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Debating a Failure of Generalship and Leadership

A fascinating online discussion between US Army intellectuals Colonel Gian Gentile, Colonel Paul Yingling and journalist and Iraq War veteran Carl Prine:

Paul Yingling  A Failure in Generalship  –AFJ

….Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war, America’s generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary to succeed in Iraq. The most fundamental military miscalculation in Iraq has been the failure to commit sufficient forces to provide security to Iraq’s population. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimated in its 1998 war plan that 380,000 troops would be necessary for an invasion of Iraq. Using operations in Bosnia and Kosovo as a model for predicting troop requirements, one Army study estimated a need for 470,000 troops. Alone among America’s generals, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki publicly stated that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Prior to the war, President Bush promised to give field commanders everything necessary for victory. Privately, many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in tell-all books such as “Fiasco” and “Cobra II.” However, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win, these leaders did not make their objections public.

Gian Gentile A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in GeneralshipSmall Wars Journal

….Perhaps you see it differently, but the failure that I see in American generalship in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (with precedence in Vietnam) is the idea that tactical and operational excellence through a certain brand of counterinsurgency (or any other form of tactical innovation) can rescue wars that ultimately are failures of strategy, or as Schlesinger more harshly puts it “national stupidity.”

In light of how you respond to these questions might you consider writing “A Failure of Generalship, Version 2” for Afghanistan?

If not, might you spell out the differences between what you saw as the failure of American generalship in Iraq from 2003-2006 with the past two years plus in Afghanistan.  In other words, how has American generalship been a failure in Iraq and not in Afghanistan?

Paul Yingling The Gentile-Yingling Dialogue: ISAF Exit Strategy – Neither International nor an Exit nor a Strategy – Small Wars Journal

….Those of us charged with strategic thinking ought to heed this example.  Imagine a failed Pakistan that results in a terrorist organization acquiring one or more nuclear weapons.  What would our response be in the aftermath of such a crisis?  What intelligence capabilities do we need to locate compromised nuclear materials?  What civil security and law enforcement measures might disrupt or minimize the impacts of such a threat?  What counter-proliferation capabilities are required to seize and render safe compromised nuclear weapons or materials?  Imagine further the capabilities required to avoid such a crisis.  What diplomatic measures might change the Pakistani strategic calculus that lends support to extremism?  What broader engagement with Pakistani civil society might render this troubled country less amenable to radical ideology?  Now imagine still further back to the institutional arrangements that generate national security capabilities.  Do we have the right priorities?  Are we buying the right equipment?  Are we selecting the right leaders?  Are we making the best use of increasingly scarce tax payer dollars?

Too often, what passes for strategic thought in the United States is actually a struggle among self-interested elites seeking political, commercial or bureaucratic advantage.  Such behavior is the privilege of a country that is both rich and safe.  However, a pattern of such behavior is self-correcting: no country that behaves this way will stay rich or safe for long.

Carl Prine A Colonel of Truth – Line of Departure

….Gentile and I agreed nevertheless that Yingling failed to seal the deal by naming names, something that would’ve allowed readers the chance to test empirically whether the LTC’s overall thesis had merit.  Here’s Yingling’s nutgraf, words scribbled during the worst days in Iraq when Gentile commanded a cavalry squadron in Baghdad and I was stuck in Anbar as a lowly infantry SPC:

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

….Perhaps because it was so brief, Yingling’s essay lacked subtlety.  It’s not true that America’s generals in Vietnam saw the conflict merely in terms of conventional warfare, although some surely did.  He spun a dubious bit of scholarship on Malaya by John Nagl into a larger argument about Cold War generals choosing to orient American arms toward highly kinetic campaigns – as if the threat of Soviet arms in Europe had nothing to do with that.  And he peppered his analysis with bromides that remain unproven, perhaps my favorite being the chestnut that “?opulation security is the most important measure of effectiveness in counterinsurgency.”

That read better in 2007 than it does today. But Yingling’s larger point held true:  America’s generals failed to adapt our shrinking forces to how policymakers might direct their use, even if there was a re-emphasis on operations other than conventional war both in practice (Kurdistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Somalia, Kovoso, Bosnia, Timor, Cambodia) and theory.

This is an important discussion because the failure of generalship is merely part of a larger paradigm of leadership by abdication and moral evasion that is corroding the fabric of American society to a degree not seen since the 1970’s. Or perhaps since the 1870’s. Colonel John Boyd once chided his brother officers for being willing to take a bullet for their country but not willing to risk their careers for their country. How much worse then is an elite civilian political class that grabs the largesse of government contracts with great gusto but is chronically unable to do the hard work of providing strategic leadership when in office?

Truman’s famous desk sign that indicated the buck stopped at his desk. To update the sign to fit the spirit of the times would require replacing it with a dead fish rotting from the head.

7 Responses to “Debating a Failure of Generalship and Leadership”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:


    Colonel John Boyd once chided his brother officers for being willing to take a bullet for their country but not willing to risk their careers for their country.

    That quote is simply astounding — a show stopper!  A simple, elegant map of the human terrain, right there!

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Charles- Yes, I thought it was quite strong. It was quoted by several different speakers last weekend in their presentations where there was a moral level component.

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    "To be or to do? Which way will you go?"
    All too often, in both public and private industry, the answer to John Boyd’s challenge is, "I wanna be ______" and it shows. Careerists of every stripe who simply refuse to think off the corporate/government template.
    Herodotus said, "Custom is king" and in the case of defense, groupthink is writ large and dominant—so much so that when Shinseki called for "hundreds of thousands" he was drummed out of town as disloyal. That instance is a frightening example of the madness of this sort of "thinking" and overcoming the phenomena will consume many careers until a few folks rise in spite of the herd to change the existing paradigm. 

  4. Carl Says:

    Also important:  What sort of figure one cuts in tights and codpiece.

  5. zen Says:

    All in favor of William Lind *not* wearing tights and a fourth generation codpiece, say "aye"

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:


  7. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Triple Aye!

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