I hold our company-grade officers, noncommissioned officers, and our enlisted personnel in the highest regard. Given quality leadership and the tools necessary to do their job, they will do what every generation of American fighting men and women have done: win. Unfortunately, post-Vietnam has brought in a collection of self-serving officers at the senior levels in today’s military that have undermined our military and its ability to win a war or conflict. Unfortunately, the toxic leadership at the senior military levels is bleeding talent from our military. People are the military’s most important asset and weapon on and off the battlefield.
To the readers, I recommend the book Grant by Ron Chernow. Grant saw political generals and admirals as the bain of his life. He saw them as a curse on the Union cause and an impediment to success. Grant said they were slow to action, unreliable, and untrustworthy and recommended that Lincoln fire over one-hundred political officers. Lincoln was up for re-election, so he could not afford to make that many enemies all at once, so Grant could only get away with firing a handful. Political generals and admirals were a problem for Grant and are a problem today.
Where are the military leaders that our nation desperately needs? Where have the likes of Washington, Stark, Grant, Mitchell, Marshall, Puller, Singlaub, Moore gone, Olsen, and McRaven? Today, toxic leadership pervades our military at every senior level. It is the number one cause of the problems in our military today. “Bad or toxic leadership, abusive supervision, and petty tyranny in organizations are perennial issues” (Tarnished, Reed, George E. Publisher: The University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
Our commissioning programs need to be improved. “Leadership is central to the identity of the U.S. military. Service academies and pre-commissioning processes have traditionally stressed the development of conscientious leaders of character. The services regularly publish doctrinal works and professional journal articles focusing on various aspects of leadership. Unsurprisingly, in most of those publications, leadership is presented as a universally positive notion, a solution to problems, and something to be developed through an extensive and costly system of professional military education” (Tarnished, Reed, George E. Publisher: the University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
A huge issue that has evolved in the military is that your career is over if you make a mistake. This “zero mistakes” tolerance has corrupted the senior levels of our military to the point where learning from mistakes is not allowed. Admitting mistakes is a weakness, and blaming subordinates became the rule. A majority of the leadership changes occur at the levels below General Officer. A clear example of this is the Niger Ambush in October 2017. A classic senior officer finger-pointing at subordinates by USAFRICA Command, USSOCOM, Special Operations Command-Africa, and U.S. Army Special Operations Command. I recommend to the readers the documentary 3212-Redacted and the book Sacrifice by Michelle Black.
In his book The Cost of Loyalty, Tim Bakken points out that the military is pervaded by chronic deceit. The military’s insular culture elevates blind loyalty above all other values. The consequences are undeniably grim: failure in every war since World War II, millions of lives lost around the globe, and trillions of dollars wasted. The lionizing of Generals and Admirals must stop. Sheep lead our military. Sheep suffer from a learning disability that prevents them from learning from their mistakes. How else can you explain consistently reinforcing failure?
Before I point fingers at anyone, the reader must know that I was a toxic leader in my military career. In my leadership classes as an associate professor, I taught there is no such thing as a perfect leader. I would start by telling my students that I was an imperfect leader and made every mistake in the book on my leadership journey. There are all kinds of leadership attributes, but over time I found the critical aspect of being an effective leader is to know yourself and stay loyal to those you serve. By understanding your strengths and weaknesses, you will be an effective leader. The key attributes I have found to be essential are being respectful, learning from your mistakes, admitting your mistakes, developing the ability to listen and learn, being compassionate and empathetic, being humble, being truthful, possessing the courage to change your mind, and never sacrificing your integrity. In our military, we will punish a private for losing a weapon and not hold Generals and Admirals accountable for losing a war or conflict.
Only when I was a battalion commander did I realize how broken my leadership style had been. I was very embarrassed. The more I observed our senior leaders I found the senior leadership system to be flawed. I learned it is characterized by loyalty flowing up, going long to move along, and organizational nepotism inside a club system for good-standing members only. How do you become an excellent standing member? Find a sugar daddy that you can ride the coattails, never be a contrarian, always cover the tracks of your senior leader even if it means one of your subordinates will fall, and worse of all, do not try to fix the bureaucracy. Lying to ourselves has become a science in the military (https://press.armywarcollege.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1465&context=monographs).
