Small Wars Journal

Reflections on 'Generalship'

Tue, 05/08/2007 - 6:35pm

I've recently joined Small Wars Journal and I want to express my thanks for the terrific debate on my recent 'generalship' piece.

I thought I would share some common questions/comments about the piece, as well as my responses.

Most of the response has been very positive, and some of it has been intensely personal. I've received some very disturbing emails from Soldiers and family members describing how bad leadership has impacted their lives. To be honest, I was not prepared for that response and I'm very troubled by what I've heard.

The most common criticism of the piece is that I did not address the role of civilian authorities more explicitly. While I don't think a serving officer should publicly criticize civil authorities, there is a more substantive question here. Who does society hold responsible for the application of non-military instruments of power to achieve the aims of policy? That's a much larger question than the one I took on regarding the responsibilities of general officers. However, it's a fair question that I would like to take a stab at eventually. Any thoughts on this topic are very much appreciated.

Many people have asked me what impact this piece will have on my career. I don't know the answer to that question, and I don't mean to be dismissive or overly stoic, but I don't think it's a very important issue. There are Soldiers and Marines and family members who have risked and sacrificed much more than promotion to full colonel over the last six years.

What I hope will happen: increased Congressional oversight of the systems that produce our senior leaders. Also, that junior leaders believe that our system of governance is capable of self-correction on even the most important issues.

What I fear might happen: inaction by political and senior military authorities, coupled with growing resentment and disillusionment by our junior leaders. I'm very worried about the communication gap between stars and bars, and I hope that my article does not make matters worse. As I said, I've been surprised by the emotional intensity of some of the responses I've received.

An interesting observation. The Vietnam generation did not fully assimilate their experiences until after the war was over. In units and service schools, the captains, majors and lieutenant colonels discussed their experiences, drew conclusions and argued for reform. In the information age, this dialogue happens in real time. Junior leaders are able to compare what senior leaders say with what's happening on the ground in a matter of minutes. I don't think our organizational models and leadership theories have caught up with the impacts of the information age. That's probably a statement of the obvious to most, but came as a revelation to a Luddite like me.

I welcome your questions and comments and am very honored to be part of SWJ.




James Caldwell (not verified)

Fri, 08/14/2009 - 5:52pm

LTC Gentile,

I think you are a little hard on LTC Yingling also. I served with him in Iraq and I can personally attest to his moral courage. I have seen it in action. You state in your comments that not once in your command did a soldier, NCO, or junior officer ever say to you "Sir, our generals have failed us." I am not at all shocked that they would not say that. What would shock me is if the came up to you on your next deployment and say "Sir, we found the WMD's."

Thank you both for your service.


Tue, 04/22/2008 - 4:27pm

Some interesting "new news" on this topic. Dr. Martin Cook makes an excellent assessment of the ethical dilemmas. Also he regenerates interest in the notion that retired general officers are NOT technically out of the military -- they become recallable reserve officers.

also see NYT article:…

Ken White

Sun, 08/26/2007 - 11:07pm

If you want to excuse Congress critters for malfeasnace, go right ahead. I understand the politicians career incentive. I also know what their Oath says. Which is the more critical? Individual call, of course -- but I think the far more important question is which is simply right?

We can disagree on what Generals should be doing. I do not question that we need to be a full spectrum force; I'm also aware that we can and do over-engineer everything to the point where it doesn't work and that we waste scads of money on foolish projects that have little utility and huge costs.

Assymetric warfare should have been since 1970 a major effort -- it was not. I can forgive that, the USSR was still out there. Post 1989 there is no excuse except business as usual. In fairness, Shinseki tried but it was too little, too late.

I read the essay you linked several years ago, just re-read it. Agree with some but not all. What they don't understand is that the Army's excessive -- to a major fault -- love of over centralization and micro management is the culprit. That and a resistance to change and the urge to protect the institution on the part of senior folks. Those are far greater factors than generational change and the fact that Congress wants to indulge the hardware centric approach only compounds the felony.

