Four star generals and the process of their promotion, then and now, are worlds apart.
On September 1, 1939, Brigadier George C. Marshall took the oath of office as the 15th U.S. Army chief of staff, a post he held until November 1945. When the ceremony ended, General Marshall confided to his aide de camp, “There is enough dead wood in the Army’s officer corps to light several forest fires.”
Marshall was more right than he knew. If the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps fought shoulder to shoulder with the French Army in 1940, American arms would have suffered the same fate as the French and British Armies—total defeat at the hands of the German Wehrmacht. This fact was made painfully obvious 14 months after the Second World War broke out.
In February 1943, 11,000 German troops smashed through the 30,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army’s II Corps at Kasserine Pass. The U.S. commander, Major Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, a swaggering blowhard, was relieved and sent home. It was not the last time that a cigar-chewing imitation of a real general would fail in action against the German onslaught, but the experience strengthened Marshall’s intolerance of general officer failure in action.
Dwight D. Eisenhower thought Marshall had picked Fredendall—an officer with no combat experience despite serving in the First World War—but Fredendall was actually chosen for command by Lieutenant Gen. Lesley McNair for the energy he demonstrated in training. Though Fredendall had not gone ashore to join his troops until the fighting was over, Eisenhower decorated Fredendall for the II Corps’ successful landing in North Africa. Sadly, once Fredendall was selected for the wrong reasons, only disaster in combat with a capable opponent could reveal Fredendall’s deficiencies as a battlefield commander.
Unfortunately, the practice of tolerating mediocre officers with friends and sponsors in the four star ranks persists today.
Today, the task of finding senior military leaders with character, competence and intelligence is immeasurably harder than it was in Marshall’s day. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the American media’s adulation for four stars transformed general officers such as Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Allen, and Austin into instant celebrities.
Four stars now automatically become part of a mutual general officer admiration society, that cheers even mediocre performance in general officers chosen for high command, because, like “made men” in the Mafia, senior leaders agree not to turn on their peers. Eliminating failed general officers, even when failure is found out the hard way in action, is deemed dangerous to a promotion system based on nepotism that presents itself as infallible.
Political leaders are of no help. Almost no one in the Senate asked relevant questions of nominees for four stars after 9/11—questions like: Is this mission really achievable? Will the proposed operations have a decisive impact and accomplish the mission? What do Americans gain if this the proposed operation actually works? And what do the American People lose if the mission fails? Should Americans really expect the Army and Marine Corps to impose a Western system of government on Iraq or Afghanistan? Are cultures really congruent?
Consequently for aspiring four stars, advocating the commitment of more soldiers, more cash, and more time in Afghanistan and Iraq became customary. Carrying on the failed policies of the military and political leaders who nominated them for four stars ensured that the future four stars would have a chair when the music stopped. Senators and Congressmen either could not evaluate the nominees or they were reluctant to admit that the system had gotten things wrong from the beginning.
Rather than address the hard issues, political oversight of the armed forces focuses more on policies designed to please constituents or create jobs in their states and districts, policies that neuter the military’s ability to punish substandard performers or to link promotion to merit. The end result justifies the divisive practice of advancing individuals—frequently women and minorities—who are less qualified or not otherwise “selectable” by reducing the numbers of qualified individuals from selection to create spaces.
Clearly, officers who express concern about these policies do not go unnoticed in political circles. These officers are frequently viewed as politically unreliable and are eliminated from promotion to the senior ranks. However, those officers who strongly identify with these policies make themselves known not only to their superiors in uniform, but to members of the House and Senate with an interest in promoting their ideological fellow travelers in uniform to flag rank in the armed forces.
The point is that General Mark Milley is not an isolated example. He’s the product of an environment that has existed for nearly 30 years, if not longer. Behind Mark Milley stand another two dozen four stars ready to take his job that are indistinguishable from him in their attitudes and career patterns.
Is the situation hopeless? History answers with an emphatic “No.”
After the defeat of the U.S. Army’s II Corps, General Sir Harold Alexander, Eisenhower’s British deputy, commented on Fredendall to his American allies, “I’m sure you must have better men than that.” Eisenhower agreed. Major Gen. Patton, a man who but for the outbreak of WWII would have retired as an obscure cavalry colonel, replaced Fredendall.
Will the abysmal outcome in Afghanistan, or the revelations that four stars actively conspired with President Trump’s opponents to undermine his authority, make any difference to how we select the brass? Time will solve the mystery.
Douglas Macgregor, Col. (ret.) is a senior fellow with The American Conservative, the former advisor to the Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, a decorated combat veteran, and the author of five books.