Small Wars Journal

Next Generation of US Army COIN Leadership? (Updated)

Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post reports today (Petraeus Helping Pick New Generals) that, in a move described as "unprecedented", the US Army has recalled a general from a war zone to preside over a promotion board.

The Army has summoned the top U.S. commander in Iraq back to Washington to preside over a board that will pick some of the next generation of Army leaders, an unusual decision that officials say represents a vote of confidence in Gen. David H. Petraeus's conduct of the war, as well as the Army counterinsurgency doctrine he helped rewrite.

General Petraeus will be presiding over a board that includes the selection to brigadier general (approximately 40 slots) from a pool of over 1,000 colonels.

Petraeus, a four-star general with a doctorate in political science, has spent three of the past four years in Iraq and has observed firsthand many of the colonels under consideration for promotion.

Tyson ties this move to recent criticisms by junior and mid-level officers of Army leadership's "lack of understanding of today's conflicts", a failure by that leadership to listen to and act on feedback from the officer corps' rank and file, and a potential revamp of an Army officer selection system that has been described as unchanged since the Cold War in its policies concerning assignments and promotions.

Petraeus's involvement coincides with the Army's consideration of initiatives to change its promotion system to reward a new generation of officers skilled in today's counterinsurgency warfare.

Read more at Petraeus Helping Pick New Generals.

Related SWJ entry Contrary Peter Principle posted on 24 July 2007.

Update: COIN blog Abu Muqawama - Petraeus Picks the Next Generation.

This is good news in some important ways. Over the past few years, some of America's finest counterinsurgency minds have been passed over for selection to brigadier general -- despite the fact that we're in not one but two counterinsurgency fights, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. (And Dave Kilcullen would argue a third, globally.) Colonel Peter Mansoor, for example, is rumored to be retiring from the Army after having been passed over for promotion. Colonel H.R. McMaster, meanwhile, arguably America's most gifted counterinsurgency field commander, has been passed over for promotion twice because he has yet to serve in a joint billet -- a block you have to "check" for promotion to general. Who the %$#@, you're asking, cares about whether or not you've checked the block on a joint assignment when we're in the middle of two wars we're losing?! The McMaster case is a prime example of an army that would, in Tom Ricks's immortal words, rather keep its personnel system than win the war. We are fighting this war, one counterinsurgency expert is fond of saying, with our varsity team on the sidelines.

So this business about Petraeus helping pick the new flag officers is all good news. Hopefully people like McMaster and Colonels Mike Kershaw and Sean MacFarland will be generals sooner rather than later. But this -- promoting talented colonels to general -- is the easiest fix. The bigger problem is, the U.S. and its military are still mired in a peacetime mentality. Do you have any idea how many generals George Marshall fired at the beginning of the Second World War because they were unfit for the rigors of combat? Dozens. Do you have any idea how many members of the West Point Class of 1939 ended the war as regimental commanders?* This Petraeus initiative should be the beginning of a process to identify and select talented individuals from all ranks and promote them, personnel system be damned, into positions from where they can better affect the fight...

Much more from SWJ friend Abu Muqawama - read it all. Links in the excerpted text above inserted by SWJ.

Ed Morrissey at his Captain's Quarters blog - Consulting Success.

The Pentagon has more than one aim in this remarkable decision. Not only will Petraeus influence the selection of the next generation of generals, but he may help convince mid-level officers not to leave the Army. Captains and majors have retired or refrained from extending their careers out of frustration with an experiential disconnect between themselves and their commanding officers. The Department of Defense worries that these men and women, who have conducted the new kind of warfare that the US has to learn to fight well, will leave before they see an opportunity to help apply the lessons they have already learned first-hand.

Again, much more.

Update 2: Another SWJ friend, Merv Benson, at his PrairiePundit blog - Petraeus Joins General Selection Process.

Petraeus selected some of the best colonels in the Army to be on his team in Iraq and develop the counterinsurgency strategy that has worked so well. One of them, the brilliant H.R. McMaster has already been passed over once, incredibly. Hopefully that will not happen this time. You knew that the system was not working when someone like McMaster could be passed over for selection for general. He is the author of Dereliction of Duty and was the commander of a unit in Iraq that cleared Tal Afar of al Qaeda with few civilian casualties that became a model for others. Small Wars Journal commented on the McMaster passover in July. My earlier comments on his non promotion are here.

Update 3: James Joyner at Outside the Beltway - Petraeus Picking Generals as Part of Army Overhaul.

