William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.

Summary: Concluding this series about our senior military leaders we have a typically brilliant and brutal analysis by William Lind. This would have been shocking news in 2000; a decade of failed wars show it to be the simple truth. We can do better, but the Pentagon will not reform without pressure from us.  Rightly so; it’s a professional military — but it’s our responsibility.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Chabrias said that the best commanders were those who understood their enemies. … He also said that an army of stags led by a lion was more formidable than an army of lions led by a stag.”

— From “The Sayings of Kings and Great Commanders” by Plutarch (46-120). Chabrias was a great Athenian general (d 357 BC). It need not be either of these choices; we can have lions led by lions — and even a few generals who understand our foes.

Lions led by donkeys

Rank Incompetence

By William S. Lind
The American Conservative, January/February 2013
Posted with the generous permission of the author and the TAC.“

It was tragic that the career of General David Petraeus was brought down by a mere affair. It should have ended several years earlier as a consequence of his failure as our commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus, like every other theater commander in that war except Stanley McChrystal, could have been replaced by a concrete block and nothing would have changed. They all kept doing the same things while expecting a different result.

Thomas Ricks’s recent book The Generals has reintroduced into the defense debate a vital factor the press and politicians collude in ignoring: military incompetence. It was a major theme of the Military Reform Movement of the 1970s and ’80s. During those years, a friend of mine who was an aide to a Marine Corps commandant asked his boss how many Marine generals, of whom there were then 60-some, could competently fight a battle. The commandant came up with six. And the Marine Corps is the best of our services.

Military incompetence does not begin at the rank of brigadier general. An old French proverb says that the problem with the generals is that we select them from among the colonels. Nonetheless, military competence — the ability to see quickly what to do in a military situation and make it happen — is more rare at the general officer level. A curious aspect of our promotion system is that the higher the rank, the smaller the percentage of our competent officers.

Versailles on the Potomac
Versailles on the Potomac / Getty Images

Why is military incompetence so widespread at the higher levels of America’s armed forces? Speaking from my own observations over almost 40 years, I can identify two factors. First, nowhere does our vast, multi-billion dollar military-education system teach military judgment. Second, above the rank of Army, Marine Corps, or Air Force captain, military ability plays essentially no role in determining who gets promoted. (It has been so long since our Navy fought another navy that, apart from the aviators, military competence does not seem to be a consideration at any level.)

Almost never do our military schools, academies, and colleges put students in situations where they have to think through how to fight a battle or a campaign, then get critiqued not on their answer but the way they think. Nor does American military training offer much free play, where the enemy can do whatever he wants and critique draws out why one side won and the other lost. Instead, training exercises are scripted as if we are training an opera company. The schools teach a combination of staff process and sophomore-level college courses in government and international relations. No one is taught how to be a commander in combat. One Army lieutenant colonel recently wrote me that he got angry when he figured out that nothing he needs to know to command would be taught to him in any Army school.

The promotion system reinforces professional ignorance. Above the company grades, military ability does not count in determining who gets promoted. At the rank of major, officers are supposed to accept that the “real world” is the internal world of budget and promotion politics, not war. Those who “don’t get it” have ever smaller chances of making general. This represents corruption of the worst kind, corruption of institutional purpose. Its result is generals and admirals who are in effect Soviet industrial managers in ever worse-looking suits. They know little and care less about their intended product, military victory. Their expertise is in acquiring resources and playing the military courtier.

Military spending

When one of these milicrats gets a wartime command of a division, a corps, or a theater, he does not suddenly confront the fact that he does not know his business. He lives in a bubble, a veritable Persian court of staff officers who make sure bad news is minimized and military decisions are reduced to three “staff options,” two of which are insane while the third represents doing more of the same. The “commander,” or more accurately chairman, blesses the option the staff wants and retires to his harem (sorry, Dave). If the result is another lost war, the general’s career suffers not at all. He may go on to become the chief of staff of his service or, in Petraeus’s case, director of the CIA. As Army lieutenant colonel Paul Yingling wrote at the height of the Iraq debacle, a private who loses his rifle suffers more than does a general who loses a war.