Neither Congressional nor War College involvement will fix the basic problem of the Generals -- that is simply a loss of some elements of integrity engendered by that same civilian control you tout -- Robert Strange MacNamara and the USR did more harm to the Army than did the loss in Viet Nam.

That war loss caused, by the way, due to the foolishness of trying to fight a land war in Europe while in Southeast Asia. We tried that in Korea also -- didn't work there, either. Both wars were notable for overcentralization and over control. The initial Generals (plural) on both fought the last war. Fortunately, Ridgeway briefly took charge in Korea and Abrams did in Viet Nam; both were competent and smart enough to turn their wars around. Unfortunately, too late for the civilian leadership -- and Congress which is a de facto if not de jure part of that leadership -- who elected not to listen in to the military who were open in their opinions on both policy and strategy toward the end of each war. Failure of the 'leadership' to heed that advice tends to make those who gave it less forthcoming the next time around...

Initiative is a tenet of Army doctrine and yet the Army goes out of its way to stifle it at every opportunity. I do however, see glimmers of change on the horizon -- lets hope they take.

Without regard to your political points at the bottom, best served in another forum, you refer back to my intitial point -- that we have created a system that does accept any question of the dictates of the civilian leadership of the nation. When the system disagrees with that direction, it attempts to wait it out, if it cannot then the dictates of said civilian leadership get carried out.

If we want better civilian leadership we're going to have to elect it -- and Congress is far more important in that respect than is the President. I am also sure your perception that the armed forces are remaining silent on matters of policy and strategy is incorrect; they speak up in the right forums at the right time but traditionally (and correctly in my view) do not go public with their disagreements.

That, however, does not excuse the flaws in that regard of Goldwater-Nichols, another congressional donation. Gist for another thread another time, however... :)

A brief attempt to tie together some seemingly disparate threads,
namely technology, incentives, the courage/responsibility to speak out,
and the humility/responsibility to remain silent ...

Re involvement of Congress, clearly a politician's "career incentive"
is to bring home the technological funding (bacon) to his district;
not to invest in conventional training, much less in new infrastructure
to recruit and develop people with "cultural competence" in various
prospective foreign theaters.

Similarly, those Generals invested in "fighting the last war" will tend
to measure their success by how much funding they can get to maintain
"conventional" capabilities. (In contrast to "unconventional",
by which I mean less symmetric warfare forms, typically with more
ambiguity between civilians, combatants-temporarily-with-us,
and combatants-temporarily-against-us.)

LTC Yingling has identified one "fault line", but I think *faith* in
technological-boost is another, equally important fault line. See,
"CLAUSEWITZ OUT, COMPUTER IN: Military Culture and Technological Hubris,"
by Williamson Murray, at:

As an alternative to Congressional involvement, what about establishing
an officially-sanctioned check and balance in the form of the war colleges?
Faculty could have input into promotions, and could also be given a
*responsibility* to "advise and consent" -- to the media -- on strategic
and policy matters.

You need a long-term, ongoing institutional culture of speaking out;
I don't think it's viable to demand that of personnel who are involved
in operations; too much potential for conflict undermining the missions.

But the war colleges are sufficiently far removed that they might
effectively serve that function. And they are sufficiently close
to the civilian context (actually, "embedded" in it :-)
that they can become an effective, yet respectful voice in
matters of policy, strategy, and international risks.

Such a voice is desperately needed today. For those concerned about
military involvement undermining civilian leadership, I'd say wake up
and smell the napalm. The notion of civilian "leadership" in the US
was destroyed by fear-mongering, and the new hi-tech capabilities
to poll the American public, and then manipulate them (e.g, via fear)
at extremely fine granularities via targeted propaganda.

Civilian "leaders" are *following* the ignorance and fear that results
from domestic information-civil-warfare. It has become a
"race to the bottom" both in ethical and in policy terms.

It seems to this civilian that the military is abdicating its moral
responsibility by remaining silent on vital matters of policy and strategy.

Ken White

Wed, 08/01/2007 - 3:41pm

I think you're a little hard on Yingling and I think Macgregor's a little hard on the Generals he does name.

