The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders

As we enter the fifth year of our war in Iraq, it’s time to do a “rate the players” exercise — essential to understanding events and set our expectations.

A core competence is a combination of complementary skills and knowledge bases embedded in a group or team that results in the ability to execute one or more critical processes to a world class standard.
— From “Is your core competence A MIRAGE?“, Kevin P. Coyne, Stephen J. D. Hall and Patricia G. Clifford, McKinsey Quarterly, Issue 1 (1997)

General's hat

Why haven’t we lost in Iraq, yet?

There are two obvious reasons (there are other explanations, especially if you believe in “hidden histories”):

1. The Sunni Arab insurgents are dumb as rocks.

Despite their skill at making and using IED’s, their strategy reveals them to be both ignorant and stupid. They would win in six months if General Petraeus’ team switched sides. Or they could take the fast-track to success by reading about modern warfare, even if they relied only on authors whose name began with “M.” We would be in serious trouble if their leaders took some time off to read Mao Tse-Tung’s Basic Tactics and Martin van Creveld’s new book, The Changing Face of War.

As one of many possible overlooked routes to victory, they could wage an effective propaganda campaign around the world to highlight America’s killing of Iraq’s civilians. Doing so could be decisive, unlike their moronic use of suicide bombers to kill their Shia neighbors. (The truth and justice of the claim is irrelevant to the effectiveness as propaganda.)

This also demonstrates the folly of war by decentralized networks of fighters. Without competent leaders at the peak of a hierarchy to plan and direct its efforts, groups have an ability to set and achieve goals similar to that of gravel. A network’s collective intelligence increases with the size of the group just as it does with a colony of cherrystone clams.

2. The Sunni Arab insurgents are poor as church mice.

In four years of intense fighting they have not been able obtain any substantial anti-air capability. This shows limited ability to beg, borrow, or steal funds – and also proves that they receive little aid from their brothers in neighboring states, despite claims of the Bush Administration.

A serious anti-air capability might not prove decisive against the US, but would have improved their terms of engagement. US forces would either continue as is with greatly increased casualties, or adopt far less aggressive tactics.

What about those wily, tenacious, innovative insurgents?

After four years of fighting, an American-led coalition has so far avoided defeat by an unorganized, poor ethnic minority in a small state, which receives no significant outside aid.  Therefore our opponents must be very competent, which the evidence suggests is unlikely.  Or our top military leaders must be incompetent.

The Core Competency of our senior military leaders

The upper echelon of the US military establishment excels at producing industrial grade excuses and shifting blame. Excuses of mass destruction (EMD), they divert pressure that might otherwise lead to reform. Here the late Col. Hackworth was, as in so many things, prophetic.

“What’s new – and what ratchets up the risk – is that there are no more George Washington’s, U.S. Grant’s, John Pershings, George Marshalls, Matthew Ridgways, James Hollingsworths or Norman Schwarzkopfs in soldier suits. I can’t name a single serving Army, Navy or Air Force senior officer with even a fraction of the true-grit leadership of any of the above men. Our senior military leadership, less the Marine Corps, is bankrupt, kaput, fini. There are no more steel-jawed watchdogs, only slick, sweet-smelling lapdogs.

“Our current crop of star-wearers are mostly corporate CEO types, Perfumed Princes who got to the top by a sick system that’s become increasingly entrenched since the Korean War. Too many are mirror images of Gen. Wesley Clark, who strutted his stuff during the recent Serbian disaster. Clark’s now keeping busy blaming that pathetic showing on his former pals in the Pentagon, conveniently forgetting that as the commander in chief of the NATO forces, he had the option of resigning if not allowed to run his war his way.

“A George Marshall or Matthew Ridgway could turn our very sick military around before you can say: OUR KINDER, GENTLER MILITARY WILL LOSE THE NEXT WAR.”

— Col David H. Hackworth, “It only takes the right leader“, 1 July 2001

As a result, we have military leaders that cannot fight and win the most common wars of our era. Despite spending vast sums, many times that of our foes, our post-WWII military performance has ranged from poor to horrible. While analysis and proof of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this paper, these recent – small but telling – vignettes illustrate the nature of our problem.

