Leadership: Tarnished Brass

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July 1, 2007: The U.S. Army is concerned that some of their senior commanders (division and above) are not as well trained and prepared for the current war, as they could be. It's believed that the lower ranking commanders are getting realistic and effective training for what they must do in combat, but the more senior guys are not, and this has led to a lot of bad decisions. This is an old problem, and for most of American history, it was customary for many generals to be fired during the first few months of a war. That's because many generals who seemed like effective military leaders in peacetime, turned out to be much less capable under fire. It wasn't just generals who were fired (or at least transferred to non-combat jobs), but lots of lower ranking officers, and some senior NCOs, as well.

That hasn't happened as much during the current war. Part of the reason is better training. Since the 1980s, American army officers and NCOs have benefited from new, and very realistic combat training methods. This was made possible by some new technology. Instead of using real ammunition (which only commando type troops can get away with using in training), the army substituted lasers (the MILES system). The culmination of this new training was held at the National Training Center (NTC), whhere a huge area was rigged to electronically record everything that happened. Vietnam era officers and NCOs who went through NTC remarked that it was very close to actual combat. But was it close enough to impart useful experience, and identify those leaders who would fold under the pressures of combat? Apparently it did. The 1991 Gulf War showed that all the army troops that went through the new training performed as well as combat experienced veterans had in earlier wars. This was a rather surprising development. For thousands of years, despite strenuous training, it was believed that only exposure to actual combat created effective troops. Now there was a way to do it without "blooding" (and losing quite a few of) the troops in combat.

During the 1991 Gulf War, an American army composed largely of men who had never been in combat, easily crushed a force largely composed of combat veterans from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war (which had ended four years earlier.) The new training technology was eventually applied to combat support troops, police and paramilitary personnel. But there was no "NTC quality" training for generals. It's not that no one ever thought of this. In the 1990s, the Department of Defense began training programs for men and women recently promoted to general ("flag officer") rank. This was considered a bold innovation. Being a general or an admiral is a big deal, and for centuries, it was believed that, whoever was selected for flag rank, had the ability to quickly learn whatever they needed to do their job. But at the same time, there were all those peacetime generals failing during their first wartime assignments. Something was still wrong, and the better trained junior officers were beginning to notice it.

There are wargames and simulations for generals to use, but none of them present the same degree of realism, pressure and challenge as NTC provided brigade commanders, and everyone else in the brigade. It was discovered during NTC training that some brigade commanders were not up to the task. Brigade commanders are colonels. The next step up is to general. Interestingly, it was official policy that performance at NTC could not be used to decide who to promote. Unofficially, if you screwed up at NTC, word got around and your promotion prospects went south. In contrast, if you kicked butt at NTC, you usually found yourself on the fast track. Usually, but not always. So most current army generals (at least those in the combat branches like infantry, armor and artillery) have been tested at NTC. But those who do well at NTC, are not always the ones who get promoted to general.

To be a successful general in peacetime you have to good political skills. The more senior a general becomes, the more often they have to deal with politicians and other senior government officials. While a pleasant personality is not essential for a good battlefield general, it helps a whole lot if there's no war going on. In fact, it's quite common for outstanding wartime generals to have a tarnished reputation as a peacetime general.

What's happened during the current war is that the generals are not as bad as in past wars, providing fewer obvious situations that call for the guy to be tossed. In other words, there are a lot of mediocre generals who sort of just get by, rather than spectacular duds. The troops talk about it, but there haven't been any flubs spectacular enough for the media to pick up and run with. The generals in question are no dummies. They are cautious to a fault, and that's their biggest flaw. Junior commanders complain of bosses who won't take chances, even if there could be a spectacular payoff. On the plus side, this phenomenon is at least being talked about more and more. There might even be a solution some day.

 


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