Perhaps the most succinct explanation from the article:
But the Army continues to do too little to sort the average performers from the
outstanding ones. That has long-term consequences for the caliber of military
leaders. A recent survey by students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
found that good young officers have left the military in large part because of
frustration with military bureaucracy and the sense that the armed forces do
not have a performance-oriented system for managing personnel.
I've never been involved in the military, but I feel as though this perverse incentive structure is common among many businesses as well. Most big companies I've worked with have a few obviously incompetent employees in leadership positions, but harbor an unwillingness to demote or fire them because they've "earned" their position through hard work and loyalty to the company. Taken to the extreme, this is the famous "Peter Principle," which suggests that employees will continue to be promoted until they reach a position beyond their abilities, at which point they languish in mediocrity. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle )
On arrival, Navarre was shocked by what he found. There had been no long-range plan since de Lattre's departure. Everything was conducted on a day-to-day, reactive basis. Combat operations were undertaken only in response to enemy moves or threats. There was no comprehensive plan to develop the organization and build up the equipment of the Expeditionary force. Finally, Navarre, the intellectual, the cold and professional soldier, was shocked by the "school's out" attitude of Salan and his senior commanders and staff officers. They were going home, not as victors or heroes, but then, not as clear losers either. To them the important thing was that they were getting out of Indochina with their reputations frayed, but intact. They gave little thought to, or concern for, the problems of their successors.
Just look at the ambition and creativity displayed by Navarre's "hedgehog" strategy, and the (spoiler alert: dismal) result it got for France in the Vietnam war:
Not losing may in fact be one of the requirements for winning :-)
In corporations, the consequences are not that bad - closing door is not a big tragedy. Ten of thousands dead on the other hand, and a war lost is a tragedy.
So please don't dismiss the military just because they work differently. They are on a different problem space. They need different solutions.
On the other hand it was somewhat the tactic of the Iraqis, or even more so the Taliban. To not lose by disrupting society enough that their enemy can't "win".
This is a part of our society's disconnection from meritocracy and transition to a state where a privileged caste rules and extracts from society on the basis of arbitrary marks of differentiation.
I would argue the opposite, but that depends on the elusive definition of "meritocracy". When people use that term, they usually mean that people's status or influence is bestowed on them based on their past performance, or "merit" (whatever that means). That is, a person is given a position based on his earned "merit", and "merit" is like some general currency that can be accumulated.
The article argues that successful organizations behave differently. They assign, or remove, roles and influence not based on accumulated "merit", but based on performance at a very particular task. If you're not good at this specific task, you will be immediately given another, regardless of your past "merit". This is not meritocracy where those with much earned "merit" rise to the top, but rather an organization where the goals are more important than the current job holders. It is an organization that assigns importance to collective results over the importance of individuals. I think that such an organization is hard to maintain over time because, in the end, it, too, is composed of people, each with their private interests, that may sometimes clash with those of the collective. But it is a far cry from meritocracy, that is, in practice, little more than simply bestowing privilege on horders of "merit" rather than horders of money, noble blood, or other more quantifiable currencies. This may actually make meritocracies worse than other privileged-class structures, precisely because those at the top can easily change their definition, and exchange-rate, of "merit".
At no point does the article suggest that General Franks was promoted, say, because he was someone's relative, or a member of the right party; in fact, nowhere is it suggested that he was promoted for anything but merit. And that is why he wasn't relieved - precisely because he was a "holder of merit". This is how meritocracy works. In WWII, someone would possible have told him "we don't care what you did or can do. At this point, your particular actions are not helping our collective war effort, so you must step aside for a while".
But people like meritocracy, because, for some, "merit" isn't hard to achieve. You get the right credentials, put in some talent and a lot of effort, and presto, you're part of the elite. People don't like being judged over and over, be only as good as their last action. They want to rest without losing their status. Only an organization where people truly put aside their egos for the good of the public can function as the article claims the military used to function in WWII.
What I think think "meritocracy" means is that someone gets promoted because they deserve it based on some objective performance metric. I don't think it differentiates specifically whether this is a long streak of good performance or an immediate recent, single, success. You seem to argue between these two. While I think the most common interpretation is not immediate vs long term merit but the type of performance and degree of objectivity. If performance is just "being in the system for X numbers of years" then most would argue it is not meritocracy, which is what General Franks had. You argue that he was a holder of "merit", I say not. He was just one of the many similar available candidates in the bureaucratic system and one had to be promoted. So he was promoted. Often that also came as a function of number of years in the service or number of years in "action". So that is not "meritocracy".