The Army is in the process of overhauling its entire officer rotation and promotion system in order to combat problems identified in recent years. Senior leaders are apparently serious about rewarding those who take tough assignments training American and foreign soldiers on an equal basis with those who serve in traditional command assignments.

Once again, much more.

SWJ friend Jules Crittenden at his Forward Movement blog - Petaegon.

This could be the single most important step toward ensuring success in Iraq, given the uncertainty of our future political leadership, the direction it will take and the pressures it will face for withdrawal. Military leadership that gets, and is enthusiastic about counter-insurgency could be the last best defense against politically motivated impulses to throw out babies with bathwater.

Update 4: Petraeus to Pick New Generals at Blackfive and Checking Jont Blocks at Abu Muqawama.


There have been several references to all the generals Marshall quickly sacked at the beginning of WW II, to the good of the war effort.

Later on in the war, this eagerness to fire generals upon their first failure may not have been such a good thing. Daniel Bolger wrote an article making this argument. He said several division commanders were fired very quickly in Normandy. This prevented essentially sound officers from learning from their mistakes and caused others to act in an overly cautious, unimaginative manner.

He also argued that Patton didn't do that. He allowed some division commanders honest errors and their divisions and the 3rd Army profited by it.

The same basic action early in the war in one set of circumstances helped, later in the war in differing circumstances, it didn't.

groundforce (not verified)

Tue, 11/20/2007 - 12:55am

MAJ Thornton,

I was struck by similarities of seeing attention to end pass-over of fresh thinking relative to promotions of key leadership and of General Petraeus' direction and strategies, seeing parallels fitting challenges of the field of thought surrounding the Jake. And as you surmised well, my intent was not one to sell. The whole arena of technology and tactical doctrine opened by this program and is the area of interest. I appreciate your mentioning SWC as I was not aware of that Forum and shall look forward to enlisting thoughts there. I greatly appreciate the writings and insights on SWJ.



Rob Thornton

Mon, 11/19/2007 - 10:58pm

Matt - no sweat - you are in good standing with me - your post just made me think and reflect some - which is good -its what we want to do here. I think the discussion about what generals and other leaders do is a good one to have -it puts us out of our comfort zone some and helps us grow.

I think there are differences in the Army that began WWII, or began Korea, or the Army that was left after Vietnam when compared to the Army of 2000, or even of 2003.

I mention that because of the comments made by a few of the commentators around the blogosphere draw comparrisons too quickly to Marshall and his challenges I think. Whenever someone brings out a historical reference I'm usually a bit skeptic because those comparrisons often either ignore the context which gave rise to those events, or infer a relationship that is incomplete. I believe each new decision has to be evaluated based on the conditions which give rise to it - however you can use history for a frame of reference - a lens to consider what is different or why something is the way it is.

I'd offer that the differences in how leaders might see each other probably has more to do with personal philosophies more then how they were promoted (in the case of the Old vs. New Breed analogy). Consider sources of commission as an example. I'm an former EM and ROTC guy, but I know many a USMA grad that I have more in common with in terms of leadership philosophies then I do with some officers I've known from ROTC or OCS (all three of which turn out stellar officers). What a person believes and how it shapes that person over time has a great deal to do with defining who they are and who they are probably going to associate with.

I hope you will do your own thinking regarding some of this (don't just take my word for it, or anybody elses for that matter)- particularly when afforded an opportunity like the one here - good to take in all the other perspectives to make informed decisions - but ultimately we all need to reason out our own conclusions (doesn't mean you can't change them - thoughts and conclusions will change based on new information and experiences)

As long as your thinking and asking questions you'll keep learning - anyway, that is what I try and do - harder I work at it, the luckier I get

Best regards, Rob

MattC86 (not verified)

Mon, 11/19/2007 - 9:27pm


I certainly was being quite over-simplistic, perhaps "I'm growing fatuous as I grow older" as Gen. Caldwell would say. I know the archetypes of Damon and Massengale are not accurate depictions of any soldier or officer. It was more of an unfair potshot at the powers-that-be.

I completely agree that we want "good generals" period as opposed to COIN specialists. You would certainly have better insight into the system than I, and thus I'd yield to your experience, but my fear is that in our mad rush to overcompensate, essentially, for our early unpreparedness for COIN (just as we used to scramble to adjust to our unpreparedness for war in WWI, WWII, and Korea) you will be promoting a group of officers, all competent, intelligent, and effective, but in conflict with the "old guard," as it were, of certain GOs who were too slow to adapt or still resist the changes.

