Our Army, under attack on many fronts, fights to maintain its integrity and cohesion

Summary:  The US Army is under attack.  The stress of the long war — loss of confidence in its leadership, family problems from the long war, potential loss of internal cohesion if forced to substantially downsize. A corrupt and too-often incompetent corps of senior generals. Gangs seeking to undermine its integrity from within. And the internal rot of values common to long wars, especially bad ones.  The good news: they’re fighting back. At the end are links to other posts in this series.


One of the long themes on the FM website since the first posts in 2003 has been descriptions of the Army’s fight for its future and soul. Under attack from all sides, this week we’ll look at some good news. One of Army’s worst problems has been the weakness of its senior generals — too-often corrupt, self-serving, or incompetent.  These things have been obvious for decades (see section 3 of An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports). Recent reports show that the Army has begun to recognize and respond. Here we look at two such articles.

First, this excellent and important article describes the problem

General Failure“, By Tom Ricks (Center for a New American Security), The Atlantic, November 2012 — Please click on the title and read this in full!

Summary: Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank—if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.


Generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. During World War II, senior American commanders typically were given a few months to succeed, or they’d be replaced. Sixteen out of the 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat were relieved for cause, along with at least five corps commanders.

Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars — each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history — and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


General George Marshall looks down on our Army. What does he think of what he sees?

To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers, placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished, creating a perverse incentive system that drives leaders toward a risk-averse middle where they are more likely to find stalemate than victory. A few high-profile successes, such as those of General David Petraeus in Iraq, may temporarily mask this systemic problem, but they do not solve it.

Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military. The Bush administration has been roundly (and fairly) criticized for its delusive approach to the war in Iraq and its neglect of the war in Afghanistan. Yet the serious failures of our military leaders in these conflicts have escaped almost all notice. No one is pushing those leaders to step back and examine the shortcomings of their institution. These are dangerous developments. Unaddressed, they could lead to further failures in future wars.

Second, lancing the boil begins the cure — taking the first step in a long process

Accusations against generals cast dark shadow over Army“, Washington Post, 26 October 2012. Again, please click on the title and read this in full! Note the statement by Army Chief of Staff Odierno in the last paragraph.  This could mark the reform of the US Army, much as they re-invented themselves after Vietnam (red emphasis added);

The accusations leveled against 3 Army generals over the past 6 months are as varied as they are striking, the highest-profile of a growing number of allegations of wrongdoing by senior military officials. A one-star general was flown home from Afghanistan this spring to face criminal charges, including sexual assault. A four-star general formerly in charge of the increasingly vital Africa command was accused of financial mismanagement, accepting inappropriate gifts and assigning staff personal tasks. And a three-star general who oversees the U.S. Missile Defense Agency was described in an inspector general report as an abrasive and verbally abusive boss.

The investigations have become an embarrassment for the Army, raising questions about how thoroughly the military has screened senior leaders before putting them in crucial assignments. The Defense Department’s inspector general reviewed 38 cases of alleged wrongdoing by senior officials in 2011, and substantiated the accusations in nearly 40 percent of the them, up from 21 percent in 2007. The total caseload this year is on track to exceed last year’s.

“It’s always concerning when senior leaders have issues, because we have very specific faith in senior leaders,” Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said in a recent interview. Odierno said all such cases are taken seriously, but argued that “we can’t allow a few to detract from the honorable service of many.”

The investigation into Gen. William E. Ward, the former chief of Africa Command, is being closely watched at the Pentagon, where rank-and-file officers wonder aloud whether senior leaders will be reticent to punish one of their own. A June 26 report, compiled after investigators pored through a trove of e-mails and expense reports, portrays a general using taxpayer funds to support a high-rolling lifestyle.  The inspector general concluded that Ward used government funds to pay for personal travel expenses; assigned staff to run errands for him and his wife; and accepted meals and Broadway tickets from a defense contractor, in violation of Pentagon rules. The inspector general’s report says he wasted and misused tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

… The inspector general’s conclusions on Ward were released 2 months before the agency issued a report documenting allegations that Lt. Gen. Patrick J O’Reilly created a toxic atmosphere at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) by berating staff members. Quoting a witness, the inspector general’s report described his style as “management by blowtorch and pliers.” Staffers at the MDA, the agency tasked with keeping the United States safe from missile attacks, described a culture of fear and low morale, in one case citing as an example a senior staff meeting during which O’Reilly called subordinates “a bunch of goddamned idiots,” according to the report.

… The case that came to light most recently involved the criminal investigation against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, who was removed from his job as the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in May and flown home from Afghanistan.  Although the military has released few details about the investigation, officials at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the 82nd is based, released a summary of the criminal charges filed against him last month. They include forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct, engaging in inappropriate relationships, misusing a government charge card and possessing alcohol and pornography while deployed.

“This is not a good-old-boy’s club,” Odierno said this week during a news conference at an Army convention in Washington. “When you do something wrong you will be held accountable.”

Thomas E. Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Generals, out this month.

Other posts in this series about the US Army

  1. US Army – the antidote to US civil disorder, 3 January 2009
  2. What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?, 29 April 2012 — By Doug Macgregor
  3. Our Army, under attack on many fronts, fights to maintain its integrity and cohesion, 29 October 2012
  4. The US army under attack by internal foes, but responds quickly, 31 October 2012
  5. A look at the Army’s plans to adapt to the 21st century, 2 November 2012

For More Information

(a)  For all posts about the US Army see these FM Reference Pages:

(b)  Posts about the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders, 27 May 2007
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008
  3. Obama vs. the Generals, 1 October 2010
  4. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired), 2 May 2011
  5. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!, 12 February 2012

(c)  The long solution: training officers who have integrity and adaptability.  Don Vandergriff is the point of this spear.

Here are links to posts by Don, or about his work:

  1. Recommended reading: transforming the Army, the hard way, 15 January 2008
  2. Recommendation to read: “Is Warfighting Enough” by Richards and Vandergriff, 25 January 2008
  3. 4GW: A solution of the third kind, 24 March 2008
  4. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”, 15 July 2010
  5. Preface to Manning the Future Legions of the United States: Finding and Developing Tomorrow’s Centurions, 16 July 2010
  6. Training of officers, a key step for the forging of an effective military force, 17 July 2010
  7. Petraeus’s Baby, 21 July 2010
  8. Afghanistan war logs: Shattering the illusion of a bloodless victory, 28 July 2010
  9. Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century, 13 August 2010
  10. Leadership in action: when resource constraints meet conspicuous consumption, we just ignore the problem, 17 September 2010
  11. See links to his works at The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff.



19 thoughts on “Our Army, under attack on many fronts, fights to maintain its integrity and cohesion”

  1. A couple of thoughts — shot from the hip.

    1) The kind of ineptitude being reported looks a lot like the ineptitude reported elsewhere throughout governmental agencies (FEMA, DHS, TSA, EPA, CFTC, FDA…).

    2) Generals are a political matter. At the very top they, because they deal with issues such as whether to make war or not, to surge or not, to carry a war in such or such way, resource allocation, budget, etc, and at a lower level because of the revolving door between military and contractors working for the government.

    3) As a consequence, it is difficult to envision an endogenous culture of excellence in the upper levels of the military, if this culture and the people staffing these levels are largely determined and selected through political processes — and politics seems to be a place where “a risk-averse middle” “culture of mediocrity has taken hold”.

  2. Burke G Sheppard

    I think one reason why there are fewer reliefs may be related to the circumstances under which some wars have been undertaken. If an Administration wages a war with questionable political support, or if it wages an optional war where there is no existential threat, then it may fear the adverse publicity that accompanies a relief more than the possible damage an incompetent Generl might do. This may be esepcially true if the enemy is incapable of defeating our forces in high intensity conventional combat, but still has the capability of frustrating our campaign in other ways.

    If our military suffers a Pearl Harbor, or a First Manassas, then the need to relieve commanders for cause will be undeniable. If the war in question enjoys broad public support and is fought for reasons that the public understands and accepts, then the public will likely understand if a commander is relieved for cause, and will support that relief. If the military is able to avoid defeats in a major stand up battle in wars fought with limited support or for dubious reasons, then an incompetent man may be allowed to soldier on rather than risk raising questions about means or strategy that embarrass the people who undertook the war.

    If you have read the book Ministry of Defeat, you know that the British Army failed pretty wretchedly in the occupation of Basra, but I don’t recall anyone ever being sacked or it. This problem may not be unique to us.

    Finally, if an Administration has micromanaged its commanders, they may not relieve a failed commander if doing so would call attention to their own complicity in what happened.

  3. Certainly one of the great ironies of the Versailles Treaty of 1919 was that it forced Germany to reduce its army to 100,00 men, thereby forcing them to get rid of most of their dead wood. Meanwhile, the French and British Armies were chock full of dead wood when they faced the Germans again in 1940.

    1. “the French and British Armies were chock full of dead wood when they faced the Germans again in 1940”

      Indeed, by then the dead wood had floated to the top, if I may abuse your analogy further.

    2. To claim that the reduction of the German armed forces to 100.000 men allowed v. Seeckt to get rid of dead wood is nonsense: After 4 years of war usually against competend enemies he had for each officer and NCO slot even after having sorted out soldiers on the far left and far right political spectrum around 14 competent candidates, i.e. he could have easily maintained the pre-war strength and could have gained quality at the same time.

