Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 13, 2012

Failure, “Generally” speaking.

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Homeland Defense — by Dan OConnor on November 13, 2012

It’s difficult not to be cynical.

It is also difficult imagining what I am about to write and wondering if I am being disloyal. That’s a powerful emotion.

But then I imagine a Navy having nearly more Admirals than ships. I imagine having more Generals now than 20 years ago. I imagine how is it possible to have increases of 25% in flag officer promotions while the rest of the force is being reduced.

Then I realize it may not be my imagination at all.

I happen to know several brilliant Colonels, studs by euphemism and reputation who chose to leave the military instead of pursuing the rank of General because… “if that is what a General is I want no part of it.”

Wow, what’s going on?

A recent article in the Atlantic had some interesting points of view to share about Generalship and the state of affairs within the flag officer ranks.

Did you know that General Officers were fired in World War 2? I believe the count was 16.

How many have been fired for their performance in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?  ZERO.  (Well, maybe one, if you count General McCrystal.)

It’s so easy to blame the civilian leadership and retort ad infinitum that “they” need to mind their business. However, left unchecked as we now see, the all volunteer force has an unintended consequence: mediocre politically correct officers become powers unto themselves and are moved along. Those who rock the boat are kicked to the curb.


Because — generally speaking — the Generals of today may not be of the ilk and cloth of yesterday.

Generals accused of misconduct, rape, adultery, misappropriation, and other crimes have been in the news of late. But how many were fired for being incompetent?

Again, ZERO.

Are all General Officers bad? Of course not and to present such a proposition is ludicrous. There are some exceptional performers who combine intellect, presence, and dogmatic determination in leading our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with aplomb. They inspire.

Are there some unspectacular, mediocre and merely politically appointed Generals? Absolutely and to assume they are all spectacular is equally ludicrous.

Are there simply too many Generals?

In 1991, there were 157 three and four Star Generals. By April 2011 there were 194—an increase of 24%.  Since 1991, no DoD personnel group has grown at a faster rate than that of General Officers.

From 1991 through April 2011, officer ranks shrank by more than 56,000 (19%) and enlisted personnel decreased by nearly half a million (30%).  The overall number of active duty personnel has declined to some 1.5 million from 2.2 million in 1985.   According to the Pentagon, there are now 963 generals and admirals leading the armed forces, about 100 more than on Sept. 11, 2001.

That’s a lot of “leadership.”

What could they possibly be doing?

I can tell you what they are not doing: taking care of soldiers and their awards.

Generals are promoted and they and their staffs are sitting on awards boards and deciding what is valorous and what is not. When I came into the Marine Corps, the vast majority…the overwhelming majority of General Officer’s had been awarded Medals of Honor, Navy Crosses, and Silver Stars. These guys fought as young officers and as a result, I think may have had a better perspective on what it takes to kill, lose youngsters, fight, and recognize valor.

I think it is different now. I know it is.

The process for “high-level awards” (including the Silver Star, Navy Cross, and Medal of Honor) begins in the operational theater, ends in Washington, and contains layers of iterative decision making in the form of review along the way, which needlessly delays the ultimate decision.

The vast majority of the flag officers we have now do not have valor awards. And the days of Chesty Puller awarding a Navy Cross and Silver Star on the beaches of Pelileu or  Chosin Reservoir are so over. Many contemporary flag officers and their staffs are an abomination to morale and esprit. They make decisions with little to lose, and they are quite arbitrary about it. They did not fight and do not have that collective experience of being “blooded” in battle.

Does it matter?

Here’s why I think it does: a young officer I know was put in for 2 Silver Stars for valorous conduct in Afghanistan. This guy is a lion.

A general’s staff in the rear or administratively attached, reduced one recommendation to a bronze star after sitting on it for almost a year and simply dismissed another.   It is as if the valor and the lives saved did not take place. This is the unintended consequences of paper tigers, perfumed princes, or as the Atlantic article points out, mediocre general officers.

Maybe someone should look at this as a reason young officers and NCOs are leaving the military in droves.

Having seen this unfold over the last 30 years and having read hyper inflated biographies and fitness reports of their exploits, it is no wonder that we have more Generals than we know what to do with. Staffs continue to get too heavy and over time each rank is diminished of its significance and impact.  It is kind of like IBM in camouflage uniforms.

Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, was the recipient of two medals of honor and is one of two Marines with that distinction. His famous retort that “…War is a racket…” rings true now more than ever. It’s easy to take volunteers and grind their asses into dust. They volunteered.

