Who becomes a general — and why — tells us a lot about whether our military is on the right or wrong track.
annual spring list of Army colonels promoted to brigadier generals will
be shortly released. Already, rumors suggest this year, unlike in the
recent past, a number of maverick officers who have distinguished
themselves fighting — and usually defeating — insurgents in Afghanistan
and Iraq will be chosen.
For example, scholar-soldier Col.
H.R. McMaster, Special Forces Col. Ken Tovo and Col. Sean MacFarland —
all of whom helped turn Sunni insurgents into allies — could, and
should, make the cut.
These three colonels have had decorated
careers in Iraq mastering the complexities of working with Iraqi forces
in hunting down terrorists and insurgents. And they, like Gen. David
Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in the past did not always
reflect the Army establishment in Washington. Their unconventional
views about counterinsurgency warfare do not hinge on high-tech
weaponry, tanks, artillery and rapid massed advance.
wars are rarely fought as planned. During the fighting, those who
adjust most quickly to the unexpected tend to succeed. And in almost
all of America's past conflicts, our top commanders on the eve of war
were not those who finished it.
Few in 1861 anticipated the
carnage that would ensue in the American Civil War, in which massive
armies collided with lethal new weapons — and depended on industrial
production, electronic communications and railroads.
the war broke out in 1861, the obscure U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh
Sherman had failed at almost everything they had tried. But after the
Union Army was nearly wrecked by establishment generals like Ambrose
Burnside, Henry Halleck, Joseph Hooker, George McClellan, John Pope and
William Rosecrans (all wedded to the set style of Napoleonic warfare),
President Lincoln turned to his two generals who best understood modern
On the eve of World War II, Gen. George Marshall,
Army chief of staff, promoted a series of junior officers — Omar
Bradley, J. Lawton Collins, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Matthew
Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor — while retiring senior generals he felt had
little idea of the new warfare of armored vehicles, rapid mobility and
close air support.
The Iraqi war is no exception. The brilliant and rapid invasion of
Iraq in March and April 2003 required accomplished artillery and armor
commanders — quite unlike the subsequent insurgency.
terrorist bands that sprang up during the occupation were at first
dealt with through conventional tactics and weapons. Only as American
and Iraqi losses mounted did a few gifted officers begin to work with
the Iraqis, learn the elements of successful counterinsurgency doctrine
and slowly win back the hearts and minds of the civilian population.
we will see whether the former mavericks can become incorporated into
the military establishment. Will this wartime change in Pentagon
thinking be enough — and in time? It depends on how many of the
forward-thinking colonels get promoted and how much influence they
A newly ascendant Gen. Sherman captured Atlanta in
time to save Lincoln the election of 1864, and with it the Union cause
itself. The successful invasion of Normandy and subsequent race to the
Rhine would have been unimaginable without Gens. Bradley, Eisenhower
and Patton — all unknown colonels as late as 1940. So far, a few
largely unheralded colonels in Iraq have salvaged the American cause.
significance in the promotions of an H.R. McMaster or a Sean McFarland
to general is not that they represent the nature of all future American
wars. In fact, it is easy to conceive how a blow-up in North Korea or
Iran would require a return to conventional military assets of heavy
armor, firepower and high-tech close air-ground support.
the issue is whether the military still remains flexible enough to find
the right commanders for the right type of fighting at the right time —
and is preparing for all sorts of diverse scenarios in an increasingly
competitive and unpredictable world.
A common complaint is
that a worn-out military has lost the peace in Iraq and should withdraw
in defeat. In fact, recruitments in June exceeded the military's goals,
violence in Iraq is down, Shi'ite and Sunni terrorists are losing
ground to the new military of a constitutional Iraq — and the junior
American outsiders who engineered all that may soon be seniors on the