Two Majors Sound Off on Question of Patchwork Solutions
that Do Not Address the Fundamental Problem

June 15, 1999 

Comment: #285

Discussion Thread:  #s 281, 282 


[1] Email from Maj XXX, "Response to Comment #s 281 & 282," June 11, 1999

[2] Email from Maj YYY, "Response to Maj XXX," June 14, 1999

Recall that Comment #281 expressed concerns about whether the Army's new officer personnel management system for the 21st century (OPMS XXI) would fix the problems it aimed to fix. Of particular concern was an Army Times' report that said officers were opting for non-operational career tracks (Ref. #1 to Comment #281), which if true, could have profound implications for the Army's future combat capabilities.

In Comment #282, a retired Army colonel took exception to the concerns expressed in #281, but he did acknowledge that OPMS XXI an "adequate patchwork if you aren't going to address the fundamental problem."

What is the fundamental problem?

Two active duty majors have now responded to these comments in References #1 & 2 below, and their responses help us to get closer to the fundamentals

While their discussion may seem arcane to those readers not in uniform, I assure you that personnel reforms, particularly those affecting officer selection policies, go the heart of questions about combat effectiveness. I apologize for the anonymity of the authors, but it is necessary in today's selection climate which works actively to weed out those people with the temerity to question the status quo.

In Reference #1, Major XXX argues that one reason why so many officers are opting out of the combat arms is that remaining in the combat arms can actually LIMIT one's chances of being a 'warrior.'

At the heart of this paradox is that fact that it is almost impossible for a major to serve as a battalion or brigade-level operations or executive officer (which is needed for the branch qualification that is a necessary step to promotion) unless the officer is one the 50% of his peer group who has attended Command and General Staff College (CGSC) in residence. Consequently, those competent officers who are not selected for CGSC but want to stay in combat arms have the best chance of being promoted to Lt Colonel by working in non-deployable units like basic training or ROTC. The problem is that they become second class citizens in their own branch. Major XXX argues, therefore, that OPMS XXI is an improvement because it gives competent people who have no future in their own combat arms branch an opportunity to have a future somewhere else.

Major XXX's commentary seems to make sense, and Major YYY [Reference #2] agrees with them. But Major YYY says the real problems lie with an officer selection process, including the selection to CGSC, that rewards courtier skills more than excellence or competence in battlefield decision making.

Major YYY argues that OPMS XXI failed to address the roots of this selection problem and the anxiety-ridden careerism that accompanies it. These roots include the antiquated up-or-out promotion system, the zero-defects mentality of the negatively-focused Officer Evaluation Report (OER), and excessively authoritarian behavior coupled with the individualistic focus as opposed to unit orientation in the competitive ethic.

The subtleties revealed in Majors XXX's and YYY's comments raise the possibility that that patchwork solutions that do not address the fundamental problem may be adequate for the courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac but inadequate for soldiers in field who have to live with the consequences.

Read their comments and judge for yourself.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1 Email from Maj XXX (an infantry officer) Date: June 11, 1999

I hope you don't mind this reply, but there is a voice that is missing in this discussion. For many of us, it is not so much that we wish no longer to be warriors, or that we are greatly put out by the demands of this profession (though that is no small consideration and nothing I write in any way is meant to contradict the major's comments in post #281 [BTW these comments were made by Major YYY]), it is actually the case that remaining in the combat arms branches can limit your chances of being a "warrior."

For those of us not selected to attend CGSC (i.e., Command and General Staff College, approx 50% in every year group), our opportunities to fully participate in combat units are quite limited. The official PERSCOM policy is, of course, that this does not matter. However, when I served in Europe, an Infantry or Amor officer who did not attend CGSC as resident was not allowed to be a battalion or brigade S3 or XO-necessary for branch qualification, which is necessary for promotion-unless he got a waiver from the Division commander. Furthermore, such people only got those jobs when no one else who was a resident grad was around. As a result, several majors I knew were passed over for LTC because they were not able to get branch qualified in time for the board. This experience has been confirmed by many of my other colleagues.

As a result, those of us who want to stay combat arms and have the best chance of making it to LTC must work in TDA (non-deployable) units such as Basic Training, ROTC, ACRC.

Now you might conclude from this that the benefit of such a practice would be to keep less-qualified officers from serving in these important positions. The problem is that the means the Army used prior to OPMS XXI to discern who is better and who is not are fairly arbitrary. The system did a good job weeding out the top 10% and the bottom 10%, but had a difficult time with those of us somewhere in between.

The reason it was a fairly arbitrary system was that one was evaluated almost solely on the senior rater profile and his or her comments. The trouble with that was that in order to protect the competent officers, senior raters pretty much treated everyone alike. This made it impossible for boards to make a good assessment, especially for CGSC slots since they are relatively competitive.