In World War II, or a similar time where commitment was total and those who could not adjust were "sent out to pasture," as it were (Marshall was necessarily ruthless about this). But without the kind of dramatic expansion of forces that occurred then, or the resultant mass promotion of a younger group, I wonder if the result is a group of promoted officers who have done well with COIN or other "irregular" contigencies but are viewed as "golden boys" by an older, more senior general corps that has been slower to adjust.

As I said - you and most here would be in much better position to have witnessed this and thus pass judgment, and I may well be oversimplifying, stereotyping, and generalizing. But given a few of the gripes I've heard reported about Petraeus and others being a "climber," some criticism of HR McMaster for being a ruthless self-promoter, etc., I can't help but wonder if there's some jealousy and resentment among certain GOs who the "Iraq generation," if you will, don't respect.

An outsider's perspective, as I said.


Rob Thornton

Mon, 11/19/2007 - 6:56pm

Hi Matt,

I think it will work out fine. I'd have to say the GO's I've met (although not too many - but maybe enough to consider) all want us to win and the Army to succeed.

We have to be careful not to categorize leaders into extremes - like most people, we don't fall out that way. Anton Myers wrote Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale as arch types. As much as most of us would like to be Damon - we could never measure up - Myers once said Damon was the best of officers like Bradley, Eisenhower, and others - where Massengale got the worst traits - without any of the good ones. Most of us fall out somewhere in between - hopefully closer to Damon, but we're only human.

It took most of us awhile to understand the nature of the war in Iraq and adjust to it - some of it has to do with our experience sets, how we learn, etc. I'm not sure that it ever stops - so maybe GOs are the same way - with a host of experiences and other requirements which influence the way they see things. This does not mean that they (or people in general) are incapable of adapting - and its worth pointing out that these same GOs crafted the Army and its supporting institutions which grew the kind of agile leaders we hold up, and the Army which has proven so adaptable - considering the size of the Army - we've done this very quickly.

Its also worth noting that Damon was called Sad Sam - as loved as he was by his men, he gave everything else of himself, his son was KIA, he had some harsh marital problems and in the end he left behind a broken wife as he lay dyng in a place that sounded allot like Vietnam. That has always bothered me - there is something almost in-human about Sam Damon.

I don't think we want just "good COIN generals", I think we want "good" generals who can lead us under the worst of any circumstances to win and accomplish the mission.

Again, I think it will work out fine.

Best regards, Rob

MattC86 (not verified)

Mon, 11/19/2007 - 5:38pm

Here's hoping they all read Once an Eagle again before making their selections.

In all seriousness, I think we are approaching a real clash in the higher echelons that has been brewing for years. Depending on how much influence Gen. Petraeus wields for this board (I don't know how exactly it works) I wonder if you might see increased polarization in the general corps, and a resultant them vs. us mentality.

Dangerous stuff.


Rob Thornton

Mon, 11/19/2007 - 2:53pm

Groundforce (Russ) - We appreciate your thoughts, however some of your post comes across as a sales pitch for the "Jake" - I'm sure ths was not the intent, but I can suggest a better venue to discuss the related issues you bring up.

It might be a worthwhile idea to start a thread on the SWC side of the house (you must be a member - but that is not hard to do). You might introduce yourself on the sticky - then start a thread on "urban mobility and how the technology of the Jake can enable better patroling", or perhaps exapnd it to the future roles of robotics and soldiers/manned and unmanned teaming. I think if you express your views on a SWC thread as such you will get allot of interaction and thoughts from the greater SWC community.

Best Regards, Rob

General Petraeus involvement in progression of leadership shows attention to detail towards winning, with attention to try to minimize distracting priorities during a time of war.

Hopefully the word also gets to him that there is a powerful piece of equipment in the wings that keeps getting passed over for generally similar reasons as Col McMaster does. It will change things. This item is yet to be picked up by the press despite addressing a pretty glaring capabilities gap, given the urban ops job of our foot soldiers today. The opportunities are not tough to visualize when seeing a Jake prototype...novel recombination and integration of technologies, are the case with many breakthroughs. Just as the simple diode changed the world of electronics.

As with selection of officers that understand and have the characteristics needed in a changing face of war, the Jake does not have to be 'THE one answer. But, the next generation of the Jakes will provide a solid step, or catalyst, to opportunities that we need for tactical advances... well worth the costs of the military joining development (which will draw in the efforts of major defense primes who see the potential within this area, but are well trained to not move without the Army nod). This line of thought is shared by retired General A. M. Gray and retired Major General Robert Scales, among others.