The recent testimony of the Secretary of Defense, Chairman, Service Chiefs, and Functional and Combatant Commanders leaves much to be desired. Every American should be concerned with the senior military leadership in this country. This testimony indicated Secretary Austin and General Milley’s politically correct leadership approach. The questioning from Congress also revealed their milquetoast approach to holding Generals and Admirals accountable. General Milley was promoted to Brigadier General in 2008, and Secretary Austin was promoted to Brigadier General in 2003. Both have presided over military strategy and operations as senior leaders, which has failed. Neither of them has changed a thing. Now, they were not alone; a whole cast of 3- and 4-Star Generals and Admirals over the past 20-plus years got us here. Most directly, in retirement, enjoying very high-paying jobs as paid military analysts, in high six-figure positions in the military-industrial complex, paid executives in Veteran 501 c3 organizations, or other related business fields. The fact is that Secretary Austin and General Milley own it now, and every measurable military category has declined. (https://www.heritage.org/military-strength/executive-summary).
I had four assignments in the Pentagon and worked on the Secretary of the Army, Combatant Commander, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testimonies to Congress. I know how this kabuki dance is done. I am not surprised the testimony was a vanilla check-the-block event where Congress needs to do something. In the current political climate, the media will run to the defense of the senior military leaders, and I predict things will get worse.
In their testimony, Secretary Austin and General Milley consistently said they needed to make the military credible. Since they have yet to say how they would make it credible, what will they do to make it credible? What have they done to make it credible? What have they done to address the problems in capability and capacity, recruiting, retention, training, and selection of senior leaders?
Here is a sad but true story. I met with Obama, Chief of Staff McDonough, and General Dunford (ISAF Commander) in mid-2013. General Dunford was the new ISAF Commander. He needed more Afghanistan experience but had all the answers and insight into what needed to be done. All the General Officer leadership across the theater was present. Obama’s Chief of Staff dropped a bombshell. The President wants to change strategy and not just downsize in Afghanistan but to take all our troops out of the villages and districts in Afghanistan. Approaching the end of his second administration, he needed to keep another campaign promise. Get the troops out of Afghanistan.
At this time in Afghanistan, our service members worked in the villages and districts. They had enabled, advised, and assisted our Afghan counterparts in the village stability Operations for over three years to take back control from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda over 90% of the rural areas. Internal studies by my subordinate leaders, as well as a Rand study, showed the success of this program. If it continued for approximately another year and a half, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would be defeated in Afghanistan.
I sat in this meeting, representing the village Stability Operations and Afghan local police operational line of effort on behalf of my commander, Major General Tony Thomas. I took the opportunity to articulate that leaving the villages and districts at this time would be fatal for future efforts to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Returning to an exclusive top-down strategy at this time is a mistake. The combination of working in the villages and districts, counterterrorism missions, and development efforts is leaning toward an Afghan victory.
From 2010 through 2013, village stability Operations (VSO) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) were very effective in the rural areas and complimented the counterterrorism and development lines of efforts. The VSO and ALP mission was a Government of Afghanistan-approved program to operate in Afghan villages with small SOF teams augmented with other capabilities in the rural areas in Afghanistan. This program was very effective because it used the Afghan defense system in the village areas, which was successful throughout history against all invaders of Afghanistan. The program was initiated under General McChrystal, continued under General Allen, and invested in and resourced by General Petraeus.
I have been involved with many others in the creation of the program, the implementation of this program, the building out of this program, and the planned transition to the Afghan Ministry of Interior. I explained how changing strategy now would be a disaster. I received no support from the Generals in the room. Soon after the meeting, we received orders to shift Afghanistan and set up the victory of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda under the Biden Administration. I continued to push back on the change in strategy in Afghanistan respectfully. After ten tours in Afghanistan (nearly six years), my follow-on assignment commanding at every level, including the general officer level, was United States Africa Command.
