The View From Mount Olympus Seen from the Cheap Seats

June 12, 2001

Comment: #413

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 396, 394, 390, 372, 371, 353, 346, 344, 336, 303, 302, 134, 129, 126, 105, 65, 56

The question of why captains are leaving the US Army is perhaps the most important question facing that service and is a microcosm for the retention problems facing all the services.

In many earlier blasters [see Discussion Thread], as well as leadership surveys and special reports here, we have argued that officer retention problems are not a question of money - a fact that the Army, to its credit, is belatedly coming to recognize.

Emails, exit surveys, and interviews point to much deeper questions relating first and foremost to a lack of trust between senior officers on the one hand and junior officers and NCOs on the other. Other issues causing deep concern and alienation among the junior officers relate to a lack of realistic training, inadequate materiel support, excessive unit rotations (including adverse consequences to family life), a de-emphasis of the factors shaping unit cohesion, and a pervasive view that the Army runs according to the dictates of a dysfunctional personnel system that views people as selfish interchangeable parts of a machine instead of idealistic motivated individuals who want to be part of a group culture that values selfless service.

Below are three messages that suggest sharp differences in how high ranking and low ranking officers Observe this problem. If these differences reflect a more widespread views, then we can expect conflicting Decisions and Actions to flow from the different Orientations held by these two groups. In this case, an analysis of such the differences in the conflicting dynamics of each group's Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) loops would help us understand why the wedge of mistrust continues to widen despite the senior leadership's belated recognition that they have a problem.

The first message analyzes the reasons why captains are leaving the Army from the orientation of a high ranking general officer. It was written by Lt Gen Leon LaPorte, commanding officer of the Army's III Corps. It is circulating widely on the general officer's circuit and has been extremely well received from his peers. It is beginning to filter down to the troops, where the response has be less uniform.

At the highest levels, there exists a general consensus that LaPort has made a splendid analysis of the problem—but this is a conclusion that comes from other generals talking to each other. In the Pentagon we call this kind of positive reinforcement an "Incestuous Amplification" of one's OODA Loop

The existence of Incestuous Amplification shapes one's Orientation by naturally distorting the Observations feeding that Orientation. (The observer sees what he wants to see rather than what is.) When this happens, the Decisions and Actions flowing from that Orientation become progressively disconnected from reality. This process pumps dysfunctional behavior into the OODA loop which then becomes magnified as the effects of the disconnected actions are fed back into the Incestuously Amplified Orientation. As any student of nonlinear dynamics or evolution knows, this kind of positive feedback loop can produce confusion and disorder and ultimately degenerate into chaos or extinction, if the organism becomes disconnected from its environment. Any hint of Incestuous Amplification is therefore a bright red flag. Bear in mind, this does not necessarily mean that LaPorte's analysis is wrong, but it does call for an reality check.

One way of making such a check is to ask low ranking officers what they think about LaPorte's analysis?

The two candid responses (which are, admittedly, too small a sample to generalize from) appended unedited beneath LaPorte's message are a case in point. The first is from Captain XXX. He is a West Point graduate with a fine record, including two distinguished command tours at the company level in the light forces. Captain XXX loves the Army. The second response is from Major YYY, another fine officer who has even more extensive command time at the company level, but in the heavy forces, including many highly successful rotations through the National Training Center. Major YYY also loves the Army. Unfortunately, both officers must remain anonymous, because the problem-solving modalities prevailing in Versailles assume organizational cohesion is best achieved by terminating the careers of all dissenters with "center of mass efficiency" reports. (In our inflated evaluation system, a "center of mass" rating that says you "walk on water slowly" and therefore puts you on notice that it is time to find another career.)

