Victor Davis Hanson

Who becomes a general — and why — tells us a lot about whether our military is on the right or wrong track. The annual spring list of Army colonels promoted to brigadier generals will be shortly released. Already, rumors suggest that this year, unlike in the recent past, a number of maverick officers who have distinguished themselves fighting — and usually defeating — insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq will be chosen.

For example, scholar-soldier Col. H.R. McMaster, Special Forces Col. Ken Tovo and Col. Sean MacFarland — all of whom helped turn Sunni insurgents into allies — could, and should, make the cut.

These three colonels have had decorated careers in Iraq mastering the complexities of working with Iraqi forces in hunting down terrorists and insurgents. And they, like David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in the past did not always reflect the Army establishment in Washington. Their unconventional views about counterinsurgency warfare do not hinge on high-tech weaponry, tanks, artillery and rapid massed advance.

But most wars are rarely fought as they were planned. During the fighting, those who adjust most quickly to the unexpected tend to be successful. And in almost all of America's past conflicts, our top commanders on the eve of war were not those who finished it.

Few in 1861 anticipated the carnage that would ensue in the American Civil War, in which massive armies collided with lethal new weapons — and depended on industrial production, electronic communications and railroads.

Before the war broke out in 1861, the obscure U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman had failed at almost everything they had tried. But after the Union army was nearly wrecked by establishment generals like Ambrose Burnside, Henry Halleck, Joseph Hooker, George McClellan, John Pope and William Rosecrans (who were all wedded to the set style of Napoleonic warfare), President Lincoln turned to his two generals who

best understood modern warfare.

On the eve of World War II, Gen. George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, promoted a series of junior officers — Omar Bradley, J. Lawton Collins, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor — while retiring senior generals he felt had little idea of the new warfare of armored vehicles, rapid mobility and close air support.

The Iraqi war is no exception. The brilliant and rapid invasion of Iraq in March and April 2003 required accomplished artillery and armor commanders — quite unlike the subsequent insurgency.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.