On September 1, 1939, Brigadier George C. Marshall took the oath of office as the 15th U.S. Army chief of staff, a post he held until November 1945. When the ceremony ended, General Marshall confided to his aide de camp, “There is enough dead wood in the Army’s officer corps to light several forest fires.”
Marshall was more right than he knew. If the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps fought shoulder to shoulder with the French Army in 1940, American arms would have suffered the same fate as the French and British Armies—total defeat at the hands of the German Wehrmacht. This fact was made painfully obvious 14 months after the Second World War broke out.
In February 1943, 11,000 German troops smashed through the 30,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army’s II Corps at Kasserine Pass. The U.S. commander, Major Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, a swaggering blowhard, was relieved and sent home. It was not the last time that a cigar-chewing imitation of a real general would fail in action against the German onslaught, but the experience strengthened Marshall’s intolerance of general officer failure in action.
Dwight D. Eisenhower thought Marshall had picked Fredendall—an officer with no combat experience despite serving in the First World War—but Fredendall was actually chosen for command by Lieutenant Gen. Lesley McNair for the energy he demonstrated in training. Though Fredendall had not gone ashore to join his troops until the fighting was over, Eisenhower decorated Fredendall for the II Corps’ successful landing in North Africa. Sadly, once Fredendall was selected for the wrong reasons, only disaster in combat with a capable opponent could reveal Fredendall’s deficiencies as a battlefield commander.
Unfortunately, the practice of tolerating mediocre officers with friends and sponsors in the four star ranks persists today.
Today, the task of finding senior military leaders with character, competence and intelligence is immeasurably harder than it was in Marshall’s day. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the American media’s adulation for four stars transformed general officers such as Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Allen, and Austin into instant celebrities.
Four stars now automatically become part of a mutual general officer admiration society, that cheers even mediocre performance in general officers chosen for high command, because, like “made men” in the Mafia, senior leaders agree not to turn on their peers. Eliminating failed general officers, even when failure is found out the hard way in action, is deemed dangerous to a promotion system based on nepotism that presents itself as infallible.