Four-Star Heresy

On Friday, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave the commencement address to the colonels and senior lieutenant colonels graduating from the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn. These 339 graduates represent the cream of the Army's crop -- the officers destined for brigade-level command, and possibly generals' stars someday. But instead of telling them how smart they are, Mullen admonished them to be professionally curious and intellectually humble -- and to listen carefully to the wisdom of their subordinates, who have spent years learning hard lessons about warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, there's no transcript available yet, but here's what the DoD press shop's article had to report about his speech:

"We can expect the counterinsurgency mission to continue, perhaps even grow, but we must also stay prepared for a range of military operations," he said. "We cannot sacrifice the future for the sake of the now."

The U.S. military must listen to battle-hardened young servicemembers, Mullen stressed, and the lieutenant colonels and colonels must listen. "(The troops) are out there making a difference, and they know it," Mullen said. "They also know, as you do, a few new things about how to wage irregular warfare in this new century."

In Iraq, American servicemembers are providing the stability the country needs. They are training Iraqi security forces and have made sacrifices to do so. That combat experience is invaluable, Mullen said. "They are wise beyond their years," he said. "War has a way of doing that. We owe them our attention and our time. We owe them the opportunity to think and to speak.

"Two weeks ago, I stood before the graduating class of the Naval Academy, and I told them to question you, their seniors, about the way we do things," he said. "Today, I urge you, in turn, to listen to them, your juniors. Learn what's on their minds; come to know their concerns. ... We need your help in bringing these issues to the forefront of a system that is mired in peacetime and must fundamentally change, one that puts our people at the center of the universe."

The chairman also called on a national discourse on defense. "Quite frankly, I don't believe our armed forces are as balanced as they need to be for that future," he said. "That's why I have so strongly argued for a renewed debate in this country about the level of defense spending."

He said he would like to see a thoughtful reevaluation of the threats America faces and the risks the country is willing to run. He suggested the country should invest roughly 4 percent of gross domestic product in national defense. "Whether we stay at that level or rise above it is, of course, for the American people to decide, but we ought to have that discussion," he said. "Maintaining a force that is correctly shaped, sized, trained and equipped so that we may adequately defend our nation is our most pressing long-term problem."

Strong words. Just a few years ago, these words would have been heresy for a senior military officer -- let alone the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Mullen is speaking in code here. When he uses the word "balanced," he's referring to the allocation of resources among and within the services. Consider that along with his comments about counterinsurgency and the need for full-spectrum operations, and it's clear he's talking about a massive reallocation of Pentagon money and a dramatic reordering of priorities. More troops, especially those useful for small wars (special operations, intelligence, logistics, military police, civil affairs, etc.). Fewer high-tech aircraft, like the Joint Strike Fighter. More versatile low-tech aircraft, like the C-17 transport plane or the UH-60 helicopter. And many more changes along those lines.

I get the sense that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Mullen want to do as much as they humanly can to right the Pentagon's course before transitioning it over to the next administration. To be sure, the Gates-Mullen team is effectively lame duck. And the Pentagon is a large ship with a small rudder. It's not clear they can really change its course that much. But, these men will make the decisions that set the conditions for the first two years of the McCain or Obama administration. And, it's very likely that Mullen will continue serving for at least the first year of the next presidency. So their policies and opinions still do matter, even if the Bush administration is ending soon.

By Phillip Carter |  June 9, 2008; 9:13 AM ET  | Category:  Military Manpower
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I don't know, this pitch troubles me. I think my concern is that here is this four-star telling the field grade officers that they need to listen to their subordinates due to their experiences in counterinsurgency operations. Do you think for a moment that these field grades have not been similarly tested? And do you think for a moment that any GOFO is saying, "Hey, my colonels and lieutentant colonels were absolutely right when they said..."

Second, it's all good and fine to listen to the voice of expertise in tactical warfare. But the failing we've seen by U.S. military leaders is at the operational and strategic level of warfare. While the "strategic corporal" will always play an important role in counterinsurgency operations, perhaps it is even more important that our future leaders learn about the many mistakes in operational and strategic warfare before they take over the reigns of their superiors.

Posted by: Jason | June 9, 2008 11:05 AM

True. And the start is to listen to those who had to fix those mistakes (or simply deal with the consequences) on the ground. And I'd guess that a LTC or COL, who started the war as a MAJ or LTC (or COL), doesn't know as much as a CPT who started as a butter bar back in '03.

Posted by: Barry | June 9, 2008 11:12 AM

Could it be that the reliance upon sophisticated and complex technologies, the maintenance of high tempo routines and the demands for quick and continuous input upward and across, has over time made the more senior officer isolated from the environment in which his forces are deployed and less likely to understand what is really happenning? Even as long ago as the 17th and 18th centuries, leaders like Federick the Great were bemoaning that their generals in mastering the routine of war became more like the slogging pack mule when their could have developed the perspective of the soaring eagle. Mullen is sounding a clarion of warning to these officers who may be entering the stages of mental sclerosic that creeps upwards with nearness to the Pentagon.

Posted by: Bill Keller | June 9, 2008 2:57 PM

"mired in peacetime" -- is that an accurate quotation? If so, it sounds like Hobbes: "Man is in a perpetual state of war." If so, some of that has been our choice in recent years. The military does seem to fight each war in terms of the last one -- Haig did not record the lessons of our Civil War when he sent men over the top against machine guns in WW I.
But the USAF, at least, is trying to fight a future war. The F-22 is useless in Iraq, but against a crack Chinese air force it will be a fighter pilot's dream. But the USAF may be implicating us in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Posted by: H R Coursen | June 10, 2008 8:26 AM

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