America’s military did not fail in Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan because its budget was too small, nor because it lacked sufficient high-tech gizmos, nor because the privates and sergeants screwed up. Part of the blame belongs to civilians who set unrealistic military objectives. But a good part should go to America’s generals, far too many of whom have proven militarily incompetent. A serious country should do something about that.


William S. Lind
William S. Lind

(2) About the author

William S. Lind s director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. He has a Master’s Degree in History from Princeton University in 1971. He worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 through 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 through 1986. See his bio at Wikipedia

Mr. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook (1985), co-author with Gary Hart of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (1986), and co-author with William H. Marshner of Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda (1987).

In April 1995 Lind published “Militant musings: From nightmare 1995 to my utopian 2050” in The Washington Post. He speculated about a future in which multiculturalism had broken apart the USA: a second civil war, followed by a recovery of our traditional Christian culture led by a new country: Victoria (i.e., it adopted Victorian values). He’s expanded this into a book: Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War, published under the pseudonym “Thomas Hobbes” (the theorist of the nation-state; author of Leviathan.

He’s perhaps best known for his articles about the long war, now published as On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009. See his other articles about a broad range of subjects…

  1. Posts at TraditionalRight.
  2. His articles about geopolitics at The American Conservative.
  3. His articles about transportation at The American Conservative.

For More Information

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

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders.
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it.
  3. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!.
  5. How many generals would Lincoln have fired to win in Iraq & Afghanistan?

(b)  Other posts about our senior officers:

  1. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? By Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
  2. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  3. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.


15 thoughts on “William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.”

  1. Fabius:
    I am trying to wrap my mind around the series of recent articles about the military and 4GW and the concept of winning. I have no particular insight into, nor knowledge of any of the areas you have covered. I agree that our military is grossly bloated and am only too willing to accept that the officers poorly trained and incompetent.

    What concerns me is that there seems to be an underlying assumption (particularly in this Lind article), that with competent officers and a better military, we could somehow have a “win” in Iraq or Somalia and Yemen. From my perspective, these situations have no military solution whatsoever, no matter how competent the organization may be. The only way to win would be to avoid being there at all.

    So, to what end is the military to be more competent? More competent at destroying societies and peoples? What does it mean to win at 4GW? Does it mean we can destroy ISIS and cause those Sunni to bow to our will? Please help me understand this. Thanks.

    1. James,

      That’s easily a best of thread comment. Perhaps best of year comment. Let’s step back. The US military was an adaptive organization, as seen from the Indian Wars to WWII. As Rommel said:

      “In Tunisia the Americans had to pay a stiff price for their experience, but it brought rich dividends. Even at that time, the American generals showed themselves to be very advanced in the tactical handling of their forces, although we had to wait until the Patton Army in France to see the most astonishing achievements in mobile warfare. {The Rommel Papers, 1953}”

      What does a learning organization do when face with a new problem, with no obvious solution? An un-learning organization does the same old thing, failing repeatedly (e.g., the UK Army in WWI, the US from Vietnam through today). A learning organization doesn’t burn resources — especially its people in failing efforts. It innovates, working cautiously until a solution is found.

      Nobody has found a solution to 4GW by foreign troops (the more foreign, the less effective). So we should rely on proven methods: material support, training, raising militia forces from the locals. Perhaps supplemented with US airpower, and special ops on the ground. This combo — money, bombing, spec ops — overthrew the Taliban — although the paramount role of money (buying local leaders) remains unrecognized by the public. Meanwhile small scale trials of new tactic might broaden our range of tools in these conflicts.

    2. If I understood the comment by James correctly, FM answered only half of the question. The issue is why do we want a more intelligently led military if it is to implement the same policies? In order to devastate foreign countries on false pretenses more efficiently?

  2. Your quotation is a bit tangled up.
    “I should prefer an army of stags led by a lion, to an army of lions led by a stag.” (Chabrias)
    “An army of sheep led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a sheep.” (Alexander?)