> But people like meritocracy, because, for some, "merit" isn't hard to achieve.
People like meritocracy because it is inherently has a fuzzy definition and the term itself has a positive vibe as, by default, it stands against bureaucracy, nepotism, mediocrity, and corruption.
For example my beef with "meritocracy" is that it is actually a negative term, because metrics and "objectivity" criteria are defined by the current power systems. So their judgement and metrics are implicitly now "objective" and purely "performance based" just by being associated together in the phrase that also has the word "meritocracy" in it. (Say, "college admissions are purely merit based", stuff like that). Or, like the classic issue with IQ tests that used to test heavily culture-dependent things such that any non-(Western, white, middle class) would be disadvantaged. But this particular arguments is perhaps better saved for another discussion thread.
But armies don't have the pressure of potential bankruptcy that acts as a safety valve against poor performance.
But the US Army of WW II was led at the highest levels by men who were careerists, graduates for the most part of West Point before WW I. (Marshall, ok, VMI, but the point holds.) Collins had held his commission for a quarter century before he was firing all those 90th Division commanders.
Things like Iraq and Afghanistan are basically peacetime military actions. It's a war over there... but back home, not so much. That affects what kind of talent, attention, priority, etc. goes into it.
Battlefields are highly path dependent (lose 50 men on one hill - combined with unreplaced troops on the previous one - you've just lost 10km^2), chaotic (that shell just randomly took out your battleship during a beach rush - no more covering fire - you get slaughtered), subject to the influence of volatile human psychology (sounds and sights can decimate morale, focus and the ability to shoot people in the face at random times), resources (platoon 3 runs out of ammo, bogged down on critical hill - backup platoon can't get to them - out of range of covering shelling - lose the hill and the valley), weather (it's raining - they have tanks and relieved troops), positions (your hill just turned to mud and blood), communications (platoon 1 - decimated - incoherent babble and screaming, platoon 2 - nothing, platoon 3 - incomprehensible, platoon 4 faulty intel) and hell - wind direction (dust blows into your platoons' eyes - but not into the enemies).
None of that has much to do with the general on the ground - it's just shit that happens in highly chaotic, unpredictable, uncertain and resource constrained environments.
I see the same kind of criticism leveled at CEOs.
Granted, many of them are complete morons and can drive companies into the ground. However most are simply doing what appears reasonable at the time, and are just unlucky not to have the corporate/economic/technology winds (or dust) at their backs.
People overrate what people can honestly achieve in highly chaotic environments. 15% of corporate CEOs are replaced every year - notice how companies don't change much from year to year though - I have. However, changing often definitely let's us lionize the lucky ones (see hedge funds, startups, novels, movies, tv shows and any other at scale, highly path dependent, chaotic and random systems).
We failed in Iraq and Afghanistan because we needed 10x more troops on landing and about 15x more resources and a great deal more international support.
This is by far the most predictive of success on any battlefield (and business) - irrelevant as to who is actually running it.
Some companies have this policy and it seems to be at the root of their management trouble. It causes short-term thinking and what make me look good as opposed to what makes this place better.
That being said, people should move on at some point. The US Navy before and after WWII rotated out its officers to Washington DC. It made sure operational experience was put into policy. Bringing someone home to teach is a smart move.
 a typical IT strategy for managers doing the rotation to "learn new areas" is to cut Q&A people. The effects of the cuts will be a lower budget in the near term with looks good. The next person will get to deal with the slipping quality since the down effects take a while as "professionals" work harder to keep the trains running. Burnout occurs during the next dudes shift.
_Disclaimer_ : I only have an observer experience of the US Army (I went on tour in Afghanistan in a mixed US/Canada brigade), but my actual employment was in the Canadian Forces. I was on tour when Gen McChrystal was relieved and replaced by Gen Petraeus, and also when (CA) Gen Menard was relieved and replaced by Gen Vance.
1. In the early ranks of officers, promotions are very strongly linked to evaluation reports. Evaluation reports came to be very sanitize and politically corrected documents where you need a load of supporting documentation if you want to negatively score someone. If someone received an hypothetical score of 3 last year, you need very strong arguments if you want to reduce that score the year after. The system is somehow 'humanitarian' in that it believes that no one can become worse over time, and no one is incompetent. Also, there is a lot of 'political' pressure coming from relationships inside the military. I saw first hand some obviously incompetent Captain be promoted to the rank of Major, simply for political reasons. Somebody back in the country had plans back home for this officer, and this promotion was planned ahead of time (the officer had time in rank and was put in the position they were to give them some 'action' cred).
