Restoring the Meritocracy, or addressing concerns about the US Officer Corps

Recently Mr. William Lind published his latest article, and as usual it was provocative. Titled “An Officer Corps that can’t score,” it argues that the United States military has lost the competitive edge in combat for the following reasons:

  • An ego problem, the apparent perception of US Officers that they oversee the best military that’s ever existed;
  • A personnel problem, that officers are punished for creative thinking and innovation (and the mistakes that invariably accompany such a mindset);
  • A staffing problem, which shortens command tours of duty so everybody on the bench gets a chance to play, if only for a short period of time; and worst of all,
  • A moral problem, in which officers support and perpetuate the status quo to protect their careers–notably a problem the US Military did not have after the Vietnam conflict (according to Mr. Lind).

Certainly these are serious accusations. Mr. Lind’s article sparked a great deal of response, too. Several active duty officers penned articles which asserted indignantly that there *is* a great deal of debate in the military regarding staffing, weapons acquisition, force structure, and other ‘big picture’ issues. What is conspicuously absent from the responses, however, is a critique of the personnel situation–which, as the lynchpin of Mr. Lind’s argument, probably deserves the most thoughtful consideration.

Mr. Lind’s own history plays a big part in his critique as well. I’ve never met the man, but if you’ll indulge in a little amateur psychology, I would say that Mr. Lind very much has a dog in this fight. He was foremost among what he calls the most recent wave of “reformist innovators,” and highly praises his contemporaries Col Boyd (USAF) and Col Wyly (USMC), with whom he generated much of the intellectual foundation of so-called Maneuver Warfare. He also helped introduce and develop the theory of Fourth-Generation Warfare, an extension of Col Boyd’s definitive and much-lauded omnibus theory of combat “Patterns of Conflict.” Anyone who is a bit startled (and/or stung) by the opening line of his article, “The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps,” ought to at least realize that Mr. Lind is aggressively applying the theories of warfare that he developed and championed to his very broad-brush of a statement about our apparently constant defeats.

The predictable–and justified–knee-jerk reaction by junior officers in the US Military is that Mr. Lind is wrong, and that there is anything BUT silence about the struggles and outcomes of these so-called “Fourth Generation Wars.” Indeed, in my own experience there is a lot of debate about technology (drones, bombs, tanks, and their efficacy) and tactics regarding the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. That is all very good. But I think Mr. Lind hits the nail on the head when he criticizes the military–particularly the officer–personnel system. And while there is a lot of debate about that issue as well, it’s usually conducted in hushed voices and away from field grade and higher officers.

Complaints about personnel issues usually center around field grade officers focused on achieving the next rank (and running their subordinates into the ground to get it), or general officers trying to maintain their reputation to their civilian masters with an increasing administrative burden of annual training and paperwork accountability. To the uninformed, it just sounds like bitching, but hearing enough of it reveals that both types of anecdotes coalesce around one central issue: today’s officer cadre does not have either the time or resources to focus on warfighting.

How has this come to pass? At the danger of theorizing ahead of data, I have some suggestions:

  • First, during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts we created a whole sub-combatant-command for each location, complete with Joint Force Commanders, Functional Component Commanders, Service Component Commanders, and associated staffs. This effectively doubled the requirement for staff officers in each of the four major service components. In addition to being top-heavy, it prevented the whole coalition from having any true cohesion as a unit, because new units were revolving in and out under a joint commander who, in addition to directing the whole campaign, also had to administer the vastly increased relief-in-place and transportation requirements of such an ad hoc system. Imagine if Patton had new armored and mechanized units rotating in and out of the 3rd Army throughout 1944 and 1945. Would he have been able to build such a successful and dynamic fighting force?
  • Second, as a corrolary to the first, there are career requirements for officers appointed to joint commands. The demand for those officers has forced the services to cut career billeting corners to get enough qualified officers to meet the demand. That is a recipe for “check-the-box” leadership and careerism from start to finish.
  • Third, most services made a decision to shorten deployment times in order to ease the burden on servicemembers’ families. This was a social decision, and it may not have been a bad one. However it did create a ‘revolving door’ in nearly every unit in the military, as whole combat units turned over from year to year and had to be assigned places in the supporting establishment, which in turn was bloated beyond needs and suffered the same ‘revolving door’ effect. The Army alone experimented with year-long deployments in the hopes that more time in country would allow greater innovation and success in the counterinsurgency fight; I’d be curious to see if there were any positive results.
  • Finally, Congress has micromanaged the benefits of servicemembers to the point of restricting officers from shaping their force. I doubt anyone in the military, including me, would complain about pay increases, money earmarked for better base gyms and housing (including ‘in country’), and a reduction on sexual assault and/or suicide. The problem is the way Congress has enacted these changes. Forcing them down the military’s throat creates a culture of ‘yes-men’ who must “support and defend” the Constitution by bowing to each new decree of a prime Constitutional institution, Congress, no matter what that does to already scarce military resources. Sergeant Major Barrett’s comments, while tactless and insensitive, demonstrate the frustration of many military leaders that servicemembers need meaningful combat training, expensive as it is, more than they need administrative sexual assault training and fast-food joints on base.

The prevailing sentiment among junior officers is that the military is directionless, or maybe more specifically suffering the pull of too many ‘missions’ at once. There’s Congress, forcing social changes and shutting down government. There’s the so-called “War on Terror,” which carries real danger but no real reward–neither Congress nor the Services themselves seem to care much about it anymore. There’s the Administration, preaching a “pivot to the Pacific” and a drawdown, which ominously promises more tasks for the military to accomplish with fewer people, and there’s the innate sense of honor in the services themselves that expect the officer cadre to keep all these masters happy and still field fighting units.

In this context, I will speak heresy to the die-hards and state that there’s small wonder junior officers in particular keep their heads down and try not to screw up (i.e. bring all their servicemembers back alive with comparatively little regard for ‘the big picture’). It also explains why so many veterans of the recent conflicts look back nostalgically on the simpler world of their combat tours, when they had a single direct mission and a feeling of accomplishment.

So what sort of reform would make Mr. Lind happy? I’m not sure, as he simply bemoans US Officers’ lack of creativity and moral fibre, but I have some suggestions on that score as well. But first, I’ll point out that some of the best ideas have come from much more creditable sources than me. Go there, and explore.

My ideas are pretty simple. There is a romantic conception floating around that the military is a meritocracy–in other words, the officers who are best at their jobs should be the ones that get promoted. The shortened command tours, vast administrative requirements, and glut of officers in the services effectively obscure the good officers from the mediocre, lowering moral and motivation. I believe that the best leaders in today’s military truly seek a chance to lead and to show their mettle, so I propose the military make a few structural changes to recover a merit-based promotion system.

  • Lengthen command tours, including the tours that are required for command screening, to 3 (or 4) years. This would first of all require existing commanders to put a lot of thought into the junior officers they promote, knowing that the officers they evaluate highly will eventually control a combat unit for three years (instead of 18 months), and would allow existing junior officers a lot more time to develop and lead their troops under the guidance of one Commanding Officer. 
  • Longer tours help mitigate the ‘zero-defect mentality,’ a colloquialism which refers to the reality that one mistake in an officer’s career is enough to prevent him/her from making it to the next step, because he/she will always be compared to other officers with no such mistakes. It’s a lazy way to evaluate, because the positive effects of the officer with the mistake may be greater than those of his/her peers, and may indicate greater potential. But at least with a full 3 years of observed time, officers will be able to recover from mistakes–and their seniors will be forced to consider which of their subordinates are best suited for further opportunities, knowing that maybe only one will have the opportunity.
  • Longer command tours also permit greater unit stability, which will increase esprit de corps, has been shown to reduce things like suicide and sexual assault, and will certainly increase combat effectiveness.
  • Increasing tour length will be essentially meaningless if officer staffing remains high, because right now it seems like every officer gets the chance to move on regardless of his/her performance against peers. As part of the draw-down, the military as a whole should reduce officer staffing to the minimum level required for service administration, starting with Generals and working down the rank structure (and this reduction should occur before any enlisted personnel cuts, in accordance with good leadership practices). The military should also eliminate the additional joint force staffs located in Iraq and Afghanistan. This will be an unpopular step, as many generals will be forced into retirement, many more field grade officers will be forced into early retirement, and many junior grade officers will not have the opportunity to continue in the military past their first tour. It would help ensure, however, that only the best officers in each rank will remain–reinforcing the idea of the military as a meritocracy.

Actual, active duty officers have much more specific lists of things which need to change, most of which revolve around their ability to train their servicemembers. And we should listen to them. But we can’t force current officers to change their way of thinking–most of them have been shaped by the questionable leadership environment that Mr. Lind notes for the entirety of their career. We can, however, collectively change the game–we can stop playing that ‘everybody gets a chance’ and start giving our officers the space and responsibility to fully lead their men and women. That’s why most of them sought a commission in the first place.

These kinds of changes will force leaders at all level to focus on quality, not qualifications; it will force officers to make tough evaluation decisions after years of watching their subordinates develop. Ultimately, only the top 20-30% will have a career each tour, which will ensure that only the most effective officers run our military.

When our nation’s security and American lives are at stake, isn’t that what we want?

Advertisements

This article was published first by Military Spouse Magazine. Please check out their site!

Actual Text below:

The 11th of November is recognized around the world as “Armistice Day,” and was first celebrated in 1918 at the cessation of the First World War. Since that day, the combatant nations have developed their own traditions about the day, the most common being a 2-minute silence observed at 11:00 AM (the eleventh hour) with the first minute dedicated to the 20 million people who died in the fighting and the second minute dedicated to those they left behind, specifically their families and friends (who were recognized also as victims of the war).

In the United States, Armistice Day was renamed to Veteran’s Day. Its purpose was changed, too, because the United States already had a day of remembrance for those who died in combat. Instituted after our deadliest war, the Civil War, the final Monday in May is known as Memorial Day and is dedicated to all Americans who died in battle. Our Veteran’s Day, however, is meant to recognize not specifically those who died for our nation, but all those who stepped up to take that risk.

The importance of this holiday lies in the nature of our own democracy. Whereas colonial powers in the 18th century chiefly fought with professional armies and mercenaries, the nascent United States chose to ask its civilians to bear the hardships and risks of military service. The founding fathers reasoned that citizens, who were aware of their value to the state and invested in its continuance, would both best defend the country and prevent tyrants backed by professional armies from threatening their freedom. And so the idea of a citizen-soldier came into being.

We all contribute to our national defense mostly by paying taxes that finance our military. During the Second World War, we collected scrap metal, scrap rubber, and planted victory gardens. We may post social media statuses in support of our military, or advocate better care for those suffering the physical and emotional wounds of conflict, or put a supportive sticker on our car. And those are great and appreciated acts, especially considering the many voices that vilely condemn and degrade our service members.

But what separates the Veterans from the rest of Americans is their oath to support and defend the constitution—and, by extension, both the people it represents and the institutions it created—even unto their own death. The Veterans willingly chose to give up some of their inalienable rights for the sake of military discipline, to give up the comfort and safety of family, friends, and society, to practice and execute wildly dangerous tasks necessary for the defense of our nation. They risk their lives, not just in all the conflicts we’ve fought since the ceasefire in Compiègne, France in 1918, but in their daily existence: they train in all weather, risking heat stroke and hypothermia; they service and operate engines, pushing ground and air vehicles to the very edge of design capability; they practice using firearms and explosives. They also forego the luxury of leisurely self-discovery in their service of a higher cause, as well as suffer deployments which take them away from their loved ones during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths, and all the other little life events that are markers for memories in a relationship.

For most Veterans, their service was mostly enjoyable. It bestows confidence, meaningful achievement, strong friendships, and unforgettable experiences. But many Veterans also bear scars from their service. They remember comrades who died, or terrible hate in the faces of their enemies, or the price of a second’s neglect, perhaps on the trigger of a gun or in the cockpit of an airplane. That is often the price of military service, though it mostly gets little press or attention, and most Veterans bear such anguish stoically because they know they “signed up for it” and are unwilling to demean their sacrifice by making it the burden of another.

And finally, let us not forget that the privation and suffering of Veterans are shared by their families and friends, who are often left alone and bereft during deployments or training, and who do not have the military support structure of discipline and camaraderie. Service members’ families also receive far less emotional support from our society than military men and women. As they share the burden, so also should they share recognition on this day.

On November 11th, we remember that what Veterans—and those who love them—have done, what they have risked, is special to our country. It continually validates our democracy and our society, recognizing that our nation’s will is truly of the people and by the people. So for those people who take the risk imposed by their oath to defend this country, and who bear the burdens of military service, we (whether we are Veterans or not) offer our thanks and appreciation.

Thank you for your service.

On the Current Conflict in the Middle East

The controversy over America’s “War on Terror,” since it started in 2001, has occupied much of our national attention. After swift and decisive battlefield successes in 2002 and 2003, we are now struggling to fashion democracies in the countries we occupied, and expending resources and lives in the process. The issue of whether or not we should continue our involvement provokes much criticism and righteous debate. Many Americans find our involvement in this “war on terror” to be useless, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous, and think it would be prudent to pull out.

It is not the first time American has seen such debate. Between 1 September 1939 and 7 December 1941, similar opinions were voiced and similar decisions were made. On 1 September, Hitler’s Germany provoked war with our ally Britain by invading Poland, and on 7 December we were pulled into the war ourselves after Japan, Germany’s ally, attacked Hawaii. Between those two dates, FDR — a controversial American President who had alienated many with his “socialist” domestic policies — attempted to support freedom and advance our interests by taking the British Side and providing them resources against much righteous criticism that such actions were useless, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous. There are, of course, differences between FDR and George Bush, such as the fact they hailed from different parties and different political ideologies. But both were accused of warmongering, both faced vile opposition from journalists and opposing politicians, and both were loudly accused of ruining this country with their policies. Certainly their most important similarity is that they both claimed to stand up for freedom and democracy, and protect America’s interests abroad.

History has endorsed out FDR’s actions. The Nazi regime stands exposed as guilty of perhaps the greatest and most significantly evil endeavor in human history, the industrial and industrially cruel murder of some 11 million persons, six million of which were Jews. Additionally, in their quest for economic and military dominance, they wrought destruction upon the entire continent of Europe by (among other atrocities) demolishing and starving Warsaw, brutally conquering peaceful Denmark and Norway, plundering France, and relentlessly bombing civilian London. Yet through 1940 and 1941, all this was merely unpleasant to America, the unfortunate effect of another petty European conflict. In those dark years, FDR used deceit and presidential powers to the utmost of his ability to aid our old democratic allies against their enemies, against the will of his constituents.

George Bush is attempting to do something of the same thing. Our enemies now are guilty of great evil, from the use of ethnic Kurds as test subjects for Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons, to the cruel and systematic oppression of women under the Taliban. Therefore, deposing them was a good thing. Furthermore, though perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan (and, it seems, Iran) are not explicitly allied with the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and Madrid subway cars, the simple fact that these countries turned a blind eye to terrorist training they knew was directed against their hated enemy, the United States, establishes an implict connection. Al Qaeda may be stateless, but that does not mean states do not make them welcome. And according to our laws, harboring a criminal is criminal in and of itself.

Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote a two-volume work on World War II. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance follow the experience and growth of Victor Henry, a U.S. Navy Officer, his family, and the many people they meet (American and otherwise) in the events of that War, and their parts in the struggle against America’s fascist enemies. As with all great novels, these books are not meant merely to entertain, but to teach and communicate something of the human condition; in these the author attempts to reveal the depth of human goodness and evil; to document the human ability to strive, to suffer, to hurt, and to love; and to show the final virtue of individual goodness, and through it the goodness of nations. It is a masterful work. In a recently written forward to the books, Mr. Wouk compares the struggle of America in World War II to the current “War on Terror”:

“As I write these words late in October 2001, a new war is just beginning, global again in scope but totally different in character. In the last global war, before VE day and VJ day came, there befell the collapse of France, the Bataan death march, the fall of Singapore, the siege of Stalingrad, bloody Tarawa and bloodier Guadalcanal; and at the hidden heart of that global war, concealed by the smoke of battle, there burned the holocaust. That eternal benchmark of barbarism, let us remember, was set not by a Third World country, not by Orientals, not by the Muslims, but by the Germans, an advanced European nation. The evil in human heart knows no boundary, except the deeper, stronger human will to freedom, order, and justice. In the very long run, that will has so far prevailed.
“Now it is the destiny of America — for all its faults and weaknesses, the greatest free society in history — to lead the world against a new grim outbreak of evil, a savage stab at the core of freedom on earth, a dark shocking start to a new millenium. May the Father of all men prosper our arms in the new fight, as He prospered — in the end — the cause of men of good will in World War II.”

The “destiny of America” is something felt keenly by many in this country. There is no greater expression of it than in the young men and women who serve in the military. We have been involved in this conflict since 2002, and thus for five years every person who enlisted has done so in the full knowledge that they are supporting this effort with their lives. In fact, the loudest voices against this “war on terror” and its campaigns, though they can be quite reasonable, are often from those people most removed from it: college students and professors, living lives insulated from the rest of the world on university campuses; correspondents and journalists paid to cover politicians in circles of power; and relatively idle wealthy young professionals concern themselves with political issues as a sort of hobby. This is not a bad thing, since our country has consistently prevented the rise of fascism in this country by subjecting our military to the will of our civilians and our civilian government. Yet it seems that such arguments revolve not around prudence, but fear disguised as prudence: fear that we will lose face with the world, fear that we invite more Islamic antipathy and terrorist attacks, fear that we will suffer the embarrassment and manpower drain of another Vietnam. According to these arguments, prudence is avoiding such sacrifices in the first place. I disagree. I believe true prudence is eliminating the breadbaskets of hate, the places of evil, oppression, and poverty in this world. Those hate-filled places are where terrorists breed and become strong.

We are proud that we did not suffer dictators like Hitler to bring destruction and totalitarianism upon the world. We should be likewise proud not only of deposing the evil regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but proud also to continue this work and bring democracy, as best as we can, to the shattered countries they left behind. If we endure the sacrifice of servicemen in this mission, then we should remember that they were unafraid: they volunteered to defend and carry our values to other nations; they supported America and its promises to the world with their lives. They represent our best, and we should take heart from their idealism, for to turn away from this opportunity to help a poor part of the world might seem prudent, but is in fact foolish, dangerous, and wrong. We, “for all [our] faults and weaknesses, the greatest free society in history,” are especially able to make a difference in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems right, therefore, that we should be the first to champion “freedom, order and justice.” Whether we want it or not, it is our responsibility and that of all the good men and women in the world.