Reduce the unneeded 4-star overhead
By DOUGLAS MACGREGOR | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: July 31, 2018
It’s official. The White House approved the appointment of a new four-star general to lead Army Futures Command. This act raises the total number of four-star generals and admirals on active duty in the U.S. military 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 Gen. George C. Marshall was responsible for 8.3 million soldiers and airmen serving in nine theaters of war, Marshall managed to do his job with the assistance of only three 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 four four-star generals.
One reason was Marshall’s grasp of 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 Marshall received the executive order from President Franklin D. 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 World War II ended, Marshall promoted younger men and retired older men despite their wartime service and experience.
Marshall always spoke frankly to Roosevelt, who usually deferred to Marshall’s judgment on military matters. Though they did occasionally disagree, very few people knew it.
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 famed management consultant 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 Donald Trump to consider his options, because he really has only three courses of action:
1) Do nothing. Like Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, let the 35 four-stars and the service bureaucracies set the strategic agenda.
2) 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.
3) 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 an industry of pseudo experts and pundits from Washington think tanks, eager to write articles for publication on his behalf. His greatest advantage may well have been his ignorance of the science of PowerPoint briefings.
Today, there is no one like Marshall in the senior ranks. As a result, the sooner Trump heeds the advice of 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.
Douglas Macgregor is a retired U.S. Army colonel, a combat veteran, and the author of five books, including “Margin of Victory.”