The ‘Yingling’ Thesis

While I like the line of the LCol. Paul Yingling's logic (and admire his courage), I think that his article on leadership in Armed Forces Journal is lacking in strategic context. At the same time as the Vietnam War, the 'West' was engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball military standoff with the 'East'. The potential outcome of a conventional war in Europe was not looking good for the West. Whereas a war lost in French Indochina would not upset the strategic balance (although some claimed it would), a war lost in central Europe almost certainly would have that effect. Under these strategic circumstances, it is easy to see why the senior military leadership of ALL western countries focused so heavily on building the most capable force structures they could afford for conventional warfare.

The military-social question to a be asked now of ALL western militaries is "Why do we persist in this expensive quest for uniformly high-tech forces under the guise of 'transformation' when we know there is no peer military competitor out there to concern us and we are allied with the world's only superpower?" I do not fault the American military leadership of the 1960's as much as LCol. Yingling; he was expecting a star 'football team' to be just as proficient at a second sport (take your pick), likely a winter one at that.

Today's strategic context is very different from that of the 1960s. The author is correct to challenge conventional military thinking, especially that which is clearly based in Cold War logic. However, the main solution offered in the article was to resort to higher force levels in Iraq. The secondary solution is to refocus operations on OOTW. He does not answer the key strategic question about the context of the current situation: "Can we expect to create a robust western liberal democracy in the Middle East out of literally nothing?" If the answer to this question turns out to be "Yes" in 50 years, George Bush will go down in history as a 'great president' in the same ranking as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. If the answer is "No", Bush will fade into obscurity and we will be left with a 100-year war that will be difficult to contain. The 'truth' is that even if both Iraq and Afghanistan turn out to be bloody fiascos of the first order they will not upset the strategic balance in the world.

What, then, does this article offer for us? The author argues in favour of broad education, diversified experience, and linguistic skill as pre-requisites for high command. LCol. Yingling also advocates for 360-degree assessments from subordinates as a measure of performance measurement. All of these things are good but are cannot provide guarantees that 25 to 30 years of integration into a conservative bureaucratic system will not inculcate the candidates for command with the same conservative values as their predecessors. Neither will it eliminate the effect of careerist ambitions on subordinates who 'toe the line' set for them by their bosses. The answer, for me, lays in the civil-military relationship between government and the military. When politicians state that their military forces are to be multi-purpose (or general-purpose) it includes more that effective combat capability. While some decry Ken Booth's three-sided depiction of the roles of armed forces, I think it is still highly valid. But, the old adage that the military capability provides the firm base for effectiveness in the other two roles may not be as true as it was during a time of extreme military threat. Current problems in Afghanistan and Iraq show that over-emphasis on military solutions to what are effectively societal problems will only worsen the situation. We are now required to 'master' more than one vocation during our military careers. Over-emphasis on superlative tactical proficiency as the main criteria for advancement must now be viewed as a serious systemic flaw.

The new strategic context has rolled Booth's triangle over onto one of its other sides (pick one). That does not mean that the military role is not relevant any longer, only less so. The problem is that our senior leaders' frame of reference has not caught up to this fundamental strategic change, and they perpetuate the old system, promote the same values, and prize the same proficiencies that got them where they are today. Changing THAT problem SHOULD be the key issue in Transformation. Instead, we focus on high-tech weaponry and theories of war that promise 'pie-in-the-sky' strategic outcomes from the selective application of precision firepower. It's all bogus IN THIS STRATEGIC CONTEXT.

We have to come to grips with the new strategic context; it's not going away anytime soon. Once we realize the new circumstances of our age, we can begin to set upon a strategic course, give advice on policies, and begin planning. Right now, we are 'stuck in the mud' and going nowhere. For my part, maritime theory advises strongly against the course of engagement that we are currently embarked upon. But, that is a subject for another day.