The Lewis Commentary: Why The Beret May Be a Good Thing

November 15, 2000

Comment: #394

Discussion Thread:  Comments discussing the wedge of mistrust between leaders and junior officers #s 346, 324, 302, 261, 242, 233, 207, 186, 155, 142, 138, 129, 126.

What follows is the most recent posting. It is a gold mine.

Mark Lewis, a recently separated Army officer, is clearly the kind of thinker we need retain, but he punched out. Listen to what he has to say. Lewis provides the kind of informed insight into the "retention problem" not provided by sterile government statistics and slick power point briefings. His subject is a recurring theme: namely, the widening wedge of mistrust between senior officers on the one hand and junior officers on the other has more to do with the retention problem than a need for pay raises, which are regarded by many as bribes [see thread for other examples or dimensions of this problem].

Why The Beret May Be a Good Thing.

From: Mark R. Lewis
Date: 14 Nov 2000


As recently separated Army Lieutenants and Captains, we watch with dismay as current discussions about the exodus of junior officers from the Army mask a truth we've come to know. The Army does not have a junior officer retention problem. What it has is a problem reflected in the retention rate of junior officers. But as long as junior officers are the targets of proposed solutions, without a meaningful look at why we are leaving, the Army will not stop this decay.

When General Shinseki looked out across the Special Operations soldiers who inspired his decision to bring the black beret to the entire Army, we know he saw something special. He saw soldiers whose bearing and professionalism reflect the culture of their elite organizations. He saw a mentally agile leadership, able to rapidly anticipate and adapt to change; he saw warriors who understand the need for new techniques in unique situations; he saw empowered non-commissioned and junior officers in an environment that celebrates their initiative; he saw units properly resourced with the training and equipment they need to excel. It's no wonder that the Chief of Staff wants this for the rest of the Army.

So General Shinseki looked for a way to introduce these values to the rest of his soldiers. The astounding irony is that his solution reflects the culture of another part of the Army - one infected by a cancer that rewards style over substance. When General Shinseki looked those elite soldiers in the eye, we wonder if he failed to understand that the beret does not make these soldiers special - it's the special culture of these soldiers that makes the beret valuable. Instead of bringing the roots of this culture to the rest of the Army, he chose a path so many of his leaders choose daily. Anticipating something meaningful, we see instead another quick fix, requiring little insight or fundamental change, relatively inexpensive, easy to implement, and while it briefs well, it is a missed opportunity to address the true nature of his challenge.

Earlier, as the exodus of junior officers began - before it reached today's alarming rate - we tried hard to communicate our concerns to our chain of command. We recognized our professional obligation to try to solve what we saw as the problem, and we were desperate to help. Regarded as sort of errant children, who couldn't possibly understand the complexity of the situation, we were humored, patted on the head, and sent back to work.

We looked to our fathers and grandfathers, who lived through lean and difficult years before and after World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. We tried to explain these concerns to civilians, as well. Some of those from whom we sought counsel dismissed us as products of a self-serving, consumer-oriented society, without the patience or discipline to stick it out when it got tough. Others attempted to assuage us with assurances that the Army is traditionally under-resourced, and while we listened to them, we heard stories about a time when the burden was shared and acknowledged by all, as a community, as part of the culture. But we looked around, and knew better; we could see the cancer growing.

We saw the cancer in our leaders who repeatedly reported us combat ready in spite of the troubles we saw in our motor pools and training ranges. We saw the cancer in an ethic that fostered careerism at the expense of subordinates and quashed our initiative with management through email, instead of leadership by example. We dutifully put our under-25-year-old single males through mandatory Sexual Responsibility classes (abstinence is the responsible choice!) instead of marksmanship training. We reported soldier attendance at Elementary School Parent-Teacher conferences (but balked when asked for numbers of Prayer Breakfast attendees). On more than one Friday night, we told our squads, platoons, and companies that we were sending them away on Monday to fulfill a random no-notice requirement for warm bodies. And we hung an Army Values dog tag around our neck, as if rote memorization could do what day-to-day examples could not.

Now the Army has collected reams of data affirming anonymously what we stood up to tell them personally. The exodus continues because we know that while the data is in, there is still no honest dialogue about the true source of the problem. We are men and women who were trained not to quit. Many of us waited to see if the surveys and sensing sessions would have an impact. We looked in vain for a spark of hope to tell us that our loyalty was not misplaced; we wanted to serve. But pay increases and more days off are not going to keep us when we are sorely disappointed in the ability of our professional role models and the institution to give us a reason to believe.

We think issuing the Black Beret may just be what we need to help us communicate our message. We know the Army is in dire need of inspiration towards a new standard of excellence, but as an engine of change, the beret is a superficial, cosmetic fix. There could not be a more symbolic indication of the Army Leadership's unwillingness to diagnose the source of the cancer that is eating its culture, and treat it effectively.

Mark R. Lewis 2000

Is our military and is our country better off when people like Mark Lewis leave the service? Maybe it is time to listen to their concerns before they are ALL gone.

Chuck Spinney

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