No one has named the Chiefs of Staff of the Army who from 1975 forward very definitely pushed the Army away from anything to do with counterinsurgency in doctrinal development and in training with only rare exceptions. Those are the folks who let their Army down in an attempt to avoid the obviously inevitable. they meant well but the world is bigger than they were or are.

To be fair, some paid lip service but mostly, they looked at the big war picture. I see no way that cannot be called an error in judgment -- though I acknowledge the good intent and the systemic strictures that almost forced them to do what they did.

Macgregor's criticisms are all correct but omit the important and somewhat exculpatory fact that the GOs he names are products of a system. The flaws in that system can in my opinion be laid in order at the feet of Congress, those Chiefs of Staff I cited (I'll be happy to name them all if desired, I'm retired, too...), DOPMA and the Army Personnel system.

Generals in my experience of 45 years in and with the Army believe they have a charter to protect the institution and some get entirely too wrapped up in that effort. All are smart guys, most mean well -- but all are constrained by the system that Congress has decreed.

In order to keep the Army 'relevant' -- and funded, they must cater to a Congress that is not interested in training. That brings little money to Districts and States whereas big hardware items with many sub-contractors mean big bucks to many localities. Add to that a personnel system that tends to make life easy on an overlarge personnel 'management' bureaucracy and is more concerned with political correctness (also induced by Congress...) than with putting the right person in the right job and you have a recipe for mediocrity.

Macgregor is retired, he can name names. Yingling is not and the fact that he said something that needed to be said while still on active duty without getting into name calling is not moral cowardice; certainly not in my opinion at any rate.

To provide my answer your final question; that's really the gist of it -- it is not easy for Generals to say no; nor is it easy for any Battalion or Squadron Commander to say no (in combat or out of it).

That does not mean that 'no' should be eliminated from the lexicon of either.

Gian P Gentile

Sat, 07/28/2007 - 11:23am

Dear LTC Yingling:

Please respond to my criticism of you and your article in an oped piece that I wrote in the Washington Times ("A Skewed Perspective," 30 May 2007) where I call your own moral courage into question because you refused to name names of the generals you so passionately blame for failure in Iraq.

The preceding comments in this blog indicate that you have been successful in creating the perception that the majority of soldiers, ncos, and junior officers in the American army agree with your view that our generals have failed us. However, this perception is skewed and you are to blame for it. I just gave up command of an Armored Reconnaissance Squadron in the 4ID for almost three years. I fought with my Squadron in west-Baghdad for a year in 2006. In all that time in command not once did a soldier, nco, or junior officer come to me and say "Sir, our generals have failed us."

Instead of reading Yinglings piece, readers of this blog should read Doug Macgregors recent piece "Fire the Generals" in which he gives specific examples of where individual generals have failed and he the author has the moral courage to name names, unlike LTC Yingling.

Finally I ask you, LTC Yingling, the same question that I posed to you in a personal email at Fort Hood the day your article in AFJ came out: How easy you think it is for generals to say NO; how easy do you think it will be for you to say NO if you ever get the chance to command a tactical battalion in combat?

Lieutenant Colonel Gian P. Gentile; former commander of 8-10 Cavalry, 4BCT, 4ID; currently Academy Professor of History, USMA.

Stephen (not verified)

Tue, 07/24/2007 - 2:33pm


I wish to add my thanks to you for your courage in service to our country, on the battlefield, and on the Internet.

In regard to your article on Generalship, I would opine that our country currently has no statesmen. Rather, we have politicians.

While it may be possible that statesmen could adequately supply the "Congressional oversight of the systems that produce our senior leaders," politicians are woefully void of the qualities necessary to do so.

With great respect,


Paul - I've just signed on to this fine blog myself. I look fwd to reading your piece on generalship. Off the bat, I do have one comment to make. While I understand the political reflex for serving US military officers to declare that "I don't think a serving officer should publicly criticize civil authorities", I think this position is ethically and empirically unsound.

