his intellect to lead people to change.”
There are also clear concerns that the “current” Army promotion system isn’t up to the task. General Petraeus’s executive officer, Colonel Peter Mansoor, was recently passed over over for Brigadier General, as was Colonel H.R. McMaster, who (as a brigade commander) cleared insurgents from Tal Afar in 2005, during an operation that, in some respects, became a model for the subsequent troop surge.
Mansoor and McMaster were also instrumental in developing the military’s new counter-insurgency doctrine and they have been described as genuine soldier-scholars; both earned doctorate degrees and have authored critically-praised books on military history and military-political affairs. McMaster’s damning indictment of the lies, deceit and feckless decision-making by military and political leaders during the Vietnam War (Dereliction of Duty), became an instant classic, and required reading at all the service schools. Mansoor’s The GI Offensive in Europe, the Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-45 is a well-crafted account of the (supposedly) inferior units that ultimately prevailed against the German Wehrmacht.
And, from an institutional perspective, that may be part of the problem. While the Army (and the other services) prize advanced degrees and academic training, there is a fine line between “filling” the necessary squares, and spending too much time “away from the troops.” Historically, the military has often viewed officers with Ph.Ds as some of an oddity, better suited to training posts than senior leadership positions (General Petraeus, who earned a doctorate at Princeton, is an obvious exception to that rule).
Additionally, officers with PhDs find themselves at another disadvantage in facing promotion boards. Very few of the officers on the panel have doctoral degrees, and many “mark down” a candidate for spending three to five years in a PhD program–time they believe would have been better spent in command or staff assignments.
General Petraeus’ return for that recent promotion board is clearly aimed at reversing such thinking–and ensuring that the Army’s best combat leaders continue to advance. As the Post noted in its account, all members of the promotion board had an equal vote, but as chairman, Petraeus was in a position to steer the discussion, and personally attest to the skills of individual officers. Having spent three of the last four years in Iraq, General Petraeus knows all of the brigade commanders who have served there. More than a few of those officers were considered by the promotion board that Petraeus chaired.
Names of those selected won’t be released for several months. Roughly 1,000 Colonels met the board and only 40 or so will be promoted, so the selection criteria is exceptionally rigorous. The results of that board will provide an early indication of how the Army views its counter-insurgency “experts” that have produced recent, dramatic security gains in Iraq, and what sort of future those officers have in the service. It’s a safe bet that many of Petraeus’s brigade commanders will be on the list, but the rejection of Mansoor and McMaster remains troubling; suggesting that some still have a “traditionalist” view of what a general should be. Using that template, officers who are both warriors and scholars may not make the cut.
ADDENDUM: As Max Boot, Dr. Hanson (and others) have noted, the Army faces an even greater challenge in retaining–and promoting–combat leaders at the lower ranks. Anecdotal evidence suggest that more junior officers, notably at the Captain and Major level, are leaving the service because they feel alientated from senior leaders who lack their combat experience, and haven’t institutionalized the lessons from Iraq. As one Army officer told the Washington Post:
“There are some great captains and majors who have great insight into this type of warfare. They are not leaving because they don’t have enough money; they are leaving because no one is listening to them. They don’t trust the people above them,” said an Army officer who served two tours in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
We should also point out that the issue of retaining (and promoting) the right people may be equally acute in other services, including the Air Force. While most of the USAF’s senior leaders are fighter pilots, the service’s greatest contributions in the War on Terror have been provided by UAV units (and the associated intel architecture), special forces personnel (pararescuemen, combat controllers and aircrew members), EOD teams and support specialists, including thousands of airmen who handle security and convoy operations in Iraq. Keeping those combat airmen in uniform represents an equally vital task for the Air Force.