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Military disturbed by rapid turnover at top in Afghan, Iraq wars
Rarely, though, does the exhaustive search lead to anyone outside the narrow confines of the U.S. Army. Eleven of the 12 top war commanders since 2001 have been Army generals. "The Army has had an absolute hammer lock on all the senior jobs and their staffs," said Bing West, a former Marine who has written several books about the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Marines often point out that Gen. James N. Mattis, who won widespread praise as a two-star general in Iraq's Anbar province, has spent the past several years at U.S. Joint Forces Command, a sprawling bureaucracy that produces doctrine, conducts war games and oversees troop deployments. He is expected to retire this year.
Searching for a formula
The struggle to produce successful senior commanders has spurred a search in the Pentagon for the magic formula that will produce more warrior-diplomats. One school of thought holds that, given the breadth of skills required for today's high-command jobs, officers should be selected and groomed at an early stage of their careers, with tours in Washington, battlefield commands and time in civilian graduate schools.
Petraeus spent extensive time working for three top generals; two of his tours were in the Pentagon, where he worked directly for the both the Army chief of staff and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the late 1990s. His unusual career path generated grumbling among peers who thought that real officers should be in the field. Others complained that he seemed to be trying too hard to make top rank. But the experience is now seen as having given him the political savvy he has needed to be successful in the latter part of his career.
Currently, all of the armed services are hatching plans to send more of their high-performing young officers to graduate school. Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, for example, has posited that more pilots with PhDs will increase his service's "intellectual throw-weight." But the military remains deeply uncomfortable with idea of targeting a subset of officers for an elite education, with the aim of installing them in senior command slots decades later.
"Part of the Army's problem is its egalitarianism," said retired Col. Don Snider, who teaches leadership at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
There is also widespread skepticism that the military's slow-moving bureaucracy can come up with a system for routinely producing innovative officers with the political, bureaucratic and battlefield skills needed to lead at the highest levels.
"A lot of the service's efforts feel like groping in the dark," said Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations.