Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jim Mattis

Hawkish General Being Pushed Out Early?

Jim Mattis, current commander of Central Command, is one of the most revered generals in the recent history of the Marine Corps. He has been nicknamed affectionately “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk,” and he has acquired a considerable and well-earned reputation for battlefield excellence and general strategic acumen over the course of the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq and now at Centcom. The San Diego Union Tribune has a great profile of him.

Yet, although only 62 years old, his military career may well end in the next few months, because he is slated to leave Centcom. Veteran military correspondent Tom Ricks reports here and here that Mattis may be getting pushed out a bit early because the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.

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Jim Mattis, current commander of Central Command, is one of the most revered generals in the recent history of the Marine Corps. He has been nicknamed affectionately “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk,” and he has acquired a considerable and well-earned reputation for battlefield excellence and general strategic acumen over the course of the last decade in Afghanistan and Iraq and now at Centcom. The San Diego Union Tribune has a great profile of him.

Yet, although only 62 years old, his military career may well end in the next few months, because he is slated to leave Centcom. Veteran military correspondent Tom Ricks reports here and here that Mattis may be getting pushed out a bit early because the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.

I don’t know the truth of the matter, but if Ricks’ reporting is accurate, it does not reflect well on the administration. It would be a shame to lose such a fearless, experienced, and brilliant general who can provide unvarnished advice to an administration whose senior ranks increasingly appear to be stocked with the president’s cronies and loyalists rather than the “team of rivals” Obama was thought by some to try to cultivate in the first term.

Of course Mattis has been at Centcom for a considerable period of time–since 2007, making him the second-longest-service Combatant Command chief–and it is unrealistic to expect that he would stay in the job indefinitely. But it would make sense to find some other employment for him, whether in another prominent command or in an educational capacity helping to groom the next generation of soldiers and marines. Certainly it would be a real loss if he were to retire to farming in Washington State, as he is rumored to be contemplating. America already owes a considerable debt to Mattis, but he is young enough and energetic enough that we can still derive considerable benefit from this wise and inspirational warrior.

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JFCOM to Be Shut Down?

Defense Secretary Bob Gates has just announced a new round of budget cuts, the major move being the proposed elimination of U.S. Joint Forces Command. JFCOM is one of the newer “combatant commands”; it was created in 1999 to work on “joint” training, doctrine, capabilities, and force generation — all missions that in the past had gone exclusively to the individual military services. The thinking at the time in Congress and at the Pentagon was that a more unified approach was needed to avoid some of the traditional duplication and lack of synchronization.

Apparently, Gates thinks the mission could be done just as well without the existence of a four-star command. Is he right? He may well be. And I say that even though I have been peripherally involved in JFCOM’s operations as a member (unpaid) of its Transformation Advisory Group. Certainly, JFCOM, like all military bureaucracies (indeed all bureaucracies, period), has its share of fat. But it also performed some important functions that will have to be done by someone, whether the command exists or not.

The budget savings from this move will hardly do much to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, much less to close the government’s growing budget deficit. As the Associated Press notes, JFCOM has “nearly 4,900 employees and annual salaries of more than $200 million” — a pittance in federal-budget terms. Indeed, you could cut the entire Pentagon budget ($535 billion) and still not eliminate this year’s budget deficit — $1.47 trillion. To say nothing of our federal debt, which is over $13 billion and counting.

I am all in favor of cutting government spending. But we should be careful about cutting defense spending in wartime. Moreover, we should be careful about dumping the burden of “deficit cutting” onto the Department of Defense while ignoring the budget items actually responsible for most federal spending. OK, cut JFCOM. But then cut, too, the entitlement programs, which, with the encouragement and connivance of both the president and Congress, are growing out of control.

A final question concerns the fate of General Ray Odierno, who is about to leave Iraq to assume the command of… JFCOM, a post just vacated by Gen. Jim Mattis, the new Central Command chief. Where will Odierno go now? His services are far too valuable to be lost, but there wouldn’t be an abundance of open four-star jobs if JFCOM were, in fact, eliminated — which would take an act of Congress. My bet would be on him succeeding General George Casey as army chief of staff.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates has just announced a new round of budget cuts, the major move being the proposed elimination of U.S. Joint Forces Command. JFCOM is one of the newer “combatant commands”; it was created in 1999 to work on “joint” training, doctrine, capabilities, and force generation — all missions that in the past had gone exclusively to the individual military services. The thinking at the time in Congress and at the Pentagon was that a more unified approach was needed to avoid some of the traditional duplication and lack of synchronization.

