In January, I wrote a column wondering whether the military will nurture creative, talented thinkers:
I'd like to believe that the military is not only a learning organization but an idea-generating organization, fertile ground for hundreds more Petraeuses. I'd like to believe that the intellectual ferment that characterized the COIN community was not a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. I'd like to believe that there are people in the military community who don't mind being controversial and don't mind being wrong -- sometimes it's the big but flawed ideas that spark the most useful debates -- and I'd like to believe the military will nurture and reward those people, not push them ignominiously out."
I asked readers to email me with their comments. Here's one, from a disillusioned young Air Force officer:
Let's go ahead and admit it. The military stifles talent -- in fact, it seems almost designed to drive out talent. No rational actor would choose to play this game. Before you label me as bitter or disloyal, consider the following flaws endemic to our system. What I offer are the perceptions that junior officers have of the bureaucracy they're trying to navigate. Put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself what your chances of staying in would be, once your four-to-five-year commitment was up. Caveat emptor: These are the observations of a top performing mid-career Air Force officer across four bases, five skill communities, and ten years, based on the beliefs observed among the company grade officers around him.
- The promotion system offers no opportunity to excel or advance. As an officer, the first truly competitive promotion (where you can get promoted ahead of your peer group) is at your 15th year. Fifteen years. Before that you can only disqualify yourself; you can miss a critical gate and fall behind the rest of your peer group.
- The retirement system discourages risk taking. It's an all-or-nothing, up-or-out system. If you fall behind your peer group, you will get passed over for promotion. Getting passed over makes it nearly impossible to remain in the force long enough to draw retirement. Retirement is only paid upon reaching 20 years; if you serve fewer than 20, you get nothing. Risks can only hurt you.
- The assignment system directs assignments based on the need for an officer of a particular career code (i.e., "Security Forces") and rank (i.e., "Major") in a location. It makes no attempt to catalog their skills, intentionally develop them, or track officers towards experiences they will need for higher command. Most officers don't even talk to their assignment team before being handed an assignment. Refusing any assignment means you must resign within seven days.
- Deployments, remote tours, hardship tours, and thankless staff jobs are frequently cited as ways to "pull ahead" of the pack. Successful senior leaders emphasize their divorces and flaunt how many years they've been away from their families. Rewards appear to be aligned with willingness to sacrifice work/life balance; no rational organization defines success by how much they can give up.
- Officer performance management offers no transparency; officers are not given real, honest, or timely feedback. Only the top 25% are ever quantified and stratified ("My #1 of 25 Captains!") in performance reports. The rest are left to assume they're doing ok; that they're somewhere just below that top 25%. Lacking stratification, reports are written as if each officer is fantastic. Grade inflation leads to ego inflation which encourages both complacency and mediocrity.
- Officer performance reports offer no objective measures of success or mission accomplishment. Absent objective measures, officers are left with subjective measures -- specifically, how much their bosses like them compared to their peers. When promotion and stratification depend on your boss' regard for you, a system creates perverse incentives toward politicking, backstabbing, and whitewashing your record. This system should naturally select towards the selfish and power-hungry.
- Promotion boards appear arbitrary and capricious. The Air Force freely admits that each officer's paper records get fewer than 30 seconds of review when being scored for promotion. Given the lack of stratification on most officers' records and the grade inflation for lack of objective criteria, most officers can only guess at what might be missing. The board presents no feedback to the officers being considered for promotion.
- The career field structure creates sub-competitions which do not select the best available talent for senior leadership. Some career fields top out at Major, meaning those career fields are effectively ineligible for senior leadership. Others are disproportionately selected because of cultural bias (e.g., fighter pilots) despite being relatively less equipped to manage large organizations. Note that your career field is selected for you, after you've agreed to commission, and is exceptionally difficult to change.
- Promotion is a one-way street -- officers cannot be demoted and then promoted again -- so one mistake (sometimes one bad performance report) can be a career killer. Negative feedback will only occur when someone is already on the way out -- this pattern encourages passive aggressive leadership. Officers will not be afforded a chance to learn from their mistakes or grow.
- There are no established success criteria for reaching senior leadership; officers are left to infer the right career path from anecdotes, most of which are not positive. Since generals are most exposed to promising and like-minded colonels within their career field, the flag officer ranks appear to be primarily driven by nepotism and politics.
- The decision structure is exceptionally vertical, resulting in a top-down economy of ideas even though the information resides at the bottom. Important decisions must go through multiple levels of commanders, each time being "fixed" by officers with less knowledge of the problem. Much of an officer's time (and career) are spent simplifying complex problems to be presented to a flag officer who has very little time to understand them. New ideas and initiatives are generally unwelcome, and especially from the junior ranks.
Why would a bright and enterprising young officer want to compete in this Air Force? Is there a sense of efficacy? Can they expect to manage their growth, develop their skills, or guide their own career? What young strategic thinker would choose this life? What senior leader would design this system?