From 2010 to 2013, our service members sacrificed and worked hard to implement this program. There were many sacrifices by the brave Afghans in the villages and districts to protect their family and country from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In addition, our casualty rates decreased significantly. In 2010, they were the highest. By 2013 they were the lowest. In 2010, the Taliban controlled over 80% of the rural areas under this program. By 2013, the Afghan government controlled over 90% of the rural areas. Before Mullah Omar died in 2011, he stated that the Taliban could not win with this strategy in the villages. Although not perfect, we had a winning strategy. Why on earth would we change it? I assess that our political leaders decided that regardless of the consequences, the Generals and Admirals in place would not sacrifice their careers to fight it. They were right.
Unlike the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army, the Afghan Local Police never lost a battle with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. They were the number one targeted unit in Afghanistan by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The Afghan Local Police could fight independently without the assistance of U.S. forces. The Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army could only win with significant support from Coalition ground forces and air assets. The shortfalls of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army were well-known by many senior leaders, including Austin and Milley. The problems with the corruption and systemic readiness issues with the Afghan National Police in the Afghan National Army were known by the senior leadership. I routinely read assessments that were inflated by higher levels in the military. This assessment remained true in the Biden Administration and the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
The discontinuation by the Obama Administration of a strategy that was working for political reasons and the failure of the ISAF Commander, the IJC Commander, and the SOF Commander to fight it led to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda reclaiming 80% of the ruled areas by 2016 and opening the door for ISIS to join the fight in Afghanistan. Worse of all was that by 2019 our casualty rates were the highest they had ever been in Afghanistan. The Trump Administration was handed a situation in Afghanistan that was the worst in the history of the war. No senior civilian or military leaders were held accountable for this disaster. Instead, they were rewarded for their go-along to move along with leadership. The outcome of the Biden Administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a predictable disaster. Coincidentally, the same senior military leaders were in place then and now serve at higher levels.
I assess that from 2001 to the present, General Officers and Admirals failed the American people and their service members. I regret, as a general, I could not make the difference necessary to change this situation. I am not free from blame, and as I point fingers at others, I am painfully aware of my shortcomings.
Remember, by 2013, the Obama Administration’s withdrawal plan from Iraq proved to be a failure in Iraq. They destabilized the Middle East and empowered China, Russia, and Iran. In other areas of the world, foreign policy continued to fail. China and Russia were outmaneuvering us with strategic relationships in Africa. ISIS and al-Qaida were expanding all over Africa. Benghazi had embarrassed us, and Libya was a disaster. Soon, Russia would invade and take Crimea. Venezuela would fall to communism and socialism. China was controlling the U.N. China was making significant progress in Asia, significantly expanding its military capability and capacity with Hong Cong and Taiwan in their sights. China continued to backdoor sanctions with North Korea and Iran. The same senior leaders were involved during this time that is failing today.
I have access to and speak to many service members in the enlisted NCO and officer ranks, and they tell me that the woke policies and toxic leadership are the most significant problems. Toxic leadership within our military at the senior level is responsible for our nation’s failure in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa. They are also responsible for all the shortcomings in our military today. They have allowed and continue to enable woke political policies to undermine good order, discipline, and military training.
The only way to change is through reform. The military needs a top to bottom and bottom-to-top reform in every area. Stop pouring resources into woke training. End the Covid 19 mandates and fix the damage done by these mandates. Stop prioritizing climate over readiness—reform how we select senior leaders. Reform the acquisition and procurement system. Reform the Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) process. Reform our commissioning programs. Reform the organizational structure as the military service system has become ineffective in operating in the joint and combined environment. Headquarters need to be much smaller. We need more line officers and fewer desk officers. Reform centralized structures to maintain our competitive edge.
As noted earlier, a recent heritage foundation study found the capability and capacity of our military to win its nation’s wars as weak. The driving factor is the failure of senior leadership. I know firsthand they are toxic. I know firsthand that they practice organizational nepotism. I know firsthand that you will not move forward if you are a contrarian. I know firsthand that it is all about going along to move along. I watched the senior leaders circle the wagons to protect themselves and their prodigies during investigations. It is all about placing blame on subordinates.
Donald C. Bolduc