The "Dear Boss" Saga

The Air Force has a storied tradition called the "Dear Boss" letter.  While there may have been previous iterations, and certainly the feeling was out there before, the "Dear Boss" letter as it is known started with a letter penned by then-Captain Ron Keys in the late 1970s to General Wilbur Creech, Tactical Air Command commander.  The below is just a snippet of the opening of his missive.

Dear Boss,
Well, I quit. I’ve finally run out of drive or devotion or rationalizations or whatever it was that kept me in the Air Force this long. I used to believe in, “Why not the best,” but I can’t keep the faith any longer. I used to fervently maintain that this was “My Air Force,” as much or more than any senior officer’s…but I can’t believe any more; the light at the end of my tunnel went out. “Why?” you ask. Why leave flying fighters and a promising career? Funny you should ask— mainly I’m resigning because I’m tired. Ten years and 2,000 hours in a great fighter, and all the time I’ve been doing more with less—and I’m tired of it. CBPO [Central Base Personnel Office] doesn’t do more with less; they cut hours. ...

I’m too tired, not of the job, just the Air Force. Tired of the extremely poor leadership and motivational ability of our senior staffers and commanders. (All those Masters and PMEs [professional military educators] and not a leadership trait in sight!) Once you get past your squadron CO [Commanding Officer], people can’t even pronounce esprit de corps.

The rest of the letter can be found here.  The letter could have been written today, judging from recent discussion.  As a matter of fact, the letter has come back, purposefully copied numerous times including in 1997 and 2009.  And if you delete the Air Force-specific references, the same has been cited in all of the services.

The themes are the same.  Young officers aren't chafing against high operational tempo or demanding tactical requirements.  They are chafing against a bureaucracy that misplaces its incentives, fails to penalize underperformers, rewards overperformers only with more work (but not removing the incompetents from the ranks around and above them), fails to prioritize the institutions' efforts and expenditures (empty MWR facilities, embarassing swing bands, etc), fails to properly care for its people (this is not a money problem - most officers are vastly overcompensated today - but a personnel management problem), and focuses on inane superficialities rather than combat excellence, just to name a few.

Many readers will be falling all over themselves to point out that Captain Ron Keys did not actually quit - he in fact stayed in and became Gen Ron Keys.  This will add a drumbeat to the chorus of those who would label frustrated dissidents as quitters.  "See - Ron Keys didn't quit - he stayed in and made a difference."  

The fact that these observations keep coming up, however, makes one wonder if those who stay around truly do make a difference.   Broadly termed, of course those who keep plugging away will make a difference.  They can do good in the organizations they staff and command, they can influence and care for those around them, and they can find personal and professional fulfillment.  Really, this is all one can ask for.  If making a difference, however, means changing the system then good luck.  It reminds me of those politicians who say they would change Washington.  It never happens.  Likewise, reform of the military's most flawed systems - the personnel and procurement systems - seemingly never happen.  Placing these two examples - Washington and the military - side by side invites the obvious observation that the military doesn't change because the personnel and procurement systems are controlled by the politicians in the form of law and Congressional appropriations, approvals, and appointments.  While this is very true, this does not completely absolve senior military officers of their culpability in the shortcomings of the system.  There is room for reform within the authorities given them by Congress.  

There is a more important reason why these two examples line up.  Just as Washington changes those who would seek to change it, so too does the bureaucracy of the military.  Quite simply, any bureaucracy - military, political, or otherwise - has its own set of incentives and disincentives that socialize those who would climb its ranks.  This socialization generally tends to promote the status quo and the survival of the system as it is.  As accretions grow around the system (i.e., special interests), it begins to bog down and distort from its true form.  This will go on as long as the socialized guardians of the institution and the surrounding environment do not see these distortions as a true threat.  The problem is, just as in Washington, the insiders' view can often be myopic, fixed on the incentive structure, until it is too late.  

It is interesting to note that these Dear Boss letters have tended to percolate  up when the institution is facing a post-conflict reset:  post-Vietnam, post-Cold War, and post(ish)-OEF/OIF.  These are times when visions of the future are clashing and when the interests of the system-as-bureaucracy begin to reassert themselves over the interests of the system-as-warfighting-organization.  It is in these times that clarity of vision and communication up and down the ranks are most important.  Visions of the future threat and the future force are surely anything but clear today.  The services are struggling to define themselves against an uncertain world and too many are falling back on the trite mantra of back to the (garrison) basics and the sanctuary of service parochialities.  These are an anathema to the minds of many mid-level and junior officers and staff non-commissioned officers who have spent nearly a decade trying to hone a combat mindset.  

