Foreign Policy Blogs

Generals Without CIBs

General Petraeus has been tapped to be the new commander of Central Command and his current deputy, Lt-Gen Ray Odierno will succeed him as Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq. It's interesting to note that like most generals in the army, both men do not have combat experience as infantrymen. 

When I was a soldier in the early 1990s, all of our generals and senior sergeants had Combat Infantry Badges (CIB) from Vietnam and they were hardcore. You could tell just by looking at them that these old guys were killers. I don't know how many generals are left with Vietnam service, but it can't be many, although retired General Tommy Franks who commanded the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 was a Vietnam veteran. His successor, General Abizaid had a CIB but it was for taking part in the invasion of the small, helpless Caribbean country of Grenada, which could hardly be considered "war." After him came Admiral Fallon who was a Navy pilot in Vietnam, but again, no infantry combat experience. Now General Petraeus will be in charge of Central Command and he and Odierno do not have CIBs.

The CIB is the mark of a combat soldier who has been there, done that and got the stories to go with it. It used to be that having a CIB was practically a prerequisite for any infantry officer trying to become a general. I can't remember seeing or reading about any general from 1945 up through the 1990s who didn't have the CIB on his uniform.

Since Vietnam however, actual ground combat has been a rare occurrence and therefore not many officers from the 1970s , 1990s have seen real action. This is reflected in the lack of CIBs amongst currently serving general officers. General Petraeus, for instance,  does not have a CIB. He does have the newly created Combat Action Badge, which apparently generals can receive, which is ridiculous. How many generals have had to "close with and destroy the enemy" in Iraq? Did Petraeus engage in urban combat and clear buildings room by room? I am not calling his bravery into question or his toughness. He must be tough to survive a gunshot to the chest even if it was from one of his own soldiers. But to give a general who is sitting in a Tactical Operations Center the same badge as the soldiers who are fighting and dying on his orders lessens the award. That is why the CIB can only be given out to colonels and below. At least colonels might actually be somewhat near a firefight at some point.

Just because most army generals have never been in direct combat doesn't mean they aren't as competent directing combat operations as those who have. But to the grunts on the front line it probably matters a lot to know if the guy ordering you to fight and perhaps die has been in the same situation himself and knows what he is asking.  



FPA Administrator
FPA Administrator

Blog updates from the FPA online editorial team and op-ed publisher for special contributors.

Great Decisions Discussion group