Put together with the fact that promotions are expected after certain specific check-in-the-boxes, this leads to the promotion of incompetent leaders on purely bureaucratic grounds. Eventually leading to a wider range of incompetent officers in the pool of Colonel in which Generals are chosen.
2. Recent wars are not related in 'danger factor' to what WWII has been. Nobody's in actual danger of having their family killed/their country harmed if they don't succeed in their missions oversea. Those missions are political disturbance of far away countries. They are, sadistically, good for the troops as they give them first hand experience with real combat - it's essential for an army to always have veterans in their ranks to train other members. If a generation of the army would go without seeing combat actions, the technical abilities of this army would quickly evaporate. In that regard, while recent conflicts provided combat experience to field personnel, they have not been of a large enough scale to train generals. Generals thus can't really become battle-hardened and provide hands-on experience while on tour.
Finally, the idea of doing a 'tour' when you're a general, like noted by the article. They come in theater with a vision (but often no general field experience, and sometimes even no field experience at all) and have only a few weeks/months to try out their vision and see what happens, and that's when they're actually on site and not back home dealing with politicians. Then regardless of the outcome, they are relieved and replaced by another general.
Technological progress is so rapid that doctrine has to be rewritten from the ground up for each conflict.
For example, we went into WW2 with heavy reliance on battleships. They were quickly discovered to be worse than useless, the aircraft carrier was far more effective.
The examples are endless, such as the disastrous misuse of cavalry in WW1, and Hitler using obsolete WW1 tactics.
An interesting datapoint, historically is Churchill. If your read his history of the world wars, he was the 'sea lord' or somesuch and head of the royal navy. in advance of wwi, he actualy revolutionized the fate of the world in the 20th century, by preparing GB for the next war (WWI). In particular, the switch to the use of diesel vs coal, to increase the range of the Naval fleet. This is the source of the WWII battleships example. And also the origin of the politicization of the Middle east. This supports your notion (becaue he wasn't a general), but undermines the idea that you cannot act with foresight. He also had battlefield experience. 
 Also, your last sentence is curious, as I think you missed the example of Hitler conquering europe from russia to the english channel, inventing the Blitzcrieg, and the various dry-run live-fire experiments, eg Spanish Civil war.
Which "fixed fortifications" would those be? If you're talking about the Allies' final attack on Germany of late 1944-early 1945, then I'd say by that time Hitler had already lost the war. The two most crucial moments I can think about are the battle of Stalingrad which did not allow the German Army to lay its hands on the Caucasus and its oil resources, and then the battle of Kursk, which had nothing to do with WW1 tactics.
And to copy-paste Clausewitz's name in here (the article makes a passing reference to him when it talks about "Franks fundamentally misunderstood generalship, which at its topmost levels must link military action to political results"), I'd say Hitler's final chances were political in nature, more exactly I'm talking about his tries to intervene between Churchill and the US on the one hand and the USSR on the other, trying to convince the first bunch about the perils of letting the Soviets be on the victorious side. The Tehran Conference put an end to that. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tehran_Conference)
He squandered his men by not allowing them to retreat and regroup, again thinking like it was WW1.
Of course he would have lost anyway, but he could have made it much harder.
The doctrine after WW1 was not keeping an advanced position but moving forward with tanks and keeping the enemy of balance. That was an extarpolation of Rommels "Infantry attacks" book, who was succesful in the WW1 and was already famous and a teacher in the german military academy in the interwar period.
Ambrose's book "Citizen Soldiers" details the failure of Hitler's fixed fortifications, and Galland's book "The First and the Last" details Hitler's failure to understand air power.
The Manstein Plan is often seen as either the result of, or the cause of a mid-twentieth century Revolution in military affairs. In the former hypothesis, expounded by Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart immediately after the events, the Manstein Plan is presented as a natural outcome of deliberate changes in the German military doctrine during the twenties and thirties by men as Guderian or Hans von Seeckt implementing Fuller's or Liddell Hart's ideas.
Diesel-electric Submarines were ultimately also vulnerable to air power. But not before their use in warfare was pioneered by the Germans, to devastating effect. And france was germany's "aircraft carrier", don't forget its less than 100 miles from the UK, couldn't be sunk, and didn't need a fleet-escort. (etc).
- Jet fighters
- Cruise Missles
- Ballistic Missles
- Submarine Warfare
- Armored Calvary
It was a war, and 'improvisation' would be expected as losses mount and access to resources were curtailed. The general thesis that the Nazis were fighting "ww1" style is not really a teneble notion. At all.
There's no doubt that the German army had many forward thinking ideas. But I'm talking about Hitler overriding them and refighting WW1.
I think there are people who do want to work in the military, but more than that they want to know that they can complain. If you can't complain about your commander being a terrible leader, how on earth is shit supposed to get fixed? If you can't report incompetency, and it's not being effectively measured, how are any warnings going to be listened to?
Ironically, the cure is also a big fear: wikileaks. There needs to be a way to complain about failures in people as well as mechanical in an anonymous manner. It can't be seen as ratting or it won't work.
It needs to go from being a boys club to being autonomous units with high transparency and measured expectations. No more excuses, no more delays: if you can't train yourself in competency on the job, you will most likely never excel in it.
If anybody knows the government's reaction to the Peter principle besides mercenaries I'd love to hear it.
The US is almost continuously involved in plenty of wars. Afghanistan and Iraq surely have been big enough to train generals (a WWI/II scale war is luckily the exception rather than the rule), but the generals have been slow to adapt to a new type of enemy (insurgency vs. straight up battle against a conventional army) and a new way of fighting a war.
The excellent article quite eloquently makes the point that this kind of big scale thinking and adaption is exactly what a general needs to be able to do, and which the current system fails to promote.
I would have expected that experience to pay off in the current situation. Either supporting an insurgency is radically different from combating it or all that knowledge is lost in the cracks between the different agencies conducting those operations.
Generals are trained, like the rest of the army, for conventional warfare, to protect the sovereignty of their nations should a full scale war take place. We could shift the focus of the training on counter-insurgency, but that would effectively train the whole army to responds to a single kind of problems: insurgency. Then the country itself would be left with an army that is unable to defend its sovereignty, but that is very good at throwing down weak governments and shutting down rebellions.
Generals, along their careers, are not primarily trained for counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is a spin-off of recent conflicts, but it's not the main goal of the military. Because of that, there's no sentiment that generals should go on a theater and take care of it until it's over. They just go in and fill the seat. The Afghans are well aware of this and it removes much credibility from our military : "You say that you will change things, but the guy before you said that, and in 6 months the next guy will say the same thing. I will still be there, and you will be back home. I will still be stuck in this conflict, and you will watch TV with your children and talk strategy about an eventual clash with China."
In a 'real' war, there's a sentiment of urgency, there's an actual threat. The generals, the army, MUST defeat the enemy or a _real_ defeat will take place. In a war like Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, if they win or lose will not change much to their lives, except for the price of gas and some more or less fear in the airports. It's more complex than the price of oil, but the end result is that recent conflicts are pawn-moves in the current state of the world.
It's in that sense that I say recent wars are not big enough. They are not engaging enough to justify a shift in training, and they are not the type of war generals are mainly prepared for (thus the lessons they will get out of them are of limited apparent usefulness - although everybody thinks counter-insurgency is the big thing.)
The US military is facing these kinds of insurgencies, because the enemy has adapted it's strategy: The Taliban are not stupid enough to engage the US in full on frontal assaults, because they'd lose.
Assuming that generals would only have to face a specific kind of conflict ("conventional" warfare) is a losing proposition. In fact, if you examine conventional wars more closely, you'll find that the way these have been fought has changed drastically from one to the next, and a military leadership that is not able to adapt to new kinds of war has a huge drawback. (For example, WWI was a trench war, a few years later, in WWII the method of warfare has completely changed, towards fast tank assaults and air raids. During the cold war area, a large scale tank battle in Europe was still a realistic threat, nowadays it's unthinkable. During the later part of the 20th century the US has had great success by relying on an almost invincible air force to exhaustively bomb the enemy before sending in any troops, ...).
As the main task of the US military nowadays seems to be less in territorial defense and more in engaging in "messy" wars similar to Afghanistan and Iraq, I think the leadership needs to adapt accordingly instead of waiting for the next war that fits their preconceived notion of what a war should be.
Oh how I wish that governments would realise this. Making mistakes and then correcting the mistakes is the important thing. The whole phenomena of start-ups dominating over established companies is a guide to how you should be running the established businesses. Government departments hold onto their bad decisions, trying to justify them and hide the damning evidence when really they should be praised for acknowledging mistakes and changing their minds.
I think we got some good discussion out of this one, though.
Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon. Pretty sure the US military counts as political.