Where are the generals we need? 

The DoD defines “continuity of command” as “the degree or state of being continuous in the exercise of the authority vested in an individual of the armed forces for the direction, coordination, and control of military forces.”

The key words are “continuous … exercise of authority.” It assumes its successful exercise. A good example of continuity of command was the Petraeus/Odierno combination in Iraq at the time of the surge. They were there for a few years together and Gen. Odierno looks like he’ll be closing it out.

That sort of continuity of command is, unfortunately, unusual in our military.  Afghanistan has again brought the problem of lack of such continuity to the fore, with the third general in about that number of years taking command there soon.

The question being asked in a Greg Jaffe, Washington Post article is why are we having such difficulty finding the types of general we need to fulfill the role of top commander in theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan?

Part of the problem is what we ask of them.

Much of what top commanders do in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq bears little relation to the military skills that helped them rise through the ranks, military officials said. Today's wars demand that top commanders act like modern viceroys, playing dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.


"What we ask of these generals is a very unusual skill set," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has advised Petraeus and McChrystal. "It is a hard thing for anyone to do, much less than someone who comes to it so late in life."

Being a “viceroy” is not what combat commanders are trained to do. So while a general may be a more than competent commander, the skills necessary to do the top job in a theater such as Afghanistan, where so much more is demanded, may be beyond their skill set. And, frankly, part of the problem is the attempt by the civilian national command authority to make up for deficits on the civilian side of the effort, such as the State Department and other agencies, with the military.

Part of the problem also resides within the military itself. The skill sets which may make you a good combat commander may not necessarily translate well to the more political world of general officers during peace time. And in peace time, that problem is compounded, since the combat leaders don’t have that venue in which to prove themselves. So there is a tendency to see those who do a better job politically get the promotions. And, of course, they then promote those who are like them. 

 The military often goes through a shake-out period at the beginning of every war in which it rids itself of those less capable of leadership during war than others. That sort of a shake-out period, however, should be long over at this point.

As Biddle points out, the skill set demanded today in insurgencies like Iraq and Afghanistan are not the skills routinely taught to officers in the military. Perhaps they should be. It is also rather unlikely they’d have much in the way of real world experience at the level a Petraeus or McChrystal have to operate. Consequently, picking a commander who will be successful is sometimes a very difficult job.  Add in the politics of the situation and the media awareness necessary to function successfully and it may seem an impossible one.

However, it is a necessary set of skills these days, and possessing them and managing the effort in an Iraq or Afghanistan successfully is a skill set in very high demand. Whether there are enough like Petraeus or more like McChrystal in the pipeline is probably unknown at this point. But if the type of wars we’re fighting today is the type of war we’re most likely to fight in the rest of this century – and most say they are – we’re going to have to find a better way to pick our commanders. Because unless they’re successful and can provide the continuity of command necessary to see the effort through, 9 year plus wars that show little progress will not at all be unusual.

About The Author

Bruce McQuain

Retired infantry officer with 28 years service who blogs regularly at QandO.net on politics and BlackFive.net on military affairs.
Pin It

More by Bruce McQuain

© 2018 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation