Now that that is out of the way, let us turn to Dexter Filkins' new New Yorker piece, "General Principles: How good was David Petraeus?" This is an unserious piece that plants Filkins firmly on Team Petraeus in the way that Stephen Colbert asks "Is he the best or is he the best ever?" To set up the answer to that question, Filkins spends some time on modern generals:
In wars without front lines, American generals tend to stay inside fortified bases, where they plan missions and brief political leaders via secure video teleconferences. Their credentials are measured as much by their graduate degrees as by the medals on their dress uniforms. They are, for the most part, deeply conventional men, who rose to the top of the military hierarchy by following orders and suppressing subversive thoughts.Emphasis mine. The first couple of sentences very clearly show that Filkins does not actually understand the general officer corps in any way. Have we had generals who never left their compounds? I am sure there have been a few, but they are the exception not the rule. Filkins portrays them as out of touch by misstating what most generals, and almost all general officer commanders, do: battlefield circulation. This is not the same as living in a patrol base with host nation security forces, but that is not what generals get paid to do. Similarly, general officer credentials are not measured by medals (this is, frankly, stupid - most generals have almost the exact same medals) or graduate degrees. They are measured by the commands they had (and essential staff positions) and how well they did in those commands (the bar for "how well" may be disputed), but certainly not by medals. Graduate degrees are part of the calculus, but like everything else takes a back seat to command performance.
Now let us turn to the sentence I italicized. Filkins state quite clearly that generals become such because they are sheep. I ask: where is your support for this statement? As evidence, Filkins provides the data point that in "recent years, eighty-four per cent of the Army's majors have been promoted to lieutenant colonel -- hardly a fine filter." I know, you're all wondering what that has to do with general officer accessions. In short: nothing. While it is hard to find accurate numbers, it seems that there are about 20,000 active duty majors and about 10,000 active duty lieutenant colonels in the Army. The Department of Defense requires, by regulation, that at least 70% of majors eligible for promotion are selected for lieutenant colonel. Because the Army needs that many lieutenant colonels. And that has nothing to do with promotion to general officer, of whom the Army has 230 authorized (for reference, active duty combat arms branch promote more officers to lieutenant colonel in one year than the total number of generals). This data point is only useful in order to say that this alleged great purging of talent and brilliance is not happening at the 15-17 year mark of officer careers.
So that is not evidence (obviously). Like Ricks, Filkins trots out General Tommy Franks and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez as examples of the GO corps' mediocrity. (He also hits on General J.D. Thurman for not pronouncing Prime Minister Maliki's name correctly in 2006 - a data point so asinine to not warrant much rebuttal. If we promoted generals based on their linguistic skills we would have a smaller bench than we do now.) The problem with this approach is that neither writer has shown that officers more capable from these two retirees' cohorts were not selected for general in spite of this non-selected officers' superior capabilities. This is quite simple: if you want to say the generals we have (or have had) are mediocre, then you need to show how the not-mediocre officers were passed over for promotion and why. There is not, of course, much data to support that kind of analysis, but it is the logical discussion that needs to be had.
We can lament the fact that Franks and Sanchez were both promoted to general officers. But who were they competing with? Where are all of these brilliant go-getters who were passed over? What Ricks (again, in shorter form) and Filkins fail to address is the dearth of quality officer candidates from the early- to mid-1970s. Matriculation to ROTC and West Point from the late 1960s into the mid-1970s was not the best crop of candidate officers this nation has seen. There were years where West Point nearly did not fill all of its slots. West Point also suffered the worst ethics scandal in its history in 1976. What year groups were Franks and Sanchez? 1971 and 1973 respectively. General George Casey, another favorite beating horse of the general officer corps, was from the 1970 cohort. While there were some very fine officers commissioned in this era, I would suggest that these gentlemen were actually representative of the some of the best officers eligible for general rank. Smart guys did generally did not want to go to Vietnam. Or to an organization as broken as the U.S. Army after Vietnam.
But the most glaring hole in this discussion is Petraeus himself. If he is as good as Ricks and Filkins like to think, how did he become such a high-ranking general? There are two logical answers: 1) Petraeus is a sheep like every other general or 2) Ricks' and Filkins' thesis is incorrect. There is a third possibility that an exception was made for him, but that there might be exceptions runs against the "mediocre generals" meme and cause us to wonder why there are not more exceptions. If we look at Petraeus, we see a man who earned a PhD at Princeton University and who helped codify population-centric counterinsurgency into Army doctrine. But we also see a man who served as an aide to four generals (talk about back-slapping to get ahead...) and who tried to implement his counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan and failed. I suspect if we put our personal biases aside, we would see that Petraeus, while quite smart, is really about as good his cohort (and certainly better than Franks and Sanchez who were unequivocal duds). Which are probably the best the Army could provide based on when these men joined.
Filkins' piece is full of bad history and illogical statements in order to puff up his hero. And while he is wrong about Petraeus, he is also wrong about generals in, well, general. Petraeus made it to the top by being as good as he could while also doing all the networking he could, like anyone with ambition in an organization. But it is false logic and intellectually dishonest to parade Franks and Sanchez as the model general officer before giving us Petraeus as the savior of the Army. The quality of officers should be distributed normally. Petraeus, Franks and Sanchez may very well be in the tails, but I doubt they are so distinct from the bulk of the quality of their cohorts, such as Generals Ray Odierno, Lloyd Austin, and Martin Dempsey (also from this generation of officers). Odierno is an especially applicable example of my point here. In 2003 and 2004 he reflected the Army he served and yet was able to adapt to the changing situation in Iraq as the operational commander during the Surge. Possibly a more impressive feat than what Petraeus', but it remains that the line between "good" and "bad" generals is a very fine line indeed.
Our generals are by no means perfect, but it is a lie to say they got where they are because they purposefully did not rock the boat. Competition to succeed is very intense. And yet we must remember that, particularly at the highest levels, generals are ultimately selected by the civilian leaders of DoD and the White House. Don't like Tommy Franks? Then ask Secretary Rumsfeld why he did not fire him - only he and the President had the power to do so. I also do not worry about the future of the Army generals. I think that the generals we have had and have today are just fine and reflect the Army they have grown up in. And that includes having studs and duds where delineating between the two is often difficult. Like every organization. I also firmly believe that Petraeus' fall is not the death-knell for a quality general officer corps. I think that the generals from cohorts of the 1970s have been below average from other cohorts (even if the individual generals are probably as high of quality compared to the cohorts who were not selected for general), we will see a significant increase in quality from cohorts of the 1980s and 1990s. Officers who served as battalion and brigade commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the officers who understand the nuances and challenges of modern warfare. I assure you that mediocrity is not something that can be attributed to this group of fine officers.