* Ethically b/c in relinquishes responsibility for national security to what is now, in the United States, a heavily politicised policy elite. As if we need the Gonzales affair to underline the point (Feith, OSP, Iraq demonstrate the point adequately), policy elites cannot be relied upon to do what is truly in the national interest. And, in any case, when it comes to matters of war, military elites must bear their responsibility for the course of state affairs. How can they do this if they are unprepared to criticise policy.

* Empirically, this position is unsound b/c down thru history military elites have often stood their ground on policy debates in democracies. Field Marshall Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during WWII, frequently told Churchill where to get off when the Prime Minister came up with (how to put this politely) "impractical" military notions. We owe this notion that generals shld be silent on policy to Huntington's model of civil-military relations: the idea that the professional identity of militaries in liberal democracies requires them to be dumb, even in the face of some pretty dumb strategy. US officers take Huntington too much to heart. Interestingly, here in Britain, serving British officers have been (rightly) voicing concern about govt policy - a policy that requires them to wage two wars (Iraq and AFG) without the means to do so. When the Blair govt repeats the rhetoric that our troops have all they need to get the job done, invariably some officer pipes up and declares this to be far from true. Even the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, fire a shot across the bow (please excuse naval metaphor here) of govt policy warning that Iraq was breaking the Army.

In sum: US officers should follow the example of their British cousins, and not be so shy when it comes to criticising govt policy when that policy is manifestly not in the national interest.

allen (not verified)

Thu, 05/10/2007 - 5:02pm


Thank you for your service to our nation.

Some years ago, I attended a dining-out, having as guest speaker an Air Force LTG. His brief talk spoke to a perceived and growing disconnect between the civilian and military ethe - of grave concern to him. In reading your essay, I was reminded of this event and the dangers posed to the nation if left unattended.

While I admit also to reservations with Congressional involvement in the selection process, that involvement does seem the only handily legitimate avenue of approach within our system. And while imperfect, to be sure, it may be no worse than the present flawed mechanism.

Ultimately, the nation must rely on men such as you to enter politics, bringing back into the political arena informed judgment on matters martial. Understandably for many, this prospect will be unappealing, but duty calls, and such service is as vital to the welfare of the nation as that of combat arms.

Again, thanks, and best wishes

Stuart Wandrei (not verified)

Wed, 05/09/2007 - 7:44pm

It is good that this subject is being brought into the public sphere. Too often both those in the military and out seem to feel as thought any criticism of military leadership is somehow disloyal. Add to that politicians that will never admit that everything is not going as planed and you get a situation where there is no longer any negative feedback. Even when the plan is an obviously not working we hear nothing but praise for the creators of the plan. Even when the failure is as monumental as Abu Ghraib the most sever consequences for a general officer is the reduction in rank by a single pay grade. The system is obviously broken.

Post Script. While LTC Yingling seem unconcerned with possible damage to his chances of promotion, the fact is the courage to write a piece like this is not a common virtue among career officers. Far to many field grade officer would rather bayonet charge a machinegun nest than hurt their chances for a star, LTC Yinglings actions are reminiscent of a courageous leader of a previous generation COL David Hackworth.

Stuart Wandrei

Welcome to the blogosphere, sir. I look forward to your comments on the various critiques from the milblogs. (I had a small critique of my <a href="; rel="nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow">own</a>, but the other milbloggers like Grim and Lex and Greyhawk are better worth your time.)

Here are small examples of how I see the DoD changing in the past few years as a staff weenie far from the ground fight. I have personally benefited from things related to what you advocate--my career was dead when the Navy got forced to build a separate foreign area officer community, which I likely was allowed to join because I submitted proof of joint and international education and professional writing to the selection board. (Is that generalship? Of course not, but it is a data point--and some admiral had to sign off on the overall program and selection list.) That community is part of a larger effort to build new expeditionary skills lain fallow for decades, including maritime civil affairs. The military deep thinkers are coming to realize they need an interagency version of Goldwater-Nichols--but don't know how to get one. I can't say much about this <a href="; rel="nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow nofollow">initiative</a> but just point out that it's needed (there are others like it in the works). Four stars and their subordinate generals are keenly aware they don't have enough social and cultural inputs into strategic models they use. And so on, and so forth.

