War Stories

Annual General Meeting

Finally, the Army is promoting the right officers.

Col. H.R. McMaster

Last November, when Gen. David Petraeus was named to chair the promotion board that picks the Army’s new one-star generals, the move was seen as, potentially, the first rumble of a seismic shift in the core of the military establishment.

The selections were announced in July, and they have more than fulfilled the promise. They mark the beginnings, perhaps, of the cultural change that many Army reformers have been awaiting for years.

Promotion systems, in any large organization, are designed to perpetuate the dominant culture. The officers in charge tend to promote underlings whose styles and career paths resemble their own.

Most of today’s Army generals rose through the ranks during the Cold War as armor, infantry, or artillery officers who were trained to fight large-scale, head-to-head battles against enemies of comparable strength—for instance, the Soviet army as its tanks plowed across the East-West German border.

The problem, as many junior officers have been writing over the last few years, is that this sort of training has little relevance for the wars of today and, likely, tomorrow—the “asymmetric wars” and counterinsurgency campaigns that the U.S. military has actually been fighting for the last 20 years in Bosnia, Panama, Haiti, and Somalia, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2006 and again in 2007, the Army’s promotion board passed over Col. H.R. McMaster, widely regarded as one of the most creative strategists of this “new” (though actually quite ancient) style of warfare. In Iraq, he was commander of the unit that brought order to Tal Afar, using the classic counterinsurgency methods—”clear, hold, and build”—that Petraeus later adopted as policy. When I was reporting a story last summer about growing tensions between the Army’s junior and senior officer corps, more than a dozen lieutenants and captains complained bitterly (with no prompting from me) about McMaster’s rejection, seeing it as a sign that the top brass had no interest in rewarding excellent performance. The more creative captains took it as a cue to contemplate leaving the Army.

This was why many Army officers were excited when Petraeus was appointed to chair this year’s promotion board. Rarely, if ever, had a combat commander been called back from an ongoing war to assume that role. It almost certainly meant that McMaster would get his due. (Some referred to the panel as “the McMaster promotion board.”)

McMaster did get his star—but so did many others of his ilk. That’s what makes this list an eyebrow-raiser. Among the 40 newly named one-star generals are Sean MacFarland, commander of the unit that brought order to Ramadi; Steve Townsend, who cleared and held Baqubah; Michael Garrett, who commanded the infantry brigade that helped turn around the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad; Stephen Fogarty, the intelligence officer in Afghanistan; Colleen McGuire, an officer in the military police (a branch of the service that almost never makes generals). At least eight special-operations officers are on the list (though not all of them are identified as such), as well as the unit commanders of various “light” forces—in Stryker light-armor brigades or the 10th Mountain Division—that have tended to be ignored by the Army’s “heavy”-leaning armor and artillery chiefs.

Almost all these new generals have had multiple tours of duty leading soldiers in battle. In other words, they have a depth of knowledge about asymmetric warfare that the generals at the start of the Iraq war did not. And many of them were promoted straight from their combat commands. That is, they didn’t have to scurry through the usual bureaucratic maze.

For instance, just last year, nine of the 38 new one-stars had been executive officers to a commanding general—and, in most cases, not a combat commander—at the time they were promoted. This year, only four of the 40 were serving in that role, and all of them under commanders who had something to do with combat.

How this change happened is another intriguing tale. Usually, the promotion board consists of the upper echelon of the Army’s bureaucracy—the vice chief of staff or one of his deputies and the generals in charge of various commands. In 2007, the promotion board included only one general who reported in from Iraq.

This year, Petraeus wasn’t the only unusual general on the board. Another panelist was Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ senior military assistant, who was also a corps commander in Iraq and the author of several articles in military journals calling for an overhaul of the Army’s personnel policies. Others included Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, who, like Petraeus, was called back from Iraq to serve on the board; Maj. Gen. John Mulholland, commander of special operations for U.S. Central Command (which covers Iraq and Afghanistan); and Lt. Gen. Ann Dunwoody, commander of Materiel Command and a former parachutist in the 82nd Airborne Division, who, as the Army’s top-ranking female officer, is well disposed to the idea of opening doors.

Any officer looking at the names on this panel—and the ones I’ve listed aren’t the only ones—would very clearly get the message: The Cold War is over, and so, finally, is the Cold War Army.

In October 2007, a month before Petraeus was appointed to chair the promotion board, Secretary Gates gave a speech to the Association of the United States Army—usually a forum for back-patting boilerplate, but Gates sounded the trumpet for what many in the audience must have heard as revolution. Speaking of the officers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, “who have been tested in battle like none other in decades” and “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.

That change seems to be starting now.