With this background in mind, let us first examine LaPorte's message in its entirety. The message has been reformatted and re-paragraphed for easier reading, but no words have been changed, removed, or added:

The View From Mt. Olympus

Gen. LaPorte's Analysis:

-----Original Message-----
From:Magruder, Lawson LTG Deputy Commanding General/Chief of Staff
Sent: Monday, April 17, 2000 5:21 PM
To: LaPorte, Leon J. LTG--3C CG
Subject: RE: CPT Attrition Issues

Leon- What a very thoughtful note!! I will ensure this gets to the CG who is traveling. Thanks for the valuable input. Regards, LWMIII

-----Original Message-----
From: LaPorte, Leon J. LTG--3C CG
Sent: Monday, April 17, 2000 1:21 PM
To: Hendrix, John W GEN - CG Cc: 'McFarren, Freddy MG CG'; Soriano, Edward, MG Fort Carson; Griffin, Benjamin S. MG -- 4ID Commanding General; McKiernan, David D. MG--1CD CG; Magruder, Lawson LTG Deputy Commanding General/Chief of Staff
Subject: CPT Attrition Issues


I am currently in Korea on Exercise RSOI but wanted to get this short note off to you with our collective thoughts on CPT attrition issues.

The topic of CPT attrition has been a key discussion area with the entire senior leadership of III Corps prior to and since your e-mail on the proposed CPT symposium. We believe there is no single factor contributing to increased attrition, but rather several inter-related conditions that have brought us to where we are today. We have found, in our talks and sensing sessions with young officers a few trends that I will share with you. Also believe these trends will be similar to the survey data we are rolling up for you and sending in a few weeks.

Here are the "Big Three" as I see it.

First, our high OPTEMPO. It is our number one factor in officer attrition.

Second, junior officers see a lack of credibility with senior leadership. Hard to pin down, when you ask them why. Careerism and micro-management are terms they use a lot.

Third, there is little confidence and much misunderstanding in our officer personnel system, especially in the assignment process and the new OER.

Keeping junior officers in the Army is going to take hard work and lots of it. And not just physical change, but intellectual change as well.

Here are some ideas:

Training must continue to be our main focus. However, leaders must also be conscious of the impact of adding to the training calendar. Often, unit training plans, services, PMI, and pre-gunnery training is overcome by events.

One outcome of the captain shortage is that we are putting more and more young lieutenants on brigade and battalion staffs because of valid staff demands. These lieutenants are doing staff work instead of learning their trade as platoon leaders and executive officers. These young staff lieutenants are missing the chance to be mentored by senior noncoms and captains in the company setting.

Another major contribution to the company grade perception of micro-management is the lack of opportunities for Captains and Lieutenants to train on their own without supervision from higher. Most training is planned and conducted at battalion and above due to limited resources and a growing "lane training" approach to training. The young CPT perceives that the Army believes you can't train yourself, so all training will be structured and run by battalion, brigade, or division. In many regards, they are correct. The days when a company commander takes his/her unit to the field "on their own" are few and far between.

All training is O/C'd and very structured, thus adding to PERSTEMPO and some frustrations. This is something we have looked at and will continue to do so.

We teach our folks at all levels that checking on a task and trust are not mutually exclusive. When we check on them, we are simply doing our job, not questioning our trust of them. Our Army is always in a state of transformation and evolution. It is natural and nothing new. Therefore, we need to educate and communicate the reasons for our transformation vision.

Several young captains told me they are not sure if the heavy force is a "legacy force", since there is so much emphasis on the transformation brigade. We must continue to emphasize to them that our objective force will have a significant heavy force structure. I am personally presenting an "Army Vision" Brief to the entire III Corps leadership in an effort to tell the correct story.

We are almost done in filling our divisional units to 100%, but young officers and senior NCOs continue to see numerous individual augmentee taskings, related to PKO passbacks and numerous other taskings. These are normally key personnel in their organizations that are suddenly yanked out for several months. These taskings drain resources, increase the PERSTEMPO on our soldiers and are not conducive to team-building. These taskings result in the absence of mature senior NCOs that impact on the mentorship and training of our young officers.

Another impact of increased PERSTEMPO is the lack of time with family, family stability and more importantly, spouse career goals that are not satisfied because of demands and the frequent moves of military life. About 50% of captains departing the Army have no firm job to move into, but all have working spouses that ease the burden of transitioning to a new job. A sense of family responsibility makes potentially long separations from their families unacceptable. They are making the decision to leave the Army as a family. They simply do not believe they can have the family environment that they desire while spending 20+ years in the Army. Spouse career consideration and opportunities is becoming a major issue for our young officers.