      Why did many of the German officers become quite good at the oprational level? They had between 1919 and 1932 almost no chance to get promoted and had many time to think about military problems and to do experiments, based on thier their real world experience earned in the hard way.

      BTW: Even before the Versaille treaty v. Seeckt had proposed a force structure that was quite different from the pre-war structure because he clearly understood the influence of technological developement on the ability to maintain a peace time mass army: In time of rapid technological changes only a small army makes sense or you loose the technological leadership. Combine this with the long mandatory service time (imposed by the French) for enlisted men and NCOs, the structure of the Reichswehr – a pool of future unit leaders – explains a lot.

      The French and UK forces lost their campaign in the winter 1939/40, when the German army after quite unfavourable assessment of the German performance in the Poland campaign initiated a training program which led to the quality improvements in spring 1940. The best source here is Frieser “Die Blitzkriegslegende/The Blitzkrieg Legend”.

  4. Is the military any different from the rest of society?

    Journalists who helped mislead the public into Iraq; Bankers who engineered the 2008 politicians who have bungled everything, etc. remain ensconced.

    If anything, their hold has solidified. A cynic might argue that the actual war objective has been to maintain and solidify their position rather than to succeed in the battlefield.

    This is apt to continue indefinitely until some external force ends it;. I personally predict that a cutoff of Chinese funding either because of its deliberate choice or because of some economic disruption will pull the plug. But some sort of cyber / drone type attack, based upon innovations in weaponry, could also happen.

  5. Let us hope and pray that the US Army (and Navy and Air Force) continues to fail. The world needs a long, long, rest from American and her “defenses.”

    1. I understand the perspective Sven shares with us, but cannot agree with it. I do wish that we more wisely use the sharp sword that our men and women in uniform have gifted to us. Too often since WWII their sacrifices and valor have been expended in vain causes.

      That does not reflect badly on them, who serve in the wars we send them to. Rather it says much about us, who bear responsibility for the deeds of the Republic, as a Captain does for his ship.

  6. “Too often?” Or always? As in “inevitably”; for reasons Smedley Butler made clear a long time ago, and to which you can now add the influence of the CIA and a rather larger armaments industry in cahoots with a much bigger government than during Butler’s day, and to which you can also add assistance in the world cocaine trade.. But of course, who listens to all that? Like trying to stop an avalanche.

    “The sharp sword that our men and women in uniform have gifted to us.” Oh please! Like the imbecile officer in Iraq who said these gift-bearing men and women were “doing God’s work?” Like Falluja? Like the thousand bases that are “protecting our freedoms?” Like the several million dead and agent oranged-destroyed Vietnam and Laos? Like the drone bombing of countless civilians? One could just go on and on and on. It has always been the same: from the treachery of the Pilgrims towards the Indians, to Wounded Knee, to the land grabs in the West and Southwest, to the invasions of the Philippines, all the way to the fire bombing of Dresden, to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to Korea, to Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Yemen and Syria. It didn’t even stop here: the Civil War killed more of its own citizens than US troops in WWII! The US is essentially, not accidentally, essentially a predator nation.

    And it does “reflect badly on them.” On their stupidity, their ignorance, their inexcusable acts of brutality.Too dumbed-down to know even how to spell Afghanistan or be able to locate it on a map; too ignorant of any history; too knuckle-dragging gung-ho to understand that there is no good reason for invading a foreign land and killing its people just because your “leader” told you it was a glorious thing; too stupid and degenerate to understand that you are essentially being given leave to murder strangers without realizing the real reasons you are there and further, encouraged to demonize and hate them; too primitive and barbaric overall. So yes, it does reflect very badly on them.

    And what hypocrisy; the truth is that the army is the way out of America’s slums for the very many gently bred slum dwellers and other increasingly unemployed youth of our glorious “republic”–or rather, republik. America’s glorification of its military and militarism is just another glaring instance of its warped mentality.

    1. I think Sven has unrealistically high expectations of an army, let alone a citizen army. When he dies and goes to Heaven he’ll find troops that perhaps meet his standards. However, judging from the Old Testament, perhaps not.

      (1) “Like the imbecile officer in Iraq who said these gift-bearing men and women were “doing God’s work?””

      I don’t believe one can generalize from isolated stories such as this, no matter how much fun it is to do so. It’s called “annec-data” for good reason.

      (2) “Like Falluja? Like the thousand bases that are “protecting our freedoms?” Like the several million dead and agent oranged-destroyed Vietnam and Laos? Like the drone bombing of countless civilians”

      These people are sent over there to do a job, using guns. Don’t expect them to become social workers, or hold them responsible for the resulting carnage. The responsibility is ours, who sent them. When we assume that responsibility, perhaps these things will happen less often.

