Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

Generals and majors

Posted by Ron Coleman on November 11, 2008

This somewhat stinging look at soldiering was first published on April 27, 2007. I added a new first sentence. — RDC

“Generals and majors, uh huh,” goes the old lefty XTC song… And in between them are colonels — in this case, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, who has written a scathing critique of his superiors’ conduct of the Iraq war in the Armed Forces Journal, a non-governmental publication:

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America’s generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

“Yingling served as deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a fourth in Iraq’s Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He attended the Army’s elite School for Advanced Military Studies and has written for one of the Army’s top professional journals, Military Review,” according to the AP; his byline says he “is deputy commander, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment. He has served two tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia and a fourth in Operation Desert Storm. He holds a master’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago.” He’s the real deal, in other words. It’ s a long article, and Yingling goes to great pains to prove his point, but I am hardly fit to say whether his analysis is correct or dead wrong. You simply have to know the topic to make that decision and read his analysis critically, and I don’t; neither Yingling’s rank nor his use of of military and tactical terminology tell me anything about his qualification to judge the work of the officers who command him. Interestingly, the magazine offers a forum for reader discussion, and when I wrote this, there were no comments at all — even though this article is being reported on Drudge and the Associated Press.

Democracy: Good. Free speech: Good. Honesty: Good.

Active duty military officers criticizing their superiors in print? I don’t know. If he’s right, I want to know, don’t I? But aren’t there problems with this? A year ago, a debate erupted over public commentary about the White House’s management of the war by retired generals. This seemed mostly to be a matter of a breach of custom, a lapse in discretion, though Fred Kaplan, who frequently covers the military (and always criticizes the Bush White House regardless of what it does), thought it was the beginning of something much bigger. The focus then was on public criticism among active officers of civilian policy-making or policy-makers, which according to this is actually a crime.

Now it is something different: A military man is criticizing the general officers’ corps — his uniformed bosses. It is not as bad as criticizing the Secretary of Defense or the Commander in Chief, because it does not threaten the constitutional principle of civilian leadership of the military. On the other hand, the publication of this article is arguably a serious breach of military protocol, which of course Yingling knows. It is a perfectly sensible policy that one not use the press or other vehicles outside the chain of command to circumvent that chain, whether in terms of policy or otherwise. There are exceptions in the case of the reporting of crimes — but policy disagreements?

What should be done? Evidently the issue of free speech in the military is a grey area. It should be. For one thing, as was recognized during the torrent of criticism against Donald Rumsfeld by retired officers, there is a difference between commissioned officers and enlisted personnel. More discretion can, and should, be given to high-ranking officers whose criticisms are not likely to constitute serious threats to military discipline or morale. According to this article by Major Felix F. Moran originally published in Air University Review, there are seven relevant principles of military justice at work here:

Specific articles prohibit:

1. Commissioned officers from using contemptuous words against the President and other senior civilian government officials.

2. Any person from behaving with disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer.

3. Insubordinate conduct (speech) toward a warrant officer, noncommissioned officer or petty officer.

4. Willful disobedience of an order or regulation.

5. Persons from making provoking or reproachful speeches or gestures towards other persons subject to the UCMJ.

6. Conduct unbecoming an officer.

7. Conduct prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the armed forces, or that will bring discredit upon the service.

Shooting from the hip, it’s hard to see a problem with Yingling’s article, separate from the content which, again, I can’t speak to. There is a question as to “respect toward a superior commissioned officer,” but not a serious one, nor is it conduct unbecoming an officer or, as I said, prejudicial to good order and discipline. On the other hand, Moran notes that within the corps of military professionals, there are additional considerations:

[C]urrent [1980] guidelines have been clarified and reinforced by Secretary of the Army Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., in his address at West Point on 8 June 1977. Secretary Alexander outlined three distinct forums for opinion by the military professional:

1. Within the military: Opinions can be voiced freely within the chain of command. Once a final decision has been made, however, the soldier’s responsibility is to work in a creative and dedicated manner to execute the decision.

