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Rank Incompetence

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 Petraeus, like every other theater commander in that war except Stanley McChrystal, could have been replaced by a concrete block and nothing would have changed.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.

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.

[1]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 is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and the author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Rank Incompetence"

#1 Comment By David Martin On February 3, 2013 @ 7:28 am

Check out “A Condensation of Military Incompetence” at [2].

#2 Comment By William Leach On February 11, 2013 @ 3:31 am

This just makes sense. So much sense, sadly. I say this not out if military experience, but out of experience as a worker, a student, and as a citizen. American leadership has become an oxymoron. Hubris is virtue. The beancounters have won.

This is what happens when we treat people most oftenly as peices of paper, some with more gold stars stuck on them than others. Sometimes we treat people as near human beings, but usually keep that interaction at the high school level.

Look good? Dont rock the boat? Play the game. Pass go. Collect $200. An American once said something about either being somebody or doing something, but hes not the kind of American we remember.

#3 Comment By B. Wooster On February 11, 2013 @ 7:12 am

Much of this article rang true to me as a former Marine officer–but you really hit the nail on head towards the end, with the point that even if one of these generals fails in a combat command, the result is career advancement.
The ONLY reason a general’s career ends in disgrace is if he is caught in a personal peccadillo, never because his combat performance has been found wanting.

#4 Comment By icarusr On February 11, 2013 @ 7:52 am

There are a lot of assertions of military incompetence – of course, looking at the results, one could hardly disagree – but not a lot of evidence, of concrete examples. I think that to be valuable, a few examples of where decisions were made that can be demonstrably attributed to military incompetence would be useful. I am thinking not of second guessing strategy – that is easy – but tactical and strategic decisions that, at the time, could and were criticised as blockhead decisions. For example, we now know that Schwartzkopf was not much of a general. But at the time, with the idiotic truce that he negotiated – allowing helicopters in the theatre of truce – it was clear that he was a dunce of the first rank.

Norman Dixon’s book, “On the psychology of military incompetence”, is a valuable model for this sort of analysis.

#5 Comment By Leon Berton On February 11, 2013 @ 8:52 am

War, as Aristotle observed and all should know, is pursued for peace. Its pursuit requires a unique blend of intelligence, courage and physical and personal strengths, not the mere appearance of such either physically or in speech.

The soft eloquence and refinements that may seem to prevail in times of peace depend on those capable of hard deeds required in agonistic struggles against any and every threat of extermination.

War, above all, reveals a quintessential truth about life: it is a person’s real abilities and DEEDS, not mere words and appearances, upon which one must rely.

Those who can, act; they who cannot seek other ways to aggrandize themselves and seem that they are capable.

Perhaps, we have too many in uniforms at higher ranks, some even undeservedly adorned with ribbons for having passed momentarily and sheltered through areas of battle in which it was others who bore the burdens of killing and death, who are in the latter category.

Arms and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore;
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latin realm and built the destined town,
His banished gods restored to rights divine,
And settled sure succession in his line;
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

Virgil, Aenid.

#6 Comment By EliteCommIn.c On February 11, 2013 @ 9:20 am

I wonder when the last time a general resigned because he recognized that the mission was:

just plain stupid

#7 Comment By David On February 11, 2013 @ 10:29 am

“A serious country should do something about that.”

We’re not a serious country. Nor are our politicians serious representatives. And the people who vote for these politicians are not serious voters.

#8 Comment By Mike On February 11, 2013 @ 11:16 am

Systemic incompetence in our military leadership is sadly true.

CEOs are judged by their ability to influence the profitability of their company. A football coach gets judged by his ability to win football games. There is no similar way to judge our field grade officers and above that is both impartial and standardized. Absent the winnowing animus against incompetence found in business and sports, the military falls back on the “old boys network” for determining success. Basically, promotion becomes a high school popularity contest.

Those in the rank of lieutenant colonel and above looking to get promoted would do well to remember: 1. it’s all a popularity contest, 2. you will never be questioned for following conventional wisdom (studiously avoid any perceived risk), 3. don’t rock the boat as change is rarely popular, 4. never pass up on an opportunity to make yourself look good at the expense of the taxpayer—and be sure to grandstand about it in order to get attention for yourself, 5. absent flagrant criminal misconduct which has been publicly exposed, accountability is non-existent.

A lieutenant colonel of average abilities who studiously follows these tenets stands a great chance to succeed in our military.

#9 Comment By Michael N. Moore On February 11, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

In my opinion the most under-reported event of the Iraq war was the suicide of military Ethicist Colonel Ted Westhusing. It was reported at the end of a Frank Rich column that appeared in the NY Times of 10-21-2007:

“The cost cannot be measured only in lost opportunities, lives and money. There will be a long hangover of shame. Its essence was summed up by Col. Ted Westhusing, an Army scholar of military ethics who was an innocent witness to corruption, not a participant, when he died at age 44 of a gunshot wound to the head while working for Gen. David Petraeus training Iraqi security forces in Baghdad in 2005. He was at the time the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.”

“Colonel Westhusing’s death was ruled a suicide, though some believe he was murdered by contractors fearing a whistle-blower, according to T. Christian Miller, the Los Angeles Times reporter who documents the case in his book “Blood Money.” Either way, the angry four-page letter the officer left behind for General Petraeus and his other commander, Gen. Joseph Fil, is as much an epitaph for America’s engagement in Iraq as a suicide note.”

“ ‘I cannot support a msn that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars,’ Colonel Westhusing wrote, abbreviating the word mission. ‘I am sullied.’ “

#10 Comment By Nick K. On February 11, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

Mr. Lind just put a serious spin on a good number of the jokes that NCOs tell each other in order to get through their days.

#11 Comment By hfan On February 11, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

To extend the argument further, I don’t think the buck stops at how field grades are promoted. Those field grades were all once company grade officers. With some exceptions, most probably spent more time learning to be a great garrison leader than a field leader.

From my observations as a former three-and-done junior Army officer, all of Mr. Lind’s points hold true for the company grades too. Promotion to 1st Lieutenant is automatic and you have to try hard to not get accepted for Captain. A Captain with a great resume will get Major sooner, but then they deal with the rest of the climb to becoming a ‘great’ commander.

Additionally, so long as we are talking about ranks, I think the disease in the (commissioned) officer corps also has consequences on the non-commissioned and warrant officer corps. For every officer that succeeds in becoming a General, there are countless non-commissioned and warrant officers that have followed the commander’s decrees to the letter. Sometimes their expertise and willingness to please gives them far too much authority and responsibility. And if that commander’s great achievements displayed little to no military ability, it raises doubt as to whether those of his subordinates do either.

This is not meant to slant the ranks, but to critique the system that produces our leaders. I served with many outstanding and solid individuals of all ranks. However, together we also served under difficult circumstances that can be wholly attributed to officers produced by the promotion system.

In a more ideal system, every unit and rank is part of one well-aimed effort and has its unique role. While there are currently segments of the Army that do things very well, I did not see very well-coordinated efforts. We would do well to revisit how our Army is organized and trained.

#12 Comment By James Canning On February 12, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

Great piece.

#13 Comment By James Canning On February 12, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

Michael N. Moore – – Interesting post. More on this might be welcomed by many who follow this site. Iraq War was a fantastic opportunity for snouts to get in a very large trough for a prolonged period.

#14 Comment By LTC Lance Headrick On February 12, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

Mr. Lind, you indict General David Petraeus as a failure? General David Petraeus made a mistake. He was chosen to Command forces in Afghanistan because of his performance in Iraq. What are your measures of performance? Measures of effectiveness for his supposed failure? You write as the “director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation”? What sir, are your qualifications to make such a judgment on Military Leadership?
This article is inflammatory and thus probably meets your criteria for success. As an Army Officer, trained it the “flawed system”, I know that you have stated zero facts. You have slandered my Avocation and Profession. To what end have you, an unqualified and inexperienced individual, written a divisive, inflammatory, un-substantive article; to sell copy? Sad, very sad.

