The pointlessness of “Challenging the Generals”

A review of “Challenging the Generals” by Fred Kaplan,
New York Times Sunday Magazine, 26 August 2007.

By Fabius Maximus
August 28, 2007

Archive of Commentaries

The US military’s personnel system is deeply dysfunctional. Kaplan describes symptoms of a long illness deeply established in our military, and his article describes several ways in which the Iraq War has exacerbated these internal systemic flaws.

This problem, however, is neither new nor does it result solely from the Iraq War. Kaplan has discovered it, in the sense that Christopher Columbus discovered Madrid. He ignores the large literature describing its causes and possible remedies, which he learned during his research, in favor of a dramatic story focused on bad guys and heroes. As parents learn when telling bedtime stories, this is the format most easily understood by children.

This also illustrates the mainstream media’s almost amnesiac ability to discover the same phenomenon over and over again. These problems were earnestly described in the 1999-2000 news cycle, grave fodder for many articles – only to be quickly forgotten, as those articles in turn had ignored similar stories from the previous cycle in the late 1970’s.

The following list gives only a smattering of high-quality studies on this problem, focused on the last cycle, which ended with the post-9/11 and Iraq War mobilizations.

As usual, the definitive work on this was done early on by Martin van Creveld in his 1990 book The Training of Officers: from Military Professionalism to Irrelevance. His deep analytical insights suggest that many of the current proposed solutions are either useless or counter-productive.

Especially cogent – and disturbing to the status quo – is his analysis on the utility for officers of civilian university degrees. He shows how the current situation evolved, what are the forces maintaining it, and what constitute the barriers to change. He gives practical recommendation based on military history and modern needs.

For a combination of deep analysis and a detailed program for implementation see the many works of Donald Vandergriff (Major, retired, US Army). He summarizes both the need and path for change in his 2002 book The Path to Victory.

When I began to outline a plan to “fix” the army, my starting point was simple: why did the army leadership preach terms like selfless service, decentralization and trust, but practice careerism, selfish service, and centralized control? Finding the why before coming up with the fix was complicated, especially as my research and writing exposed more questions than answers

… However, as long as senior leaders and elected officials are happy with the current force and its culture, many of the officers who represent the army’s future will continue to leave, The personnel management system and the laws that influence it must be reformed into a system that discourages careerists and courtiers while creating a professional corps based on the principles of selfless service.

Other Resources

Here are additional articles worth reading for anyone interested in reforms that can give America a military capable of winning in the age of fourth generation warfare – and preventing more disasters like the Viet Nam and Iraq Wars.

Chief of Staff of the Army's Leadership Survey

Top-down loyalty – DOES NOT EXIST. Senior leaders will throw subordinates under the bus in a heartbeat to protect or advance their career. There is no trust of senior leaders in terms of loyalty because the record is clear. At the highest level, as example, 4 stars will watch our health care erode without taking a stand.

Captain Attrition at Fort Benning

Mike Matthews
January 2000

Family issues and dissatisfaction with Army job/life are most frequently given primary reasons for leaving,

Pay is not a major factor in career intent.

A strong civilian economy enables career change, but does not cause it.

Sayen Report

July 2000

If we put the Pentagon's personnel managers in charge of the Sahara Desert, they would run out of sand in five years.

Generations Apart: Xers and Boomers in the Officer Corps

Leonard Wong
Strategic Studies Institute
October 2000

In less than 2 years, the Army shifted from denial of a junior officer retention problem to a situation where the most senior Army leadership became involved in seeking help to staunch the flow of captains out of the Army. How could Army senior leaders miss the signals of an attrition problem? How could the Army’s senior leadership not see junior officer resignation numbers increasing or hear the growing discontent at the junior officer level?

Briefing by LTG Timothy J. Maude, Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, US Army

Commander's Conference
October 19, 2000

Officer attrition is continuing at a rate that will not allow full manning of the force structure…

The Army Training and Leader Development Panel Officer Study Report to the Army


Army Culture is out of balance. There is friction between Army beliefs and practices. Over time, that friction threatens readiness. Training is not done to standard, leader development in operational assignments is limited and does not meet officer expectations, and officers and their families elect to leave the service early. Army Culture is healthy when there is demonstrated trust that stated beliefs equate to actual practices. Such a balance is vital to the health of the profession of arms and to the Nation it serves. Officers understand that there always exists a level of imperfection caused by normal friction between beliefs and practices. This is the Band of Tolerance. However, officers expressed the strong and passionate feeling that Army Culture is outside this Band of Tolerance and should be addressed immediately.

The Army must narrow the gap between beliefs and practices. It must gain and sustain itself within the Band of Tolerance.

The Army Transformation Meets the Junior Officer Exodus
Presentation to Security for a New Century (bipartisan study group for Congress)

Mark R. Lewis
August 2001

A lot of people have spent a great deal of effort advocating that the Army ought to take bold steps to correct this cultural schism for the simple reason that it’s the right thing to do. I can only judge the emphasis the Army puts on this situation through evidence of their efforts to address it, and so far, those efforts do not reveal any meaningful attempt at understanding and addressing the deeper issues.

… I have tried to show trends in officer experience, skill and quality in the preceding slides. Separately, these trends concerning, but when taken together as an overall sort of "Effectiveness Index," I think they have significant implications for the future of the Army. …Clearly, these trends are at odds with what the designers of the future Army have in mind. It is certainly tough to reconcile them with the idea that Army will produce future leaders with a “higher level of doctrine-based skills, knowledge, attitudes, and experience.” In fact, there is no evidence to indicate that the downward trends are slowing, let alone reversing. …


  • The Army will not be able to develop experienced and skilled officers until it is able to hold them in positions longer and provide them with a deeper set of training opportunities.

  • It cannot be discriminating about whom it promotes until it can retain enough officers to allow for some process of selection.

  • These trends will not be slowed, let alone reversed, until the Army links experience, skill, and quality of its company grade officers to their retention.

  • But it has not made that connection


Are the things reported here good or bad? Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.

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Who was Fabius Maximus?

Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.

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