First, a pity party for our senior generals

Skilled propaganda, with the aid of the American left, has convinced many Americans of the following script for the Iraq War:

  • Bush lied, people died.
  • Our senior generals at the Pentagon (with a few exceptions) were bullied into the war, sending our troops to die against their better judgment, forced to prepare and sign plans that they knew would fail.
  • Only after the disaster became obvious could retired senior generals tell us what we had already learned.

How sad that our highest ranking generals had to endure such treatment! Poor little puppies! Who could expect the Pentagon’s senior generals to stand tall against such threats to …their careers.

Second, the American Way of War

“My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”
— Private Detective Philip Marlowe in the movie “The Big Sleep” (1946)

The events surrounding the fall of Iraq’s capital are difficult to imagine, even after four years have passed. US forces again proved invincible on the field of battle. They rolled up to Baghdad, occupied it and waited for orders. Then the capitol fell into disorder, with looting and burning of key infrastructure.

Apparently the Pentagon’s senior generals — the best-educated generals ever to lead an Army — failed to prepare for one of history’s most common scenarios. As a result they read reports from their field commanders and watched as victory tipped over to what might become a crushing defeat. Perhaps for the next war our top generals’ briefing books should include DVD’s of War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. Watching the burning of Moscow and Atlanta might remind them to plan for this contingency.

It’s not yet clear why and how this occurred, except in one respect. Our military is a full member of 21st Century American society – no separate military culture here – and its top leaders produce excuses suitable for a Superpower, featuring the new American mantra: “It’s not our fault.” An expert at RAND said it well:

“While it can be argued that U.S. military planners could not have been expected to anticipate the emergence of an insurgency any more than they could have foreseen the widespread disorders, looting, and random violence that followed the fall of Baghdad, that is precisely the nub of the problem. The fact that military planners apparently didn’t consider the possibility that sustained and organized resistance could gather momentum and transform itself into an insurgency reflects a pathology that has long affected governments and militaries everywhere …”
— “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq“, Bruce Hoffman, RAND (2004)

RAND’s sponsors likely appreciated the diplomatic phrasing “while it can be argued”. Much nicer than suggesting that our generals should have foreseen the scenario that has dominated post-WW-II wars, guerrilla warfare against foreign occupiers.  Additional evidence for their incompetence is the failure to adequately scale up the military’s health care system as the war continued. This is clearly a failure that goes to the highest levels of the military.

Moral Courage

Some critics believe the above are examples not of our senior generals’ incompetence, but of obedience to their civilian superiors’ orders about the conduct of the war. That is, these critics accuse them of moral cowardice – putting their careers above the attainment of victory, with the lives of our troops squandered due to errors of omission and execution. Such issues are beyond the scope of this article. For more on this see the following:

  1. It only takes the right leader”, the late David H. Hackworth (Colonel, US Army), 1 July 2001
  2. Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq“, this site, 29 December 2005
  3. Fire the Generals!“, Douglas A. Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), posted at Defense and the National Interest, 30 April 2007
  4. A Failure in Generalship“, Paul Yingling (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army), Armed Forces Journal, May 2007
  5.  ”No General as Obama’s VP“, Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), Defense News, 30 June 2008


In the American political system the military services have a high degree of autonomy and respect. This puts substantial responsibility on our generals and admirals, who in return receive considerable rewards in both prestige and income (both pre- and post-retirement). Nor is America’s civilian leadership at present set up for detailed supervision of the military. If our top generals are unable to lead the military – that is, execute core functions like planning wars and providing medical care – then we must consider alternatives.

First, we could remove much of the military’s autonomy. Civilians – both appointed officials and civil servants – could take on many of the administrative functions now in the hands of generals and admirals. Procurement, medical care, personnel … a long list of the responsibilities could be transferred.

