Why Are the Best and Brightest Leaving the Military?

July 31, 1999

Comment: #302

Discussion Thread:  #s 126, 129, 138, 142, 144, 155, 172, 186, 206, 207, 210, 211, 212, 214, 233, 238, 239, 242, 246, 261


[1] R.W. Zimmermann, LTC, AR (USA), "MEMORANDUM FOR COMMANDING GENERAL, FT. CARSON, CO 80913, SUBJECT: Retirement after 20 Years of Service," May 1999 [Published in Col. David Hackworth's Voice of the Grunt' Newsletter, July 26, 1999. Attached.

The late American strategist Col John Boyd used to drill the following words into the head of anyone who would listen: "Machines don't fight wars, people do and they use their minds"—which is another way of saying people are the heart and soul of a military's fighting power.

Despite its obvious truth, senior leaders in the Defense Department continue to ignore this central fact, spending far more time and energy cutting deals on procurement issues and technology. Last week, for example, 64 stars from all the services gathered together to sign a letter to save the Air Force's F-22, while troops in the field were seeing their training budgets cut, or were working overtime cannibalizing equipment to makeup for spares shortages, or were being rated on mindless zero defects drills. When the last time 64 stars got together to fix these problems?

It should not be surprising that many of our most talented soldiers see through the hypocrisy and are pulling the plug.

Perhaps the best metaphor to the 'let them eat cake' outlook pervading them minds of the courtiers inhabiting Versailles on the Potomac is DoD's official Armed Forces Day poster -- which is supposed to celebrate the dedication and sacrifices of the American soldier, but for the last FOUR YEARS has forgotten to include him/her while it celebrated weapons instead. This omission insults the memory of all the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who spilt blood in the service of their country, but it has one redeeming virtue -- it is a harsh reminder of how disconnected the leadership is from the grunts in the trenches doing the soldiering. [If you don't believe me about the poster, go the following DoD website to see it for yourself. <http://www.defenselink.mil/afd/images/afd.gif>]

The attached letter of resignation is by one of those grunts. Lt Col R.W. Zimmerman, a armor commander and combat veteran, brilliantly summarizes these people problems. What he says has far more to do with our future combat effectiveness than all the hype about technology, digital battlefields, perfect situational awareness and information dominance on the battlefield (this from an bureaucracy that cannot even produce accountable books!!), or DoD's favorite poster child, so-called revolution in military affairs.

Read his letter carefully -- this man is not a malcontent, he is dedicated and thoughtful soldier. Note how Col Zimmerman leads off with a discussion of leadership problems and the wedge between the leaders and the led.

New readers can learn more about how widespread these leadership issues are by reading some of messages identified in the discussion thread. Col Zimmerman may be most elegant and persuasive, but he is by no means alone when he identifies the widening wedge of mistrust between the junior officer and enlisted ranks (O-5 and below) on the one side and the senior officers on the other.

I have a recommendation: Now that he is retiring, the SECDEF should hire Col Zimmerman as a special consultant to tell the flaks in Public Affairs how design a better Armed Forces Day poster.

Who knows, posters with people on them scattered around Versailles might remind the courtiers that machines don't fight wars. But then again, such posters might not change anyone's mind. The courtiers could dismiss Poster Reform, saying it is irrelevant to the work of Versailles, because people are not made by subcontracts that can be spread around to congressional districts.

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.]

[Attachment #1]------------------ May 1999


SUBJECT: Retirement after 20 Years of Service

1. My decision to retire from the service in the United States Army as of 31 January 2000 is based on a multitude of reasons, mainly considerations for the future stability of my family. I believe it important to provide my little daughter, now six years old, a well-established and secure environment without the turmoil of constant moves and deployments.

2. From a personal perspective, I truly consider the last 20 years in the service of my country as a time of wonderful challenges and much personal growth. Whenever associated with soldiers in a troop environment, I enjoyed the close camaraderie normally associated with close-knit combat units. Besides the many positive experiences of the last twenty years, which included participation in combat during Desert Storm and two below the zone promotions, I must confess that during the last five years, the idea of serving beyond the 20 year mark became more and more questionable for me. The main reason for my personal doubt is the constantly changing culture in the Army which is becoming more concerned with producing a superficial image of accomplishment, guided by false caring vs. tackling our readiness issues with up-front leadership and firm solutions. The Army has become a "social experiment", geared towards promoting diversity and celebrating individual successes vs. instilling the sense of unity behind the values our constitution, the Flag and our distinguished unit colors. The end result we see today is clearly diminished combat readiness and a lower willingness by our young people to serve a higher cause.

3. As I have come to grips with the decision to begin a new life in the civilian sector, I cannot but still feel committed to continue my association with the Army and its people. After all, as General Creighton Abrams once said, 'the Army is people'. It is my plan, to continue to serve and assist the people that make the Army and the armed forces, possibly in a political role. This "outside" option ensures that my voice will not drowned-out by senior officers and commanders who have lost their connection to the troops and have lost comprehension of the real causes for the decline in readiness or morale in the armed forces of today. In addition, I would not rule out writing a book summarizing my personal observations or perspectives gained in the last 20 years which differ drastically from the current "party-line" leadership position prevalent in the Army. The issues/topics which are crying out for solutions and discussion by our senior commanders include:

a. Senior Leaders are not listening. Listening, in our Army, is a lost art. The attitude of "father knows best" will definitely not lead to major changes in our current situation of eroding combat readiness and rapidly disappearing benefits. One should always remember that the most significant changes in military affairs were not the result of General Officer initiatives but were initiated by junior and mid-grade officers who, in many cases, put their future and careers at risk.

