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?
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]