Don’t Trust Any General Over 50?

Over at the (American) Civil War Bookshelf, Dmitri Rotov posts on Generals who faint and raises this point:

General Mansfield
General Mansfield

General Petraeus will be 58 in November. General Mansfield was 58 when he was killed in battle. Mansfield, shown right, had not fainted up to that point, at least not on the record. He is the oldest looking general I have ever seen. The Civil War reader, first encountering Mansfield, asks, “What the hell?” The newspaper reader, encountering Petraeus, thinks “How youthful and fit.”
Petraeus and Mansfield. One slogs around all day in Maryland or Virginia mud, heat, and frost in heavy boots and wool clothing as a kind of daily fitness program; the other mans a desk in Floridian air conditioned comfort between inspections, briefings, and rounds of self-imposed exercise.
None of this is intended to slight Petraeus but to make the point that one can run, jump, exercise, whatever, and it will not change that one is 58 years old. Fainting or worse are possible. Forget about 60 being the new 40. Mansfield was remarkable – exceptional – and no basis for broad army policy.
Joe Hooker was our fain[t]ingest [American Civil War] general but his faints were accompanied by blood loss and concussion. Remember how you thought he was a geezer in the summer of 1862 at 47 years of age? That’s 11 years younger than Petraeus, 11 years older than McClellan.
And speaking of older generals, how old do you make Lee in the summer of 1862? He was 55, three years younger than Petraeus. Lee – another exception and no basis for policy.
In J.F.C. Fuller‘s book Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure, he names three pillars of generalship: courage, creative intelligence, and physical fitness and he attributes all three to “the attributes of youth rather than middle age.” He does not find courage and creative intelligence among middle aged officers as a rule, and he would be dismayed at the current leadership of the U.S. military.
Under Petraeus, directing the Iraq war, we find Ray Odierno, 56. Under Petraeus, directing the Afghanistan war, we find Stanley McChrystal, 55. At the top, this is an army of Mansfields. We love Mansfield but is this a good thing?

If we look at the ages of Union field generals that we once considered “old,” a comparison is interesting (all summer of 1862):

On the Rebel side:

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, turns 64 in October. Army Chief of Staff Casey is 62 next month.
BTW, General George Washington wrapped up his war at Yorktown at the ripe old age of 49.
Old Union generals: now think of the oldest you can.
Scott was 75 before retirement. He got out of the way relatively fast. Mullen is not going to reach that standard, fortunately, nor John Wool‘s 77 (in the summer of 1861). Wool stayed around and, as Beatie shows in livid colors, spent the spring and summer of 1862 old man style scheming and fussing at McClellan.
Mullen is the age of Edwin Vose Sumner in ’62. Whatever you think of Sumner now, your first reaction to him was that he was a freak of circumstances from whom little might be expected.
Mullen is a year older than the sedentary John Dix was in summer, 1862. Dix was valued as a political general who also commanded volatile military jurisdictions (Baltimore, New York). He was an exception by definition.
Fuller made allowances for age in peacetime leadership, suggesting some sort of organized transition to young generals in time of war. If that were even feasible, it could not happen because at the highest levels, this modern army leadership will never willingly leave peacetime cultural norms.
Fuller: “In war, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the evil effects of age upon generalship, and through generalship on the spirit of the army.”

I usually don’t endorse Fuller wholeheartedly, but that got me thinking. On the general officer level, is our military as sclerotic and focused on preserving the perks of seniority as our public schools? Consider this article from Tom Ricks of CNAS: Lose a General, Win a War:

Back in World War II, the Army had no qualms about letting officers go; at least 16 of the 155 generals who commanded divisions in combat during the war were relieved while in combat. George Marshall, the nation’s top general, felt that a willingness to fire subordinates was a requirement of leadership. He once described Gen. Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, as a fine man, but one who “didn’t have the nerve to get rid of men not worth a damn.”
Marshall had plenty of nerve: in 1940 and ’41, as war loomed, he forced into retirement several hundred officers he deemed too old and slow to be effective. When the commandant at Leavenworth, Brig. Gen. Charles Bundel, told him that updating the complete set of Army training manuals would take 18 months, Marshall offered him three months, and then four months, to do the job. It can’t be done, Bundel twice responded.
“You be very careful about that,” Marshall told him in a telephone conversation.
“No, it can’t be done,” Bundel repeated.
“I’m sorry, then you are relieved,” Marshall said.
We tend to remember those who were nearly relieved but ultimately weren’t, most notably Gen. George Patton, who came closest to being fired during the war after slapping two American soldiers suffering from combat fatigue. But that sort of exception illustrates another aspect of the lost tradition of relieving commanders: the military had some flexibility in enforcing it. Patton was seen by his superiors as having unusual weaknesses but equally rare strengths, so he was kept on.
One advantage of having a more flexible attitude toward removal from combat command was that it did not necessarily mean the end of one’s career. During World War II, three Army division commanders — Orlando Ward, Terry de la Mesa Allen and Leroy Watson — were relieved of command of divisions in combat but went on to lead different divisions later in the war.
The old system may seem harsh in today’s light, and certainly some men were treated unfairly. But keep in mind that job losses were dwarfed by combat losses: In the summer of 1944, 15 of the 20 battalion and regimental commanders in the 82nd Airborne were either killed or wounded. In World War II, a front-line officer either succeeded, became a casualty or was relieved within a few months — or in some cases, within days.
The tradition of swift relief provided two benefits that we have lost in today’s Army: It punished failure and it gave an opportunity to younger, more energetic officers who were better equipped to adapt to the quickening pace of the war. When George Marshall heard of a major who really was doing a general’s work, he stepped in to make the man a brigadier general overnight. Under this audacious system, a generation of brilliant young commanders emerged, men like James Gavin, an innovator in airborne warfare who became the Army’s youngest three-star general.
But that tradition was somehow lost in the Korean War and buried conclusively in Vietnam. Nowadays, dynamic young leaders can’t emerge as quickly, because almost no one is fired. In a much-discussed 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, most of our commanders have “rotated in” for a year, led their units and gone home. This skews incentives away from risk-taking and toward not making waves. Consequently, the only generals who are fired are those at the very top, who do not serve one-year tours of duty and so must be removed by firing or forced resignation.

Consider this from Secretary of Defense Bob Gates:

Another category ripe for scrutiny should be overhead – all the activity and bureaucracy that supports the military mission. According to an estimate by the Defense Business Board, overhead, broadly defined, makes up roughly 40 percent of the Department’s budget.
During the 1990s, the military saw deep cuts in overall force structure – the Army by nearly 40 percent. But the reduction in flag officers – generals and admirals – was about half that. The Department’s management layers – civilian and military – and numbers of senior executives outside the services grew during that same period.
Almost a decade ago, Secretary Rumsfeld lamented that there were 17 levels of staff between him and a line officer. The Defense Business Board recently estimated that in some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers.
The private sector has flattened and streamlined the middle and upper echelons of its organization charts, yet the Defense Department continues to maintain a top-heavy hierarchy that more reflects 20th Century headquarters superstructure than 21st Century realities. Two decades after the end of the Cold War led to steep cuts in U.S. forces in Europe, our military still has more than 40 generals, admirals, or civilian equivalents based on the continent. Yet we scold our allies over the bloat in NATO headquarters.
Consider that a request for a dog-handling team in Afghanistan – or for any other unit – has to go through no fewer than five four-star headquarters in order to be processed, validated, and eventually dealt with. This during an era when more and more responsibility – including decisions with strategic consequences – is being exercised by young captains and colonels on the battlefield.
A telling example of how difficult it is to make even modest adjustments. The Department commissioned a study a few years ago to assess the flag-officer requirements of the services. The study identified 37 positions – out of more than 1,300 active and reserve billets – that could be reasonably converted to a lower rank. None were downgraded.
Going forward, some questions to be considered should be:

  • How many of our headquarters and secretariats are primarily in the business of reporting to or supervising other headquarters and secretariats, as opposed to overseeing activity related to real-world needs and missions?
  • How many executive or flag-officer billets could be converted to a lower grade, with a cascading effect downward – where two-star deputies become one-star deputies, assistant secretaries become deputy assistant secretaries – to create a flatter, more effective, and less costly organization?
  • How many commands or organizations are conducting repetitive or overlapping functions – whether in logistics, intelligence, policy, or anything else – and could be combined or eliminated altogether?

In considering these questions, we have to be mindful of the iron law of bureaucracies – that the definition of essential work expands proportionally with the seniority of the person in charge and the quantity of time and staff available – with 50-page power point briefings being one result.

Makes you wonder how well our wars would be going if we had a mandatory retirement age of 50, fewer generals slots, and a stronger tradition of firing generals.

12 thoughts on “Don’t Trust Any General Over 50?”