Many more Dear Boss letters will be forthcoming.  Despite the sluggish economy, there are many motivated and talented officers who after years of combat operations need the dynamism of fluid environments, meaningful challenges, and new and different responsibilities to keep them going.  If the military cannot articulate that it will give them these challenges, these meat-eaters will keep moving forward to find new careers - and the economy will absorb the best of them.  The leaf-eaters will contine to graze safe pastures, rest assured.  The coming drawdown will expose a growing crisis of vision, communication, and trust between the ranks.  It is therefore critical that the institutional leadership begins to enter a dialogue with its younger officers.  Institutional leaders must lay out their vision, set meaningful priorities, seek to create buy-in from their officers, and address the growing and consistent chorus of concern that the U.S. military culture is increasingly irrational and risk averse.  If these steps are not taken, the U.S. military will become, once again, and army at dawn, losing its edge and its knowledge until a new adversary bloodily forces the reforms that so many are crying out for today.  

An Air Force officer raises this issue once again today on Small Wars Journal.  "Dear Boss..."  Many will find tones that resonate.  Many will also find much to criticise.  The critical thing is not to agree or disagree point by point, but to understand that there is a growing crisis of trust that the institutional leadership must address, or fail to do so at its peril.  Read the letter here.

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At some point we discover that those we respect the most are nothing but human beings.

Our disappointment, feigned or real, is often far greater than it should be.

Excellent conversation from all, excellent commentary!

Peter,

Yes, part of an assignment but also a subject that is important to me as well.

John

I have had numerous discussions with friends, colleagues, classmates and my own ROTC cadet son whom I will have the privilege of commissioning next summer on this very subject.

The coming 'return to the barracks' is going to be wrenching, no doubt. We are going to lose many fine young men and women when they see the full disclosure of the deal, post-combat operations.

I think many will adapt to leading under different conditions but I have two fears-

1- we know we have a whole generation of young officers who do not understand training management, installation operations, counseling, inspections, CONUS property accountability and so on. This will take time to teach, coach and mentor so that they can grasp, learn and master. My fear here is that, in the current and future 'metrics now' culture, will senior leadership grow impatient and frustrated with the time to master the trade that they simply take the reins back and stifle the opportunities for us to re-grow our seed corn resulting in disaffected young officers who now really don't feel trusted?

2- if we are lucky, due to individual leaders identifying, mentoring and supporting young officers and a still-sluggish economy, that we retain many of them, will the coming grind make them check out later on, leaving us with huge gaps when we need them most, as LTCs?

I defer to more experienced folks to tell me if they saw either condition during previous drawdowns/ post-conflict change in orientation.

VR,
MAJ John Bryan
Student, US Army Command and General Staff College
"The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army or the US Government."

JTB: As a civilian I have a question about this.

"1- we know we have a whole generation of young officers who do not understand training management, installation operations, counseling, inspections, CONUS property accountability and so on. This will take time to teach, coach and mentor so that they can grasp, learn and master."

Many of that generation of young officers are good at fighting as officers. Why should we try to get them to learn all those other things that aren't fighting? Shouldn't they concentrate on retaining and improving their fighting skills and let other people do most of that other stuff?

Sir/ ma'am,

Because the things that enabled success at the tactical and operational levels over the last decade didn't occur in a vacuum- they were products of many years of 'blocking and tackling': LTs planning live fire ranges which gave them a full understanding of combined arms and fire and maneuver; maintenance knowing that new 240 barrels were not to be found so love what you have; inspecting motor pools and barracks to know your people and equipment and the limitations and capabilities of both and the components of proper inspections, etc. Not fun by any means but it makes for a very effective apprenticeship before assuming command.

Our officers and NCOs are war fighters, no doubt, and I share your concerns about training being the bill payer but our leaders are a lot more than simply warfighters. They are counselors, accountants, logistics managers and in a lot of cases, moms and dads to not only their own families but also to their soldiers. The heart of your question, I think, is can we do it all and any of it well? I don't know.

As a matter of practicality, I think "let[ting] other people do most of that other stuff" is going to go the way of the 8 track tape. SETA (services- DFAC staff, grass cutting, etc) contracts probably aren't going to be the norm in five years- it is arguable that contractor labor is cheaper than soldiers' but those bills get paid out of the unit and installation commander's budgets and when OMA (operations and maintenance) dollars get squeezed even harder than they are now, suddenly having Joe mow grass again may not be desirable but it beats not having tires, lights and alternators.

Thanks sincerely for the dialogue.

John

VR,
MAJ John Bryan
Student, US Army Command and General Staff College
"The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army or the US Government."