Second, we could make our senior military leaders explicitly at-will political appointees. This would demystify their roles and allow greater civilian control over military policy. (For example, even with behavior as outrageous as that of General MacArthur, President Truman did not dare move until he had the approval of the Joint Chiefs). This would allow responsibility to flow to the top, as it does in other governmental affairs. An unpleasant side effect of this, the odds would go to near-zero that the U.S. would ever again have a rational military strategy

Third, Congress and the Executive could force a wholesale replacement in the senior echelons of our uniformed leadership. If we are truly at war, there is ample precedent for this. The history of America’s wars suggests that our military success often requires firing underperforming generals. Contrast the performance of Union and Confederacy, or WWII vs. Vietnam and Iraq. We could look for replacements among our successful field commanders in Iraq.

Structural Reform

Changing senior people is often a necessary first step to policy reform, and the easiest.  Of course, these are not mutually exclusive courses of action.  A President could do all three, forcing retirement of her senior military leadership and replacing them with loyal lackeys.  That would be change, although not necessarily “reform.” If the problem lies in the structure and organization of our military, then more radical measures might be required.

America’s good fortune might soon change for the worse.

Only good luck has prevented our defeat by a poor and stupidly led minority group in a small state. Yet. This is discouraging and ominous. We might not be so lucky in the future. Here are a few of the many easily-imaginable changes that could tilt the strategic balance.

  1. In a few years an English-language Al-Jazeera might become a standard part of the cable package in first world homes. This will make it difficult for us to fight Islamic insurgencies. Today most Americans see only our side of the story.
  2. In the next decade all but the most trivial insurgencies will have serious anti-air resources – much as RPG’s are ubiquitous today. This will make it difficult to defeat insurgencies.
  3. Most important, at some point our foes will have an “Insurgent’s Handbook”, as the present era of 4GW experimentation and innovation matures into consolidation and standardization – as Mao did with guerilla warfare. After that our 4GW foes will become much more effective (more on this in the next chapter of this series).

These developments would limit our ability to project power over the globe. The first might be decisive. Owning the moral high ground has provided a crucial advantage in many wars. It weakened the UK’s willingness to fight during the American Revolution, and was a key factor limiting their aid to the Confederacy during the Civil war. It gained America’s support for the Allies in WWI, and destroyed the American people’s support for the Vietnam War.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Some posts about the war in Iraq:

  1. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
  2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007
  3. Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
  4. Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008

6 thoughts on “The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders”

  1. I couldn’t agree more about the moral courage part. Gen Shinseki showed some and got fired by Rumsfeld. That sent a chill across the General Officer corps. The rampant careerist choose to shut up and ignore the civil war/insurgency because they didn’t want to make Rummy upset.

    As for an english version of Al-Jazeera, we already have that. It’s called CNN or any of the other left wing kool-aid machine networks. However, the point is still valid. More competition for our IO campaign.
    Fabius Maximus replies: By foreign standards (e.g., UK, Europe), the political spectrum in America’s mainstream media is very narrow. If you consider CNN to be like Al-Jazeera, you have not watched much of the latter.

  2. Hackworth really was on top of the modern military disease. The talents that prosper are fitted to politics and budgets, not tactics, strategy and logistics. It may have been an advantage to the nation that we dismantled the military quickly after conflict. When we had to bring it back fast, we somehow got the right skillsets.

    Mr Lind has pointed out that we stand a good chance of getting our ass handed to us in either Iraq, if Israel attacks Iran, or Afgahnistan if we stay there. That sort of lesson may help reshape the officer corps, although in the present political environment of spin it may not be for the better.

  3. Pingback: William Lind explains one reason our military can't win wars - Fabius Maximus website (blog) | Bible Prophecy In The Daily Headlines

  4. Ironically, this article demonstrates a failure to understand the war as great as that of the generals it accuses. No, the enemy were not incompetent. What the author failed to understand was that the USA was not the primary enemy for the insurgents. The Sunni and Shia were both primarily focused on each other. That the USA would leave was taken for granted: the focus for each side was positioning themselves for when that happened. Which could mean avoiding conflict or even directing conflict with the USA at the other side.

    1. Jay,

      We lost. Big-time. After a large investment of live and money. Get over it.

      Excuses don’t help.

      Understanding why we lost could help prevent more defeats in the future. But we won’t learn, so more disasters lie in our future.

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