The key issues in retaining top talent, at least for the Air Force, revolve around transparency, efficacy, and the incentive structure. Most of these rules are self-imposed. This is the culture we've ossified into. If we want to keep our top talent as we downsize and pivot to newer and more complex warfighting domains (e.g., drones, cyber) we have to fix this now.
100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Army National Guard Spc. Andrew Oeffinger
In my last column, I wrote about the civilian-military gap, and asked whether the most common laments about it make sense when examined closely. We tend to think that the military is "special" in some way, and fundamentally different from other occupations. I asked whether that belief in military "differentness" is justified, and suggested that in many respects, the military isn't as different as we assume.
That is: If members of the military deserve special consideration and respect, it can't be simply because careers in the military are dangerous, since there are other occupations that are equally dangerous that we don't view as similarly "special." It can't be simply because military service often involves extreme hardships (time away from families, long hours, physical discomfort), since here too, many civilians have jobs that involve such hardship. And finally, the military's specialness can't be based simply on the fact that military careers provide a vital public service, since millions of other Americans also do work that serves the nation in critical ways, whether that involves teaching our children, building our roads, mining our coal or staffing our hospitals.
Some readers objected to these arguments, viewing them as an offensive implied comparison between military personnel and the likes of truck drivers or sanitation workers. But the comparison shouldn't cause any angst -- why should we regard those who do the exhausting, dangerous, and invisible work of hauling goods or hauling our trash with anything other than respect? Millions of Americans give their all -- their energy, their health, their time -- on cold, windy oil drilling platforms, in dark, methane-filled mines, and in decaying inner-city classrooms. Noting that military service is less different from such other jobs than many assume is no insult to the military. In a better world, we'd respect and honor all the Americans -- military and civilian alike -- who do difficult, dangerous work for the benefit of the nation.
But there are two key ways in which serving in the military is deeply different from serving the country as a school teacher or working in a coal mine.
For one thing, our nation, like some many others, arose out of war, and the cauldron of war has profoundly shaped our history. For this reason, the military is deeply linked to our sense of national identity -- to dearly held national narratives about where we come from and who we are -- in a way that is true for no other profession.
No other profession has shed so much blood at the nation's behest. For members of the military, the shedding of blood (that of others and that of their own) isn't a strictly incidental part of their work -- something that could happen, might happen, but isn't supposed to happen. Historically, the shedding of blood has been the fundamental purpose of militaries.
Some service members will never hear a shot fired in anger, of course -- and in my own experience, military personnel tend to be a great deal less bloodthirsty than the average civilian, perhaps because they've been forced to consider what it truly means to be prepared to kill and die. Most military personnel I know fervently hope killing and dying will never be required, that the mere existence of a robust American military prepared to kill and die will help deter conflicts, and ultimately reduce bloodshed.
Yet the fact remains: Even as our military finds itself moving into unfamiliar terrain (cyberspace, the information domain, intelligence gathering, humanitarian aid, development work), it's still the only public institution that's inherently defined by the willingness of its members to kill and die.
There's a second and related reason to view military service as fundamentally different from other kinds of work. However tough and dangerous their jobs are, loggers and miners and commercial pilots can always quit. A commercial pilot who doesn't like his odds can decide from one day to the next to become a realtor; a miner ordered into a situation he deems dangerous can tell the foreman to go to hell. His pay may be docked -- he may be fired and face consequent economic hardship -- but he won't go to prison for his refusal to risk his life.
That's not the case for service members. Yes, we have a volunteer military, but once you sign up, there's no changing your mind until you've fulfilled your service obligation. A soldier ordered to engage the enemy can't politely decline. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, disobeying a lawful order will land you behind bars-and desertion in wartime is still punishable by death.
When someone volunteers for the military, they do more than just sign on for a career that may have its difficulties and dangers. They're asked, in effect, to embrace those dangers, and from that moment on, to waive their fundamental right to preserve their own lives. The Declaration of Independence tells us that all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but those who volunteer for military service effectively give up those rights. Once in the military, their lives belong to the nation. Their time, their comfort, and ultimately their lives are subject to the whims of their military superiors, who, in turn, are subject to the whims of elected civilian leaders.
In the end, this is why civilians in a democracy have a moral obligation to understand the military, treat service members with respect and concern, and try to ensure that military force is used wisely and only when necessary. Members of the military voluntarily place their lives in our hands.
I suggested at the end of my July 26 column that there's a pragmatic reason to worry about the civilian-military gap: When senior military officials and senior civilian officials engage with each other at the national level, a lot of vital questions just get lost in translation. Too often, that leads both to an impoverished decision-making process and to poor policy outcomes. (I'll discuss this more next week.)
But the moral cost of the civilian-military gap is also real. Civilians have the luxury of voting or not voting, tuning in or tuning out, deciding to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan or deciding to watch American Idol instead. But if we -- through our votes, our choices or our simple lack of interest in events that feel distant and unimportant -- allow our troops to be ordered into harm's way, our troops have no choice but to go. Service members entrust us with their lives.
Is their trust in us misplaced?
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Rosa Brooks, who writes FP's "By Other Means" column, blogs about war, politics, and the evolving role of the military.