2. Before Congress: A military man can freely express personal opinion when asked. Once policy has been established, it is his duty to cite the policy and his intent to follow it. If asked, he can state an opinion at odds with the policy, so long as the opinion is so identified.

3. Dealing with the media: The officer must be aware that even before policy is established, expressing personal opinion may be contrary to the national interest. On the other hand, in some cases, discussion may be helpful in the formulation of policy. The official must be sure to state that policy has not been established or is subject to final review by military or civilian authority.

Secretary Alexander further noted that, “in almost no instance will the national interest be served by a military person voicing disagreement with established policy. . . . Attempts to achieve outside the chain of command what one could not achieve inside the chain of command are out of keeping with this tradition [of the President as Commander-in-Chief] and inconsistent with military professionalism.”

These guidelines, though written generally, do seem still to focus on criticism of civilian authorities. It doesn’t seem likely that Lt. Colonel Yingling is going to get in legal trouble for his article, though given the culture of the Army it is hard to imagine him making general short of major reforms — he has now made his stand, according to his conscience, and is not likely to flourish in the military because of it. It may have been the right thing to do, but on the other hand citizens concerned about the effectiveness of the military, including Yingling himself, can hardly wish to see the likes of it done again soon. That realization must speak to how profoundly Yingling believes in the words he wrote, and how frustrated he must be, over the incompetence he perceives. The suggestion that it is not political, but military incompetence, at work here is certainly an important contribution to policy debate, and it is only someone of Col. Yingling’s stature who can make it.

UPDATE:  Some milblogs comment:

My source?  This search on


14 Responses to “Generals and majors”

  1. I don’t know that we can assume that Yingling sacrificed his military career to write this article. My understanding is that the military has a pretty clear advancement ‘track’ and once you fall off the ‘track’ (miss a ‘scheduled’ promotion) you are pretty much done, and can expect to retire pretty much where you are. Yingling may well have already known that his career was as high as it was going to go.

    I don’t claim that that has happened in Yingling’s case, but it is plausible and would also provide a secondary motive for his dissatification with his superiors.

  2. I am sure the end of this story is far from being written.

  3. K said

    Since WW2, and with increasing speed, the situation has changed for military officers. They once retired and normally would live quietly for perhaps twenty years. Military pay and retirement pay was not high. Some with interesting careers would write memoirs. A few of highest rank might find executive employment – often as figureheads – or serve in their communities.

    Consider today. The retiree has prospects of living fifty years. The military pay has been good and retirement pay is good. But the important thing is that the military linked with industry employs tens of thousands for lobbying and consulting. The rewards can be very high. Think tanks and universities are also a major source of employment.

    And with each change of the presidency thousands who backed the right person move to Washington. There they are appointed to posts where they will supervise industries that will later employ them.

    None of this makes anyone bad or good. But it certainly influences those in their final years of service and near or at their final rank.

  4. Jennifer said

    I think you should have published the entire article,, instead of a selected portion. Sound bites serve only to reinforce one’s point of view. To assume anything about this man’s career and the satisfaction he has in his superiors is arrogant and pointless. Read the entire article, then make your comments.

  5. Jennifer, my focus in this posting is simply not the content of the entire article, which I am not qualified to comment on. It is the fact that the article was written. I don’t know what you mean about soundbites reinforcing a point of view; I have none on the topic of his article.

  6. Gwedd said


    Field-grade officers ahve been writing letters critical of their General officers since Washington was in charge. Lincoln probably had the worst experience with it, but other presidents have suffered through similar “letters to the Editor” for all of our history.

    What has changed is that our media have annointed themselves as saviours of the nation, and are pressing an agenda to reflect their own views as to what America should be, and should become. Where Lincoln had a few Copperheads to deal with, nowadays they not only own the presses, they also run the Congress.

    This letter is only a complaint on it’s surface. It’s actually a resume for post-service employment. The writer has made a decision as to which way the political winds are blowing, and is tacking his vessel accordingly.

    As to giving the Congress-critters a say over General Oficer advancement(s), well, that’s a recipe for disaster, as each one will then be tailoring his views not with regard to the needs of the Nation, but with a view to the political views of those in power.


  7. Bob Miller said

    The main question here is whether or not Yingling was able to see enough of the big picture from his vantage point to properly critique his superior officers’ decisions.

    That picture includes interactions between the civilian authorities from President Bush on down and our armed forces, and those between these authorities and the Iraqi government. If Yingling was missing key information, as one would expect in view of his rank, his analysis could be way off base.

  8. That is the big picture, yes, Bob, but I was blogging about the small picture. I mean what I find interesting here is a colonel calling out generals. I simply have to defer to the milblogs or others to analyze Yingling’s complaints. I’ve updated the post with a few possible links for that.

  9. Jack said

    Ron, I’m going to take this conversation and analysis in a different direction, slightly, in honor of Veteran’s Day, because I see real historical parallels here with the development of the Roman and Byzantine militaries, in respect to criticism offered by and about both the Civilian leadership (in the Roman and Byzantine case often absentee Senatorial, Imperial, or political leadership reinforced by bureaucratic layering of hyper-administration over military and diplomatic affairs), and sometimes by and about incompetent military generalship. (I am not making allusions to our current American leadership as being incompetent, I am making allusion to the fact that on occasion, some even among their own ranks view their execution of duty as either incompetent or misguided.)

    Therefore I’m going to ask these questions in relation to the fact that this kind of thing has happened in history before, and in fact has happened on more than one occasion in American history, notably during the execution of the American Revolution, and the prosecution of Civil War.

    I have my own opinions, theories, and ideas about how these various problems and questions could be addressed, but the situation, not just the current ones of our present two theatres of active campaigning, but more generally [pun-intended] speaking is a complicated one which yields no easy answers. Not least of all because a new policy about how to address defects in our current system would likely yield new defects of a different (if not unforeseen) kind even while correcting or at least addressing the present defects. Then again that’s life, ain’t it? You try to minimize liabilities and maximize assets and gains and if you are realistic and truthful then you just recognize that no benefit ever comes free of cost, and no cost ever yields perfect benefit. That kinda thing just doesn’t happen in this world. There is no perfect solution, and no risk-free scenario, despite the current political and social atmosphere of really, really, really “wishing it so.” That all being said here are some questions to consider in this respect.

    Can the operational and strategic aims and capabilities of the military, even in regards to policy and doctrine, be improved by an act or acts of public political and/or social criticism?

    Can the Chain of Command be improved by an act or acts of internal and yet public criticism?

    Can military doctrine be improved by an act or acts of public criticism?

    Does it show disloyalty to criticize the military, either from within or without, or does it show real loyalty and zealous interest?

    How do we discriminate between acts of genuine and valuable criticism and acts of self-serving aggrandizement?

    What mechanisms should be available for public criticism of the military, either among the civilian leadership, within the chain of command itself, or even among the citizenry at large?

    How closely should one analyze the motivations of critics?

    What level of expertise, if any, should be considered necessary before criticisms of the military are considered either potentially valuable, or probably valid?

    When and in what form should such public criticisms occur?

    Should such public criticism ever occur, and if so, who should produce them?

    And so forth and so on…

    Anyways, these are not easy questions to answer. Especially in a free society, composed of so many competing and conflicting interests, many of those interests being equally valid though not necessarily equally justifiable.

    If such questions were easily answered they would have been resolved long ago by the Romans, or even our own ancestors, among others, and we could have simply adopted and adapted their techniques. But they weren’t, because for some things there is no easy firing solution, because there are occasions when you’re not really sure of exactly what your target is, or even what you should shoot at it. So sometimes you just have to keep shooting til you hit something, and pray you hit the right thing in the right way at the right time.

    I reckon it will go no easier on us, no matter what we decide.
    Or what we hit, or what we never hit.

    In any case,


  10. craig mclaughlin said

    Jack poses some very good questions and I remember reading Colonel Yingling’s article at the time it was published, and while I don’t consider myself a military expert, I am an ex-military officer, a history major and a student–however haphazard– of military history and I wasn’t overwhelmed by his analysis. His essay didn’t hold up very well in my view. This is not a defense of those he criticized–whoever they were–just an observation as to the effectiveness of his criticism.

    But I’m left with this question: why repost this on Veteran’s day? A poke in the eye we don’t need, Ron.

  11. craig mclaughlin said

    Okay, I went back and reread Lt. Col. Yingling’s essay. It’s even weaker than I remembered– vague, platitudinous and banal.

    Rhetorically he starts to lose me when
    he quotes Clausewitz at the beginning of the piece as if he’s authoritative and dispositive, then later in the body of the article he dismisses Harry Summers’ masterpiece “On Strategy” –which applies Clauswitzian analysis to the Vietnam War– with barely a sentence.

    The thrust of his piece is that our General Officer’s shortcomings are mostly due to a lack of Congressional oversight. More Pelosi and Reid will fix us right up, you
    betcha–to quote a great American.

    He also says:

    ‘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.”

    No comment.

    But most problematic is this:

    “To improve the creative intelligence of our generals, Congress must change the officer promotion system in ways that reward adaptation and intellectual achievement. Congress should require the armed services to implement 360-degree evaluations for field-grade and flag officers. Junior
    officers and noncommissioned officers are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly. They are also less wed to organizational norms and less influenced by organizational taboos. Junior leaders have valuable insights regarding the effectiveness of their
    leaders, but the current promotion system excludes these judgments. Incorporating subordinate and peer reviews into promotion decisions for senior leaders would produce officers more willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and less likely to conform to outmoded practices.”

    Mebbe so, but being beholden to peers and subordinates for promotion leads to the same thing. Unless you think being able to order men to their death whose approval you need to be promoted won’t quell initiative and boldness of action.

    He concludes thus:

    “The power and the responsibility to identify such generals lie with the U.S. Congress. If Congress does not act, our Jena awaits us.”

    The entire essay is a cop out and waste of time, if you ask me.

    Happy Veteran’s Day.

  12. Hardly a poke in the eye, because this is from a soldier, essentially for and about other soldiers, Craig, and written I am sure with the best of faith and loyalty. But there’s another point that I believe has escaped the learned commentary here so far that makes the repost of this, I think, particularly worthy of consideration, for he writes:

    For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency.

    Well? Now what do we think?

  13. Del said

    Ron –

    There have been several who have criticized the military while in uniform; let’s remember that great Army General, Billy Mitchell (the US Air Force did not then exist) who refused to throw the test results of aircraft sinking a battleship, as as a result was courts-martialed.

    H.R. McMaster has not been particularly shy or withdrawn in his commentary, either (Derilection of Duty).

    At issue, then, is comportment and deportment; one can utterly disagree with a superior’s decision, yet how one acts will be the test of professionalism (and military law). Does one say, “Yes, sir,” in a restrained and relatively smotionless manner, or does one sneer the word “sir” derisively?

    In a written context, inflection is lost and therefore left to the reader. In today’s environment, with the press so liberal, I cannot imagine anyone taking action against him, on a practical level.

    “SHOULD THEY” is another matter. I’d have to read the article in depth before commenting at that level.

    Thanks for the thoughtful input, though.

  14. Chap said

    Thanks for the link. One of the three main styles of articles in the Navy’s main publication is “junior officer pokes seniors in the eye with a stick”, with more or less success depending on the officer and situation.

    My reaction to Yingling’s blast is actually here and might show some answers to some of the questions you posit. The bottom line as I see it: Yingling got a lot of attention, but aspects of the man’s argument got torn apart pretty thoroughly in a number of venues. I say that, by the way, as someone who would benefit careerwise from his prescriptions. There is a tradition of firing upward, but don’t be wrong…

    The bigger question I put to folks is “why this guy’s article, and why the attention?” That string is pretty interesting to pull…

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