The debate about the Army losing its best junior officers between LTG (R) Barno and LTG Hodges on ForeignPolicy.com has been followed eagerly by many of my current and former (those that have left the service) peers. While both have different views on the issue, both regard retaining the top 10-20% of officers as something important for the Army’s future. As a junior officer who has performed in the top 10% of my peer group and decided to remain in the Army, I’d like to add to this discussion. While I cannot speak for my entire demographic, I can provide insight.
I don’t believe that the majority of officers that make up this demographic expect the Army to put together some sort of bonus package to retain them. I’ve never seen statistics on the bonus payments the Army made a few years ago, but I’ve only met one person who took the money that wasn’t already convinced he would stay in the Army. I believe that most officers that stay in through a captain-level key assignment (generally command positions and primary staff roles) are not motivated by money or tangible benefits. However, these officers want to feel like they are not just cogs in the wheel. They have a level of experience way beyond what their superiors had at similar career points. We are just now seeing battalion commanders who commanded companies in Iraq or Afghanistan. Further, the complexity of their positions is way beyond that of what it is for their superiors in similar positions in the 1990’s. These officers want trust, meaningful education and a voice, they want to be able to rise above their peers who perform below them and they want to see the Army progress not regress.
Many of our top officers had wide latitude to conduct combat operations and solve complex problems while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they find themselves back at home station “reestablishing garrison systems” and being micromanaged. Gone is their freedom. Top performers for the most part possess ingenuity, innovative thinking, independence and drive. While some top performers are just really good at executing orders, most are able to execute an OODA loop without much guidance. They can plan, lead and solve complex issues without much help from their superiors. And, they have done this in complex environments. But now they find themselves having to put together lists and trackers and brief every aspect of their command and their soldiers to superiors. Gone is their independence because their senior leaders don’t trust them.
Forcing leaders to fill out pages of high risk trackers to be briefed to generals rather than allowing commanders to own their companies is just one example. Having COMET teams run around post stopping vehicles to ensure they have their warning triangles is another. Carrying around a standards book as an inspectable item? Does that show trust? Most senior leaders might consider these examples inane, but to a junior officer in command, they are not. An officer leaving command is at the last good point in his career to get out before time served is greater than time left to retirement. He is making choices about whether or not to stay in. When he was trusted more with live ammunition and a hundred million dollars worth of property than he is when he is out of combat, he has much incentive to decide to bolt for a corporation that values his independent ways. He wants to see coupled actions, regulations and policies that have a specific focus and that work, not shotgun blasts that don’t fix the problem and show a lack of trust.
LTG Hodges uses the Congressional Fellow program as an example of providing officers a chance to get an advanced degree. However, this program takes 23 officers a year, roughly half of the number of officers in key assignments in just a single brigade. The three branches most likely to produce strategic leaders (Infantry, Armor, and Field Artillery) have the fewest opportunities to earn a master’s degree and there are no slots for them to participate in Training with Industry. While many of these officers will earn the standard Master’s of Military Art and Science while attending Command and General Staff College, most top performers want something more. Further, they want to interact with civilians, their constituents if you will, and they want to seek degrees that are meaningful – ones that improve the military’s knowledge base and improve them as individuals. While it benefits the Army, given the complexity of the future, to have a bevy of top performing Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery officers versed in Behavioral Sciences, International Relations, Economics, and International Development among others, there is no system in place to do this unless these officers compete for and earn a fellowship or go on to teach at an academy, taking them out of the fight for at least five years. Nor is there a meaningful academic fellowship system for those officers with advanced degrees to spend a year or two thinking and writing, developing perspective and improving their field. I’d even venture to say that many top performers would jump at the chance to learn a foreign language and develop cultural awareness – something the Army recognizes as important- but outside of the Olmstead Scholarship there is no real Army-sponsored way to do this.
Beyond advanced degrees, officers want to be prepared for strategic leadership. For Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery officers, a typical career path has them focused solely on tactics through battalion and possibly even brigade command. As part of their education, these top performers want to serve in assignments that allow them to see the Army from a higher perspective. Fellowships and positions as General’s Aides are so few that they do not cover all the officers in this category. And, these officers don’t want jobs that equate to them making coffee for high ranking individuals. They want positions that train them for future strategic leadership and where they feel like they are making a difference. While some opportunities for this exist, getting information on these opportunities is not easy and it seems that only those in the know or well connected pull in these assignments.
