It’s a long way to the top
While AC/DC told us it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n roll, it’s also a long way to the top if you want to be a “senior military leader.”
From Ricochet in a blistering take on David Petraeus, his resignation, and those who are perceived as being like Petraeus:
The path to power in our armed forces has two critical components: first, make sure you always profess your faith in the ideology of the ruling class; second, spend as much time near the source of power in Washington and obtaining advanced degrees from prestigious civilian institutions as possible.
The above assertions are wrong at worst and incomplete at best. The real story regarding successful military careers, as the saying goes, is “it depends.”
(Example: at this point in time, it is still possible to be promoted if you drive an SUV and not a Prius.)
While you don’t have to “profess your faith” in the “ruling class” (which I’ll broaden to mean your service, Army, for example, or specialty/weapon system, airlift, let’s say), I do believe you can’t speak any ideological unfaith, or even give voice to any doubts (except under very limited conditions). Basically, you need to convincingly appear to be assimilated and the higher your rank, the more assimilated-looking you must be.
And regarding the “advanced degrees from prestigious civilian institutions,” there’s far more to it than that. In fact, too many educational experiences will normally lead to career self-elimination/plateauing as the military rewards action (which happens in military assignments including command and “standing close to the flagpole”) and not introspection (which occurs in an educational setting).
Beyond all that, the government-military complex has established set asides for all sorts of impressive sounding academic programs (and pays for them), so it isn’t as competitive as getting into Princeton as a white, non-legacy, Appalachian-American male. Some of the military services, the Air Force, for example, are quite egalitarian, assuming you’re a pilot. The USAF has plenty of general officers with advanced degrees from Central Michigan and Embry Riddle.
Back to the Ricochet article:
Waging war successfully is not a criterion for advancement to the senior ranks of our military. This accounts for the prominence of generals like Petraeus and Powell.
While the first blurb was highly arguable, the above blurb is inarguable. First off, even during war, large parts of the military may not be “at war.” Next, being great at your military job is neither necessary nor sufficient for an eye-watering military career (although it is undeniably helpful). What is necessary is avoiding blame (if failure should occur) and having the right words and right blocks checked on your performance reports (and from the right people). Over time this become your record.
And as the saying goes, your record—and not you—is what meets the promotion board. In time, a “halo,” deserved or not, hardens into a form of institutional “can’t fail” (unless some sort of crime or egregious violation—like adultery—has been committed while on active duty).
Total war—World War II—led to military leaders who were total warriors (think Curtis LeMay) from whom advanced academic degrees from prestigious institutions did not matter. What then did matter was a successful combat record. Today, the thought of total war is far-fetched. Our nation lacks the will, stomach, and capacity to wage total war. So in the meantime, we’ll continue to create leaders who work within the system that exists.
In the military or anywhere else, what gets rewarded is what gets done.