By Robert Killebrew
When Tom let me read one of the early drafts of his book on generalship, I suggested that he end it with a retrospective on what General Marshall would have made of the current crop of generals and how they are handled by the Army. Here's my take:
First, I think General Marshall would be generally (no pun intended) pleased with the current crop; they are mainly younger, better educated, and in much better physical condition than the senior officers of his time. Marshall was all about youth in command -- in the only book he ever wrote, about his experiences in WWI, he singled out physical endurance as a vital prerequisite for high command -- along with a cheerful, optimistic outlook. In that, I think he would be pleased.
He would also be pleased, I think, at the survival of the Army's service schools -- which operate today in the same basic form as they did in his day. He would be a little puzzled, I think, at the large number of civilian and retired military in teaching positions, as teaching at a service school in his day was a real plum, and was a fertile ground for growing future commanders. The idea that the Army's elaborate training command would be undermanned, or forced to push off instructor duty on retired folks and civilians, would immediately raise his ire.
And here's where the story gets complicated. In Marshall's day, there was no clear "pathway to the stars" that officers competed for, or that the Army used to manage the force. Officers served where they were put, and were promoted (or not) based on their performance, not their career attainment -- Eisenhower served in a stateside training assignment in WWI, remember, and Bradley guarded tin mines in the American west. Marshall would be baffled by "good" career paths and "bad" paths, and by the elaborate personnel systems designed to specialize and select officers on any basis other than good performance. Ricks' suggestion that officers be given another chance after relief is only possible in a system like Marshall's, when the service was expanding and officers were generalists and picked on a best-qualified basis. Today, if an officer stumbles in the shrinking force, there are a dozen more as well-qualified to step into his or her shoes, which makes the Army's reluctance to dismiss senior officers more puzzling -- they are eminently replaceable.
Ricks is right that Army leaders have been overly reluctant to relieve poorly performing senior officers -- in fact, the most recent reliefs of senior officers has come from civilian leaders, a thing that Marshall would find an intolerable intrusion on his prerogatives and responsibility. In allowing the civilians to carry the axe, the military leadership has backed away from an essential, core responsibility.
This and other examples have convinced me that there is a greater gulf than just attitudes about relief between Marshall, the founder of the modern Army, and the force today. One example points to the gulf between our attitudes today and Marshall's stern code. Ricks and others in the academic community have made much of an Army lieutenant colonel who publicly excoriated the Army's leadership during the confused and bloody days of 2005-2007. Despite this, the officer in question was promoted to colonel and subsequently retired (we retired colonels think that's a successful military career). In Marshall's officer corps, though, institutional loyalty had a much higher value. There is a story that Patton, as a guest in Marshall's home, pressed overmuch for the promotion of a colonel who had criticized some facet of the Army's mobilization. Marshall laid his fork down and said, roughly, "General Patton, you are a guest in my home. But I speak now as the Chief of Staff. This colonel has ruined himself by criticizing the Army at this difficult time. He will never be promoted. Never speak of this to me again." If we want to return to an Army with sterner, higher standards, as Tom suggests, then we will have to buy the whole package of a sterner military code and higher, and more restrictive, standards of deportment and institutional loyalty.
Robert Killebrew is a retired military officer and a senior visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.