War Stories

Secretary Gates Declares War on the Army Brass

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to fight that battle.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech that suggested what an interesting—perhaps even great—secretary of defense he might have become, if only he had more time and a less dreadful mess to clean up.

The speech was delivered to the Association of the United States Army, an organization that’s happy to hear applause lines and boilerplate; but Gates used the occasion to call for a radical restructuring of the Army—its training, personnel policies, basic strategy, and missions.

He issued the call about halfway into the speech, when he noted that future wars will be more like Iraq and Afghanistan—”asymmetric” conflicts that don’t play into the American military’s traditional prowess for large-scale, head-to-head combat.

It is hard to conceive of any country challenging the United States directly on the ground, at least for some years to come. Indeed, history shows us that smaller, irregular forces—insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists—have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos. … We can expect that asymmetric warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior—of friends, adversaries, and, most importantly, the people in between.

To the civilian newspaper reader, this may seem a passage of dry common sense. But to an Army insider, it’s practically a declaration of bureaucratic war.

The heart of the establishment Army is the tank and infantry corps. Its key mission is high-intensity, open-field combat against an enemy army of comparable capability.

Yet here was the secretary of defense saying that this kind of warfare isn’t likely to recur any time soon. More than that, he was proposing that the Army move away from the mission of fighting any kind of war. Here was the hair-raising line:

[A]rguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries. The standing up and mentoring of indigenous armies and police—once the province of Special Forces—is now a key mission for the military as a whole. [Italics added.]

Granted, Gates did not say “the War on Terror” is the only war that the Army has to gear up for. One of the Army’s “principal challenges,” he said, “is to regain its traditional edge of fighting conventional wars while retaining what it has learned and relearned about unconventional wars.” But then, he added that these unconventional wars are “the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead.”

The implication was clear: The Army’s primary mission—which drives its weapons procurement, its force structure, its culture, everything about it—is to be relegated to secondary status and supplanted by a focus on counterinsurgency, training, and advising.

He ended the speech with yet another remark bound to drive a stake into the collective heart of the traditional Army. Speaking of the junior and midlevel officers “who have been tested in battle like none other in decades” and who “have seen the complex, grueling face of war in the 21st century up close,” Gates said:

These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced to the point that they can use their experience to shape the institution to which they have given so much. And this may mean reexamining assignments and promotion policies that in many cases are unchanged since the Cold War.

Again, to civilians, this may seem unremarkable, but to the military establishment, it was a spark on the third rail. The promotion system is the way the traditional culture perpetuates itself. The board that promotes colonels to generals is filled entirely by current generals, who tend to seek successors who match their own image. This process permeates the entire culture. One colonel told me, in the course of reporting on another story, “Everyone studies the brigadier-general promotion list like tarot cards. … It communicates what qualities are valued and not valued.”

Gates was telling the Army’s leading lobby organization that the qualities valued by the current crop of generals are the wrong qualities.

At least as interesting as Gates’ speech are the sources of its ideas. Most of them seem to have come from his military assistant, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former commander of multinational forces in Iraq and, at the start of the war, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division.

In an article for the current issue of Military Review, called “Learning From Our Modern Wars,” Chiarelli anticipates the main points in Gates’ speech. He stresses the importance of reorienting the military to “full-spectrum operations,” with a shift of emphasis away from high-intensity operations toward counterinsurgency missions and advising indigenous security forces. (An earlier article in Military Review, dated July-August 2005, had a considerable influence on the thinking behind the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency, which Gen. David Petraeus directed a year later.) Chiarelli also calls for a “top-down review of the roles and missions of all … elements of national power,” across the U.S. government. And he urges an overhaul of the promotion system to take into account the views not only of a candidate’s superiors but also of his or her peers and subordinates, who often have a keener sense of an officer’s qualifications.

This call for a change in the promotion system is also widely associated with the views of Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who wrote a very controversial—and, in military circles, almost universally read—article in Armed Forces Journal titled “A Failure of Generalship.” Yingling’s article has made him a hero among many junior and midlevel officers—and an object of fear or contempt among many generals.

In an earlier Armed Forces Journal article, published in October 2006, Yingling and Lt. Col. John Nagl wrote, “The best way to change the organizational culture of the Army is to change the pathways for professional advancement within the officer corps. The Army will become more adaptive when being adaptive offers the surest path to promotion.”

This is precisely what Gates and Chiarelli are advocating.

Nagl may be, at least indirectly, the source of Gates’ most dramatic remark—that “arguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries.”

Nagl, who had a hand in writing Petraeus’ counterinsurgency field manual, commands a unit at Fort Riley, Kan., that trains American soldiers to be advisers to Iraqi security forces. He also wrote a paper last June for the Center for a New American Security, a private think tank, proposing the creation of a separate Advisory Corps within the Army. Most Army generals hate this idea; Chiarelli argues against it, as well. But it is significant that Gates’ line about “the most important military component” is taken very nearly verbatim from the first sentence of Nagl’s paper. (For a comparison, click here.)

The point is, Gates has surrounded himself with, or been influenced by, some of the Army’s most creative warrior-intellectuals; and if he’d been given a chance to be the defense secretary for longer than two years and a month (Bush appointed him on Dec. 28, 2006), he might have been able to put some reforms in motion.

His speech is short on specifics. “How the Army should be organized and prepared for this advisory role,” he said, “remains an open question, and will require innovative and forward thinking.” There would have been no point laying out a new policy—on advisers, a new promotion system, or any other matter of long-term structure—because he doesn’t have time to implement it.

But it may be significant—it’s certainly intriguing—that he recently appointed John Hamre as chairman of his Defense Policy Board. Hamre was deputy secretary of defense and, before that, Pentagon comptroller in Bill Clinton’s administration. If Hillary Clinton is the next president (or even if someone else is), it’s no stretch to imagine that Hamre will convey the Gates-Chiarelli-Nagl proposals.

Hamre’s presence may signify something else of immense importance in the short term. For the past few years, from his perch at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hamre has been highly critical of Bush’s national-security policies, including his policies on the Iraq war. No doubt this is one reason Gates hired him. As a member of the Baker-Hamilton commission, Gates too was critical about the war and skeptical about the surge. In his confirmation hearings, when he was asked if it was a mistake to invade Iraq, he replied, “That’s a judgment the historians are going to have to make.” When the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin, asked him if we were winning the war, he replied, “No, sir.”

Finally, and most pertinently right now, when Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., asked if he favored attacking Iran (a question that most appointees would have ducked on the grounds that it was “hypothetical”), Gates forthrightly said that he did not, adding, “We have seen in Iraq that, once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable.”

This will be the true test of Gates’ legacy—not whether he can go up against the Army to institute reforms (there’s no time for that fight), but whether he can stave off Dick Cheney’s campaign to mount an attack on Iran.