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
Finally! The Pentagon today announced that the ban on women in combat positions will be lifted.
It's about time. The prohibition on women in combat served no useful role. Instead, it devalued the vital role already played by women in military service, and stood as a barrier to advancement for women seeking leadership positions in the military.
I've written about this before, and don't have much that's new to say, so I'll just give some short excerpts from a 2005 Los Angeles Times column I wrote on women in combat, and a more recent piece published here in Foreign Policy.
In 2005, I looked at some of the reasons usually given by those who opposed letting women play combat roles:
"Women aren't big and strong enough for combat." I'll buy this when someone explains why the Marine Corps will cheerfully accept a 4-foot-10 male recruit who weighs 96 pounds.
Sure, the Marines will make a man out of him, but even if they water the guy with Miracle-Gro, they won't be able to turn him into a 6-footer. The average man may be bigger and stronger than the average woman, but plenty of women are bigger and stronger than many men. Why discriminate based on gender when you could have straightforward, task-specific strength requirements?
In any case, in a war that mixes high-tech weaponry with low-tech hazards, being big and strong isn't all it's cracked up to be. You don't need to be big and strong to fly a modern combat jet, and size won't help when you're up against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. Why do we believe that bigger people make better soldiers? In Vietnam, an army of big, strong American men fought an army of small, slender Vietnamese men -- and lost....
"We can't let women into combat because they might get killed." They surely will, but so what? Women die in car accidents and from heart attacks, but though these deaths too are cause for sorrow, we still let women ride in cars and super-size their fries....
In contrast to the bogus arguments against women in combat, there are strong arguments in favor. Locking women out of combat positions makes it harder for women to advance within the military, limiting their opportunities to attain more prestigious jobs and higher salaries. This in turn hurts their families and increases gender inequalities in society as a whole.
Denying women the opportunity to take on combat roles also reduces their future ability to shape national policy. In the post-9/11 world, credibility on military and security issues is increasingly necessary for those who hope to succeed in important public positions -- and if only men can occupy combat roles, that gives them a substantial edge.
With the rise of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, the distinction between "front" and "rear" has eroded. In Iraq, women in noncombat military jobs, such as escorting cargo convoys or serving as military police, are in harm's way....Women will die alongside men in any terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and women, like men, are affected by our national defense policies. It's time to give them the right to fight for their country.
These aren't the only reasons to cheer the end of rules prohibiting women in combat MOS's. In the age of the all-volunteer military, the services constantly struggle to attract and retain people with the character and skills necessary for military success. Even with planned force reductions, it will still be tough to get the right people. This is all the more true as we look ahead to the challenges of the future. As I wrote in September,
The U.S. military will need people with technical experience and scientific know-how. It will also need people with foreign language and regional expertise and an anthropological cast of mind -- people who can operate comfortably and effectively surrounded by foreigners. And in the 24-7 media environment -- the era of the strategic corporal -- the military will, above all, need people with maturity and good judgment.
These days, women are increasingly outperforming men in many areas: They're more likely to enter and finish college, for instance, and to get better grades while there. If our goal is to recruit the smart, mature, and well-educated people into the military, why would we want to have rules discriminating against half the eligible population -- particularly when it's such a highly-performing half?
So three cheers for Leon Panetta. His tenure as defense secretary has been brief, and for the most part he's been stuck with the thankless task of pushing for sensible budget cuts. With this announcement, though, Panetta has ensured his place in history: He'll be the defense secretary who removed the final bar to equal opportunity in military service. Well done, Mr. Secretary.
Sgt. Sean McGinty/DVIDS
They say that "may you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse, and my last few days have certainly been interesting. Last week's column on the inner workings -- or not-workings -- of the National Security Staff provoked a great deal of comment. The great majority of the comments that came my way were complimentary, but some were decidedly not.
The sheer quantity of comment is in some ways odd, since allegations of dysfunction within President Barack Obama's National Security Staff (NSS) are nothing new. Bob Woodward describes NSS infighting at length and in lurid detail in his 2010 book, Obama's Wars, for instance, and James Mann's 2012 book The Obamians offers a similarly scathing portrait. (Describing a foreign policy inner circle made up of Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, John Brennan, and Ben Rhodes, Mann observes that "The Obama White House didn't like independent actors or internal discord. It also didn't like to be challenged, certainly not in public, and not on the foreign policy issues of greatest sensitivity for Obama.")
Nevertheless, the twittersphere responded to last week's column with gleeful astonishment, and the emails fell from the sky like autumn leaves.
First, here's a sampling of the critics: "Naïve," sniffed one commentator. A second hypothesized that I was a "Republican masquerading as a far-leftie disappointed that Obama hasn't yet joined the world in singing kumbaya... yawn." A tweeter declared me an "idiot," while another emailer simply urged me to stop "writing this slosh in a national format ... it's better served in a happy hour setting with your Republican friends." Still another blog commenter took an opposite view of my politics, declaring, "[The] thing about Rosa Brooks is she's a leftist scumbucket, so her judgment is hardly to be trustworthy." [sic.]
