Whoever the next president is, his or her secretary of defense should spend a few hours poring over the speeches of Robert M. Gates. Since he took over the Pentagon nearly a year and a half ago, Gates has delivered a series of trenchant critiques of his department’s policies and practices. This past Monday alone, he gave two speeches—at the Air War College and at West Point —that urged tomorrow’s Air Force and Army officers to overhaul the foundations of their bureaucratic cultures.
But speeches are one thing. It’s not at all clear that today’s senior officers are listening. They know that, in nine months, Gates will be gone, and they’ll still be in power. The trick, they’ve learned over the years, is to hang tight till the storm passes.
Take, for instance, the case of Paul Yingling, the Army lieutenant colonel who, almost exactly one year ago, published a widely read article in the Armed Forces Journal that likened Iraq to Vietnam and blamed both debacles on “a crisis in an entire institution, America’s general officer corps,” which he accused of lacking “professional character,” “moral courage,” and “creative intelligence.” Yingling was no crank. He was 41, a veteran of both Iraq wars, and at the time the deputy commander of the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the unit that—well before Gen. David Petraeus took charge of U.S. forces in Iraq—brought order to the city of Tal Afar through classic counterinsurgency methods.
Gates didn’t mention Yingling by name in his speeches on Monday, but he certainly had him in mind when he said at West Point, “I have been impressed by the way the Army’s professional journals allow some of our brightest and most innovative officers to critique—sometimes bluntly—the way the service does business, to include judgments about senior leadership.”
He went on, “I encourage you to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it. And, agree with the articles or not, senior officers should embrace such dissent as a healthy dialogue and protect and advance those considerably more junior who are taking on that mantle.”
So, what has happened to Yingling in the past year? What lessons can the West Point cadets derive about their own future prospects should they choose to follow in Yingling’s footsteps?
Every Army officer I’ve ever spoken with—junior and senior—read Yingling’s article. But, to say the least, the senior officers did not “embrace” it as “healthy dialogue.” Nobody stepped up to “protect and advance” him for his boldness. Quite the contrary.
Soon after the article was published, Yingling was put in command of the 1-21 Field Artillery battalion, but that move had been scheduled months before. The real story lay in what happened next. His battalion was assigned not, say, to fighting insurgents but rather to prison-guard detail. Yingling himself has just been redeployed to Iraq, where he will assist in rehabilitating Iraqi detainees. This could be an interesting, potentially important job, but it’s hardly in the center of things, and it’s the very opposite of a career enhancer.
It is worth noting here that, one week before Gates’ appearance at West Point, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren delivered a similar speech at the George Marshall Awards at Washington and Lee University. “Recently,” Geren said at this speech, “Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote a piece that appeared in the Armed Forces Journal and sparked heated debate throughout the Army—ruffled some feathers—ruffled a lot of feathers. That is a good thing. We need more, not fewer, Paul Yinglings.” (Italics added.)
Do Gates and Geren know that Yingling has been assigned to detainee operations? Has either of them asked the Army chief of staff what’s going on here—if this is the wisest use of the Army’s scarce talent?
In his speech to the Air War College, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Gates urged the young officers to emulate the career of John Boyd, an Air Force colonel and former fighter pilot. As Gates noted, Boyd (who died of cancer in 1997) rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat, helped design the F-16 and F-15 fighter planes, and—above all—devised a theory of warfare (laid out in a six-hour briefing titled “Patterns of Conflict”) that influenced significant reforms in Army and Marine Corps combat doctrine—reforms that still resonate today.
Gates described Boyd as “a brilliant, eccentric and stubborn character [who] had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility.” That understates matters; Boyd never did “overcome” his many foes. I knew Boyd well when I was a congressional aide in the late 1970s and a newspaper reporter through the ‘80s, and let me tell you: The Air Force brass hated Boyd and worked as hard as they could to dismantle the reforms that he briefly managed to put in motion. (The Marine Corps was the service that adopted his ideas. Gen. Alfred Gray, the Marine commandant during the 1991 Gulf War, explicitly based his ground-war strategy on Boyd’s briefing. When Boyd died, the Marine Corps University at Quantico—not the Air War College at Maxwell—begged for his papers.)
In his speech, Gates came back repeatedly to Boyd as “a historical exemplar,” even reciting at length a piece of advice that Boyd passed on to many of his colleagues and acolytes:
Boyd would say—and I quote—”One day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can besomebody. You will have to make your compromises and … turn your back on your friends, but you will be a member of the club, and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way, and you can do something, something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. … You may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors, but you won’t have to compromise yourself. … In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision: to be or to do.”
Gates went on: “For the kinds of challenges America faces and will face, the armed forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders, men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody. An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.”
This is a noble sentiment that also happens to be true. But Boyd was an unusual man. Tireless, fanatically principled, and always buoyant, he grew up in poverty, lived very modestly, and was genuinely indifferent to rank, external incentives, or material comfort. Most officers—most people—are not like that. This is not a criticism; it’s simply a fact. And as long as junior officers see (as Gates put it) “principled, creative, reform-minded leaders” like Paul Yingling assigned to lowly positions, the military will not nourish many more Yinglings or Boyds.