Will an Across-the-Board Pay Raise Stop the Personnel Exodus? (III)

October 3, 1999

Comment: #324

Discussion Thread:  #s 320, 321, 323

Earlier discussions of the retention and morale problems, with particular emphasis on dissatisfaction with the quality of leadership: 115, 126, 127, 129, 134, 136, 149, 152, 155, 160, 161, 195, 206, 233, 238, 240, 242, 245, 249, 283, 303


[1] Tom Philpott, "Military Update Services Cautious About Impact Of Pay Reform On Recruiting, Retention," Newport News Daily Press, October 1, 1999

The question of why people are not joining or are leaving military service is an exceedingly complex social issue. It includes, inter alia, effects of demographics, changing social values, soldierly morals and leadership, patriotism and volunteerism versus individuality and capitalism, economic opportunity and upward mobility, all taking place within the changing context brought about by the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of any possible military threat to our nation's existence.

I believe the General Accounting Office's (GAO) recently completed survey of the causes of dissatisfaction in the military reflects the cumulative effect these poorly understood complexities. The GAO concluded pay was not the prime cause of dissatisfaction shaping decisions to leave in the military. This was particularly true for officers [see Comments #320 & 321]. No surprise here, anyone on the email circuit would know there are many non-pay reasons for dissatisfaction, most importantly, the growing wedge of mistrust between the senior officers on the one hand and the junior officers and enlisted ranks on the other [see comments in earlier thread]. Note: Pay and benefits are important issues for some people in the lowest ranks, particularly those married members with dependents who require food stamps or financial aid to supplement their monthly income but their increases will be relatively small, and the largest pay raises will go to field grade officers, particularly pilots, who said that pay was not a prime cause for their dissatisfaction.

The GAO study is an important first step toward understanding the social issues affecting retention and recruitment, but it does not provide enough information to resolve these issues. Rather, it is a red flashing warning that more work is needed before a rush to judgment. Congress, the Pentagon, and the President, nevertheless, have chosen to ignore the warning and have rushed to simplify these complexities into a primitive economic appeal to self interest in effect assuming we can bribe people to join and stay in the military by increasing their pay and benefits across the board (to include lifting the lid on double dipping for officers who have already left the military and are working in government and civilians!!!).

To this end, Congress voted overwhelmingly for a pay increase that will jack up the defense budget by $13.7 billion over the next 5 yrs and $40.2 billion over the next 10 years. This action is supposed to stem the exodus of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. But in the Reference, Tom Philpott reports that even military leaders don't expect the pay raise to produce a swift turnaround in their recruiting and retention problems. Paradoxically, Philpott notes, these problems worsened during 1999 [Marines excepted] as it became clear that pay would be increased, and the main issue was only how much. Philpott echoes the contents of several messages in earlier discussion thread by alluding to the strategies the services are using to finesse some of their personnel problems with expediencies such as lowering recruiting standards and using recruits to cover holes created by losses of experienced people.

Now recall Comment #323: Lt Col ZZZ, an active Marine with considerable experience leading troops in the field, expanded the discussion by concurring with the general thrust of the GAO's findings and giving sensible advice on how effective leadership could fix these problems. LTC ZZZ is looking at the problem from the common-sense perspective of a highly-qualified insider, and his comments have been seconded enthusiastically by several active and retired military professionals on this list (indeed, I have been told they will be the subject of at least one high level meeting), but the most fascinating response came from Herbert Fenster, a well known attorney in defense matters [he represented General Dynamics it its victorious A-12 lawsuit which resulted in the largest adverse judgment ever made against the US government] and long time observer of all aspects of the US military. Fenster agrees with much of LTC ZZZ's comments, but he thinks the personnel problem is part of a far larger problem namely the role of the military in a post-Cold War United States during a period of relative peace.

Fenster's calls for an examination of the military's personnel problems within the context of a fundamental examination of role of the military institution and its relationship to society in the changing conditions of the 21st Century, but he concludes that that there is little evidence of any desire anywhere to make such an evaluation.

His comment is attached below in its entirety read it carefully, it is short but thought provoking:

---[Email from Herbert Fenster]------------

While I agree with much of what is said here, I think it misses the core issue. We are systematically marginalizing the uniformed military. While this is most apparent in the non-commissioned ranks, the same basic problem exists throughout the military. And the problem, rather then being singular as to nature and origins, is very complex. It implicates cultural, social, economic, demographic, geographic and other issues some of which are historic and some of which are, how shall I say, "opportunistic." This is not a problem that is going to be alleviated, let alone solved, without a very fundamental reconsideration of the place of the military in a nation, prosperous and (relatively) at peace. Nor is this problem going to be solved by proposed solutions generated within the present military. Which is not to denigrate the "present military;" it is only by way of saying that ITS outlook does not fully comprehend the nature of the problem, only its present manifestations - from within.

This subject now needs a major reexamination not only because of the immediate problems that you have identified so well, but because of the condition of relative peace which we are experiencing and because of the enormously changed circumstances which the onset of the twenty first century are presenting. Yet, we seem not to have even an environment, let alone a protocol for such consideration.

------[end Fenster's email]--------------

You may not agree with all Fenster says, but he is right about one thing the courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac are not into protocols related to fundamental re-examinations of the status quo. That is why we have a modernization program that can not modernize the force, a rapidly deteriorating readiness posture (including retention/recruitment problems), and a corrupt accounting system that makes it impossible to assemble the information needed to fix the first two problems [New readers -- see Comment #169].

Chuck Spinney

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