  3. The UK army didn’t keep doing the same thing in WW1. That is a myth. (We know it as the Blackadder myth, now.) They changed tactics considerably, even though the results of the changes were not as spectacular as they hoped.

    When the US Army arrived, the British explained the latest tactics. The US Army refused to learn them from the British, and insisted on attempting the 1914 tactics the British had abandoned.

    1. RoHa,

      I am familiar with the debate, and the love of historians for re-casting history every generation or so. Like women’s skirt lengths. In this case it is imo absurd.

      Yes, there was innovation of various forms by the Brits. Nothing is black and white. But the red is decisive in this case.

      I’ll give just one example. On 1 July 1916 General Haig unleashed his troops at the Battle of the Somme, using tactics already proven ineffective. By nightfall they had taken almost 60 thousand casualties, with near-zero gains.

      He then continued the same play for another’s 140 days, with 624 thousand casualties in exchange for six miles advance. A horrific FAILure to learn.

      There were small uses of new tech: tanks, gas, and planes. But the overall tactics were the usual.

      The people then and there spoke of lions led by donkeys, and nothing has been learned since to change that verdict.

  4. An account of the changes in tactics here.

    It is true that sometimes commanders reverted to the old tactics, but it is also true that sometimes the new tactics were not used as effectively as they could have been (the armies were still learning) and sometimes new and old were mixed together. (This seems to have been the case at the Somme.) And lessons were learned from that battle, too.

    And the nature of the weapons used were such that even with improved tactics, the slaughter was still horrific.

    I might add that the US army in Vietnam refused to adopt the tactics used by the Australians, even though the Australian tactics were more effective, as well as resulting in proportionally fewer casualties among Australian soldiers and Vietnamese civilians.

    1. RoHa,

      I’m uninterested in re-fighting WWI. If you think the donkeys leading lions verdict will be reversed over time, fine. Spending 620 thousand lives in 141 days for six miles does not obviously show a learning organization, especially after the op has essentially failed by the end of day one.

      As for the super-duper Aussie tactics in Vietnam, such claims are a staple of the now 60+ year long history of foreign armies fighting local 4GW foes. Although they almost always have lost, there is always some group — sometimes a genius charismatic leader — who had methods that could have won. If only…

      If only…

      Again — the verdict is rendered by results, not claims of what-if.

    2. RoHa,

      The article focuses more on new tech than tactics. New methods of small and large unit movement did develop to utilize the rapid flow of new weapons. But these were applied in a largely unchanged conceptual framework.

      The only major tactical innovation he mentions is advance by waves. While that was an incremental change, it was neither new or especially significant.

      He does mention that much of the major tactical innovation of WWI — infiltration tactics — was developed by the British. But the key fact relevant here is that they did not run with it. Sad, since they had the edge in tanks — an essential element (as time would show) in making them work.

      Devising new ideas is only half of what makes a learning organization powerful. Applying new ideas is the vital other half.

      An even larger tactical innovation would have been realization that defense had a massive advantage under the current circumstances of time and place, and reconfigured accordingly. In fact, that might be equally true today as well in 4gw.

  5. “So we should rely on proven methods: material support, training, raising militia forces from the locals. Perhaps supplemented with US airpower, and special ops on the ground. This combo — money,…”

    The first thing to do is to choose very carefully what the conflict is for, for what and to determine the reasons why any external forces should be involved. If you are doing an ‘invasion for oil or opium’ then sadly, no matter what tactics you do then you will have conflict, as you are effectively no better than an armed gangster.

    If this is peacekeeping (eg creating a buffer between two sides in a civil war) then neutrality is the key, as soon as you pick a side you will be involved.

    So the aims are a bit important. Take Iraq, this was a gangster move. Total elimination of the existing social, government, health, education, business and agricultural systems (and the respective people), to be replaced by the new ones chosen in every case for their corruptness. Right that is gong to go down well…. The only mystery about the Iraqi insurgency was how long it took to get going.