Perhaps if the current crop of Generals had fought a bit more and weren’t so politically correct, worried about acquisitions, and really cared about their young fighters, the Atlantic article would lionize their performance instead of punk them out.

[Note: this essay was written on October 28th]

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 13, 2012 @ 8:37 am

And while not all most continue to label defeat as victory.
The current crop of Flag Ranks biggest worry is that the complex supporting the Armed Forces will shrink and they will not have their next job with private pay piled on top of their military retirement.

Comment by John F. Morton

November 13, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

The United States until WW I did not have a standing army. Whenever it needed army troops for overseas, it recruited “U.S. Volunteers.” Our Army prior to WW II was smaller (I think) than Yugoslavia’s, which had only been a state since Versailles. After WW II, we departed from that tradition with the peacetime draft, and we departed from the tradition of no entanglements with NATO and the recall of Eisenhower as SACEUR and the posting of two divisions to Europe by Truman with a standing army posted overseas no less. All for good reason, to be sure during the Cold War. Ever since, we have grown accustomed to the idea of troops overseas and planning for land wars and COIN beyond our hemisphere, most of which have not wholly served our national interest if one looks at it honestly. If we in this age of debt triage our national interests and say that, for example, we are no longer in an era where we should entertain the idea of a land war in Eurasia then perhaps we no longer need a peacetime standing army and can rely on other military assets for security and other elements of national power to effect our will. Such a determination could return West Point to its original mission under Thayer which was to produce engineers who could build national security infrastructure like coastal fortifications, bridges and frontier stockades (I simplify but you get the point–system administrators to use another’s term). As for the pointy end of the spear, the Army certainly would retain specops capabilities in peacetime and on occasion use them overseas. The Navy would have its SEALs and Marines. The USAF its drones. We’d have BMD and space, and offensive nuclear capabilities as our strategic deterrent. We’d also have offensive cyber. But how much better would our balance sheet and public diplomacy be if we were traditionally postured without a force projection capability in this post-industrial age that would not be perceived as threatening in an imperial sense? How much better would be the patriotic sense of those in the smaller peacetime Army if they were to be trained in engineering infrastructure instead of shock and awe and occupying territory peopled by hostiles? Are those not the system administrator skills so necessary for national building here and abroad if we choose to play in say humanitarian ops? Would that not make for a resilient nation? I do not see the need for planning and applying resources for conventional war right now. Do we honestly need to plan for an invasion of China, Russia, Iran or Pakistan which only a WW II-size army could do? However, I do see the need for a strong Navy to advance the traditional freedom of the seas, especially in the Pacific, with an emphasis on sea control vice power projection. We do better to avoid rattling China with trying to offset their anti-access capabilities and resource, meet and surpass their cyberwarfare capabilities. I could go on. But y’all get the idea. As for failed or failing states and their harboring terrorist networks, the old idea of draining the swamp has cost too much money, alienated too many allies and foes alike and finally brought home too many dead, wounded and vets with PTSD. We need to find a better way.

Comment by bellavita

November 13, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

For more on “how we got here” — i.e., what John Morton describes — you might enjoy reading David Unger’s “The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security At All Costs.” http://www.amazon.com/Emergency-State-Americas-Absolute-Security/dp/1594203245

Comment by bellavita

November 14, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

From The Medals They Carried at :


You observed that so many journalists stand in the presence of men like Petraeus with “open jaws and worshipping eyes.” That brings to mind the military’s cultural shift in its medals, ribbons, and badges.

Consider these portraits of Generals Petraeus and Eisenhower. Petraeus is wearing over 30 ribbons and badges on his uniform. I’m sure he earned each of them. But of that 30, how many civilians will notice that only one item was for heroism (Bronze Star with “V”)? Eisenhower earned only ten U.S. decorations (plus countless foreign ones), and – as was the custom of the day – typically wore only three or four at a time.

So few of us have military experience. We see a solider decked out with all kinds of razz-mataz and we assume he’s a modern Audie Murphy, a Rambo ten times over. But the truth is, most accoutrements merely denote successful completion of an assignment, or time spent overseas – not necessarily in combat. Servicemembers can even earn a ribbon for volunteerism in their personal lives.

Too many in America stand in awe of the military partly because the awards and decorations system has become so inflated. We used to hesitate to adorn soldiers with ribbons, medals, and the like – it smacked of European symbols of nobility. The pendulum has swung too far toward over-recognition of service. We ought to chasten ourselves, put the brakes on this ridiculous, clown-like boastfulness where every troop looks like a Libyan field marshal. But with so many of us slack-jawed at the sight of a soldier, who among us has the political courage to scale back on the excess that creates this over-adulation of the soldier in the first place?

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