The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army's senior generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of America's generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.[...]
If our operations produce more enemies than they defeat, no amount of force is sufficient to prevail. Current oversight efforts have proved inadequate, allowing the executive branch, the services and lobbyists to present information that is sometimes incomplete, inaccurate or self-serving. Exercising adequate oversight will require members of Congress to develop the expertise necessary to ask the right questions and display the courage to follow the truth wherever it leads them.
Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.
On the lower end of the scale, things have changed — but for the worse. West Point cadets are obligated to stay in the Army for five years after graduating. In a typical year, about a quarter to a third of them decide not to sign on for another term. In 2003, when the class of 1998 faced that decision, only 18 percent quit the force: memories of 9/11 were still vivid; the war in Afghanistan seemed a success; and war in Iraq was under way. Duty called, and it seemed a good time to be an Army officer. But last year, when the 905 officers from the class of 2001 had to make their choice to stay or leave, 44 percent quit the Army. It was the service’s highest loss rate in three decades.
Col. Don Snider, a longtime professor at West Point, sees a “trust gap” between junior and senior officers. There has always been a gap, to some degree. What’s different now is that many of the juniors have more combat experience than the seniors. They have come to trust their own instincts more than they trust orders. They look at the hand they’ve been dealt by their superiors’ decisions, and they feel let down.