    No COIN strategy, tactics, whatever can alter the fact of the total unfairness of such an invasion, armed robbery on a national scale. if the US had invaded, kicked out Sadam, then handed power over to the 2nd tier of Govt, got a few concessions (a few bases, a little bit of oil) and then left, Iraq would be whole and, if not a loyal ally, at least a fairly neutral one.

    As Bill said, ‘the curse of maximalist intentions” took over, Iraq was intended to be an exploited colony along the lines of 18th and 9th century ones, the natives had other ideas…

    The use of money. In any circumstances money matters. I noted the contrast between the US/western way of doing the money thing and the Russian one in Chechnya and Crimea.

    Typically the west pours money into the elites and oligarchs of their target countries, ordinary people usually see nothing. In fact if the country in question does ‘come over to the west’ the standard of living drops terribly as wages, social services, social subsidies, etc are cut, while the oligarchs make out like bandits. The IMF (etc) will come in with a ‘plan’, which nearly always drops the standard of living of ordinary people. Ukraine is the latest poster child of this approach.

    Russia bribes the ordinary people (of course elites get a cut too). The story of Chechnya I find fascinating. Despite all the military operations over many years it was at best a draw. Putin very cleverly put into power non Wahabbi Muslims and poured money into the area, conditional on the Wahabbi Mulims being exterminated. Ordinary people benfited almost immediately, conflict over, reconstruction, jobs, money very quickly giving the local Govt legitimacy…the Wahabbi (Saudi and US backed of course) extremists were marginalised and …exterminated.

    Crimea, oh my that could have been a bloodbath but Russia again very cleverly avoided it..Firstly it had always been Russian and the natural sympathies of the people there were with Russia. The issue was the 20,000+ Ukranian troops there. Under their agreeements Ukraine and Russia were allowed to have a heck of a lot of troops there. If the Ukrainian ones had fought then it would have been a very ugly situation..Russia simply bribed them……not the generals the troops.

    Yet another airbrushed thing, the majority of the Ukrainian troops switched to the Russian side (a minority left). they did it because thier pay and pensions were going to be tripled. Ditto average Crimeans, pays and pensions, social benefits all increased massively. hence the referendum was a no brainer.

    Now, lets reverse the Crimean situation and the US was in the same spot, How would they handle it? Yep it would be a disaster. In fact they probably would have lost, especially after ordinary Crimeans found out their standard of living was going to be crushed.

    Culturally it is impossible for US elites to imagine bribing the people directly. Lets face it they have been grinding down US citizens for decades now, are they going to change tactics in another country? Nope.

    Another thing is the US military culture. The ‘polite armed green men’ (PAGM) that swarmed everywhere, keeping order, stopping fights before they started were amazing. There was only one recorded death in the Crimean takeover. This was critical in defusing Ukrainian forces from fighting. Though there were a few firefights the Russians made every effort not to harm anyone and enabled the Ukrainian forces an easy option in surrendering (or joining).

    Now imagine US troops. in the same situation…yep bloodbath. They would firing everywhere, at shadows. Ukrainain army bases would have been blown to bits. The Ukrainians would have fought back of course…disaster.

    And are there any forces in the US military that could have done the PAGM thing as well….unlikely don’t you think?

    I find current COIN/4GW discussion pointless. The US military can’t and never will be able to do them(heck they can’t even do 3GW). The elites that order the US armed forces to act have no wish to benefit the ordinary people of the target places and, whever happens, the US military will have to put down ordinary people there if they object (to whatever the reason for the invasion/attack/etc).

    The classic example is Iraq. There were no tactics the US military could have done to change the outcome in Iraq (except maybe rebel against their own Govt). This was a full scale colonial invasion, the planned lot of ordinary Iraqis was a grim one, to become powerless poor peasants in their own country. The role of the US military was to force them to accept that….they lost.

    1. It’s so comical how Russia and China achieve their strategic objectives for a comparative pittance, but the U.S will never do so because the US has thoroughly poisoned the mindshare well for decades and the military will also not able to justify their ~$700 billion per year existence and their rolling pork barrels like the $1.5 trillion F-35 programs against the usual boogeymans.

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