b. Many senior leaders don't understand soldiers. Soldiers want to serve in Elite organizations. Why not give elite organizations such as Armor units, berets, a tank expert/assault badge and special work coveralls (just one example). If you want to create an elite army with high combat spirit, you cannot treat first line combat troops just like the rest. You must make them feel that they are special. Maybe even special field-pay or a "wear and tear " affected clothing allowance could be beneficial. As soon as the elite unit message spreads, everyone will want to join.

c. Re-evaluate Army doctrine based on training center results. Think "out of the box". Remember G.S. Patton: 'there is no approved solution to any tactical situation'. Our military decision making process (MDMP) is totally out of date and geared towards a leadership system which puts inexperienced, sometimes tactically/operationally incompetent officers in to key leadership positions and commands. The result: high risk for catastrophe in combat but good survival opportunity for the incapable leader if he follows the PROCESS. NTC has become the premier example of the process-oriented evaluation. Follow the process but lose the fight - you'll still be successful in our Army.

d. Training schedules and deployments are unpredictable. Senior leaders in many cases don't know what is important and therefore invent much unnecessary "nice-to-do" training. For certain contingencies and deployments, the "pick me or I volunteer" attitude seems to be prevalent. We must return to the quality over quantity attitude. The "fast food", or "all-you-can eat approach" has failed us in the past. But in order to return to quality, one must clearly understand what is important. Today's "jack of all trades" leader, who attempts to "punch every ticket" in 20 years cannot make a clear determination as to what really counts.'

e. Superficial control/leadership. Many commanders/leaders love to inspect superficial items such as chin-straps, ear plugs, boot heels, PT cards etc. because it's too tough to understand the depth of true combat readiness. Such real checks would include proper load plans (by the way, the US army still doesn't have a decent load-plan for armored vehicles today --tow cables are still outside of the turret and would have to be dismounted in most awkward fashion, possibly under fire), weapons proficiency, reactions to contact, barracks discipline, vehicle preparations for movement etc.

f. Too much emphasis on the wrong issues. Many senior leaders with the zero-defects mentality rapidly jump to quick fix solutions to repair the system with other "systems" or "checklists". Again, the result is a shallow solution that doesn't repair anything. To the contrary, it most often addicts soldiers to a newly established "military welfare" system. Soldiers today see themselves as victims of the system. Leaders don't push for self-discipline and developing maturity but accept self-flagellation as the accepted course of action. Programs that ought to be reviewed for overemphasis:

  • - Sex training

  • - Consideration for Others Training

  • - Overemphasis on superficial inspection items, i.e. chin strap drills, 3x5 PT cards, etc.

  • - Too much emphasis on simulation to save money in the wrong areas.

  • - Overemphasis on ACS, AFTB, Volunteerism etc. Most of the social services create an environment that does not emphasize soldier self-discipline, self-help, and maturity.

  • - Overemphasis on force protection (unfortunately, even life in the civilian world bears some risks).

  • - Too much emphasis on diversity (Asian week, African American week, Hispanic week etc.). Again, we fail to stress unity vs. diversity. We are all AMERICANS who should be committed to a common purpose - the defense of our Nation.

g. The assignments system is broken. Units, crews, squads are not kept together long enough to fully exploit their combat capabilities. We are not able to build the tight interpersonal trust relationships between leaders and soldiers. People are move rapidly to increase their promotion opportunities to "punch tickets" vs. true readiness concerns. Fact: we are still using the old Vietnam individual based replacement procedures and our leaders seem to be satisfied with it.

h. The current quality of our soldier recruits and junior leaders is not as good as it should be. No one will admit to it because it would mean admitting to failure - unacceptable in a zero-defects world. Because of a severe shortage of junior leaders, we are told to create/promote our own. End result -- officers do NCO jobs, just like during the Vietnam days. Promotion boards today do no certify junior NCO's can lead in their specific specialties. In the days of diversity and interchangeability of specialties (everyone is wonderful!), promotion boards don't emphasize questions regarding weapons, ability to lead, tactics, but concentrate on non-specific issues like ACS programs, financial advisor issues, EO programs and other ancillary topics. All in the guise of "taking care of soldiers".

4. Lastly, obviously it would be remiss not to mention to the rapidly eroding benefits for retired soldiers. Our medical care is deteriorating at unacceptable pace. The once promised free medical care is not free anymore. At a time that people grow older and need care, only limited help at high cost will be available. And by the way, the quality will be the same, should you retire at the 20 or 30-year mark. Our retirement pay, based on the base pay level does not currently compensate for the number of deployments, moves and hardships suffered by the average Army family.

5. Although it is a tough decision to leave the Army and begin a new life, I am ready to make peace and leave the service, knowing that I have made a contribution to the Army in peace and war. It is my desire to take 60 days of terminal leave and begin my official separation in September of 1999.

6. I am aware that because of my decision to separate, I will most likely receive a standard 2-block rating on my next evaluation report to "save" the top ratings for officers with a future on active duty. I request however that my service as commander of 1-68 armor and my service during actual combat receive the appropriate recognition and that my evaluation fairly reflect the facts of my contributions to the Army.

7. I am leaving the Army on a positive note with the desire to continue to make a difference for the soldiers still in uniform and those who have already joined the civilian ranks. I hope this memorandum explains some of the reasons for my retirement request. Above all, I am proud to have served and to be able to offer my family a new option. As a parent, and with regard to the recent shooting incident at a Colorado high school, I believe it to be an important ingredient of patriotism to educate a future generation of Americans in values and laws that govern us as a civilized Nation. The regard for values must begin at home and in our schools to take deep root in our society. To wear plastic value tags on our dog tag chains offers only another shallow quick fix.

R.W. Zimmermann LTC, AR (USA)