By Col. Douglas Macgregor, USA, Ret.
It’s official. The White House approved the appointment of a new Four Star General to lead Army Futures Command (AFC). This act raises the total number of Four Star Generals and Admirals on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces to 35—an all-time high for an active duty force of just more than a million Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.
It was not always so. There was a time when fewer Four Stars meant more fighting power.
From March 1942 to April 1945 when General George C. Marshall was responsible for 8.3 million soldiers and airmen serving in 9 theaters of war, Marshall managed to do his job with the assistance of only 3 other Four Star Generals: Douglas MacArthur, Henry “Hap” Arnold, and Dwight Eisenhower. Some readers may wonder how 8.2 million Soldiers and Airmen could fight and win the largest and most destructive war in human history under the command and control of only 4 Four Star Generals.
One reason was General Marshall’s grasp of Sir Winston Churchill’s maxim that, “Failure in war is most often the absence of one directing mind and commanding will.” Marshall knew from experience with failed attempts to reform the U.S. Army during the interwar period that more Four Stars promised exhausting debates about desperately needed changes in the Army’s organization; the implementation of new warfighting methods and reductions in the Army’s command echelons. For anything to change and change quickly, Marshall had to take control.
When General Marshall received the executive order from President Roosevelt in February 1942 authorizing him to reorganize the War Department, Marshall acted swiftly to make the Army Staff in the Pentagon more manageable and responsive. Marshall said the Staff of 700 officers had become “a huge, bureaucratic, red tape-ridden, operating agency. It slowed down everything." Marshall removed 600 officers, reducing the staff to 122.
During the war, Marshall demanded selfless service from his generals and penalized those who put their personal ambitions ahead of the nation’s needs. When WWII ended, Marshall promoted younger men and retired older men despite their wartime service and experience.
Marshall always spoke frankly to President Roosevelt, who usually deferred to Marshall’s judgement on military matters. Though they did occasionally disagree, very few people—other than Marshall and FDR—knew it.
It’s painfully obvious that things have changed. Since 2001, a host of Four Stars supported by enormous staffs of officers and contractors have set the strategic agendas for three presidential administrations. In the end, all of the “celebrity” Four Stars in Iraq and Afghanistan argued for the same solution: billions of dollars and more troops. They received both and failed to deliver any strategic benefit to the American people.
The Defense Department needs a new business model. If Peter Drucker were here to counsel the President, he would say, “Too many Four Stars means too many meetings, too many competing agendas and too little accountability for a force with too few Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines that can actually fight.” It’s time for President Trump to consider his options because he really has only three courses of action:
- Do nothing. Like Presidents Bush and Obama, let the 35 Four Stars and the service bureaucracies set the strategic agenda;
- Convene a commission of the usual ‘inside the beltway’ suspects—beltway consultants, Ivy League academics, retired Four Stars, ex-senators, and former Service Secretaries—to study the problem and submit a lengthy report in two years;
- Select a new Secretary of Defense; a strong decisive leader, a leader who (like Marshall) will compel unity of effort by reducing the unneeded Four Star overhead; a Secretary without personal attachment to the Services who understands that American forces organized for the past will be defeated in the future.
To be fair, Marshall had some advantages over today’s Four Stars. Marshall never pretended to be a ‘Warrior-Scholar.’ Marshall did not contend with a Washington beltway industry of pseudo experts and pundits from Washington “Think Tanks,” eager to write obsequious articles for publication on his behalf. His greatest advantage may well have been his ignorance of the science of power point slide briefings.
Today, there is no one like Marshall in the senior ranks. As a result, the sooner President Trump heeds the advice of Peter Drucker and changes the Four Star business model with a new Secretary of Defense, the sooner he—not the 35 Four Stars—will set the strategic agenda.
Colonel (ret) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory, (Naval Institute Press, 2016).
This piece was originally published by Stars and Stripes on July 31, 2018. Read more HERE.