The Duck of Minerva

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A crisis in American generalship?

May 12, 2007

Is last fall’s “revolt of the generals” about to extend to active duty officers?

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, offers a stinging critique of America’s military leadership in the May 2007 Armed Forces Journal:

Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy….the general officer corps designed to advise policymakers, prepare forces and conduct operations failed to perform its intended functions.

Yingling’s article points out that US generals “underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq.”

The twin failures of incompetence and unprofessional character have had horrific strategic consequences in Iraq, Yingling notes, but a loss there might merely portend an even more disastrous future.

How will the officer corps react to this critique?

Well, the new Secretary of Defense is apparently open to greater criticism. Together, these factors may create a new “command climate” friendlier to public dissent. Retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, now of the Council on Foreign Relations told the LA Times

“I suspect the new Defense secretary has told general officers to speak their minds….It’s going to be hard for some in the administration — suddenly they’re going to feel it from the inside. I think you’re going to see more of it.”

If he is right, look for increasingly frank — and dismal — assessments of the Iraq war.

In fact, the new level of open dissent may have already started snowballing. Consider the latest comments from Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. “Randy” Mixon, who is the commander of US forces in Northern Iraq.

According to the LAT, Mixon says bluntly that he needs more troops. What he doesn’t say, at least explicitly, is that President Bush’s “surge” has meant redeployment of some troops from northern Iraq — the Diyala province, for instance — to Baghdad.

Mixon, speaking Friday by teleconference from Camp Speicher, outside Tikrit, to a Pentagon news conference, said that he did not have enough soldiers to provide security in Diyala. The local government is “nonfunctional” and the central government is “ineffective,” he said.

“I’m going to need additional forces,” he said, “to get that situation to a more acceptable level, so the Iraqi security forces will be able in the future to handle that.”

There’s more too. Consider the facts on the ground. as Mixon presented them:

There is one U.S. Army brigade, or about 3,500 troops, in the [Diyala] province, compared with 10 brigades in and around Baghdad and four in Al Anbar. Sixty-one U.S. soldiers have been killed in Diyala this year, compared with 20 last year, according to, an independent website that tracks casualties.

Mixon emphasized that he had asked for more troops shortly after arriving in Iraq in September, well before the U.S. troop buildup began in Baghdad…

“The level of violence began to increase before the surge,” Mixon said, referring to the Baghdad buildup. “It has increased, of course, during the surge … [because] we are sure that there are elements, both Sunni extremist and Shia extremist, that have moved out of Baghdad.”

Under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, I would have been worried about Mixon’s career.

One final note. Yingling says that Congress has a critical role to play in assuring quality generalship:

To reward moral courage in our general officers, Congress must ask hard questions about the means and ways for war as part of its oversight responsibility. Some of the answers will be shocking, which is perhaps why Congress has not asked and the generals have not told.

Yingling claims that Presidents cannot solve this problem because they reward “team players,” which creates really perverse incentives in the officer corps.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.