The most extensive critique of my column comes in a guest blog post from Doug Wilson, formerly the Obama administration's assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Doug is a friend, and a more humble soul than I. He considers it a privilege to be yelled at by senior White House officials, and is dismayed to discover I do not share that view.
During his time as the Pentagon's senior spokesman and communications strategist, Doug Wilson was entrusted with the not-always-easy task of defending the Defense Department and the Obama administration to the Fourth Estate (which is chock full of ingrates and assorted malcontents). Since his departure from the Pentagon, he has continued to eloquently defend the administration as a national security adviser and high-level surrogate for the Obama re-election campaign.
Defending the administration is an important job, and Doug does it very well. It is not, however, my job.
My job, as I see it, is to write honestly about what I think, learn, and observe. Like all that I write, last week's column was research-based. It drew on my own experiences, but it also drew on previously published materials and on interviews with current and former administration officials.
The senior-most members of President Obama's National Security Staff are not private citizens. They're public officials -- indeed, they are among the most powerful officials in the nation. As such, they're legitimate targets of public criticism -- and just like us columnists, they sometimes have to take their lumps.
Pete Souza/White House Photo via Getty Images
A retired Pentagon general who prefers to remain anonymous because of the election season shared these observations:
In the military we have what we call "tough love," and when you ask strong, decisive people -- women especially -- to work in a demanding place like Pentagon, that's what you get...and you are glad for it.
"Tough love" isn't ingratitude or insolence; it's telling people and organizations what they need to here, versus what they think they might like to hear. In a real way, it is the highest form of flattery and respect; you don't bother to give to it to people and things that don't matter.
The best leaders understand this, and that's why they seek out people like Rosa instead of surrounding themselves with "yes-person" sycophants.
Remember that Rosa served in Bob Gates's Pentagon, and he readily expressed admiration for the "brightest and most innovative" officers who published articles that critiqued "sometimes bluntly -- the way the service does business; to include judgments about senior leadership, both military and civilian." Importantly, he added that he thought that this was "a sign of institutional vitality and health and strength."
I appreciate that some may find her military-style, no-nonsense directness unsettling, but that's simply reflective of the national security world from whence she most recently came.
Unadorned and even unfiltered candor is expected and welcomed in the high-stakes business of national security where lives hang in the balance. At the same time, she is classy enough to "mea culpa" when appropriate.
That she continues to exhibit her special brand of tough love after she left the Pentagon should surprise no one. Let's celebrate that she is who she is.
Sure, I don't always agree with her, but I would never question her sincerity, patriotism, or her dedication to making this country better and safer. She is, believe me, an equal-opportunity critic, so if one party or another thinks she they have co-opted -- or can co-opt -- her as to her beliefs and principles, my warning is this: tighten your chinstrap.
Regardless, if you really want to bring into government the much-needed perspective of the nation's most talented women, you can't expect them to forever after be ideological Stepford wives who mindlessly spout campaign talking points like servile automatons. No one should want that.
And I believe (at least I'd like to believe) that both candidates would want there to be as many "Rosas" as possible because their candid and insightful feedback makes us all better...even when it stings.
By Doug Wilson
Like Rosa Brooks, who has generously allowed me to post the following comments, I am a former Obama political appointee. I served at the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense, the department's senior spokesman and communications strategist. I left earlier this year, not because I hated the job but because I loved the work so much I didn't rest enough -- I got fat and I didn't get enough exercise. I loved the people I worked with, including Rosa. She had never served at the Pentagon and initially feared she never would. Prior to her appointment, she had been concerned that she was too left-of-center to be appointed, and later, to be accepted by her Pentagon colleagues. Neither turned out to be the case: The Obama national security team went to bat for her because of her talents and drive, and her Pentagon colleagues came to like and respect her. She listened to and respected them; she understood you could disagree without feeling betrayed and she made significant contributions in reforming information operations and introducing cutting-edge links between military and human rights issues.
So I was blown away to read Rosa's Friday column called "The Case For Intervention... In Obama's Dysfunctional Foreign Policy Team." I understand that serving in government can sometimes make you frustrated and angry. But I grew up in an era where it was thought unseemly to pee publicly on the people who give you a chance to serve your country and make a difference. So blame the following response to the column on old-fashioned values and a starkly different personal perspective.
I was not one of the first people appointed to the administration. I was never in an inner circle, and although I attended countless communications meetings, I never attended a deputies or principals meeting. I met the president no more than a few times during my tenure. People younger than I, with fewer years' experience in foreign affairs, held higher and more powerful positions. From time to time, I got yelled at.
But largely thanks to the people on President Obama's National Security Staff, I left with the greatest satisfaction and pride I have ever felt from any job I have had over the past four decades. Because of them, I was at the table throughout the entire sausage-making process, when military leaders and political appointees worked together until they finally came up with the smartest, most unified, and most coherent approach to defense spending I have seen in 40 years. Because of them, I got to help men and women in uniform whom I knew and who had hidden in plain sight for years become whole human beings with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Because of them, I got to see young men and women in uniform from every state in the U.S., all of whom had served in Iraq, many missing a limb or two, wander in awe with their spouses, families, partners or significant others throughout the White House at the first state dinner ever held to honor the troops.
