Mark R. Lewis

November 2000

From Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:


  1. formed or created again

  2. spiritually reborn or converted

  3. restored to a better, higher, or more worthy state

I gave my grandfather (USMA '34) a copy of Dr. Wong's monograph the other night at dinner. I've felt a little uncomfortable around him since I left the Army, and I was anxious to try to help him understand my concerns.

"Grandpa, this sort of gets at what I've been trying to tell you it's like these days."

He looked at it, and then glanced at me over his glasses, "Dr. Wong recommends that 'Boomers' set a positive example, know, understand, and listen to their people, counsel them, don't micromanage, and eliminate the zero-defects mentality."

"Yes, YES!" He understands, thought I.

"Well, in my day, we just called that good leadership."


Dr. Leonard Wong, of the United States Army War College Strategic Studies Institute recently released a monograph entitled "Generations Apart: Xers and Boomers in the Officer Corps." It is an excellent look at the junior officer retention challenge as a symptom of an internal cultural clash between junior officers (Generation X—or Xers) and senior officers (Baby Boomers—or just "Boomers"), instead of simply the result of external forces such as OPTEMPO and a booming economy. This work is significant, because if Army policy makers take the time to read and understand it, they may begin to comprehend fully the message that junior officers are trying to send. These are job satisfaction concerns centered on deep-seated Army cultural issues. Too often lately, we see attempts to control the junior officer exodus through targeted measures such as pay raises, more days off, and now, email access to senior officers. These measures are perks—they are not true solutions because they deal with the symptoms instead of the cause.

Captains are leaving the Army over 50% faster than in 1996.

For last several years, the Army has been aware that junior officers were leaving at an increasingly higher rate; it's not my intent to rehash that here in this essay. By 1998, the Army was starting to talk about captain retention as an issue, but still was not fully focused, at least publicly, on understanding why we were leaving. The relative plateau in FY98-99 was only a tactical pause, I’m afraid, as junior officers watched and waited to see if the surveys and sensing sessions would have a positive effect on the issues they were concerned about.

Dr. Wong’s findings center on these basic observations:

  • junior officers base their loyalty on a bond of trust

  • junior officers expect those in positions of authority to earn their respect

He then makes a series of bold recommendations to senior officers, including:

  • build cohesion

  • set the example

  • don't micromanage

  • eliminate the zero-defect mindset

He does this by trying to highlight what he sees as differences between generations as if these differences were a natural point of friction. They may be, but more importantly, with no trace of irony, he identifies findings that ought to be the base for ALL junior/senior relationships in the military, and then makes recommendations that are the most basic leadership principles. He does not link his findings and recommendations to the one recurring theme in all the junior officer comments, emails and surveys—their concerns about a poor leadership environment.

But I'm making a normative argument. I'm using words like "ought," and making value-based assumptions about leadership principles. I'm a Xer. Dr. Wong is a Boomer. Is this another instance of the generational divide? Certainly I don't think so. From my perspective, these are timeless qualities…

Dr. Wong's monograph is an excellent attempt at trying to understand why junior officers are so dissatisfied with what they see as the Army's cultural flaws and continue to leave the Army at an increasing rate. He provides a lot of good insight, backed by some serious research. Using Dr. Wong's monograph as a point of departure, I will use this essay to look closely at a few of his findings and recommendations, amplify some of them, disagree with others, and comment generally on what I think are some important points he raises. They are not to be missed by those who would seek a deeper understanding of the junior officer exodus. I'll then briefly talk about a possible theory for a cultural shift, and make some recommendations on how Army policy makers could approach this challenge.


1. "Junior officers wince when senior officers assume they are familiar with the plight of today's junior officers (p. 4)." [1]

"I don't want to minimize it, but I don't know if there is that much new there," said Col. Edwin F. Veiga, an Army spokesman. "I've been in the Army 25 years, and I've heard this sort of thing before."

