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?

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