I also got to work with them on a daily basis, together with colleagues and counterparts from the military services, the State Department, and the CIA. We all participated in what seemed like endless zillions of interagency videoconferences on Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Iran, Libya, Syria, China, Wikileaks -- the full spectrum of hard and messy issues with which this administration has had to deal. I don't regret a single one of them because the National Security staffers who led them were dedicated to getting all of the input they could; to ensuring that all of us who were stakeholders in the outcome would be stakeholders in the process that produced the outcome; and to doing everything possible to getting the policy right.
I didn't know National Security Advisor Tom Donilon well and almost never engaged directly with him -- but that was neither my role nor my goal. A tour de force briefing he gave to the service chiefs and combatant commanders at the Pentagon, engaging in give-and-take that was frank, respectful, and hugely substantive, blew me away. I don't care who likes him one day and is mad at him the next. I'm glad we have an individual with that level of experience and expertise -- and real understanding of and commitment to this nation's interests -- leading the National Security Staff.
I know Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes better. I have been yelled at by both of them and I would walk off a cliff for either of them. They are two of the smartest, most capable, and most dedicated people with whom I have ever worked. They will not rest until every single stakeholder from every relevant agency or department on a given issue has been heard from -- that was my experience throughout my entire tenure. Their approach is holistic, they respect talent, they listen to dissent, they set high standards.
I'm not sure exactly to whom you refer, Rosa, when you bemoan all the "young and untried campaign aides managing vital substantive portfolios" but I do know that as a result of many years of effort by many Democrats to develop and nurture new foreign policy talent, there are some amazing young people making significant contributions to this administration's foreign policy record. I'm happy to name names, Rosa.
You are right to single out former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, one of the key investors in the development of new national security talent. The results of her investment efforts can be seen in the work of the remarkable team of female national security specialists she has nurtured: Former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces Kath Hicks (now deputy undersecretary of defense for policy), who led the development of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Janine Davidson, who began her career in the United States Air Force as an aircraft commander and senior pilot for the C-130 and the C-17 cargo aircraft and became the Obama administration's deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, where she oversaw the development of guidance for military campaign and contingency plans. Civil servant Amanda Dory, who became deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. Think tank experts Julie Smith and Celeste Wallander, selected by the Obama administration to lead Pentagon policy efforts on Europe and Russia, respectively. And you, yourself, Rosa, with a Pentagon portfolio that included rule of law, human rights issues, global engagement, and strategic communication.
Let's name more names: Jake Sullivan at the State Department, the young lawyer with Clinton campaign credentials -- and abilities to bridge gaps, synthesize issues, break logjams, and establish policy priorities that trump most of those my age with "deep expertise." Our mutual friend Dan Feldman, who learned a valuable lesson on his first trip to India -- be careful what you eat -- that has served him well on the subsequent myriad trips to central and southwest Asia with both the current and late former special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who've considered him the glue that binds that team together. Derek Chollet, who may look like he should be the son of the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs rather than the assistant secretary himself (which he is), but who has already worked for three secretaries of state and written six books on foreign policy. And Colin Kahl, now at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who as deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East played a pivotal role in designing and overseeing the responsible drawdown and transition strategy in Iraq, shaping the Pentagon's efforts to counter Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions and destabilizing activities and promoting unprecedented defense cooperation with Israel.
Many of them and many more like them fit your description of young former campaign aides managing vital substantive portfolios. Yes, there are some in government who are untested and yet to prove themselves. But given who we got in the Bush administration -- the "experienced" ideologues and neocons we could get again -- I'll take the young men and women like those I've named, and many more, to understand and help guide this nation's foreign policy interests in today's world over the alternative any time. And I know you share my pride in the talent "bench" we've developed (finally, after all these years!) through the network of organizations that proactively nurtured that talent: CNAS, the National Security Network, Third Way, the Truman Project, and the Center for American Progress.
President Obama and his national security team brought that new talent into government. We learned they had a tremendous amount to contribute. They learned that being in government is like being in a centrifuge. You have to accept that when you go in. But look what we've accomplished in the Obama centrifuge so far: Stronger international partnerships. Outstanding military-intelligence cooperation. Feed the Future initiatives. Defense spending defined by a strategy, not by a meat-axe. Choosing to support democratic change in the Middle East, and committing to remain engaged, however messy it may be for awhile. Listening to throngs of even-newer generation Americans cheering outside the White House the night President Obama announced that U.S. military and intelligence had brought justice to Osama bin Laden.
Every organization has its share of assholes and jerks, Rosa. My experience, after serving in and out of government since 1973, is that the Obama administration has had many many fewer than any other in which I've served. So I don't agree with your call on President Obama to find some "decent managers to run the National Security Staff -- honest brokers who are capable of listening, prioritizing, delegating, and holding people accountable for results"? They're already there.
Doug Wilson served as assistant secretary of defense, the Pentagon's senior spokesman and communications strategist, from February 2010 until March of this year. He is a national security adviser to the Obama campaign.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Rosa Brooks, who writes FP's "By Other Means" column, blogs about war, politics, and the evolving role of the military.