Apparently, Gates thinks the mission could be done just as well without the existence of a four-star command. Is he right? He may well be. And I say that even though I have been peripherally involved in JFCOM’s operations as a member (unpaid) of its Transformation Advisory Group. Certainly, JFCOM, like all military bureaucracies (indeed all bureaucracies, period), has its share of fat. But it also performed some important functions that will have to be done by someone, whether the command exists or not.

The budget savings from this move will hardly do much to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, much less to close the government’s growing budget deficit. As the Associated Press notes, JFCOM has “nearly 4,900 employees and annual salaries of more than $200 million” — a pittance in federal-budget terms. Indeed, you could cut the entire Pentagon budget ($535 billion) and still not eliminate this year’s budget deficit — $1.47 trillion. To say nothing of our federal debt, which is over $13 billion and counting.

I am all in favor of cutting government spending. But we should be careful about cutting defense spending in wartime. Moreover, we should be careful about dumping the burden of “deficit cutting” onto the Department of Defense while ignoring the budget items actually responsible for most federal spending. OK, cut JFCOM. But then cut, too, the entitlement programs, which, with the encouragement and connivance of both the president and Congress, are growing out of control.

A final question concerns the fate of General Ray Odierno, who is about to leave Iraq to assume the command of… JFCOM, a post just vacated by Gen. Jim Mattis, the new Central Command chief. Where will Odierno go now? His services are far too valuable to be lost, but there wouldn’t be an abundance of open four-star jobs if JFCOM were, in fact, eliminated — which would take an act of Congress. My bet would be on him succeeding General George Casey as army chief of staff.

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Jim Mattis: New Head of Central Command

The New York Times has a nice article on the general chosen to head Central Command — Jim Mattis. I’ve known Mattis since the summer of 2003, when I spent some time in Iraq while he was commander of the 1st Marine Division. I was struck by how quickly and seamlessly he made the transition from conventional operations to what the military calls “stability operations” in the Shiite heartland of central Iraq. His methods were similar to those being employed in northern Iraq by another divisional commander — David Petraeus, of the 101st Airborne Division. (For my report on their efforts see this article.)

I’ve often wondered since then: whatever happened to those guys? Just kidding.

Petraeus’s stratospheric and well deserved rise to become the most celebrated American general since Eisenhower has already become legend. Mattis has not gotten the same degree of attention, but he completed another tour of duty in Iraq, helped co-author the Army/Marine Field Manual on Counterinsurgency with Petraeus, and went on to head the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

His many admirers, of whom I am one, were puzzled by his failure to be appointed to one of the truly plum jobs, such as that of Marine Commandant or Central Command chief. This was generally attributed to his salty tongue; he got into hot water in 2005 for saying at a public forum: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway, so it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” This was seen as a cardinal violation of the rules of political correctness, which hold that soldiers are only supposed to talk about the anguish, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder they experience; they are never supposed to comment on the thrill of the kill.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates and President Obama deserve considerable credit for not letting this minor fracas stop them from appointing Mattis as Petraeus’s successor at Centcom. What they undoubtedly know, and what the rest of the world will discover, is that Mattis is not only a “warrior’s warrior” (as he is described in the Times) but also a “diplomat’s diplomat.” In his JFCOM role, he was for a while responsible for NATO force transformation, which required him to press NATO officials to do more to upgrade their armed forces. He was not always successful (who would be?), but he was by all accounts a compelling and persuasive diplomat. He has become known for sending everyone he meets a personal “thank you” note — not a standard-issue form but rather a letter that reflects on the substance of the conversation.

I got one myself after hosting Mattis for an off-the-record roundtable at the Council on Foreign Relations. Given the ground rules, I can’t discuss what he said, but I can mention the impression he made on some jaded Council members in New York. He wowed them by combining the erudition of a Harvard professor with a combat grunt’s gift for aphorism. He showed why he is revered not only as a combat leader but also as an intellectual whose personal library of military works runs to thousands of volumes. It is hard to imagine a better choice to head Central Command. I trust he will enjoy smooth sailing in the Senate confirmation process.