The Army is transforming and its top junior officers have a lot to say about the direction the Army should go. They have experience and they have good ideas. They want a voice. However, they don’t feel the Army is giving this voice to them. For example, General Odierno sent a retired four-star to Fort Lewis to conduct a sensing session with junior officers. Feedback from those who attended was that it was more for appearance than any real attempt to gain junior officer insight. One officer described it to me as a giant hand wave. As another example, the Army is changing the OER, but junior officers were never asked their thoughts in a meaningful way. As the Army changes, these top performing officers feel like they can provide valuable input, however, many feel like the Army doesn’t really care even when it asks. In the end, officers want to see tangible evidence that the Army cares. Senior leaders saying that they value input is not enough. Officers are leaving the Army as majors and lieutenant colonels where they had no voice and getting civilian positions at think tanks influencing the Department of Defense, Congress and the White House. Does it make sense that an officer should have more influence post-career? As it stands, a major who has deployed at every rank and performed in the top 5% of his peer group has no line to senior leaders in the Army while some his former peers are working the private sector and enjoying great influence. All the while the Army continues to bring in retired senior leaders with no post-9/11 experience to help it make decisions.
Further, many of our best thinkers quiet themselves because they are disruptive thinkers, those that see issues the Army doesn’t want to face and propose solutions out of the norm. These officers have some outlet in non-military sponsored publications such as Small Wars Journal and Armed Forces Journal, but publishing these articles is quite risky given the perceived aversion of the Army to officers who do so. Andrew Krepinevich (The Army and Vietnam) and Paul Yingling (“A Failure in Generalship”) both were on great career paths that were generally derailed by their attempts to identify Army problems and change the culture. If the Army ever wants to show its best that it wants them to help improve the Army, it needs to allow them to voice dissent and propose changes. Doing so is not an act of disloyalty; it is the act of a professional trying to improve his profession.
Rise Above Peers
If the Army is most concerned with retaining its top 10%-20% junior officers but only promotes 3% below zone to major, as it did this year, then that means that the rest of these top performers get promoted right in line with average and below average performers. While I am not of the school of thought advanced recently by some of my peers that top performers should be able to earn stars in their mid- to late-thirties, I do believe that officers will be tempted to leave if they see that no matter how hard they work they advance along with lower performing peers. If a junior officer knows that in the private sector or even non-uniformed public sector jobs he can rise commensurate with his performance rather than years of service, what alternative has the Army given him? Developing a promotion system that truly rewards the top 20%, maybe something more in line with the NCO promotion system will help show top performers that there is a reward for their hard work.
Army Progression versus Regression
Many junior officers are returning from war hearing how the Army is “going back to…” garrison, pre-war, offensive operations, the 90’s, etc. Many officers in my year group were either cadets or enlisted prior to 9/11. We have watched the Army transform to fight a war for eleven years and are now being told we are going to throw that out and go back to the old way. Rather than the Army being like the phoenix born anew from the flame, it wants to go back to a golden era that didn’t exist. As an officer, I’ve rarely heard talk of how great things were in the 1990’s. However, the generals and colonels deciding on the Army’s future who were junior officers in the 1990’s seem to believe that that is the model for our future. This may not be the case, but senior leaders are losing the information war here and perception is all that matters.
Some things are highly important and were always important but war has let us slip. Command supply discipline is a perfect example. We should never have lost our accountability and we need to relearn these procedures. But, in many other ways the Army let go of certain systems and standards because they just weren’t important. Why would an officer stay after 11 years of war just to watch the Army start telling him his hair that is within regs is all of the sudden too long, his soldiers need to go practice drill and ceremony daily though they haven’t marched in years and his company needs one standard for placement of gear on body armor? Is he really likely to believe that will instill the discipline that keeps men alive when he did without this stuff in combat and still kept men alive?
When officers hear that we need to get back to the old days, they see it as us turning a blind eye to eleven years of experience. Many officers in my peer group may not want to ever fight an insurgency again, but they seem more likely to understand that we will do just that or something similar than most senior officers. Officers serving in peacetime need be engaged, not turned off, to keep them interested in the future. Going back to a bygone era will not do that. Senior officers may say that we are not, but if they believe that, they need to start listening to what their sergeants major are putting out.
These are just one junior officer’s observations but they are based on personal experience and talking to peers that have stayed in and gotten out. Obviously there are other issues such as a human resources system that does not pair people well and a command selection system that would have prevented even Generals Chiarelli and Petraeus from ever making it to battalion command. And, LTG Hodges inadvertently highlights a huge issue with the Army’s system. His career has largely been guided by superiors. Many in my peer group would see that as having benefactors. When the Army allows those with connections to get ahead, it embitters others and likely drives some otherwise stellar officers out the Army. I believe that LTG Hodges and many senior officers care about this issue, but I don’t think they really understand. This is a debate the Army needs to have and the more junior officers that weigh in, the better decisions the Army can make to retain its best and improve as a whole.
Some top performers will stay in no matter what, but most want to see an evolved Army that involves them, trusts them and rewards their performance and potential. Few of us want financial compensation or other bonuses as incentives to remain. We just want to be a meaningful part of an Army whose future we can help create.