Exit, stage left: Max Boot, who has the perfect name for writing about infantrymen, has an engaging piece at Commentary on how the four most celebrated talented generals in the GWOT recently have followed some of the earlier ones he does not mention (Franks, for example) into the sunset. The last of his four, Marine General Jim Mattis, isn’t quite gone, but he’s standing in the door. Geronimo!
Some of these guys were undone by personal scandals of a trivial sort. Petraeus couldn’t keep his trousers zipped, and McChrystal unwisely gave a reporter access to his staff; the reporter, predictably, betrayed him for a juicier headline. (You can’t blame the reporter for that, really. Item 1: A snake will always bite; that’s the nature of a snake. Item 2: If you’re self-confident enough to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Juggling Snakes, see Item 1). Allen and Mattis? Well, the administration, which doesn’t like the military much, really doesn’t like successful military men, and undermined them at every turn. (It did to the other pair as well, but they gave the administration ammunition). Mattis in particular was resented for leading the Marines as if he had Marine values — as if there was something wrong with that. Boot:
Petraeus, McChrystal, Allen, and Mattis would be the first to deny that they are irreplaceable—the graveyards, they would no doubt remind us, are said to be full of irreplaceable men. And clearly there are a number of capable officers who will strive to fill their combat boots. Some heroes of the last decade of war—including General Ray Odierno, General Martin Dempsey (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Admiral William McRaven (McChrystal’s successor at JSOC and the man who oversaw the Osama bin Laden raid), and Major General H.R. McMaster (a noted military intellectual and counterinsurgency commander)—remain in uniform.
But the experience and savvy of the four will be hard to replace. Certainly they deserve more public appreciation than they have gotten so far and, at the very least, an honored role in helping to teach a new generation of soldiers and Marines how to operate at the pinnacle of command. We do not have such a surplus of brilliant commanders that we can afford to wave away those like Petraeus and McChrystal and Allen and Mattis, who have demonstrated a mastery of the modern battlefield. We can only hope that President Obama’s cavalier attitude toward the loss of their institutional knowledge, their leadership abilities, and their complex understanding of a dangerous world does not prove to be a tragedy for the nation.
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We don’t share Boot’s (or McMaster’s own, for that matter) degree of being impressed with McMaster. Mattis and McChrystal have probably forgotten more about COIN than that publicity hound has ever learnt. But he is talented, even though a bit of a self-promoter. And every corporal and up knows how to handle a “Spotlight Ranger”: keep the spotlight on him, but spread the kudos around enough to ensure his peers don’t get resentful; you’ll get credit for the great things he does, while his personality deficiencies will be his alone. Of course, no one in the NCA, except Chuck Hagel knows this. He’s the only one who’s actually been a corporal, the rest of them lack that character-forging resumé line.
The other guys he mentions vary in quality. Dempsey, for example, is a politician in uniform; while his bosses may curl their toes happily at his sucking-up, his troops wouldn’t cross the street to urinate on him if he were on fire. Odierno has politician tendencies, but in person we found him impressive on several levels. McRaven is the real deal, a good leader for a moral country in a hard world. They are all probably famous enough that the White House resents and will, in time, undermine them, unless they can hang on until the next guy, who will not be so vain and vindictive, whoever he is and whatever party he comes from (or “she” for that matter).
There are many other generals further downlist who bring similar courage, fidelity, and dedication to their tasks. We hesitate to name names, lest we plant targets on their backs. We, as a nation, have always found talented officers, in bad years and under bad Presidents as well as good ones. Some of the best ones “bubble under” at the O-6 (Colonel/Navy Captain) level, but there’s an incredible amount of talent there.
Indeed, the “up-or-out” rule embedded in DOPMA and ROPMA, sucked into the military from 1920s corporate practice — think Durant’s GM — ensures that the path to high rank is an elimination tournament and the Army and other services shed incredible talent at every level.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.