The New York Times has a nice article on the general chosen to head Central Command — Jim Mattis. I’ve known Mattis since the summer of 2003, when I spent some time in Iraq while he was commander of the 1st Marine Division. I was struck by how quickly and seamlessly he made the transition from conventional operations to what the military calls “stability operations” in the Shiite heartland of central Iraq. His methods were similar to those being employed in northern Iraq by another divisional commander — David Petraeus, of the 101st Airborne Division. (For my report on their efforts see this article.)

I’ve often wondered since then: whatever happened to those guys? Just kidding.

Petraeus’s stratospheric and well deserved rise to become the most celebrated American general since Eisenhower has already become legend. Mattis has not gotten the same degree of attention, but he completed another tour of duty in Iraq, helped co-author the Army/Marine Field Manual on Counterinsurgency with Petraeus, and went on to head the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

His many admirers, of whom I am one, were puzzled by his failure to be appointed to one of the truly plum jobs, such as that of Marine Commandant or Central Command chief. This was generally attributed to his salty tongue; he got into hot water in 2005 for saying at a public forum: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway, so it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” This was seen as a cardinal violation of the rules of political correctness, which hold that soldiers are only supposed to talk about the anguish, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder they experience; they are never supposed to comment on the thrill of the kill.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates and President Obama deserve considerable credit for not letting this minor fracas stop them from appointing Mattis as Petraeus’s successor at Centcom. What they undoubtedly know, and what the rest of the world will discover, is that Mattis is not only a “warrior’s warrior” (as he is described in the Times) but also a “diplomat’s diplomat.” In his JFCOM role, he was for a while responsible for NATO force transformation, which required him to press NATO officials to do more to upgrade their armed forces. He was not always successful (who would be?), but he was by all accounts a compelling and persuasive diplomat. He has become known for sending everyone he meets a personal “thank you” note — not a standard-issue form but rather a letter that reflects on the substance of the conversation.

I got one myself after hosting Mattis for an off-the-record roundtable at the Council on Foreign Relations. Given the ground rules, I can’t discuss what he said, but I can mention the impression he made on some jaded Council members in New York. He wowed them by combining the erudition of a Harvard professor with a combat grunt’s gift for aphorism. He showed why he is revered not only as a combat leader but also as an intellectual whose personal library of military works runs to thousands of volumes. It is hard to imagine a better choice to head Central Command. I trust he will enjoy smooth sailing in the Senate confirmation process.

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Who Is to Replace Petraeus?

The brilliant and unorthodox decision to appoint General Petraeus to direct operations in Afghanistan leaves a hole at the top of Central Command. There are two obvious choices: Ray Odierno or Jim Mattis. Either one would be superb. Odierno is better known for his role in Iraq, where he was co-architect with Petraeus of the “surge.” More recently, he has been the top man in Iraq overseeing the perilous draw down of American forces. He is scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of the summer and take over Joint Forces Command. In that capacity he would succeed Mattis, a combat Marine who has led troops successfully in both Afghanistan and Iraq and who has later co-written the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual with Petraeus. Mattis, like Odierno, knows counterinsurgency and knows the Middle East — and he will be headed for retirement to an apple orchard in Walla Walla, Washington, unless he gets another military job. Filling Petraeus’s boots at Centcom is a tall order, but either Mattis or Odierno would be a great bet for the job.

The brilliant and unorthodox decision to appoint General Petraeus to direct operations in Afghanistan leaves a hole at the top of Central Command. There are two obvious choices: Ray Odierno or Jim Mattis. Either one would be superb. Odierno is better known for his role in Iraq, where he was co-architect with Petraeus of the “surge.” More recently, he has been the top man in Iraq overseeing the perilous draw down of American forces. He is scheduled to leave Iraq at the end of the summer and take over Joint Forces Command. In that capacity he would succeed Mattis, a combat Marine who has led troops successfully in both Afghanistan and Iraq and who has later co-written the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual with Petraeus. Mattis, like Odierno, knows counterinsurgency and knows the Middle East — and he will be headed for retirement to an apple orchard in Walla Walla, Washington, unless he gets another military job. Filling Petraeus’s boots at Centcom is a tall order, but either Mattis or Odierno would be a great bet for the job.