#15 Comment By jeff On February 12, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

Mr. Lind- you have been a distinguished scholar and historian of warfare for some time, so I your opinion is obviously not without qualification. However, the previous comment made a valid point as to what your criteria for failure is. Certainly our military leadership has made many mistakes in the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but are the lack of results due to military incompetence or poor strategic thinking of the part of our civilian leadership? The military is only one instrument of power and and an operation such as an invasion/gov’t overthrow requires that all instruments work together under a unified civilian leadership with a realistic strategic goal. You rightly point out that this approach was not instituted in Iraq or Afghanistan and civilian leadership bears part of the blame. However, I would argue that no amount of brilliant generalship could ever have made up for it. These operations were doomed from the start because the civilian leadership never had the political will to invest the national resources that were actually needed for full-scale regime change (which was not even a feasible goal in Afghanistan). To simply state that military leadership was incompetent as exemplified by lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan is incomplete at best.

As to the military promotion system, a high degree of political acuity is absolutely required from our senior leadership. Generals may be military leaders, but they also lead huge bureaucracies and are dependent on Congress and the Executive Branch (both of whom have competing agendas that often have nothing to do with military success) to accomplish their mission. A politically blind general would be steamrolled by those competing interests and probably be completely ineffective as a result. It sucks that it has to be that way, that we can’t promote military geniuses with the temperament of Patton, but that is not the world we live in and not the type of wars we are allowed to fight. This is not the fault of the military and it is not the military that can change that mode of thinking. The best thing we can do is to be damned sure we are going to war for a good reason, throw the entire weight of the nation into that war, and have a strategic national plan that carries us all the way through the end game. Were we to do that, I think you might be surprised at how competently most of our generals would perform.

#16 Comment By Michael N. Moore On February 13, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

As per the request of James Canning for more information on Col. Ted Westhusing, please see:


Or the book “Blood Money” by T. Christian Miller

#17 Comment By thefatefullightning On June 4, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

“The tiny pink candies at the bottom of the urinals are reserved for Field Grade and Above.” —-sign over the urinals in the “O” Club at Tan Son Nhut Airbase, 1965.

Now that sentiment, is Officer-on-Officer. The same dynamic tension exists throughout all Branches and ranks.

My background includes a Combat Infantry Badge and a record of having made Spec Four , two times. If you don’t know what that means, stop reading here.

I feel that no one should be promoted E-5 or O-4, if they are to command men in battle, unless they have had that life experience themselves. It becomes virgins instructing on sexual etiquette.

Within the ranks, there exists a disdain for officers, in general. Some officers overcome this by their actions, but the vast majority cement that assessment the same way.
What makes the thing run is the few officers who are superior human beings, and the NCOs who are of that same tribe. And there is a love there, from top to bottom and bottom to top, a brotherhood of warriors which the civilian population will forever try to discern, parse and examine to their lasting frustration and ignorance.

It is the spirit of this nation [Liberty, e pluribus unum and In God We Trust ] that is the binding filament of it all. The civilians responsible for the welfare of the armed services need to be more fully aware of that spirit and they need to bring it into the air-conditioned offices they inhabit when they make decisions about men who know sacrifice.

#18 Comment By Terrence Zehrer On July 15, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

But the Pentagon is excellent at what it does – extort money from the US taxpayer. I call it treason.

“Massive military budgets erode the economic foundation on which true national security is dependent.”

– Dwight Eisenhower

#19 Comment By David On December 9, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

“A serious country should do something about that.”

We’re not a serious country.

#20 Comment By Raymond J On November 6, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

Many people join the armed forces for reasons which have nothing to do with patriotism. A military officer is considered to be prestigious position which is fodder for a status seeker. Biographers have written that both Generals Custer and MacArthur were egotistical. My cousin who is a retired Colonel in the Army National Guard once grumbled about not being promoted to General; he loves letting others how important he is which does not necessarily translate into comittment to a task.

#21 Comment By Andrew On August 26, 2017 @ 3:04 pm

Wait a moment, I was under the impression in that in Thomas Rick’s “The Generals” that he rated General Petraeus highly; in fact as one of the best American generals?

I never actually read the book but I’ve seen meant Thomas Rick’s interviews and he always talks highly about Petraeus; that he was among one of the Generals who could think strategically and outside the box, and knew how to adapt and innovate.

Can anyone confirm that… it certainly makes me feel like the author did not read the book he used to make his argument.

#22 Comment By One Guy On June 1, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

Good article, but this isn’t a new phenomenon. Some generals that come to mind are Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, Henry Halleck. Even McClellan wasn’t very good at fighting battles.