Much misunderstanding with our new Officer Personnel System, especially in the assignment process and the OER.

First, we are finding that our officers believe the assignment process is inflexible in working to accommodate young officers' desires or personal needs.

Second, there are a number of repercussions of the new OER. Junior officers feel a COM rating as either a commander or staff officer is a career ender. This perception was not there under the old OER (even though in the final years of the old OER, an ACOM rating was really "running with the pack").

We are also finding that young officers feel they are competing against other officers in the battalion instead of the Army as a whole. This drastically affects unit cohesion and their ability to truly enjoy themselves.

The reality for our new OER system is that the jury is still out for how a COM report may affect opportunity. Yet our junior officers don't want to wait around to see how a mature OER system is going to work. The robust economy is an enabler in all of this. I think the new OER is having some unintended consequences. Recommend PERSCOM/DAIG look at the impact of the new OER. Study the effects if we limit the ACOM to 10-20% rather than 49% on the OER. As a management tool the current system works (boards like it, etc); however, it does not work as a leadership tool, because officers in the COM are losing "hope" and see doors of opportunity closing. It will take time to change current perceptions and attitudes.

Finally, we need to institute Universal MEL 4 as soon as possible, to deal with the resident/non-resident distinction. Intense communication is the only way to build credibility with our young officers. Our junior officers watch CNN, and read the Army Times. They are bombarded with headlines on such topics as the future of retiree benefits, bureaucratic TRICARE, reduced budgets and senior officer misconduct. As staff officers they are immersed in the debate concerning the Anthrax vaccine and exit criteria for PKOs, and what some perceive as "forced leadership" (value cards, CO2 training, homosexual policy training). These young officers look for the senior leadership to protect their interests and values. Our Army must continue to work hard to tell them what we are doing in these areas.

Having said all this, we would make the following points succinctly:

- Let Lieutenants be Lieutenants

- Let Captains command- give them resources that they can control, including time

- Sell the Army as a career- with special camaraderie and lifestyle

- Make the "non-battalion command" track a meaningful and rewarding option

- Understand the generational/intellectual differences of our Captains, "What can I do to meet Army expectations and what can the Army do to meet my expectations?"

- Make time for fun, "We use to work and play hard," now we only work hard and Captains see it

- Continue to resource tough, realistic training- our officers and soldiers love it

- Keep an eye on PERSTEMPO and spouse career considerations

Tough issues here, sir. We are working hard to get you the right mix of young officers for your captain symposium next week. See you on Wednesday when you visit Fort Hood.




Let us now compare LaPorte's analysis to the view from the cheap seats.

The View From the Cheap Seats(I):

Captain XXX's Rejoinder

From: Captain XXX
Date: Sun, 10 Jun 2001
Subject: Re: Lt Gen LPorte on Captain Attrition


In all honesty, Gen LaPorte's analysis suggests he is part of the problem. He puts a face on the problem, but he does not come to grips with it.

High OPTEMPO is not a problem by itself. We had that in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. Ask guys who served in 2nd ACR or 11th ACR about serving on the IGB. The problem is that today, when guys go on a deployment, they don't escape or even minimize the administrivia. This is supposed to be one of the benefits of a deployment, a chance to almost exclusively focus on collective training or real-world operations, with minimal distractions. In some (many) cases, the nonsense (multi-hour meetings daily, briefing the most miniscule data and statistics, etc) increases because you are a captive audience to higher (everyone from your battalion commander on up) on deployment. I have heard horror stories from Bosnia and Intrinsic Action deployments to South West Asia.