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McChrystal’s Media Woes

If there is one knock on Stanley McChrystal, generally considered one of the top generals in the entire armed forces, it is that, coming from the secretive world of “black” special operations, he is not experienced in dealing with the media. The consequences of that inexperience have now exploded in his face in the form of a hostile Rolling Stone article entitled “Runaway General.”

What on earth was McChrystal thinking, one wonders, when he decided to grant so much access to an anti-war reporter from an anti-war magazine? Michael Hastings’s animus against the war effort shines through every inch of his article. His conclusion is that “winning” in Afghanistan “is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.” Along the way he brands the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal is implementing “a controversial strategy” that is advocated only by “COINdiniastas” notorious for their “their cultish zeal.” When he quotes outside experts in the article, all of them express disparaging views about the prospects of success. For instance:

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

There is no indication in the article that Macgregor is a notorious maverick widely known for his eccentric views, which included calling for the lightest of footprints in the invasion of Iraq (he thought that 50,000 troops would be sufficient) and later opposing the surge in Iraq.

Yet while Macgregor may think McChrystal is implementing an unworkable theory, McChrystal’s plan has had the solid support of General David Petraeus, head of Central Command; Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, after an agonizing three-month review in the fall that considered every conceivable alternative, President Obama, himself.

McChrystal was undoubtedly stupid to grant so much access to a hostile reporter, and his aides were equally clueless in making some disparaging remarks in front of this reporter about Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, among others. But that in no way invalidates McChrystal’s plan, which should be carried out, with some inevitable adjustments, by whomever is the NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Should that person be McChrystal? Despite the calls for his firing emanating from the usual quarters on the left, the general is certainly not guilty of violating the chain of command in the way that truly insubordinate generals like Douglas MacArthur have. Recall that MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’ strategy in the Korean War. Likewise, Admiral Fox Fallon was fired as Centcom commander in 2008 after publicly disagreeing in an Esquire article with Bush-administration strategy over Iran. McChrystal does nothing of the sort. At worst, one of his aides says that McChrystal was “disappointed” by his initial meetings with the president, who looked “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Most of the disparaging comments heard from McChrystal’s aides are directed not at the president but at presidential aides who oppose the strategy that the president himself announced back in the fall and that McChrystal is working 24/7 to implement. Is this type of banter enough for Obama to fire McChrystal?

It could be, but if he does it could represent a setback to the war effort — and to the president’s hopes to withdraw some troops next summer. The least disruption would occur if a general already in Afghanistan — Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day to day operations, is the obvious choice — takes over. If an outsider were chosen (e.g., Marine General Jim Mattis), there would likely be a delay of months while the new commander conducted his own assessment of the situation. That’s a delay we can ill afford right now. On the other hand, we can ill afford having McChrystal stay if he is so discredited with the commander in chief and so weakened in internal-administration deliberations that he cannot stand up to the attempts by Biden and other internal critics to downsize the mission prematurely.

McChrystal has undoubtedly created a major problem for himself, his command, and the larger mission in Afghanistan. But I still believe he is a terrific general who has come up with a good strategy and has energized a listless command that was drifting when he took over. Notwithstanding the current turmoil, the war remains eminently winnable, and the McChrystal strategy remains the best option for winning it.

If there is one knock on Stanley McChrystal, generally considered one of the top generals in the entire armed forces, it is that, coming from the secretive world of “black” special operations, he is not experienced in dealing with the media. The consequences of that inexperience have now exploded in his face in the form of a hostile Rolling Stone article entitled “Runaway General.”

What on earth was McChrystal thinking, one wonders, when he decided to grant so much access to an anti-war reporter from an anti-war magazine? Michael Hastings’s animus against the war effort shines through every inch of his article. His conclusion is that “winning” in Afghanistan “is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.” Along the way he brands the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal is implementing “a controversial strategy” that is advocated only by “COINdiniastas” notorious for their “their cultish zeal.” When he quotes outside experts in the article, all of them express disparaging views about the prospects of success. For instance:

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

There is no indication in the article that Macgregor is a notorious maverick widely known for his eccentric views, which included calling for the lightest of footprints in the invasion of Iraq (he thought that 50,000 troops would be sufficient) and later opposing the surge in Iraq.