In viewing this on the American Agility website, it is important to grasp that the premise of the Jake is tactically offensive rather than reactively defensive. Like General Petraeus strategies of engagement, this yields power of a system that is counter-intuitive to conclusions of 'first glance. This is actually a prime reason this is easily overlooked by so many. The power of the Jake integrated within soldier/robotics maneuver as teamed units, with todays technologies and weapon systems in the mix, sets up an entirely new dynamic. Multiple units integrated within peacekeeping patrol (a patrol that must also be able to respond to a 3-block war at any moment) is one element of the Jakes opportunity for shift in force psych/ops for peacekeeping while protecting our soldiers on foot.

TX Hammes, Thomas Donnelly, Michael Kershner and others can speak better than I on both the agility and tactical capabilities. But relative to the story on General Petraeus playing an active role in achieving the depth of leadership and tools to win a new style war, the Jake is a fascinating story. It reads somewhat like Lt Col Yinglings writings, in how such a large gap in capabilities can be disregarded for lack of courage of leadership to be associated with something unproven, despite evidence of huge potential and critical need. True transformation is not an easy thing.

Russ Strong

Gian P Gentile

Mon, 11/19/2007 - 9:13am

Hello Mark:

Agree with your assessment. And to highlight what you say the position of the Mason Chair at OSU that Colonel Mansoor will hold is no mere academic position for a history professor. It is huge and you are right to point out the stature of the Military History Department at THE OSU; the best in the country if not the world.

I have to believe that the competition was pretty intense for the Mason Chair with other world class historians applying so for Colonel Mansoor to have won it indicates his accomplishments as a historian and a soldier. I see this overall as a very positive move for the American Army, OSU, and Colonel Mansoor himself. He will be able to maintain his influence on American military policy through the the wisdom of history.

Hi Max,

Thank you for the clarification, although I'm still a bit puzzled because my impression was that the selections would not be announced until next March. At least that was the timing as I was given to understand it.

In any event, the decision to appoint Pete occurred about a week before the board met. Initially it was thought best not to announce the appointment for several months, but apparently once GEN Petraeus became a member of the board, this position was reconsidered. Any way you slice it, the appointment is open to speculation about Pete's "real" motives, and I guess to some extent people are going to believe what they want to believe. It does seem to me, however, that as Petraeus' Executive Officer, Pete stood a pretty solid chance of coming out on the brigadier general's list. Indeed, I don't see anything in the Nov. 17 <em>Washington Post</em> story that would contradict this thesis.

In addition, one might take into account that OSU is widely acknowledged as having the country's best graduate program in military history, and that if a post-Army career in academe indeed had great appeal, an endowed chair at this institution represents a very rare opportunity.

Mark Grimsley: Unless there was a change the BG Promotion board it met from 6-13 NOV. The timing of the announcement was after the completion of the board. He certainly had to put in his paperwork requesting retirement before the board but the announcement we are seeing this week came after the board met.

Pete Mansoor is about to become my colleague here at Ohio State, and I can tell you flatly that it is incorrect to state that he is retiring after being passed over for promotion to Brigadier General. On the contrary, the timing of the OSU press release was intended precisely to underscore that Mansoor chose to retire from the Army <em>prior</em> to the meeting of the brigadier general board.

I won't presume to offer Pete's reasons for electing to retire at this point, but it is not out of line to point out that people can have more than one aspiration in life, and making general may not be paramount among them. A good friend of mine, for example, had a shot at making general but chose to retire as an O-6 because he realized that, were he to remain in the Army much longer, he would never be able to pursue his lifelong dream of opening a martial arts studio. Anyone remotely acquainted with Pete's accomplishments as an author -- his book <em>The G.I. Offensive</em> won the highest prize offered by the Society for Military History -- would not find it unreasonable to suppose that for Pete, the Mason Chair is essentially <em>his</em> martial arts studio.

blaster (not verified)

Sun, 11/18/2007 - 9:15pm

GEN Petraeus is a promotion board president, not God (some may not see the difference). Unless the SecDef has issued instructions for the board to ignore the law, COL McMaster won't make GO, with or without Petraeus on the board.

Gian P Gentile

Sun, 11/18/2007 - 4:38pm


Agree, it is usually hard to find points to disagree with Rob Thornton in his postings since they are thoughtful, informed with much knowledge, and balanced. But I keep trying.