Senior leaders are not credible. Here are a few of the contentious issues that were not effectively voiced by the Captains he surveyed:

1) There is a lot talk about warfighting, but little real action behind it. To many senior leaders, warfighting is making sure the Corps or Division WARFIGHTER run by the BCTP from Leavenworth is flawless in its planning and execution. A realistic scenario is a secondary, if not tertiary concern. Never mind that we could not really execute the plans at the small-unit level, because we are not nearly as proficient as we need to be.

We have a generation of generals more in line with the French in World War I with their exhortations of élan and motivation or April 1940 or the German General Staff in April 1945. They can push pins around map (or now electrons) in bold fashion and congratulate themselves on their cunning plans, but the reality on the ground with a serious enemy would be significantly different. They know it in their hearts too.

2) Senior leaders don't ask the hard questions of BN or BDE CDRs at quarterly training briefs (QTB). What briefs well, is well!!!—both in where we stand and what we are doing next quarter. Lies, lies, lies and we are all party to it—and it is a self-inflicted wound that is wrecking our beloved Army. Of course this assumes that higher headquarters even wants a QTB. It is not unheard of for senior commanders to not even bother having subordinates brief one because they are realistic enough to know that the subordinate units won't have any time to plan and execute their own training anyway.

3) Micro-management remains alive and well and it stems from career fear and poor leadership. I can provide excessive examples if you'd like. I can also provide examples of deliberate non-supervision, so that if the project or range fails or has a catastrophic occurrence (usually a complex one that is important, but not interesting enough), ALL blame can be laid at the feet of the project/action officer or company commander.

Fundamentally, zero-defects and micromanagement are consequences of an OER and promotion system with all the power focused on the senior rater portion. If you only see the guy who determines your future in the Army once in awhile, and rarely at training, you had better have your best foot forward for that 15 minutes to 2 hours you see him in that 3-6 month window.

4) When junior officers have to tell their senior leaders via multiple surveys and project reports that mentoring of subordinates needs to happen, the Army as an institution has lost the ball and, not surprising, the mentoring does not happen.

5) Senior field grades and GOs often use the "I am not too smart, I am just a simple country boy from Bumpkin Lane, USA who could play football" line to achieve some level of folksy populism with the boys. While they should not brag about their intellect, this phoney folksiness has gotten way out of hand. I want my brigade commanders and GOs to be very smart (but not eggheads) and show it by the quality of their actions, questions, advice, and guidance. If we are promoting dumb guys to be GOs, what does that say about our Army? If we are truly a profession, and you are the weak link who lacks the knowledge to conduct yourself competently within the profession, you either get up to the standard very quickly or get out. We should never have to dumb down for a GO, yet we do it all the time.

LTG LaPorte hit the nail on the head about the OER though. But even here there is a problem with his logic: If the JURY IS STILL OUT on how a Center of Mass (COM) in a key job affects opportunity (which it does, believe me), then we have a problem NOW, not in a few years. This completely violates all the selling points on the new OER, where COM is the norm. I could write an essay on this issue and will in the next few days.

The assignment process is relatively inflexible for all but a special few. Gen LaPorte is far removed from reality and has been for many, many years; he could never understand. I doubt the Major who is now his aide-de-camp will get stuck with ROTC, Recruiting or AC/RC after his current tour. I'll bet a paycheck on it. Before taxes!!! You think his son who is a Field Artillery CPT (and a good guy to his credit) is specially monitored? You bet he is.

One of his solutions is to let Lieutenants be Lieutenants. OK, my first recommendation is that no one below the grade of CPT can serve as an Aide-De-Camp. So all the Assistant Division Commanders and other one-stars who rate an Aide can either get by without one or they get a CPT.

Sincerely, Captain XXX

The View From the Cheap Seats (II)

Major YYY's Rejoinder:

Date: 10 Jun 2001
From: Major YYY
To: Chuck Spinney
Subject: Re: [Lt Gen LPorte on Captain Attrition]


Reading between the lines, LaPorte's message oozes an attitude of denial.

General LaPorte talks about officers using the terms of "micromanagement" and "careerism" a lot, like they do not know what they exactly mean, when relating to mistrust in senior leaders. Also, he talks about a "misunderstanding of our personnel system." Finally, he says the Army is forced to put lieutenants and younger captains in brigade staffs due to "valid staff demands," meaning keeping numerous reports feeding higher (negative feedback), and keeping the PowerPoint slides going.

