Why Emperors Lose their Clothes

August 30, 1998

Comment: #173

Discussion Thread:  #172


[1] Email from active duty Army officer (Attached)

The email below is one Army officer's reaction to Comment #172, "Admiral Gehman Changes His Tune or Why Emperors Lose their Clothes." He argues that the readiness problems are really caused by an officer corps that has lost sight of why it exists. He discusses the pernicious effects of an overly bureaucratized personnel system and how it contributes to a culture self-interested careerism instead of one based on the soldierly values of self-sacrifice, duty, and honor. His concerns echo others I have heard, from Air Force and Navy officers, as well as Army officers.

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Reference 1:

Email from active duty Army officer:

Your latest discussion of the readiness problem is on target. Sadly, judged by their comments, there is a lack of understanding on the part of most journalists, historians and concerned citizens regarding the roots of our increasing readiness problems.

I continually read that low readiness is due to "hollow units," "low maintenance funding," "fewer training opportunities," and most importantly, "LACK OF MONEY."

The Defense Department has plenty of money, but the troops in the field are being starved. The problem is not that lack of money as much as how we are spending what we have.

But most politicians are trying to protect the defense contract dollars flowing to their districts, so they respond to readiness problems by throwing money at the technologists in the Pentagon (and their constituents), not the troops whose training budgets have been cut. Military leaders in all services, of course are happy with a response that pours more money into the technological solutions, because then they do not have to make the hard decisions to solve the readiness problem by changing the priorities, because that means putting a higher value on the intangibles, such as leadership, unit cohesion and force-on-force training and a lower value on shoveling money to the contractors. Sadly, the bulk of their "dicky-bird" subordinates (the bird that always nods yes) and courtiers surrounding the leaders go along and merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The dicky birds are symptomatic of the deeper cause of the readiness problem -- the corporate culture of the officer corps. This culture does not understand war; it is also an a entrenched bureaucratic organization, or as some have observed, a "complex adaptive system," more interested in using its brainpower to creatively protect the status-quo rather than applying it to the more difficult problems of studying and preparing for future warfare.

We must first reform, reshape, and readjust our officer personnel system, if we truly want to fix our readiness problems. Of course the personnel bureaucracies in each of the services will oppose any diminution in their power.

The effects of the officer personnel system, including its accession, promotion and development subsystems, feeds into and shapes the doctrine, acquisition, training and education which build and maintain a war machine. It has produced a war machine with at least four interrelated consequences that weaken our military's responsiveness, as well as it capacity to fight effectively:

First, it takes a long time to get ready to fight. We either must rely on a strategy to buy time, like using a coalition that is willing to hold and bleed an opponent for months or years, such as what the Soviet Union did to Germany in WWII, or have an adversary give us an inordinate time to build up and train a force for action, as in the case of Iraq, who gave us six months to prepare. Second, our methodical preparation period is made longer and more turbulent by a management-driven individual replacement system (which builds units by assigning individuals to it one at time) rather than the more cohesive unit rotation system (where personnel are kept together and units replace units). Third, once we are in combat, the officers that were upheld as "fast-trackers" in peacetime have to be replaced by real combat leaders, who the personnel management system once considered inadequate, because they ruined their records by having too much command time with troops in the field. (I know many Captains who have been passed over for Major in today's peacetime army because they had too much time in the field at the company level) The personnel systems uses the "up or out" promotion system to purge these undesirables, as well as anyone who has the characters to tell the truth to superiors who do not want to hear it. Fourth, once this unwieldy bureaucratic mammoth actually goes to war, it employs a doctrine of centrally controlled firepower (which is not very surprising, given the top-down personnel management system) that would make World War I generals, like General Douglas Haig (Britain) and Marshall Nivelle (France), smile with glee. The main thought behind our "strategy" is to throw in the tonnage and "push" opponents back by a bloody attrition-driven frontal attack. (remember, it took outside intervention by the Defense Secretary and National Security Advisor to get the Army to plan a "left hook" into Kuwait, rather than a frontal assault up the Wadi al Batin, and still about half the Republican Guard got out the back door.)

Not surprisingly, we just saw the same attrition mindset demonstrated with cruise missiles in Somalia and Afghanistan. We have seen how these attacks affect the moral strength of their targets before. The German V-2 missile attacks on Britain enraged the British. Saddam's scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia enraged Americans. My guess is that the missile attacks also pushed the terrorists to do more. I think it would have been more effective to send in several highly trained "volunteer" commando units, such as Delta Force (some of whom are "biting at the bit"). They could have done a better job. But again, because most of the so-called defense intellectuals do not understand war, the fear of even the smallest number of casualties, limits us to poor strategic options.

You are too hard on Admiral Gehman, however. He is merely a product of this system. The Army and Air Force are full of like minded flag officers who tell the Secretary of Defense that readiness as fine until the negative press reports start flowing in, then change their tune, and blame the administration for the problems the military let happen, usually behind the scenes on the Washington cocktail circuit or on background to reporters who don't know any better. (BTW - Eisman at the Virginian-Pilot is an exception.)

Instead, we need senior officers to say to Congress ... "we do not need those high-tech wonder toys. We don't need a cold war budget for the post cold war era, because we have an effective strategy, developed by military professionals, not technologists and defense contractors."

Such officers would have the sense to see how a unit rotation system allows us to maintain constant ready now pressure on potential opponents. They would have a decentralized command and control system based on the art of leadership and mutual trust between superiors and subordinates rather than the top-down business-school management style that the military services (except for the Marines) have maintained since the Progressive Era a hundred years ago!

Why does our "system" produce leaders who always wear "rose-colored glasses," particularly when testifying to Congress? Why do they turn professional military journals in the cheer-leading pamphlets? Why are they obsessed with the believe that technology wins wars and people are bit players?

Perhaps the answer to these questions lies in personnel systems based on ideas devised at the turn of the century in the Progressive era and institutionalized after WWII, when management analysis replaced the classical way of thinking? These systems are all based on the facade of counterproductive terms to readiness like "fairness" and "career equity" that turn officers of good intention from the martial value of self sacrifice to the business value of self interest.

An officer culture based on self interest destroys the soldierly concepts of sacrifice and honor. Many officers have even forgotten about the oath they took when they were commissioned. This turning of the profession of arms into a self-interested job is easily seen on recruiting commercials to "be all you can be" and on the walls of ROTC detachments across the country.

Only the Marines [remember, the author is an Army officer] seemed to have listened to the Gate's Commission in the early 70s, which recommended that the services continue to use service and obligation to the nation in its advertising to draw in potential officer candidates. Instead the services decided to appeals to self interest, like job experience and economic enticements. While other services show its candidates terms like "Your degree got you to the interview, but ROTC got you the job" the Marines show a civilian on a white horse enter a maze in a fairy land. Some may laugh, but the significance to this commercial is that it is telling people, you can join our unique organization but you have to meet our standards, and we are professionals. Nothing is said about providing job training, nothing is said about how much money will be made. The commercial talks about forgotten words like duty, honor and country.

This is a powerful message, and it starts the Marine officer down the path of soldierly pride. Its one of the reasons they have had the moral courage to tell Congress and the American people why it is necessary to have gender-separated training. Or, why they are the only service who has stepped up to the intellectually challenging task of adapting maneuver warfare as their doctrine.