I assume that the people who are signing their posts as a student at CGSC are doing this as part of an assignment? Just curious.

Yes, the ILE course at Leavenworth makes students contribute to a military-related blog somewhere as part of a directive to get officers to engage in social media. But they also direct them to add the ridiculous disclaimer at the end. In my opinion, the disclaimer directive is another indictor of weak leadership covering itself against the idea of possible backlash of someone taking blog entries as Army party line. Also in my opinion, the presence of a disclaimer undermines the authority or genuine nature of honest and forthright input from a first-hand source.

Brings back memories, but your date (1973) doesn't match up. Creech took command of TAC in 1978, which is about the time I remember reading a copy of the "Dear Boss" letter in the squadron's douffer book. It's also when the pilot exodus was finally getting attention in the Jimmy Carter military, where a new wingman averaged about 8 sorties a month.

Thanks. Edited to "late 1970s"

I really enjoyed reading this. One concern I'd add is the "self-congratulatory" culture I see developing, at least in the Army. I wonder if it's a form of "cultural painkiller." We know our organizational culture is often too focused on bureaucracy instead of readiness, we aren't sure how to fix it, so we instead talk about how good we hope we are. We've certainly got our strengths, but dwelling on them doesn't help fix weaknesses.

Yes but Peter, some push back if I may.

Agree with your definition of "garrison" meaning a focus on hard training on combined arms, that sort of thing. But you may be too dismissive of such things as uniform standards and even the hated "drill and ceremonies." In the classic memoir of hedgerow fighting in France in World War II, Glover Johns ("Clay Pigeons of St Lo) after two weeks of intense combat had his infantry battalion pulled out of the line for rest and refit in the regimental rear area. The first day there he was told by the regimental training officer to do drill and ceremony. He threw a hissy fit, said it was stupid for combat soldiers to be doing such things. But he complied anyway and afterwards actually saw value in doing such "garrison" things like drill and ceremonies marching because according to Johns it provided his men who had been dispersed out into small units in the hedgerows the chance to see all of their platoons and companies again through something as simple and apparently trivial as marching in platoon and company formations.

My point is that good hard training in combined arms doesnt just materialize out of nothing, and that some of those things you dismiss, if done correctly are important for a disciplined, professional force.

thanks

gian

The US Military brass apparently never learns from its historical past and the US Armed Forces will now go through a post-Vietnam style capability deterioration and loss of experienced manpower. This is the post-coinflict (intentionally misspelled) trauma that comes from Generals and Admirals either developing and pursuing or (politically) supporting a military strategy and effort that every lower level officer and Senior NCO / Navy CPO could see would lead to a costly failure.

How many years / months after the US withdrew its main line ground units and then ceased proving its air support and funding to the ARVN / VNAF did it take for that military to collapse. The same will happen in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Both Westmoreland's and Abram's strategies failed to provide a sustainable South Vietnam and capable ARVN--which was perhaps mission impossible. But they did succeed in sucking up the military budget for Search and Destroy or Pacification efforts that failed long term, thereby budget wise leaving behind a capability decimated military--whose real mission is to fight conventional wars, not to engage in what will always be failed large scale nation building efforts--as today's military brass is doing.

Of course, the Generals and Admirals who succumb to supporting what will be these failed military policies always seem to receive political promotions (Westmoreland, Abrams, Petraeus, etc.) After their retirement others have the unenviable task of rebuilding our ground forces, reconstituting a strategically capable Air Force, and constructing a Navy capable of controlling the seas and carrying out amphibious style operations--when the US elects a President who is interested in our having a strong military.

US military history is unfortunately repeating itself--or in the words of that famous ball player--"This is like deja vu all over again," at least for those of us who were officers during the Vietnam era.

General George Patton is credited as having said, "It doesn't matter how far you go down, it is how high you bounce off the bottom." General Abrams led the Army at a time when it was going down, but set policies in motion that would help it bounce off the bottom. Admiral Zumwalt did much the same thing to the post-Vietnam Navy. So - yes - this is a great conversation to have, and it is the right time to have this conversation. Commanders that ignore adminstrative matters in garrison will get hurt when the IG comes around and exposes slapdash discipline and poor process for what it is. I don't think anyone deliberately degrades their combat skills, but as the military slips into peacetime mode, sustainment becomes an active concern - who here remembers the "Baker High School" analogy promoted in the 8th Infantry Division as its organizational training model ? Embedded in that model was a sense that the best is sometimes the enemy of the good. But one has to ask, "What happens if this unit is called upon to go somewhere and fight ?" There has been a bit too much talk in the public sphere about the missions we aren't gonna do any more (as well as the missions we in fact cannot do that we would like to do), when in fact we know no such thing. The bill you pay for unreadiness is death as well as defeat.