Yet while Macgregor may think McChrystal is implementing an unworkable theory, McChrystal’s plan has had the solid support of General David Petraeus, head of Central Command; Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, after an agonizing three-month review in the fall that considered every conceivable alternative, President Obama, himself.

McChrystal was undoubtedly stupid to grant so much access to a hostile reporter, and his aides were equally clueless in making some disparaging remarks in front of this reporter about Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, among others. But that in no way invalidates McChrystal’s plan, which should be carried out, with some inevitable adjustments, by whomever is the NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Should that person be McChrystal? Despite the calls for his firing emanating from the usual quarters on the left, the general is certainly not guilty of violating the chain of command in the way that truly insubordinate generals like Douglas MacArthur have. Recall that MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’ strategy in the Korean War. Likewise, Admiral Fox Fallon was fired as Centcom commander in 2008 after publicly disagreeing in an Esquire article with Bush-administration strategy over Iran. McChrystal does nothing of the sort. At worst, one of his aides says that McChrystal was “disappointed” by his initial meetings with the president, who looked “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Most of the disparaging comments heard from McChrystal’s aides are directed not at the president but at presidential aides who oppose the strategy that the president himself announced back in the fall and that McChrystal is working 24/7 to implement. Is this type of banter enough for Obama to fire McChrystal?

It could be, but if he does it could represent a setback to the war effort — and to the president’s hopes to withdraw some troops next summer. The least disruption would occur if a general already in Afghanistan — Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day to day operations, is the obvious choice — takes over. If an outsider were chosen (e.g., Marine General Jim Mattis), there would likely be a delay of months while the new commander conducted his own assessment of the situation. That’s a delay we can ill afford right now. On the other hand, we can ill afford having McChrystal stay if he is so discredited with the commander in chief and so weakened in internal-administration deliberations that he cannot stand up to the attempts by Biden and other internal critics to downsize the mission prematurely.

McChrystal has undoubtedly created a major problem for himself, his command, and the larger mission in Afghanistan. But I still believe he is a terrific general who has come up with a good strategy and has energized a listless command that was drifting when he took over. Notwithstanding the current turmoil, the war remains eminently winnable, and the McChrystal strategy remains the best option for winning it.

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Jim Mattis: Unsung General

Slate has a great interview with Jim Mattis, one of our great unsung generals. I first met him in Iraq in 2003 when he was commanding the 1st Marine Division in the south. It was also on this trip that I met another two-star general named David Petraeus who was commanding the 101st Airborne Division in the north. Petraeus has since become world famous — and for good reason. Mattis isn’t as well known, although he’s also a four-star general. But he isn’t in charge of Central Command, Iraq, or Afghanistan — the most high-profile operational commands a military officer can have today. Instead he runs the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which is charged with preparing troops for deployment, for enhancing joint operations between the services, and for shaping the doctrine and training of the armed forces. (Full disclosure: I serve on a civilian advisory board at JFCOM.) In that position he has been grappling with some of the most basic challenges confronting the United States as it seeks to preserve its power and influence in the 21st century.

You can see some of the results in this thoughtful document: the “Joint Operating Environment 2010.” For more of a flavor of Mattis the man, read John Dickerson’s profile in Slate. Mattis, like Petraeus, has an unusual gift: He is both a deep thinker and a decisive battlefield commander. He is a soldier who is engrossed in military history but, even as a general, doesn’t hesitate to plunge into the middle of a firefight.

The U.S. Armed Forces can ill afford to lose Mattis, who is due to retire later this year. (It has been reported that he will be succeeded at JFCOM by the outstanding Ray Odierno, fresh off his stint as the top commander in Iraq.)

