Why the U.S. military should mandate officer retirement by age 50 – The Week

The average age of Napoleon’s generals was 41, and many of the brightest were even younger. Jean Lannes was named a general at 27, and a field marshal at 35. Andre Masséna was named a general at 35. Louis-Nicolas Davoust was named a general at 23 (really), and a field marshal at 34. Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s legendary cavalry commander, was named a general at 29.

By contrast, in 1939, when France started what would be the most serious debacle in its history, the supreme commander of its armed forces was Maxime Gamelin, age 67. Before the end of the Battle of France, he was replaced by Maxime Weygand, 73. France’s only World War II victories were won by a young general, who had previously written a prophetic book on blitzkrieg tactics, by the name of Charles de Gaulle.

This is a pattern so often repeated in military history that you can’t help but ask, “When will they ever learn?” A military force wins a series of victories. After doing so, it becomes cocky, set in its ways, sure that its tactics will work forever. A hungrier force comes up with new and unexpected tactics. The older force cannot adapt. It is defeated. The phenomenon is so well known that “generals fighting the last war” has become a common expression.

via Why the U.S. military should mandate officer retirement by age 50 – The Week.

Marshall, Bradley, MacArthur, and Patton were not available for comment.

Actually, compared to some points in our history, we’re promoting officers far faster than normal. In between World War I and II, a Lieutenant could expect to make promotion to Captain somewhere around the 17th year of service. Today, that officer would expect to pin on O-5 around then.

21 thoughts on “Why the U.S. military should mandate officer retirement by age 50 – The Week”

  1. I guess I should start polishing my resume and get ready to retire next year. Maybe I could get an exception to policy since I didn’t commission until I was 38 (got an exception to policy for THAT) after 19 years enlisted. I might be biased, but instead of a mandatory retirement age of 50, we should have a requirement that all officers spend a minimum of 4 years enlisted before commissioning. But what do I know? I just an old officer on the brink of retirement…….

  2. Something else occured to me after reading the article. The author claims younger officers would be better generals because they’d be more daring, take more risks, etc. How’d that work out for Custer?

    1. Bot not so well a LTC at Little Bighorn. Part of that wasn’t his fault, but a large part was also because of his “dashing” (read arrogant) nature. The Indians couldn’t have cared less about Napoleonic Tactics and it cost Custer the ultimate price.

  3. One thing that would make the General Officer ranks younger would be to set aside Goldwater-Nichols. The requirement for Joint tours keeps Officers out of their specialties, and their opportunities for command, at least twice. Shave between four and six years off the process and we suddenly have General Officers in their mid-late 40s, which is pretty reasonable. Mandatory retirement at 60 is a good idea, though a case-by-case could be considered if we have a requirement for someone who is steeped in the particular subject matter, doesn’t mind not moving from a critical billet, and is somewhat bullet-proof to the changes in political winds.

  4. I don’t necessarily agree that poor generalship is the problem. The NCA gave them stupid things to do, insufficient forces to do them with, and with crazy restrictions on how to do them. Younger generals aren’t going to solve that problem.

  5. Mac and Patton outstripped the other two in your list by a lot. Marshall made a very poor choice in Eisenhower and was little more than a manager. Bradley was OK, but in no way the officer Patton was.

    1. Maybe every bold, daring general needs a calm quiet general backing him up. Ready to follow-up after the breakthroughs, or help recover from being overextended. Patton might not have had such great success without Bradley nearby. Think of a well-run family business, Dad is dreaming big with goals and plans while Mom says, “How will we meet payroll next week?”

  6. 1) I think starting with “fewer generals” would accomplish more good that “younger generals” would. More than one flag officer per ship in the Navy is stupid. The BG – GEN situation in the Army is just as bad.

    2) Judging time in grade based on the interbellum period of WWI – WWII is hardly a good measurement. The force itself was laughably small, and there were little to no opportunities for advancement at all. You may as well compare today’s promotion rates to that of 1943-1944. Neither will give you an accurate measurement.

    3) I do see the value in clearing the upper decks (so to speak) in that it would allow quicker upward mobility of talented officers and keep officers more interested in their career than leading troops into combat out. Frankly, I think that any senior officer or NCO in today’s army without some form of deployment history should be given their papers LONG before a combat vet should.

  7. This is such an important point. I’m oversimplifying I’m sure but I would believe an age mandate with some tweeting could go hand in hand with an MRD. Bottom line, dynamic leadership that is equal in war AND peace.

  8. Stupid idea. “I assume that you are moribund, therefore, I am going to put you out. Sorry; I know that YOU have potential, it’s just all those other guys…” I’m currently sitting on 3 weeks short of 47 years old and on 24 years of service (5 enlisted). I have a lifetime of relevant tactical and operational knowledge that is irreplaceable and almost non-existent in the year groups younger than me. That is why I am the guy teaching my OCTs how to conduct a BN breach next week. (Oh, and I just outscored everybody else on my team on my APFT yesterday…) I haven’t even had my primary zone look for COL yet. Under this plan, I suppose I wouldn’t even be eligible, as I wouldn’t have sufficient time to retire at that grade. And what about paying college tuition for the next 6 years, minimum??? Walmart is not going to cover it. You want younger GOs? That is what below-the-zone promotions are for. On a different note, the professional career path to GO doesn’t even begin to accomodate the speed envisioned in earlier years because there are way too many blocks to check now. Lets see what Cool Mojo or all of your other spamming commenters have to say.

    1. Okay, I just went and read the actual article and it is still stupid. Be the CSA in your mid-forties. Guess I will go try and chart out that career path and see where I screwed up:
      Enlisted time 48 active duty
      Basic Course 4 months
      Tank PL 15 months
      Mortar PL 11 months
      HHX XO 13 months
      Advanced Course 7 months
      AS3 17 months
      Tank CO CDR 15 months
      HHC CDR 16 months
      AC RC trainer 24 months
      CGSC student 11 months
      BDE AS3 12 months
      Squadron S3 12 months
      Squadron XO 12 months
      BDE S3 3 months
      BDE XO 9 months
      CGSC instructor 24 months
      BN CDR 24 months
      OC 3 months and counting.
      Wouldn’t trade any of these jobs; they have all prepared me for the future. If I had to, I could cut 12 months enlisted time and 12 months each out of AC/RC and CGSC instructor but every other job was a tactical leadership job that prepared me to do better at future jobs.

  9. First of all, the author starts off by comparing an average to individual examples. What was the average age of French generals in WWII? DeGaulle, his example of a “young” general, was born in 1890 making him 50 years old in 1940.

    Heinz Guderian was born in 1888, Erwin Rommel in 1891, Von Manstein in 1887 making them 52, 49, and 53 in 1940. The question is are these youngsters that defeated the old French generals, or were they superannuated has-beens who should have been retired?

    “generals fighting the last war” has become a common expression.

    It is indeed common but it isn’t universal. There are many generals who fight the next war instead of the last war, and it doesn’t always work out too well.

  10. The average age of Napoleon’s generals was 41, and many of the brightest were even younger.

    Part of the reason for this is that the officer corps of the old regime was executed or fled abroad.

    And the average age of a Soviet general in 1941 was 40.

    So there’s more than one way to thin the ranks of deadwood. =)

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