I would also be concerned by the notion that a decade of intense low intensity conflict has done anything but breed bad habits and generate unrealistic expectations about the nature of war. The seasoned combat veterans of the present and the foreseeable future in too many instances do not seem to grasp what they do not in fact know. I'm impressed with JTB's comments, since this is a person who clearly is capable of reflecting on the past in relation to a future he has not experienced - and knows the difference. It would be comforting to see that all our GWOT veterans - including those who have left active service and are involved in policymaking or some other form of public service - are likeminded. Otherwise we end up learning the lessons of the past by transforming them into the myths of the present. And the cycle repeats itself.

Sir,

Certainly a timely post on a pressing topic. My Army Intermediate Level Education class has been working through these various institutional dynamics in the course of our classwork and the qualtiy of converstaion has been top notch. I for one, will be curious to see if the ongoing discussion, at least within the Army, of what it means to be a 'Profession of Arms' will result in more subtle cultural shift and repair of the damage between junior and senior leaders within our ranks. Another point to consider, again within the Army, is whether the return of the box check OER system and more intense competition for resident slots at Professional Military Education programs might signify a meaningful shift to our incentive system?

My one point of minor contention, however, is that a return of garrison back to basics would be anathema to those of us emerged in the COIN fight for the last 10 years. It seems to me that managing training, limited resources and relearning doctrine in an enviormnent marked by numerous potential threats, might just provide the intellectually stimulating type of challenge that many of us in uniform still crave. One thing is for sure, those of us who serve, do so in interesting times. Between theater draw down plans and the coming reduction in military end-strength, it should prove instructive to see what caliber of leaders remain in service when the dust settles.

V/R

CPT (P) Robert Schmor
Student, US Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army or the US Government."

Rob,
By garrison back to basics, I don't mean intensive training and learning to institutionalize the lessons learned and to reset for future threats and improve combat readiness... oh no. I mean drill, uniform trivia, junk-on-the-bunk inspections, etc. I believe that there should be a back-to-the-basics movement and a tightening of discipline, but I think it should come in the form of worthwhile training focused on combat readiness. Others think it means back to boot camp. That is what I was referring to.

Peter,

Excellent commentary that I can't disagree with. I would just add that the victories of those of us who stay in the system and try to make a difference are, sadly, only tactical victories.

I might be more hopeful if there was at least the appearance that the senior leadership was trying to change some of these long-standing issues, but I just don't see it.

Peter:

This is an excellent commentary on your part to the letter.

Alas I fear that it will take some sort of major crisis--either a domestic economic crisis or foreign crisis where the military receives a severe drubbing--to bring about the changes you rightly argue are needed.

I see no mechanism, at least right now, within the American military or outside of it to bring about change. Since there is no draft and moral connection between the American people and the war in Afghanistan that mechanism wont come from the American people. Nor will it come from within the senior leadership of the American military. When one of the original "disruptive thinkers" BG(P) HR McMaster says that we are winning in Afghanistan (recent WSJ interview of him) it shows me that there is little to no chance of true disruptive thinking in the senior ranks.

But what the hell do I know. I am just a little pip squeak colonel who has never gotten it from the start anyway.

One has to regret that the "military reform" movement of the 80s managed to get itself caught up in political partisanship and institutional meddling. Reforms that are imposed from the outside are futile - what turned the Army around after Vietnam were internally generated reforms that caught on. It didn't have to work out as well as it did. And one might keep in mind that none other than James Earl Carter gave the Army one of its very best Chiefs of Staff - Shy Meyer. What Abrams started after Vietnam, Meyer brought to fruition. After Meyer retired, what we saw was a kind of retrenchment, even as the quality of both personnel and equipment improved. What is the situation at present ? Well, economic forces might be said to keep the quality of accessions high - many of these young people coming in simply have no better choice, even as the force reductions come in to reduce their prospects. Improved equipment quality is not something I see in this Army's future. Too many bad decisions, too much indecision: it takes its tool. But upping our game in training methods, in organizational effectiveness - that is completely within our Army's reach, if it should choose to take that approach. In the past, we've had senior leaders who understood that the Army is a family - a rather Darwinian family, perhaps, but a family nonetheless. As the nation turns inward on itself, and seeks that "return to normalcy" this will get important.

Gian, I think you are right and fear for my young relatives. The only thing that will change the system is a severe and big defeat. Napoleon changed the Prussians. The Prussians wouldn't have done it on their own.

Peter your commentary beats the letters all to hell.