Kerns: The Army we need



Bryan Kerns

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, or so the adage goes.

It seems that the premier fixer in Washington these days is General David Petraeus, commander of all forces in Iraq. The general has been recalled from Iraq by the Secretary of the Army to chair a brigadier generals’ promotion board. This 15-member board of generals will cull 40 one-star generals from among a 1,000 colonels who have applied.

In theory, these newly minted generals – who will lead the army for the next decade or so – will have experience in Afghanistan and Iraq; be well-versed in the Petraeus-authored counterinsurgency field manual; be receptive to the idea of a fluid battlefield marked by asymmetric conflict; be able to work within the social, political and economic contexts of their operating area in addition to carrying out military operations; and above all else, be prepared to do all of this quickly.

Given the state of the war we are fighting, it would be logical to assume that colonels with these qualifications are being moved up into the general officer corps without fail.

Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. Take, for instance, Army Col. H.R. McMaster, who recently spoke on Villanova’s campus. McMaster is one of the leading strategists of Petraeus’ brain trust. At Tal Afar, he led a – some might say the only – successful counterinsurgency campaign, which merited acclaim from President Bush. Despite this, McMaster has twice been passed over for promotion to brigadier general. This is the prime example of the Army sticking to its old guns when it needs serious rearming.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made that much clear during a recent speech to the Association of the United States Army. Gates insisted that the Army take a look at promotions policies and assignments of junior and field-grade officers.

The Army is dealing with the problem of senior officers with limited combat experience who were trained to defend West Berlin or march across Eastern Europe to cut off Soviet troops.

Practical experience among the generals is severely limited. Because of this, a disconnect between the captains and lieutenants who understand the nature of ground conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and the generals who have never set foot in a counterinsurgency operation has inevitably developed.

Gates has recognized this – a remarkable departure from the policy of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Retired General Eric Shinseki, at the time Army Chief of Staff, criticized the lack of troops sent into Iraq and was quickly upbraided by Rumsfeld and henchman Paul Wolfowitz.

As an article on said, “Defense secretaries come and go, but the Army staff stays forever.”

Gates’ term will end when Bush’s does on Jan. 20, 2009. He has slightly more than a year to initiate a renovation of the Army officer corps. If this is not accomplished in the short-term, it will be up to generals like Petraeus to handle it.

Perhaps the most interesting statement about all of this comes from the vilified Rumsfeld: “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

He went to war with the Army he had and couldn’t secure a country. He was told he didn’t have the Army he needed and he went anyway. Gates, on the other hand, is in a war with the Army he has, and there is little or no chance of his being able to get the Army he wants to fight the war he has. Despite this challenge, Gates has indicated that he will not leave the Army he has as it is.

In a recent article, The Washington Post wrote that Petraeus chairing the promotions board is as public a signal as could be sent to show that reform is on the way. Without the necessary reforms, the Army will continue to be bogged down in a swamp of inexperience with asymmetric conflict and counterinsurgency.

It’s up to Gates, Petraeus and other senior leaders to move the Army forward so that the next time something like Iraq happens, the Army we have is the Army we need.

Fortunately, it appears that many junior and field-grade officers are on board with this. A torrent of criticism has been leveled against the generals in recent articles by influential and creative officers.

As the adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Army promotion system is broken. We had better fix it. And soon.


Bryan Kerns is a freshman from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].