What this means is that there are many talented and competent officers who do not have the full range of opportunities in the combat arms that their resident grad counter parts have. They will be lucky to get branch qualified in a TOE (deployable) unit and will never command a battalion. It is no wonder they go seek their fortunes in other career fields where opportunities are not so limited.

For my own part, my command OERs are all "one block," though my senior rater's profile does not make this distinction unique. The written comments are favorable, but my branch rep has told me they do not distinguish me in any way. Whether this was by design or intent, I cannot know. I will say that at no time did any of my raters or senior raters ever indicate to me that my performance was anything but exemplary. Furthermore, I served as a battalion S3 as a captain-a grade below that it is normally coded for. I am desperately trying here not to toot my own horn, or to sound bitter. I think my chain of command treated me fairly. What I conclude from this is that while I am not a "stud," or a "fast track" officer, I am at least competent. The problem is, that though I may be competent, I will forever be a second class citizen in my branch (Infantry). It is no wonder that I and many of the other 50% of my year group who are in this situation are seeking other ways and places to contribute.

The good thing about the new OPMS is that it gives an opportunity for those of us who have no future in our own branch a chance to have one somewhere else. It is also the case that not all non-combat arms choices take one away from deployable units. For my part, my board meets in Sept and I intend to chose a functional area that will allow me to serve directly in the operations the Army gets involved in in a way my staying in the Infantry will not.

It is likely that much of my opinion is based on mere perception rather than fact. But it is a perception I share with many others. It seems to be the case that the new OPMS will fix many of the problems I cited above. But for those of us who are already majors, who have already been passed over twice for CGSC, it is too late. Our best bet to serve the Army in units that deploy is to choose one of the career options that will allow for that. For many of us, that precludes the traditional "combat arms."

Thanks for listening. I really love this list.

Reference #2 Email from Maj YYY June 14, 1999

The major's comments are concise, echoed by much of the field. He is absolutely correct in regards to why most majors have to choose other fields, and opt out of the combat arms. It is due to the short sightedness of the personnel system. His comments confirm that OPMS XXI avoided the harder issues that undermine the officer corps. I disagree with his point regarding the "fast trackers." He may be the more competent officer in regards to battlefield performance. Unfortunately, tools used now in the current system rely more on courtier skills, than battlefield decision making in its selection of the "best."

OPM XXI is a half-hearted attempt to reform a system that needs revolutionary rather than evolutionary reform. The Army has displayed remarkable sensitivity to the indictments of recent command climate surveys taken in 1995 and 1997. These surveys indicated widespread careerism in the ranks of the officer corps as a result of the recent drawdown. Officers by and large have noted three issues with the current system. First, concerns regarding the limited opportunities that exist as officers are "forced" up the ladder under the antiquated "up-or-out" promotion system. The Army's own rigid system "strangles" officers using the Army's own officer management policies--they either conform, or are treated as "second-class citizens." Second, dismay regarding the Army's use of a single, subjective, "negative-focused" evaluation tool -- the Officer Evaluation Report or OER -- in promoting and selecting officers. Finally, disappointment due to the authoritarian behavior displayed by many of their senior officers to hide their lack of knowledge and inexperience regarding the art of war. Such overt discontent suggests deeper erosion of the Army's institutional authority, and made the Army decidedly uncomfortable.

As a result the Army implemented another "evolutionary reform" of the officer management system, in some ways the most ambitious reform since the OPMS studies conducted in 1971 and 1983. Apart from specializing the officer corps for the future, which is needed in some ways, in others it is not, the OPMS XXI study has additional objectives. On the one hand, OPMS XXI aims to root out careerism caused by the necessity to compete for the few "branch qualifying" jobs, while creating a more specialized and professional officer corps for Army 2010. One the other hand, more then previous OPMS "reforms," OMPS XXI will also eliminate further cracks in the personnel system's authority and control. Despite its potential changes, OPMS XXI fails to address most of the factors that cause careerism, as well as the factors that impact on Army effectiveness to prepare for and fight "come as you are wars" of the future. Careerism continues to thrive now and into the future with terrible results when the pressures of more than a four-day war are applied. Unfortunately, this is a situation that today's officer corps accepts with startling serenity.

As demonstrated by the major's comments, most officers talk at face value of careerism's negative impacts, but few can escape the Army's subtle cultural impacts that transform most officers' ambition and good intentions into careerism. Senior officers point to the recent drawdown as a cause for careerism, but in fact the pressures that undoubtedly generated careerism are widespread, and these pressures have been entrenched within the Army for decades. Very few officers are immune to the always insistent requirement to put the best face on things and to give the appearance of superior performance, regardless of the shortcomings that such appearances conceal.