Slate has a great interview with Jim Mattis, one of our great unsung generals. I first met him in Iraq in 2003 when he was commanding the 1st Marine Division in the south. It was also on this trip that I met another two-star general named David Petraeus who was commanding the 101st Airborne Division in the north. Petraeus has since become world famous — and for good reason. Mattis isn’t as well known, although he’s also a four-star general. But he isn’t in charge of Central Command, Iraq, or Afghanistan — the most high-profile operational commands a military officer can have today. Instead he runs the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which is charged with preparing troops for deployment, for enhancing joint operations between the services, and for shaping the doctrine and training of the armed forces. (Full disclosure: I serve on a civilian advisory board at JFCOM.) In that position he has been grappling with some of the most basic challenges confronting the United States as it seeks to preserve its power and influence in the 21st century.

You can see some of the results in this thoughtful document: the “Joint Operating Environment 2010.” For more of a flavor of Mattis the man, read John Dickerson’s profile in Slate. Mattis, like Petraeus, has an unusual gift: He is both a deep thinker and a decisive battlefield commander. He is a soldier who is engrossed in military history but, even as a general, doesn’t hesitate to plunge into the middle of a firefight.

The U.S. Armed Forces can ill afford to lose Mattis, who is due to retire later this year. (It has been reported that he will be succeeded at JFCOM by the outstanding Ray Odierno, fresh off his stint as the top commander in Iraq.)

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Command Performance

The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

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The recent spate of appointments of admirals to top “joint” jobs within the U.S. armed forces is, so to speak, making waves within the military. The Army feels especially miffed that, at a time when it is carrying the major burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its representation in the most senior jobs is as low as it’s ever been.

As an Associated Press article notes, “Of the U.S. military’s nine combat commands, only two are run by Army generals, and that number will be cut in half when Bryan Brown retires next month as the senior officer at U.S. Special Operations Command.”

General Brown, a veteran of Army Special Operations Forces, is being replaced by Admiral Eric Olson, a veteran SEAL. At the same time, Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., the Navy chief of staff), has been nominated to replace Marine General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his deputy will be Marine General James Cartwright.

In other personnel shifts, Admiral James Stavridis became head of Southern Command last fall, while more recently Admiral Timothy Keating has become head of Pacific Command. The latter is a traditional Navy billet. But what really rankles the Army is that Keating’s predecessor, Admiral William Fallon, has taken over Central Command (covering the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia), whose leadership traditionally has rotated between the Army and Marine Corps. Of the nine unified combatant commands, the Army will be left with just one—European Command, where General Bantz Craddock is the boss.

Suspicious souls within the Army are starting to wonder if there is a conspiracy against the men and women in green, perhaps a holdover from the tenure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was intensely suspicious of the Army for not being in synch with his high-tech (and highly misguided) plans to “transform” the armed forces. Or perhaps, some self-flagellating Army officers speculate, this is a sign that their service isn’t doing a good job of producing competent senior leaders.

Both explanations are plausible. But it’s also possible that there may be less here than meets the eye.

Consider that the Army at the moment holds the two most important combat commands in the entire U.S. armed forces. General David Petraeus is the senior commander in Iraq, while General Dan McNeill is the senior commander in Afghanistan. Neither position is as publicly prestigious as that of combatant commander. But those jobs are of much greater actual significance at the moment than running, say, Southern Command (with responsibility for Latin America). They are probably even more significant than running Central Command—which may be why Defense Secretary Robert Gates felt free to appoint an admiral to that position, knowing that our land wars would still be run by army four-stars.

These trends also tend to go in cycles. Not long ago the Army was grousing not about Navy admirals but about Marine Corps generals, said to be “overrepresented” in senior Army ranks. Marines, for their part, were upset that two Army generals—Tommy Franks and John Abizaid—had taken successive charge of Centcom. Many wondered why a leatherneck (such as the eminently qualified Lieutenant General Jim Mattis) wasn’t picked.

My sense—and it’s only a sense, since I have no inside information—is that the top jobs are filled nowadays based more on personal qualifications than on service politics. It’s who you know and what your reputation is that count, rather than which uniform you wear. And since the top jobs are so political, it’s often the most astute political infighter, rather than the most brilliant and inspired leader, who gets the appointment.

But the recent appointments do seem to reflect a decline in intra-service parochialism—precisely what the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was supposed to accomplish. So the latest appointments should not occasion too much grinding of teeth, even in the Army. After all, before long the other services may well be complaining about too many green-suiters at the top.

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