As far as your question on HR and Talafar a few months ago I came across a regimental history written by the 3rd ACR after returning from Iraq in early 06. But I cant remember where I saw it at, perhaps someone else knows, or you can try googling it too. But it was a very good narrative history of 3rdACR in Talafar that provided lots of tactical and operational details. It is not hubbub, 3rd ACR was exceptionally successful in Talafar. The moons and the stars aligned just right for its success there in 2005. But the aligning of the moons and the stars was due in large part to the leadership and brilliance of HR McMaster and his subordinate leaders as well. Still the conditions were right for them to succeed. Talafar was a city of about 300,000 in the middle of the desert; it could be isolated. Plus 3rd ACR had plenty of combat power to apply plus a relatively free reign to follow through on McMasters plan especially when it came to dealing with the ISF. I dont think you can compare in any reasonable and fair way 3rd ACR in Talafar to 1ID in Samara in 04. The conditions between Samara and Talafar were too different. For 1ID to do what HR McMaster did in Talafar it would have had to concentrate the entire Division there and even then some; the two are really apples and oranges.

Reference Abu Muqawamas notion that we should be relieving Generals in Iraq like we did in World War II I think is an oversimplification of a complicated problem of generalship in Coin. It is relatively easy to identify generals who fail in conventional war because especially at the tactical and operational levels their failures are immediate and obvious like Fredendall at Kasserine Pass. Counterinsurgency warfare in all of its complexity proceeds in slow to no motion. So it is hard to know when we are seeing true failure or even success among its generals. I believe that there are plenty out there who have already concluded failure in generalship in Iraq, but I recommend caution in such proclamations and conclusions until we have a bit of temporal distance and some wisdom of history on our side.


Schmedlap (not verified)

Sun, 11/18/2007 - 2:01pm

First off, ditto everything that Rob Thornton said - especially the bit about MG Scales, who has brains down to his ankles.

One question pertaining to the blog entry: does anyone know of a good thorough account of COL McMaster's push into Tal 'Afar? I've seen some narratives in the media, but nothing written for a military audience. I have heard many references to how smart he is and what a great job his unit did, but I have never come across a good thorough review of it. My initial impression - and this is why I would like to read about the specifics - is that the Tal 'Afar story was sold much better than stories in other cities. Having some recent knowledge of Tal 'Afar, I cannot help but wonder why, for example, Tal 'Afar is so much more special than 1st ID clearing Samarra in 2004. I guess because 1st ID used more traditional big sweeping arrows to destroy the bulk of al-Qaeda resistance? Each city was "cleared" with minimal loss of civilian life and each saw a significant resurgence of enemy activity. Is the hubbub surrounding Tal 'Afar simply that "COIN tactics" were used successfully, regardless of whether a more traditional approach also would have worked?

Rob Thornton

Sat, 11/17/2007 - 12:16pm

I know the implication is tied to COIN as a type of qualifier for the decision to bring GEN Petraeus back to CONUS to guide the boards deliberations, but Id like to offer up that while the general media uses COIN much in the way it uses "surge", Id offer that this boards importance is less about picking guys with "exact" knowledge of counter-insurgency, but is more about selecting 06s for GO rank who have proven they possess an agile mind and can recognize changes and possibilities, and can adapt quickly to deny the enemy options while exploiting opportunities which will gain and retain the initiative on the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war.

I saw where USA MG (Retired) Robert Scales had offered up why this is so important. I have turned to his writing many times because he has thought and written on leadership a great deal, and has so much experience in leadership - and I think he has the crux of it.

Past and current performance offer a window into potential for increased responsibility and authority commensurate to promotion to a higher rank - what GEN Petraeus offers is the perspective of a leader who has proven in every assignment hes been assigned that he has the qualities required to operate and lead across the full spectrum of operations as defined by FM 3-0 and win.

As a relatively junior field grade what I propose we want from our GOs is agile and adaptive leadership commensurate with the responsibility and authority found in the positions held by GOs under whatever conditions and operational themes the mission commits us to - be they Peacetime Military Engagement, Limited Intervention, Peace Operations, Irregular Warfare, or Major Combat Operations.

The General Officers selected are going to have their hands full - from leading our soldiers in combat today, to anticipating the demands of tomorrow, to educating and informing our political leadership on the best ways to develop, sustain and employ military force where it is required to achieve a political objective - and the risks of doing so. While being grounded in their tactical experiences - they must be thinking on the operational and strategic levels - able to articulate nuances to provide context, while being able to see the inter-relationships and consequences.

I think we must give the board the benefit of understanding that while COIN may be the theme weve picked up on, the requirements of ensuring we have the best GOs (and leaders) are deeper and more subjective. The 06s weve identified in the original blog and related articles are more then just good COIN officers, they are leaders who have demonstrated that they can identify a problem and think creatively about it, and will resource the means to overcome it. They are full spectrum officers with agile and adaptive minds, and they have sparked creativity in organizations they have been a part of, and inspired the larger community by their ideas and communication skills.

Best Regards, Rob