Judging GOFOs


Americans like to rank things. From Dave Letterman’s nightly Top 10 list, to college football’s weekly rankings, America is fascinated with rankings. Listen to talk radio on the way to work, and you may hear an argument on whether Tom Brady or Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback of all time. Nearly every year a list of the greatest presidents will appear. Political partisans are quick to point out how a current President is either the best or the worst president in history, through many of these arguments seem devoid of any historical context.

Only recently have those in the defense and military complex begun to look at how we rate generals. Tom Ricks, on his “Best Defense” blog has discussed the top 10 worst generals in U.S. history.[i] However, the list is subjective, and open to debate, as top 10 lists tend to be. As military professionals, we should think about more objective ways to rate generals and determine their relative success. To do so demands development of objective criteria.

Historical writings on general officers focus on key attributes such as leadership, ethics, or tactical and strategic competence.  The shortcoming in this analysis is the overwhelming number of general officers will not lead large masses of forces in combat. The large body of work of U.S. Army general officers occurs outside of command, and often at the institutional level. Judgment on the success or failure occurs in this framework.

Literature Review

Multiple authors over the past century tackled the complex issue of generalship. Writings span the range detailing success and failures of the military’s highest leaders. Books that discuss the subject include Rick Atkinson’s The Liberation Trilogy, which includes An Army at Dawn.  Further, there is H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, Tom Rick’s The Generals, J.F.C. Fuller’s Generalship, and Karl Von Clausewitz, who discusses attributes of great generals in his seminal book On War.

The books discussed above center around two notions. First, success in combat. Second, the attributes required of military flag officers. H.R. McMaster’s seminal book Dereliction of Duty centers on the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff throughout the Vietnam War. Their respective failure occurred through a lack of intestinal fortitude to speak truth to power on events in Vietnam. As ineffective leaders, President Johnson ignored their weak advice on the use of military power. Although an excellent book on the details of strategic failure, a focus on the 4-Star leadership of the U.S. military ignores the overwhelming number of general officers at the 1-3 star level, often working institutional issues of manning, equipping, and training the force that fought in Vietnam.



J.F.C. Fuller wrote on the attributes or competencies required of general officers. Specifically, Fuller detailed how generals must consistently serve on the front line with their troops.[ii] Displays of physical courage, according to Fuller are essential to successful general officer leadership.

Both Tom Ricks and Rick Atkinson discuss in high detail the success and failures of general officers in Iraq and World War II respectively. For Ricks, the success of flag officers ultimately comes down to performance in combat. However, an important aspect of Rick’s work is the detailed discussions of General George Marshal. Not only was Marshal instrumental in his work to prepare and maintain an Army at War, his paramount contribution came in the selection of the Army’s combat leaders. Indeed, proper talent management of the general officer corps had as much to do with victory in World War II as did the operational planning and execution of field commanders.

Continuing with the attributes of flag officers, Karl Von Clause wiz, in his  book On War, describes the military genius required of those who hold the higher rank. Clausewitz describes the trait known as Coup d’ oeil as “an inward eye,” or the ability of commanders to instantly recognize, decide, and act on a situation in battle.[iii]  Further, Clausewitz informs his readers that generals should consistently refine their respective intellect, as in an environment defined by fog, friction, and chance, discriminating judgement is paramount.

Moral character

A display of high morals and ethics is the minimum standard for both the officer corps and the general officer corps. As the minimum, general officers should not be graded on their personal conduct. Proper morals and ethics is a pass/fail exam. Similar to the Chris Rock comedy routine, there are some things in life you don’t get credit for. General Officers (all officers really), do not receive credit for not being drunk on duty. Nor do general officers receive credit for not cheating on their spouses, or sleeping with subordinates. Further, general officers do not get credit for submitting accurate travel vouchers. The failings of General Sinclair and General Ward serve as a reminder, that improper conduct from the most senior military leaders leave a stain on the military as a

Other characteristics or desired qualities of general officers apply in how we expect the military’s most senior officers to serve still apply. J.F. C. Fuller wrote about the desire for general officers to talk to and serve with front-line soldiers. Further, physical and moral courage remain paramount in what we expect of general officers. Traits and characteristics however, fall short in the judgement on the effectiveness of generals and admirals in today’s complex world.

Long Lasting Impact

On the operation side, the judgement of generals often comes down to the outcome of the war. Indeed, General Officers of the WWII generation are often regarded as heroes, regardless of detailed analysis of their respective conduct. General officers of the Vietnam era re often grouped and labeled failures, despite the varying degrees of performance. However, not every general gets to command large organizations in combat. As such, their impact is observed within military institutions.

General officers should be leading the military in change. At the end of a career, general officers should examine their body of work both in the intellectual and physical aspects. Intellectually, general officers should be writing to publish and advance their ideas that they have developed over the course of a 25-40 year career. Publishing what one thinks, prior to retirement is paramount to inviting discussion, innovation, and change.