  1. Tocqueville said that the most important attribute for a general was youth.

    Napoleon’s Marshalls were young men. Davout was 36 at Jena. Ney was 38 at Eylau. Murat was 33 at Marengo. Napoleon and Wellington were both 46 at Waterloo.

    How old are the field commanders of the Taliban?

  2. Joseph,

    I am going to call epic fail on your “Don’t Trust Any General Over 50?” thesis.

    All of the following were _very_successful_ Army and Fleet commanders under Douglas MacArthur, who was no spring chicken himself in WW2.

    General Walter Krueger — 62 when he took command of 6th Army in 1943.

    General George C. Kenney — 53 when he took over Allied Air Forces in the SWPA in Aug 1942.

    General Robert L. Eichelberger — 58 when he stood up 8th Army in 1944.

    Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid — 55 when he became Commander, Allied Naval Forces, South West Pacific Area in 1943.

    Admiral Daniel D. Barbey — 53 when he assumed command of Amphibious Force, Southwest Pacific Force.

  3. Do the WWI math…

    Omar Bradley 1893
    George Patton 1885
    Ike Eisenhower was born in 1890.
    Anthony “Nuts” McAuliffe 1898
    Benard Law Montgomery 1887. (OK, there’s always an exception.)

  4. I don’t know Napoleonics that well but I do know the ACW.

    Many many senior commanders tended to get promoted up when their predecessor was killed or wounded. This was particularly true for the Confederates. Lee received command of the ANV after Johnston serious wounding.
    This was true less so for the Union but it’s possible to observe this in the Overland campaign in ’64, too.

    How exposed to death and wounding are US regimental, brigade, division, corp or army commanders in the present wars in Afghanistan? Prolonged conflicts where old and inept senior commanders are retired, the unlucky get killed and the talented get promoted don’t seem to be on the horizon.

  5. The US army has been top heavy with officers since World War I. In WWII, the Germans had far fewer officers per regimental sized unit than we did. Non-coms commanded German units that we had commanded by captains. They were far more mobile and had more initiative. One possible reason for the excess of officers is the cadre theory but we don’t have a conscript army anymore so it will not be rapidly scaled up.

    Patton, of course, is an exception to your theory as he was 60 in 1945. He was a year older than Petraeus when he anticipated the Ardennes offensive of the Germans, wheeled the entire Third Army to the left and stopped them. That was probably the greatest defensive maneuver in modern war. The Kursk battles were bigger but not surprises like the Bulge.

  6. “Makes you wonder,” indeed.

    The current system allows the mediocre to advance if they have “screened” for a particular job (I’m speaking Navy). And while we almost never fire flag officers, we fire very few company/field grades. The observation about the private losing a rifle paying a higher price than a general losing a war has parallels further down the food-chain, where incompetent officers are shifted into less critical jobs—but still “lead” people in their less critical corner of the service. I’ve been associated with the military for all of my adult life and can count on one hand the number of company/field grades fired (several relieved/reassigned) and during that time saw too many who were unfit for the profession kept on because they had punched a ticket. Like a good portion of our culture, the military isn’t immune from the destructive influence of bureaucracy and the mediocrity it brings.

    Excellent post.

  7. I think we have so many officers in part because the military is mostly an infrastructure on which one could in theory, hang a force of about 5 million or more. At least, that was the idea back in the late 1940s and 1950s when we felt we needed the leadership cadre in place if we had to mobilize to face the USSR or China in the big one.

    Of course, we created work for all of them, and now the original purpose is lost in the mists of time, but the billets remain.

    Some more WW2 generals, admirals:

    Rommel, 1891
    Guderian, 1888
    Runstedt, 1875 (the most senior feldmarschall)
    Model, 1891
    Manstein, 1887
    Kleist, 1881
    Kesselring, 1885

    Macarthur, 1880
    Marshall, 1880
    Bradley, 1893
    Collins, 1896
    LeMay, 1906
    Doolittle, 1896
    Nimitz, 1885
    Halsey, 1882
    Spruance, 1886
    Turner, 1885

    LeMay of course was the youngest general in the AAF. All in all, one might conclude that being in one’s 50s was not a problem, and with modern medicine and medical knowledge we’ve probably pushed that age back a few years since 1943.

  8. I don’t think that chronological age is a problem for General Officers. I think the real problem is bureaucratic age. The US Defense bureaucracies are enormous and to reach General status requires years of bureaucratic politics and maneuvering. I am sure it has a deleterious effect on creativity and ability to think outside the established lines.

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