      (2) “It didn’t even stop here: the Civil War killed more of its own citizens than US troops in WWII!”

      What is the point of this rant? Nothing is visible to me, other than the self-righteousness. Does it feel good?

      (3) “Too dumbed-down to know even how to spell Afghanistan or be able to locate it on a map; too ignorant of any history”

      Sven is disappointed in the education levels of our troops. How sad. Does he suggest we raise the pay sufficiently to get more educated troops? Perhaps we should instead focus on using our military in a more purely defensive manner, avoiding the need for expeditions to foreign lands — where the odds of success have proven to be so low since WW2.

      (4) “too knuckle-dragging gung-ho to understand that there is no good reason for invading a foreign land and killing its people just because your “leader” told you it was a glorious thing”

      Now Sven advocates that our troops cut themselves loose from civilian control, instead exercising their own judgement as to how our military power should be used. Let’s hope he doesn’t get his wish. I doubt he’d rejoice in the resulting politically active military.

      Be careful what you which for. The Blue Fairy might grant your wish.

  7. I do? Tell me more.

    I do naively and foolishly believe it is possible to generalize–since there is a raft of other material corroborating the existence of this attitude. Your idea that it is was fun for me is of course a stupid assumption. But why go on? You will weasel your way out of a tight spot. Enjoy your retirement saving your army and the “job” “our boys and girls in uniform” are doing, and in general, saving the republic. However, before leaving your luminous blog, I will take into account your brave efforts in trying to show me the error of my ways: the unthinking and ludicrous ranting depicting the historical continuities in our barbaric culture and behavior. I will seriously reconsider retracting my silly wishes to the Blue Fairy.

    1. Some people rebel at the trynny of specific history, in the sense of specific names and dates. Some embrace these as the first step towards reason. This is perhaps one of the great division among people.

  8. Agreed! A thousand bases, defeat in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan; atrocity of Falluja, bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, agent orange disaster in Vietnam and Laos, “regime change” in countries–it just goes on and on. All unspecific. Wild generalizations. Unreasonable. A step back from reason. You want reason? Abandon yours, close your eyes, and follow FB. Heil Fabius!

    1. The problem with rants like Sven’s, which makes them a waste of time to attempt to discuss, is that they’re shapeless things. Attempts to sort them into specifics, as I did in the previous comments, are ignored.

      It’s like arguing with a hysteric. They shout and rave. Responses are ignored, bringing forth more raving.

      Sven, can you state my view about the evolution of US for iron policy since the civil war?

  9. FB, I don’t give a hoot about your view about anything, any more than you care for my view about anything. However, I am literate, and you know perfectly well that the historical incidents I am referencing are quite specific. I am through with you.

    1. Sven,

      We are not telepathic. If you have specifics, then state them. Rants convince nobody.

      My position, since I doubt you see it, was that US public policy has evolved since the civil war. In stages, although that is somewhat of a narrative convenience.

      From territorial expansion and aiding private interests to crusades against evil (for confused motives in WW1, clearer motives in WW2), to a internationalist dream of a better world order (with the US as a benign hegemon), corrupted slowly after the mid-1950s into a mad unprofitable empire (supported by and supporting a large body of parasitic business interests).

      While experts differ on the specific narrative, the general nature of this view is a commonplace among historians. Why you find it so objectionable is unclear.

  10. I think Sven’s position seems to be that irrespective of the changes of foreign policy to which you refer, the US activity abroad–and prior to that, in relation to the indigenous peoples–has been largely predatory and violent–as per Butler–and that that has not changed. I think your differences are that you view the US has a basically good guy gone bad, whereas Sven views the US as as fundamentally a bad guy. To quibble over the so-called specifics in this is to miss the general thrust of that conversation, I think.

    1. That’s an interesting perspective!

      “you view the US has a basically good guy gone bad, whereas Sven views the US as as fundamentally a bad guy.”

      I agree about Sven’s view. I consider the question somewhere between meaningless and impossible to determine. I don’t believe that nations have a fundamental essence, that scales exist on Earth that can weigh them, or that a nation’s moral weight is unchanging.

      The history of 19th century is horrific. Violence against native Americans, against slaves, against workers (eg, unions, small farmers). How does God put that in the balance against our good deeds after WWII, or our increasing misuse of our power since (to pick an arbitrary date) 1970?

      To restate what I’ve said, these attempts to blur our history are political tools to blind us, making us more easily manipulated by Left — or Right. Our history is who we are, and we shouldn’t let people steal it by reducing it to a cartoon of good or evil.

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