I keep asking, why could the German Army of 1942 run a Panzer Division with 15,100 men and 255 tanks with a staff of 40?

The bottom line is that as long as the leaders of the Army put excuses up front and "solves" the problem by tinkering with the system, as they did with OPMS XXI, or by using more pay, e-mail to seniors, providing more time off, and consolidating the software PERSCOM (Personnel Command) uses to manage records "better." As long as our leaders continue this approach, they will never fix these problems. When senior leaders, and entrenched civilian bureaucrats at PERSCOM, do not study history, psychology, socialogy, or antholopology, the Army will continue to descend in an ever tightening "personal death spiral."

The Army (along with the other services), is the product of a complex combination of factors (at least General LaPort got this part) based on at least 100 years of evolution. The assumptions shaping this evolution are causing the huge problems today with personnel.

These assumptions include an up or out promotion system to manage the inventory of officers. Up or Out was developed as early as 1916 by the Navy and institutionalized after WWII for mobilization purposes. Up or Out is a rank obsessive, negatively focused system that breeds disruptive competition and courtiership.

The next problem lies with the use of the Individual Replacement system (IRS) developed and institutionalized in 1912. Based on the theories of industrialist Frederick Taylor, it assumes that humans, trained in certain tasks are replaceable like parts on a machine. It discounts the how the combat multipliers of cohesion and leadership are won through shared, harsh experiences. Worse still, IRS has been harshly criticized by several general officers after every war since WWI, yet we have retained the system under the name of efficiency.

A regimental system, patterned on the European model would go a long way of stabilizing working spouses. It would alleviate many of the disruptive problems caused by OPTEMPO because soldiers and leaders knew they were being rotated as a task force to provide for a CinC's needs. As John Tillson shows in the last chapter or Part I of Spirit Blood and Treasure, a Regimental System would preserve units, because when a unit comes back from an overseas or training deployment, it would come back as a unit and not be broken up as soon as the unit settled back at home station USA.

Finally, we have a dysfunctional officer evaluation system that pits one individual against another—a situation that has been made worse by every new version of the Officer Evaluation Report (OER). These evaluations incentivize selfishness and bootlicking and undermine unit cohesion.

The bottom line, and the harsh reality, in order to put our military back on the track of effectiveness (if it was ever there) is a total cultural transformation.

Thanks, MAJ YYY


So who is right?

The father of the OODA Loop, the American strategist Colonel John Boyd, used to say, any military force is a synthesis of people, ideas, and hardware. People are by far the most important part of the synthesis. Get the people issues right, and you will generate the needed ideas, and the right hardware will follow.

Boyd's ideas inspired and organized the information in the anthology Spirit Blood and Treasure, edited by Major Donald Vandergriff, just published by Presidio Press.

Part I is relevant to this discussion. It contains four chapters on the subject of PEOPLE. The first chapter, by Dr. Jonathan Shay, a renown specialist in combat trauma, discusses the importance of MUTUAL TRUST to the effective performance in a combat organization. The second chapter, by Lt Col Carl Rehberg, PhD (USAFR), discusses the contribution of CHARACTER to the moral coherence of leadership in military organizations. In the third chapter, Lt Col William Bell (USA Ret.) discusses how ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE and BUREAUCRACY create the pathologies in the Army's personnel system. In the final chapter of Part I, John Tillson (Lt Col. USAR Ret.), a holder of two Silver Stars for heroism in Vietnam, shows how the pathologies of the personnel system cause many of personnel problems in the Army's rotational policies.

I recommend these chapters to readers interested in learning more about the underlying reasons that shape the differences in Orientation that are widening the wedge of mistrust between the generals sitting on Mount Olympus and the junior officers slaving away in the Cheap Seats. Perhaps this information will help the authorities forge a scholarly effort to determine the answer to who is more connected to reality. But remember, I am biased.

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.]