Most of this is 'day late dollar short', sure. We're building AFRICOM but JFCOM and STRATCOM and NORTHCOM are still doing what they did--and the services have to provide staffies to yet another joint COCOM. It's entirely too hard for a guy to volunteer for a pump while guys with decades-old training get sent with no notice to deploy only days back from a sea deployment. The Navy was congressionally mandated to have a FAO program in '96 or so, and it was ineffective until Wolfowitz forced the services in '05 to improve how they do things, for instance. But these things are institutional change and take time. (You know the joke: "why does every CNO and MCPON change the uniform? Because it's the only change they'll ever see on their watch!")

These changes are a lot more important to what you want to happen, I think, than changing how Congress allows generals to retire. Just sayin'.

And I wonder what the <em>next</em> war will look like once we've got these changes in place!

I look forward to your posts here at SWJ!


Paul, thanks for your article and demonstration of courage. New voices and ideas are our best natural resource - our country improves the most when debates and ideas are flowing freely.

I'd like to echo the previous commenter regarding congressional oversight. Congress is consistently capable of choosing people who will not rock the boat. The need to make everybody happy trumps the need for unique and possibly controversial ideas.

Criticism is not always easy to do in your position, but I hope it opens the door so that we can build a more effective and responsive system of promotion. That's the truly difficult road ahead.

Personally, I'm kicking ideas around in my head regarding how to implement and effectively use a slashdot-style moderation system for non-geek applications. Without going into wonkish detail, slashdot's mod system allows users/readers to promote good ideas and demote bad ones. But the beauty of the system is meta-moderation, where you can say "oh, that article wasn't that brilliant, whoever moderated it highly should get less moderation points in the future". In this way, you can reward authors of good articles, as well as those who "respect" those articles and ideas. Equally important - you take the power out of the hands of those who don't get it. Not a perfect system, but with modifications, I think it has the potential to be a powerful, effective metric.

Still a very raw idea in my head, but thought it was worth sharing. I'd be very interested if anyone has thoughts or links on this topic. Thank you for your service, Paul.

@thepointyend (not verified)

Wed, 05/09/2007 - 1:41pm

Paul - Thanks for your incredible service to your country.

'Twas a great article and it generated a lot of discussion amongst many of my fellow officers. I appreciate your courage in standing up to speak about something that is ultimately important to those in and out of uniform.


Thank you, indeed. The 3rd Armored Cavalry has a great deal to be proud of. Most everyone I've talked to has found much in your piece they thought was right on.

I am curious, however, as to why you think Congress is the solution. I don't mean this question in a partisan sense -- that is, I'm not asking about <i>this</i> Congress, or the last Congress, but about the mechanics of having Congress involved at all. I realize their Constitutional stature and oversight responsibilities give them a unique power to influence events within the military; but I wonder if their influence has any hope of being what you desire.

Here is my particular concern: In your piece you said that you wanted Congressional involvement in officer selection (and other military matters) in part because you wanted to "reward moral courage" among potential senior officers. It seems to me that this is a testable premise. We've seen a lot of Congressional involvement in choosing our nation's senior leadership, from ambassadors to Supreme Court justices (and indeed, even for lower courts).

My observation is that Congressional involvement has uniformly been baleful on the issue of "moral courage." In every case, a candidate who has expressed strong opinions on any controversial subject (i.e., has moral courage -- it takes no courage to be noncontroversial) faces a much tougher road to confirmation. They are less likely to be nominated in the first place, as any administration doesn't want the embarrassment of having their nominee turned down. If they are nominated, they are less likely to be confirmed than a nominee who has no controversial views on the record.

This seems to hold true for all offices for which the Congress exercises this kind of responsibility. Why would it not be true in this case? Why would Congress have a different effect here than it has on every other interaction of this type?

As a followup: Would you be open to some other structure besides Congress as a solution -- perhaps a change that would put a panel of junior officers (or senior NCOs) into a position to help decide on promotions?