The continued existence of such pressures raises serious questions. The source of these causes can be traced back one hundred years to the reforms made after the Spanish-American War, and those reforms made after World War II, more specifically in the officer personnel arena. But more importantly, what is their impact on the officer corps, and what can OPMS XXI do about them? The bottom-line is that OPMS XXI is going to have difficulty as long as the competitive ethic remains. This problem is generated by the "up-or-out" promotion system, and the Army apparent refusal to change its desire to maintain a post WWII era officer personnel system created for mobilization for WWIII. The Army's officer management policies and individual replacement system have failed under the test of combat in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and partially succeeded in the Gulf War by default due to the total incompetence of our opponent, allowing us six months to "build-up" and "train-up" by stabilizing personnel in units. Even so, while we won the war at the tactical level, we lost it at the operational and strategic levels.

In reality, OPMS XXI in itself cannot tackle the issues of anxiety caused by "up-or-out" promotion system combined with a larger than necessary officers corps. Senior leaders, must admit the system's shortcomings in developing leaders and combat effectiveness for future combat. Then, they can address laws that shape a military culture that form barriers to wider and bolder reforms beyond the ones made by OPMS XXI. In order to prepare the Army for the battlefields of the 21st Century, in 3rd and 4th Generation warfare, both Congress and senior leaders of the Army are going to have to address and change several factors simultaneously in order to implement serious reform.

Army officers are members of both a unique profession and a complex organization. Conflict arises out of the union between the values of a professional fellowship and those of a modern bureaucracy and is shaped by several factors. Careerism is intensified by our current organizational structure with a multitude of industrial-age hierarchies, a large officer corps created for mobilization purposes, and the centralized process the army uses to assign, measure and promote officers.

The genesis of this conflict with professionalism began at the turn of the century. The military adopted a centralized bureaucracy from the big corporations of the Progressive Era, and the country's drive for efficiency in the name of management science. It intensified its control of the personnel system during World War II in order to raise hundreds of thousands of officers in a short time, and do it unison. After World War II, George Marshal and Dwight Eisenhower convinced Congress to pass the Officer Personnel Act of 1947 (OPA 47), with its centerpiece being the "up-or-out" promotion system. The result of the present and reformed OPMS is that it produced willing servants in the bureaucracy. This is the wrong type of officer to be a troop leader at any echelon, and even more a mismatch to the operational doctrine and battle environment expected in the next several decades. The continual evolution of these "reforms" continues to create an officer who:

  • waits for orders

  • believes he or she must do everything "by the book"

  • actually believes "the book" knows best

  • has learned never to tell the boss anything that will make him or her squirm

  • has learned to never trust anything but documentation that one has followed orders and followed the rules

  • has never been rewarded for cooperating with peers

  • has never had experience relying on independent decisions generated by trust in peers

  • has never functioned in a high trust environment--period

The tenants of the type of officers the "system" is currently creating or has created have never experienced any of the three ingredients of confidence the renowned historian Dr. Faris Kirkland has written about, "When you know your professional (well-founded confidence in your technical competence), when you know your people (cohesion based on mutual knowledge, having experienced several operations together), and you know your boss is devoted to your success and will not abandon you (your boss practices Auftragstaktik), then an officer really has confidence." But, in today's culture, even fewer officers have experienced all three together. As a result true professionalism exists only as a pipe dream.

The prerequisite for becoming a military professional is individual commitment -- freely undertaken, willingly offered -- which underlies the professional's dedication to shared values, common purpose, and internally regulated standards of performance. Properly understood, these characteristics demand the profession not become restricted or confined; the ordered life of the soldier is, at bottom, positively liberating. It create opportunities to pursue goals that are more worthwhile and satisfying than those that of necessity preoccupy most civilians.

The basic norms of "Duty, Honor, Country" provide the foundation for an officer's ethical code by which one resist careerism. It establishes the standards by which professional officers can be judged, and lays claim to the status of professionalism. Professionalism demands high levels of ethical behavior, education, technical knowledge and military performance. Our code goes further by separating us from the competent technician or the mercenary. Thus, it ensures the exercise of professional prerogatives in a responsible manner. This code, despite the evolution in our civilian culture which places self before service--the pursuit of instant gratification--reassures society that Army officers are worthy of the trust confided in them. This military ethic is the measure of the health of the profession.

The latter definition of military professionalism sounds fine in the halls of our educational institutions, or military classrooms. Ye how far does the actual environment permit this complex institutionalization to occur or exist? This short answer is unfortunate. By placing increasing emphasis on bureaucratic values over the past ninety-six years, the Army has denied its officers precisely the autonomy necessary to become and remain professional. The depth of an officer's professionalism is as shallow as the Power Point slide briefings around which we have built our entire current culture. What the Army needs and most officers (leaders) demand (everyone talks about it but takes not actions) go beyond the limited adjustments of OPMS XXI.