TCS Daily

A Colonel's War Against the Generals

By Robert Haddick - May 16, 2007 12:00 AM

The tagline on Lt. Col. Paul Yingling's important article at Armed Force Journal states:

"ARMY LT. COL. PAUL YINGLING is deputy commander, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. He has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a fourth in Operation Desert Storm. He holds a master's degree in political science from the University of Chicago. The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or the Defense Department." [emphasis added]

That is certainly an understatement.

In his article, Lt. Col. Yingling excoriates America's general officer corps for incompetence and moral cowardice. These are serious charges, especially when they come from a currently-serving multiple-tour combat veteran. Are these charges fair? Let's examine them in detail:

"First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly."

This charge is mostly true. Current military operations in Iraq are characterized by urban combat, counter-insurgency operations, and a large foreign military advisory and training effort.

During the 1990s both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps increased the training effort devoted to urban combat. Both services greatly expanded their urban combat training facilities and sharpened up their doctrine for these operations.

However, counter-insurgency doctrine remained neglected until very recently. And in spite of operations in the Balkans and the addition during the 1990s of new relationships with former Soviet satellite and client states, the foreign military training and advisory function remained a relative backwater, a job for the Special Forces. Army and Marine Corps officers still advanced their careers by commanding ever-larger conventional combat formations. Diverting time from the standard career path to learn a language, go on an extended exchange program, or generally spend time outside the "community" was considered "non-career enhancing."

Today's foreign military training, advisory, and liaison task is far too large for the special operating forces community alone to handle. The Army and Marine Corps have had to scramble to establish this capacity and are still not doing so adequately. In the long run, the global battle against Islamic insurgents is a maintenance task that will largely be done by local allies and proxies. This would make the foreign military training, advisory, and liaison mission more important in the Department of Defense than leading conventional military formations. Lt. Col. Yingling is correct that the generals from the 1990s did far too little to prepare for this state of affairs.

"Second, America's generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq."

Lt. Col. Yingling fails to prove this charge. He re-asserts the old accusation that the U.S. sent too few foot soldiers to Iraq. But neither Lt. Col. Yingling nor anyone else can convincingly argue that 380,000 or 470,000 or [insert number here] U.S. soldiers would have "stabilized" Iraq. What is much easier to assert is General Abizaid's claim that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are an "antibody," their presence creating a violent response. Iraq has at least five million and perhaps ten million military aged males. Perhaps more American "boots on the ground" would have mobilized more insurgents, as it seems to have in Vietnam.

Lt. Col. Yingling uses the Bosnia and Kosovo troop-to-population ratios as benchmarks for Iraq. What he fails to mention is that the U.S. entered those conflicts after the ethnic slaughters had occurred, after the combatants had largely achieved their ethnic cleansing objectives, after stable ethnic boundaries were achieved, and after the ethnics wars had burned themselves out. Current U.S. policy in Iraq is designed to prevent these processes from occurring even though they are, albeit in slow motion.

The "aims of policy" in Iraq were specified by the U.S. generals' civilian masters. In my judgment, these aims, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian constitutional democracy in Iraq, are not achievable by any size U.S. occupation force. Did the Joints Chiefs, Joint Staff, and combatant commanders so advise Mr. Rumsfeld, Ms. Rice, and Mr. Bush? We will have to wait for their memoirs to find out. In the meantime, Lt. Col. Yingling cannot say that they did not.

"Finally, America's generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq."

This is Lt. Col. Yingling's opinion, but it is only that. Nearly every week, some field commander in Iraq gives a live briefing to the Pentagon's press corps, transcripts for which are quickly available at the Department's website. The Department provides a mandatory quarterly report to the Congress listing a wide variety of quantitative measures requested by the Congress about conditions in Iraq. An endless stream of Congressional delegations march through the U.S. command posts in Iraq (Lt. Col. Yingling must have entertained his fair share). Outside think-tanks and consultants do the same, providing their analyses of conditions there. There is no way to credibly claim that America's generals are successfully keeping bad news about Iraq from the U.S. Congress.

Can Congress fix America's General Officer Corps?

Lt. Col. Yingling asserts that:

"Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are likely to remedy the shortcomings in America's general officer corps. Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The services themselves are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage.


"If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function."

As executive officer of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment does Lt. Col. Yingling insist that the regiment's staff officers be only "mild-mannered team players"? Does he feel that that is the best way of monitoring the regiment's performance, discovering problem areas, and fixing those problems? Not likely. We'll guess that Lt Col. Yingling demands straight candor at the staff meetings he regularly leads. If that is the standard he requires, why would he assume that the generals and civilians above him don't exercise those same practices? Might they have when they were field grade officers, but now don't when they are of flag grade or higher? There are many hundreds of flag grade officers in the U.S. military. When promoting from colonel to brigadier general do the services have a screening test to find only those who will be "mild-mannered team players"?

Congress should certainly perform its oversight function more vigorously than it has of late. Likewise, the Congresses of the 1990s share the blame for not preparing the military for the present in which it finds itself. How large a role should Congress play in selecting the nation's generals? Would anyone like the idea of a large class of "political generals" like those the U.S. suffered with during the Civil War?

The Frustrations of War

Lt. Col. Yingling has been to the war and is understandably frustrated. He is correct when he states that America's generals did not prepare the military for the wars they are now fighting.

But the bigger frustration is that the U.S. military has been assigned a mission, creating a multi-sectarian democracy in Iraq, which no amount of U.S. infantrymen or 5.56 mm ammunition can achieve. It is America's elected civilian leadership that specified the mission and assigned it to the military. When he calls for "intelligent, creative and courageous general officers" Lt. Col. Yingling comes close to calling for a general officer corps that will oppose its civilian masters.

This is obviously treading on very dangerous ground. The rational side of Lt. Col. Yingling must certainly believe in military obedience to its civilian masters. Yet the Purple Hearts, posthumous and otherwise, earned by his men must cause Lt. Col. Yingling much agony.

In the worst case, the country must await four year intervals to get a chance to change its foreign policy. In the meantime, a lot can go wrong and a lot of soldiers and families may suffer. It's a long wait for Lt. Col. Yingling. But as Winston Churchill once concluded, there is no better way.

The author was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry company commander and staff officer. He was the global research director for a large private investment firm and is now a private investor. His blog is Westhawk. He is a TCS contributing writer.


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