Dr. Wong's example of the Vice Chief of Staff's message is right on target, but we should look at what this implies more closely. The Vice Chief of Staff wrote, "We know many of their concerns are similar to those we had as junior officers."

Dr. Wong spends a lot of time on the hypothesis that the Vice Chief (or any senior officer) thinks he knows Xer concerns, but really doesn't.

But Dr. Wong does not take it a step further. Actually, Xers want to believe senior officers couldn't possibly know the depth of our concerns, because the alternative implies something worse. Each time an Xer hears "things were like this when I was a Captain too," we think, "if you truly knew about it, and you couldn't/wouldn't fix it in your corner of the Army on your way to the top, then you have become the problem." This is what destroys the bond of trust between junior and senior officers. We think: You are the Brigade/Division/Corps Commander/Vice Chief of Staff. Either you could not fix it, or you chose not to fix it. Neither option builds faith in our leaders. The more senior the officer, the more culpable. If we are responsible for the health, welfare, training, and discipline of our platoons and companies, you'd better believe we hold you responsible for the state of affairs in your organizations.

Low morale and poor retention in my platoon was my leadership problem. We do not see our leaders assuming the same responsibility for their organizations. The whole theme of the Army reaction to the captain exodus is a perfect example. At each echelon, never once does somebody step up to the plate and take responsibility for it—instead, it’s a result of the OPTEMPO under the Clinton Administration and a booming economy. Never once have we heard what we know to be true—it is an indicator of internal problems.

2. "Xers grew up in a deployed Army where phones, e-mail, and the Internet kept them linked (p. 10)." 

Dr. Wong is right, Xers are linked, and part of that has to do with family and the outside world, as he states. But the Internet has also enabled horizontal communication across the width and depth of the Army that provides the Xer with a situational awareness that the Boomer never got. The Boomer's first unit was a small portion of a large Army, but it was the only portion they knew. Good, bad, or indifferent, they had no frame of reference, and they did not really communicate outside of their little world with peers in different units until they reconvened for the advanced course.

Xers, on the other hand, trade notes on their battalion and brigade commanders. "Mine does this, does yours?" They develop a broader understanding of good and bad leadership examples. If a Xer had ten friends from the basic course, he has "eyes" on ten battalions in ten brigades in ten divisions. It reinforces both positive and negative examples. He knows when he has a good leader, because his buddies tell him so, in near real-time. He also knows when problems are Army wide, instead of just in his unit.

3. "Generation X officers see loyalty differently (p. 13)."

Dr. Wong makes the statement that Xer loyalty is "based on a bond of trust between the Army and the officer." Is this really a difference between generations? Does he really mean to imply that Boomer officers base loyalty on something other than a bond of trust? Are senior officers reading his monograph and slapping their foreheads, saying, "Ohhhh. Trust. Jeez. Crazy kids." I cannot believe this is a revelation; I’d like to think both generations view loyalty the same way.

Xers are realists. The needs of the Army come first. We understand that, but perhaps the difference is that we really do hold the Army to its "Be All You Can Be" promise. We see it as a mutual contract: I'll give it 100%, and the Army in turn will provide me the opportunity to reach my full potential. Dr. Wong goes into detail about the problems of "micromanagement" and "zero-defects" but he never makes the connection that those examples of poor leadership traits are diametrically opposed to a "Be All You Can Be" enabling environment.

4. "Xer Captains want more balance between life and work (p.13)."

Dr. Wong's points in this section are all well taken, but I'll offer an additional dimension: Xer officers have Xer spouses. Unlike his other examples that center on leadership problems, this is just a natural difference in the generations. We marry later, we have children later, and when we do, we have fewer of them, as compared to Boomers. The traditional supporting role of the Boomer spouse is less and less appealing to our wives and husbands; they want real careers, or real graduate degrees. We love them and so we accommodate some of their aspirations as well. They do not put up with the traditional Boomer household concept. This is why Army attempts at stabilization and predictability are so important to us.

5. "Pay is important to Xer captain, but more money won't hold them in (p. 15)."

