Why Our Generals Don't Win

Stars and shoulder marks are prepared for a promotion ceremony
Stars and shoulder marks are prepared for a promotion ceremony (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt. Col. Robert Couse-Baker)

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Operation Desert Storm was the last major conflict that the United States clearly won. It is no coincidence that it was also the last war directed by general officers who were not products of the Goldwater-Nichols and Skelton Panel professional military reforms in military structure and education.

Those "reforms" have resulted in an Army that could not organize an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, a Navy that has failed to build enough attack submarines to credibly deter or defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and a Marine Corps that willingly castrated itself in an idiotic new strategy called Force Design 2030.

These misbegotten reforms laid the groundwork for bloated joint staffs that cannot get out of their own way, and general officers who cannot coherently plan or lead major wars and campaigns. This piece will examine the baleful legacy of Goldwater-Nichols.

The American failure in Vietnam. closely followed by the debacle of Desert One -- the failed Iran hostage rescue mission, caused lawmakers to question the overall competence of the American military, but particularly our ability to have the services fight as joint forces. This coincided with the publication of "A Genius for War" by Army Col. Trevor Dupuy, who argued that the German General Staff system provided a model for institutionalizing military excellence that our American services had lacked when dealing with the Vietnamese and Iranians. The reformers argued that the quality of selection and education of joint staff organizations had to be improved.

It was true that the services were not sending their best and brightest to joint staff duty and that senior service schools were largely not rigorous, being viewed as a year off for competitive officers from rigorous duty in the field or at sea. Unfortunately, the cure our politicians and armchair academic strategists developed turned out to be worse than the disease itself.

First, the Goldwater-Nichols legislation dictated that all future general and flag officer aspirants would have to serve at least one tour on a joint staff. That created some unintended consequences that are now haunting us.

Every joint staff grew exponentially to accommodate all the midgrade officers competing for flag rank, and there is no empirical evidence serving in a role like the graves registration officer at Central Command will make someone fit to rise to high command.

Erwin Rommel's Panzer army that overran most of North Africa was a tiny fraction of the size of the staffs that infest major U.S. military commands, like those in Tampa and Honolulu today. Rommel himself was not a product of the German General Staff system. Rather, he was one of those largely self-taught savants that frequently pop up in military history.

The second problem that Goldwater-Nichols created was a generation of officers who are a mile wide and an inch deep in the experience of their craft. If a lieutenant colonel or Navy commander wants to achieve flag rank, he or she must have punched several service- and Goldwater-Nichols-mandated tickets in about seven years. These are battalion/ship command, war college, a joint staff tour, and colonel/naval captain-level major command. The resulting officers are largely jacks of all trades and masters of none.

At no point have most of them been required to be the chief of staff or operations officer of a major service command; that is where the real mastery of grand tactics and operational art is learned and practiced. Is it any wonder that our generals could not effectively choose between Kabul International Airport and Bagram Air Base as the port of embarkation for our "cut and run" operation from Afghanistan, a decision that resulted in a nearly indefensible position as troops were overwhelmed by a humanitarian crisis?

Over the course of two decades, I spent time in Afghanistan as a civilian adviser watching a revolving door of military mediocrities acting as NATO commanders ignore the real problems of the war. While spending their time aimlessly wandering about the country handing out challenge coins to their adoring -- if somewhat puzzled -- troops, they failed to realize that the rural population was not buying what we were selling.

A few such senior generals, such as Jim Mattis and David Petraeus, tried to change the strategy but were frustrated by the stubborn incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government and its military. Petraeus at least managed to prevent Iraq from becoming a complete fiasco.

Those of us who spoke out against the Goldwater-Nichols legislation in the 1980s have proved to be right. I argued against the concept in The Washington Post, as did then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.

We need to modify Goldwater-Nichols now. There is nothing wrong with requiring officers to be familiar with the joint planning system; that is a mere process and can be easily taught at service and joint schools. If the services were required to send only the top 10% of field-grade officers to joint staffs annually, the size of these staffs could be slashed without sacrificing quality.

A military professional must be a master of his trade. Ulysses Grant, John Pershing, Dwight Eisenhower and Chester Nimitz never served as joint officers before leading great armies and fleets to victory. Each spent years in the trenches learning his craft. We do not need more ticket punchers; we have railroad conductors for that.

-- Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who served as a special adviser to the deputy secretary of defense and did several tours as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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