What Makes A Great General?

 By Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, U.S. Army (Ret.)

This piece originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com

Tom Ricks's book, The Generals, raises important and challenging questions that deserve debate. In sum, he argues that the nation needs generals who lead campaigns that win wars and in peacetime generals who can prepare for the next war. Ricks's assessment is that since WWII, Army generals have not done well enough in either category. But his arguments are sometimes too narrowly drawn.

Over simplified, the first argument is, if more generals were fired, as in World War II, we'd have better generals and win more wars. Underplayed are the critical role of the civil-military relationship and the impact of the kind of war being fought.

The success of senior wartime generals often depends upon the degree of openness and effectiveness in the civil military relationship. Rick's discussion of personalities and who should fire whom sometimes obscures this essential fact. Generalship occurs within the boundaries set by strategy and policy. In discourse with political leaders, generals can affect both, but the degree is often limited. Sometimes generals are inadequate; the same is true of political leaders. Both sides in this relationship must be respectful of the role and experience of the other; without it, the probability of wartime success diminishes. In the last decade, this relationship has had more downs than ups.

Additionally, success is relatively straightforward in conventional war, as is the use of military force as the means to that success -- so too is generalship. In our current wars, success is much less clear and the means to success necessarily includes both the use of military and non-military forces. Even well-used military forces are insufficient. Any assessment of the performance of America's non-military elements of power must conclude, with a few exceptions, that our non-military elements -- strategic through tactical -- have been wanting.

That leads to the second argument in which Ricks raises some fundamental questions: Does the Army's system produce the generals the nation needs? Does the Army's "incentive system" create too many risk-averse generals? Are Army generals overly focused on tactics and too rigid in applying doctrine? To what degree did transformation prepare the Army for today's wars? Are all, or some, Army generals too slow to learn and adapt? What's the relationship of tactical battlefield performance to success as a general? These questions are fundamental to the Army, for its training, education, and leader development programs produce colonels, and Army systems select the colonels who become generals and the generals who serve as senior leaders.

Questions like Ricks's have been percolating among the generations that make up the Army's officer corps -- even among those of us retired. All have opinions. A healthy organization is introspective, questions itself, and adapts from what it learns. In my view, the Army is such an organization.  Even so, The Generals provocative contents need serious debate, so that our military and civilian strategic leaders can better serve the nation, together. None will agree with everything in it, but all military professionals and civilians working in the national security arena should read Ricks' book.