The Boomers remember a time when an extra couple of hundred dollars a month really would have made an impact in their standard of living. Xers, on the other hand, won't turn down a raise, but react to Boomer discussions about pay increases with a mixture of disappointment and anger. We're disappointed because this is one of the clearest examples of "they just don't get it." It’s an expedient solution and Boomer officers can feel good about having advocated for it, and feel protected by blaming politicians for not providing it, without really working to find the root of the problem. But the real damage happens when Boomers assume our loyalty and service ethic can be bought for what amounts to a third of a car payment (see discussion about trust above). When the pay raises go into effect, and the captain exodus does not stop, we'll have lost a year or more in addressing the true source of the friction.

6. "Xer captains are not impressed by rank (p. 15)." 

When Dr. Wong illustrates the shift in attitudes about senior officers from captains surveyed in 1988 compared to those surveyed in 1998, he almost touches on the real root of the Junior/Senior officer friction. But he assumes that quality of senior leadership remains constant, and the change in response illustrates a shift in attitudes among captains. The Post article says, "The gap between generations is widened by the skepticism of younger officers, who are holding their superiors to far higher standards than in the past." Later in his paper, however, he recommends the most basic leadership principles like "bond of trust," "lead by example" and "don't micromanage," as if they were deep insights into Xer psyche. I can't help but arrive at a different conclusion from these statistics.

I propose an alternative: expectations captains have of their leaders remain constant at the same points in their career, regardless of generation. I know this is a tough concept for Boomers to accept, but maybe the standards haven't changed, and really what we are seeing with these statistics is an indication of a change in the leader population under observation. Dr. Wong never considers whether we see a decline in the perception of leadership effectiveness among captains because there actually has been a decline in leadership effectiveness. As a result, he reinforces the Boomer population's belief that the problem does not lie in their performance, so much as it is a result of a different set of Xer values.

7. "Appeal to the Xer desire for relationships (p. 20)." 

Dr. Wong touches on the need for cohesion, and he could not be more right. Don Vandergriff and John Tillson have described at length how the Army's own personnel policies are the single most destructive force towards building cohesive groups.

But here again, Dr. Wong's focus is at the wrong place, and so his proposed solutions fall short of the mark. He assumes that more officer calls and social events will build a cohesive officer corps. It won't. He's not really listening to us. Cohesion comes from a shared sense of satisfaction in a group born from the professional execution of their individual tasks together to arrive at a common goal. When a portion of the group perceives some members are not fully committed to them or to the unit itself, or acting unprofessionally, then no amount of "mandatory fun" will cause the group to bond. Recall the now familiar themes in the officer survey comments about careerism and leadership failures. Look again at what those really tell us. "He would throw me under a bus" is a well-used refrain. Honestly – who wants to drink a beer with a person that would throw them under a bus? Take care of the leadership problem and task cohesion soars. As a result, social cohesion will then flow naturally from task cohesion.

8. "Rely less on traditional hierarchical leadership (p. 22)." 

Again, Dr. Wong makes the link between his findings and recommendations with what he perceives to be a generational issue, instead of seeing a deeper issue. I don't believe Xers disdain the hierarchy so much as we've come to disdain the culture populating the hierarchy. This is a serious distinction, but again, Dr. Wong does not make it clearly, and therefore provides Boomers an excuse not to engage in deep introspection: "It's not me, it’s these damn kids. They don't respect authority." No sir. Please consider for a moment that we are waiting for you to demonstrate that you are worthy of our respect, just as you tell us to do with our platoons and companies. We give our respect to those who actually earn it.

9. "Leverage the use of technology (p. 24)" and "Being able to brag that they are fluent in using the latest hardware and software will pay big dividends in retaining Xers."

Technology continues to be a placebo because it is something we can put our hands on instead of grappling with the deeper issues. This recommendation astounds me. Allow me to give you my perspective of this argument in the most basic terms:

Computer = desk

Desk = staff

Staff = death

Therefore: Computer = death

We need good tools, of course, but do not think for a moment that's a solution. From a company grade point of view, technology ought to get me out from behind the desk and back with the troops in the field or the motorpool faster. Let me also be very basic in describing what Xers want to brag about:

  • our soldiers

  • our unit

  • our leaders

So nifty computers may work for the very technical branches, and that's okay, because that's their job. They will not seduce the rest of us, however. We just want a chance to do the jobs we came to do, for people we respect, in units we are proud of. Taking care of that will pay big dividends in retaining Xers.


This is the subject for another paper, but let me provide you with some food for thought. Like Dr. Wong, I saw a generational difference between junior and senior officers. I felt, heard, and echoed the same refrain, but to me they resonated of deep-seated cultural problems, instead of a natural generational divide. I made the following assumptions:

If this is true—I wondered if I could find a cause-and-effect relationship to show a shift in leadership culture within the brigade level leadership population? There may be a cumulative effect over time, but something happened in about 1997 to cause the numbers of captains leaving to soar. What possible phenomenon could have influenced this group? 

I hypothesized that perhaps the Army drawdowns in ’91-94 had some effect. Through research, I found industry has a term called the "Downsizing Survivor." Stated briefly, organizations that have undergone serious downsizing see a shift in the culture of those who remain. As a group, those survivors develop several characteristics. In the chart below, I list them in the left column, and then compare them to common themes in the junior officer survey comments, and Dr. Wong’s findings and recommendations.[3]

Industry Downsizing Survivor Behavior

Junior Officer Survey Themes

Dr. Wong’s Findings and Recommendations.

Reduced risk-taking

Zero-defect environment

Correct zero-defect environment

Lowered Productivity

(consumed by seeking reassurance from management)

"Top down loyalty doesn't exist"

Establish a bond of trust

Thirst for organizational information

Excessive Micromanagement

Eliminate micromanagement

Blaming others, usually management

No sense of personal responsibility

"Direct leadership"

Justifying the need for a layoff




No honest dialogue. Army continues to target junior officers with perks, not solutions.

"One common reaction to the…exodus is to…assume this crisis…will also eventually pass"

I think I see a pattern developing. Downsizing survivors develop character traits as a means to cope. Junior officers are concerned about leadership traits that seem to correlate directly to a manifestation of downsizing survivor mentality. Dr. Wong's monograph seems to strengthen this link.

Question: Can we say that today’s mid-level leaders were either in the "at-risk" or closest to the "at-risk" population during the post Cold War downsizing? The Army lost about 30 percent of the Officer Corps from 1990 to 1995.

Clearly, it requires more research, but I think it likely. And if so, where has that population moved to in the Army today? My thought is straight into the positions Xer lieutenants and captains are taking issue with. Since the most senior leaders were safely past the "at-risk group, this could account for their inability to realize that a paradigm shift in the culture has happened below them, and between them and the Xers. It could account for why Xers think the very senior officers "just don’t get it."


1. Acknowledge where the challenge really lies. Acknowledge that cultural concerns exist, instead of trying to wish them away as generational friction or the happenstance of a good economy. In other words, step forward and take responsibility as I said in point 1, above. I have said before —the Army does not have a problem with junior officer retention. It has a problem reflected in junior officer retention rate. Its easy to write this off as differences between Boomers and Xers, or quality of life issues, but the bottom line is Lieutenants and Captains are reacting to what they see in Colonels and Generals. So the question becomes, how does one help a Colonel change, when he knows he has been successful by the rate of promotion and job selection—after all, for 25 years, the system worked for him? Helping people undergo a deep personal introspection, and reevaluate methods and fundamentals that they have believed in for years and have served them well is a tough chore. But one thing is certain—it will not happen without the first step.

Take a close look at the slide below, taken from the Army Training and Leader Development Panel outbriefing. Notice that Job Satisfaction concerns center on leadership environment issues such as training distractors, micromanagement, and lack of trust and confidence.

A large majority of officers do not express job satisfaction.

2. Actually involve Captains in the process of developing solutions. Better yet, involve both Captains and recently separated Junior Officers who remain committed to the Army, but are free from institutional pressures. The Army appoints Blue Ribbon Panels to address top concerns, and the recent Army Training and Leader Development Panel GEN Shinseki appointed in April is a good example. According to the Army News Release, its purpose was to "examine training and leader development methods" and provide recommendations on "how to better meet the personal and professional expectations of leaders, soldiers and families." From the Washington Post, "The leadership is taking it seriously," said Brig. Gen. John R. Wood, deputy commandant of the Command and General Staff College, who is assembling the [Blue Ribbon] panels. "I have a very clear charter to go after the issues in a constructive way and take them seriously." [4]

But there was not one captain or lieutenant on that panel.

I'll give COL Rush and his crew every benefit of the doubt, and stipulate that there was no institutional bias or hidden agendas in the way that panel approached their tasks, even though his "I found much more good, than bad" comment is tough to square with another jump in the rate of captains departing. [5] But even so, captains talk to colonels differently than they talk to other captains. And panels filter information and make recommendations based on experiences and biases, either consciously, or subconsciously. Such a panel of junior officers and ex-officers would send a clear message that the Army leadership truly was interested in their input, and might just provide the timely recommendations needed to really have an impact on this challenge

3. "Young officers are getting out because they feel out of touch with leadership," the Fort Leavenworth study concludes. "Many believe there needs to be a clean sweep of senior leadership." [6] A clean sweep is not the right thing to do, but the Army could address these concerns with senior leaders as part of the Army War College and Senior Service Colleges. There is no need to pinpoint individuals; the Army could begin to make a focused institutional effort to affect a cultural change. The Army has instituted Army Values training as part of the curriculum during basic training, and the officer basic and advanced course. Why not do something similar as part of the more senior school system to reinstill the valued leadership traits? Junior officers are waiting for a clear signal that the Army is serious about dealing with these leadership problems, and it would send a message to senior officers that now is the time to reevaluate themselves, as well. If the "downsizing survivor" theory has merit, incorporate lessons from industry and history that help that downsizing survivor populations adjust once the threat is gone. Help that Colonel see that behavior that made him successful, while perhaps necessary at the time, is no longer required and it should not part of his leadership style today.

Leader training of this sort is not unprecedented. As commander of the 1st Infantry Division, MG David L. Grange used a series of leadership training "retreats" for his battalion and brigade commanders to renew in them the warrior spirit and remind them of the fundamentals of leadership. Grange did that through serious leadership challenges in his "Mangudai" training. Its effect was astonishing. I'm not suggesting an Army-wide Mangudai, but Grange clearly communicated to the Big Red One that he expected his leaders to meet tough standards and set the example. Morale shot up throughout the division, and 1ID led the Army in retention rates under Grange's tenure. [7]

3. Concentrate more on Army-wide personnel reform instead of focusing efforts on the junior officers. More pay, more time off, and the ability to circumvent the chain of command via email are perks, not solutions. Be careful, because many Xers see them as patronizing, and are looking for something far more fundamental. Having more control over assignments is a good start, and the Army should follow up with macro personnel policies that promote cohesion. Look at what makes the Ranger Regiment so strong—it the sense of community that comes from a fairly small officer population that seeks repeated assignments there. They literally grow up together and develop a powerful bond with each other and the Regiment. The 82d Airborne Division has something similar. The "Airborne Mafia" is no more than another name for a cohort group. If you're a member, you understand its draw.

Consider for a moment that the Army simply does not make the effort to promote cohesion at a macro level anyway. The 2d Infantry Division in Korea, for example, is the most forward deployed unit in the Army and it is facing the gravest, most imminent threat, complete with possible WMD capability. Nevertheless, it is burdened by an individual replacement system that causes such monthly turmoil that units are unable to conduct anything more than the most basic collective-task training. If the effect of unit cohesion on combat effectiveness is a truly a concern, one seriously has to wonder why, of all places, it’s not important in Korea? The Army could control it, but chooses not to, all for reasons more related to society than combat effectiveness. It's time to relook these policies.

4. Establish an Army-wide rotation to provide contingency forces in a sort of Green-Amber-Red Ready Force. This is not a radical concept—the other three services have already organized to provide contingency forces on a rotational basis as a means to afford some stability to their people. The Army should do the same thing. With the IBCT concept, the Army has begun transitioning to a more responsive force structure, and it needs to extend that transformation Army wide. A full rotation would offer stability and predictability to the soldier, develop cohesion by keeping units grouped together, while providing flexible, responsive forces to the warfighting CINCs.

Organized in a sort of Red-Amber-Green rotation cycle and properly configured, this force could provide the forces necessary to react to a range of contingencies, while allowing other portions of the Army valuable, predictable, and dependable "down time" to refit, retrain, and reorganize. That’s the time to send soldiers on leave and to school, for example, and if TRADOC was properly aligned, it could provide the majority of school slots to Red cycle units. Many units in the XVIII Airborne Corps already do this, for example. The Army is probably large enough to consider a four or five phase rotation, spread over a year and a half or so.


In his conclusion, Dr. Wong makes an excellent point that the increasing rate of junior officer departures does not signal the end of the Army. The institution will, of course, preserver. But now, during this period of transition, as the Army positions itself to be the premier force for the 21st Century, the issue really becomes what effect will the captain exodus have on making that transition a positive one? These are the people that should be maturing into the leaders that will take the Army well into the future. Yet, something is causing us to leave, and at rates that have been increasing over the last several years, with no sign of a plateau in the graph in the near future. We've been trying to communicate our concerns in counseling sessions, surveys, and to Blue Ribbon Panels. We've been doing it via email, web pages, and essays such as this one. But we still see our exodus addressed in incremental steps, all aimed at some symptom, rather than the source of our frustrations. Those steps pose a danger in that they will be ineffective over time, and valuable time will be lost to address the true sources of our concerns. There are fundamental cultural frictions that the Army Leadership needs to address directly. Dr. Wong does a good job at highlighting some of these cultural frictions, but labels them as differences between Xers and Boomers. I think upon closer inspection, it's more basic than that. Many of his findings and recommendations really illustrate fundamental leadership principles that we all ought to value, regardless of generation.

© 2000, Mark R. Lewis. Acquire, Identify, Engage.


  1. Ricks, Thomas E. "Younger Officers Quit Army At Fast Clip; Study Finds Little Trust In Senior Leadership ." The Washington Post, 17 April 2000, A1.

  2. Suro, Roberto. "Captains' Exodus Has Army Fearing For Future." The Washington Post, 16 October 2000, A2.

  3. Howard, Jennifer M. "Can Teams Survive Downsizing." In Quality Digest Magazine [online]. 26 November 2000 [cited 26 November 2000; 15:20 EST]. Available from:

  4. Ricks, " Younger Officers Quit Army At Fast Clip"

  5. See [] for the entire slide package.

  6. Ricks, "Younger Officers Quit Army At Fast Clip"

  7. See "One Awesome Soldier" at 

DNI Editor's Note

Mark Lewis enlisted in the Army at the age of 17. After a three-year tour as an infantry soldier and non-commissioned officer in 2d Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he left the Army and attended Georgetown University. At Georgetown, he majored in the Russian language and continued to serve in the Army Reserve and National Guard. Commissioned through Army ROTC upon graduation, he then served eight years as an infantry officer with the 82d Airborne Division, the 2d Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and the 1st Infantry Division. During his 11 years of active service, he participated in operations in Central America, the Pacific Rim, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. He now works as a Research Associate at a defense policy think tank, and is a master's degree candidate in Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program. He can be reached at


Time to Regenerate

A GenX Response to Dr. Wong's Monograph