Physical change occurs in how well general officers physically change the Army. A profound example of success is Huba Wass de Czege’s implementation of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth. Indeed, the SAMS program has been paramount in building and sustaining the intellectual capacity of the Army for over a generation. Further, many credit the SAMS program for producing the “Jedi Knights” who created the operational plans for the first Gulf War.

Other examples of a long lasting policy impact upon the services includes those who developed AirLand Battle, and the implementation of the combat training centers. General officers who led the development and implementation of AirLand Battle such as William DePuy are an easy target to paint for success. Another example of a strategic thinker whose impact went well beyond his tenure of service is Admiral J.C. Wylie who conceptualized a theory of control. Juxtaposed against the success of these flag officers are those who advocated for the implementation of Effects Based Operations (EBO). Indeed, the development of long-lasting doctrine tested in battle is a high water mark of successful flag level officers.

The implementation of training facilities such as the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin and the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) ensured that the U.S. Army could rapidly adjust to combat conditions when the time came. Again, the development of JRTC and NTC proved to be decisive in the U.S. victory over the Iraqi Army in both the Gulf War and major combat operations in Iraq in 2003. Today, the Army uses the Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE) to prepare soldiers

Future Combat Systems (FCS) quickly earned the moniker Failed Combat Systems. For nearly a decade, the United States Army spent inordinate amounts of money on combat platforms and systems that would prove to be both irrelevant and unnecessary. Successful material solutions in recent history include big-ticket items such as Patriot Missiles and the M1 tank, both of which are part of the famed “Big 5.”  These and other modern day systems such as Blue force Tracker should be used as a marker for judging the success or failure of general officers.          

Civilian-Military Relationship

Two general officers, despite battlefield success are generally viewed upon as failures at the end of their respective careers. General MacArthur nearly destroyed the civilian-military relationship with his personal conduct during the Korean War. In a similar vain, General Stan McCrystal, for all his battlefield brilliance as the commander of JSOC, was relieved of command for violating the trust of our civilian masters. The ability for general officers to maintain the proper relationship between the military, the executive, and the legislative branches of government is paramount.

General Officers are often called to testify before congress to justify force structure and the acquisition of critical capabilities of the force. The capacity to justify and get congress on board with recommended force structure is paramount to the success of general officers. If the elected leaders of the United States do not believe what you are telling them, or impressing upon them to do, then a general’s tenure in office cannot be judged as a success. A recent example is General Odierno, who often went to congress with the intent of maintaining a 490k man active force, only to have QDRs, and NDAAs written for a smaller force structure reduced to 450.

The 20/20 hindsight consensus is General Eric Shinseki was correct when he testified to congress that the United States would need overwhelming numbers of troops in Iraq to secure the population following major combat operations (although the author remains unconvinced on this point). However, being right is not the equivalent of success. Success in this aspect would have been to convince Congress and the Secretary of Defense of the necessity of said combat forces. We should rate generals on the quality of the force after they retire.

Talent Management

General Marshall is the obvious example of a General Officer who identified and groomed talent leading up and through World War II. As directors on service and combatant command staffs, the onus is on general officers to ensure that field grade level talent is maximized throughout the officer corps. In the confines of each successive assignment. Ultimately, flag officers choose the next cohort of flag officers. The failure of generals and admirals either in combat or in their respective institutional performance is both a judgement on the individual officer, and those that selected the individual for senior leadership. Looking back Fox Conner’s greatest success was General Marshall, and in turn, one of his highest marks of success was General Eisenhower. We should rate generals based on the performance of their follow-on generation of general officers.

Mentoring the Next Generation  

General officers should continue to provide mentorship to those they rate and senior rate. This is paramount in the development and success of Field Grade Officers and the senior NCO Corps. However, individual counseling works best at the tactical level. At the operational and strategic level, general officers have the opportunity to provide a vision of the future force and share their wisdom through writing and publication.

More than personal mentorship, those holding flag officer rank need to write and publish their thoughts and ideas.  If the general officer corps is the PhD level of the military, subsequently, each officer wearing a star on their uniform should be contributing to the military filed of knowledge. This wisdom should be shared through commander’s blogs, publications in professional journals, and speaking engagements at various professional military education (PME) schools, to include Captains Courses, CGSC, ACSC and the various War Colleges. Further, our senior leadership should engage enlisted PME at every opportunity. We should rate generals on the body of thought they leave to future generations.


The success or failure of systems, policies, and influence is not a judgement on the totality of a career. Indeed, those that fail to implement a successful program can point to overarching achievements over two to four years, and in the case of flag officers twenty five years plus of dedicated service to the nation. Outside of moral and ethical failings, a judgement on the performance of the flag officer corps should in no way be viewed as a judgement on character.    

[i] Thomas Ricks. http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/06/02/the-worst-general-in-american-history-2/

[ii] J.F.C. Fuller Generalship; Its Diseases and Their Cure.

[iii] Karl Von Clausewitz. On War