Since 2001, a dozen commanders have cycled through the top jobs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees both wars. Three of those commanders — including the recently dismissed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal — have been fired or resigned under pressure.
History has judged many others harshly, and only two, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, are widely praised as having mastered the complex mixture of skills that running America's wars demands.
For the military, this record of mediocrity raises a vexing question: What is wrong with the system that produces top generals?
Much of what top commanders do in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq bears little relation to the military skills that helped them rise through the ranks, military officials said. Today's wars demand that top commanders act like modern viceroys, overseeing military operations and major economic development efforts. They play dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.
When support for these long wars inevitably flags back home, the White House often depends on its generals to sell the administration's approach to lawmakers and a skeptical American public. To the military's extreme discomfort, its generals often act like shadow cabinet secretaries.
"What we ask of these generals is a very unusual skill set," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has advised both Petraeus and McChrystal. "It is a hard thing for anyone to do, much less than someone who comes to it so late in life."
Over nine years of war, top commanders have fallen victim to their own ignorance of Washington politics and the press. Adm. William J. Fallon, once commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, resigned after he made offhand remarks trashing the Bush administration's Iran policy.
Other commanders, including Gen. Tommy Franks and Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, spent most of their careers studying conventional battles and couldn't grasp the protracted wars or the shadowy enemies that they were fighting. "A year from now, Iraq will be a different country," Franks wrote in his 2004 autobiography. "Our steady progress in Afghanistan is one factor that gives me confidence that Iraq will be able to provide for its own security in the years ahead."
A few top commanders started out well enough, but they found themselves exhausted and out of new ideas by the end of their tours. With sectarian violence spinning out of control in the spring of 2006, Gen. George. W. Casey scribbled the words "must act" in the margins of an intelligence report that warned of even worse killing in the weeks to come. Yet he did little to change the military's approach in the months that followed. After more than 30 months in command, he was forced out to make way for Petraeus and a new approach.
Explanations for the shortage of good generals abound. Some young officers blame the Pentagon's insistence on sticking with its peacetime promotion policies. Military personnel rules prevent the top brass from reaching down into the ranks and plucking out high-performers who have proved themselves especially adept at counterinsurgency or have amassed significant knowledge about Afghanistan and Iraq. "In all previous wars, promotions were accelerated for officers who were effective," a senior Army official said.
Instead of speeding promotions, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld slowed them down so that officers wouldn't cycle through complex jobs so quickly. As a result, there are many three-star generals with limited counterinsurgency experience and a large pool of colonels and one-stars who have done multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. The lower-ranking officers are years away from even being considered for senior slots in the wars.
Other experts maintain the military must cast a wider net in its search for creative commanders who can balance the military and political demands of their job. One day after McChrystal was dismissed, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described how hard it is to find just the right general to lead U.S. troops in battle. "One of the most difficult things we do is pick people," Mullen said. "We spend an extraordinary amount of time on it." He offered the same observation a year earlier in explaining the move to sack McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan.
Rarely, though, does the exhaustive search lead to anyone outside the narrow confines of the U.S. Army. Eleven of the 12 top war commanders since 2001 have been Army generals. "The Army has had an absolute hammer lock on all the senior jobs and their staffs," said Bing West, a former Marine who has written several books about the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Marines often point out that Gen. James N. Mattis, who won widespread praise as a two-star general in Iraq's Anbar province, has spent the past several years at U.S. Joint Forces Command, a sprawling bureaucracy that produces doctrine, conducts war games and oversees troop deployments. He is expected to retire this year.
Searching for a formula
The struggle to produce successful senior commanders has spurred a search in the Pentagon for the magic formula that will produce more warrior-diplomats. One school of thought holds that, given the breadth of skills required for today's high-command jobs, officers should be selected and groomed at an early stage of their careers, with tours in Washington, battlefield commands and time in civilian graduate schools.
Petraeus spent extensive time working for three top generals; two of his tours were in the Pentagon, where he worked directly for the both the Army chief of staff and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the late 1990s. His unusual career path generated grumbling among peers who thought that real officers should be in the field. Others complained that he seemed to be trying too hard to make top rank. But the experience is now seen as having given him the political savvy he has needed to be successful in the latter part of his career.
Currently, all of the armed services are hatching plans to send more of their high-performing young officers to graduate school. Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, for example, has posited that more pilots with PhDs will increase his service's "intellectual throw-weight." But the military remains deeply uncomfortable with idea of targeting a subset of officers for an elite education, with the aim of installing them in senior command slots decades later.
"Part of the Army's problem is its egalitarianism," said retired Col. Don Snider, who teaches leadership at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
There is also widespread skepticism that the military's slow-moving bureaucracy can come up with a system for routinely producing innovative officers with the political, bureaucratic and battlefield skills needed to lead at the highest levels.
"A lot of the service's efforts feel like groping in the dark," said Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations.