Who’s Out of Control?
Talk of problems in the military’s career management system is nothing new. A now-infamous survey of former officers conducted by two Master’s candidates at Harvard declared that “[t]he number one reported reason for separation among our respondents was limited ability to control their own careers.” Institutionally, the Army tends to regard junior officers which leave the military as “quitters,” and to flatly rebut complaints of career inflexibility. Additionally, a culture which ascribes to the “needs of the Army” typically has little patience for what it sees as self-serving requests. However, the rigidity of the military’s career system has consequences far more dire than dissatisfied junior officers or talent flight: it impedes our ability to wage fourth-generation warfare. If the military will not restructure the career system for the sake of the troops, it must reorganize for the sake of the mission.
The way the United States has elected to conduct counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan -- by engaging the civilian populace, by showing restraint with restrictive rules of engagement, by distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant -- is, as Andrew Exum put it, “..a strategy that is predicated upon being implemented by geniuses.” The fact that our wars depend almost entirely on being run by our best and brightest is why we see such marked successes alongside such precipitous failures. A brilliant, engaged leader can effectively liaise with non-state actors and conduct counterinsurgency; a disaffected, uninspired leader cannot. Though retired Capt. Jim Gant is not a paragon of virtue, the stark contrast between his achievements and his successor’s struggles illustrate this point.
If our strategy depends on the right leaders being in the right places, it is more critical than ever before that we enable the best, brightest, and most innovative leaders to move more freely in the military’s career system. Just like an economic free market allows capital to go where it is best used, a more free-moving “job market” will allow the military’s talent to go where it is most desperately needed. In the civilian world, for instance, people seek whatever positions they may be qualified for, and bosses are given significant hiring authority. This means that prospective workers are able to find jobs which fit their talent and inclination, and prospective bosses are able to select applicants who bring the skills they judge most necessary to the table; in short, this free market of jobs and job-seekers allows talent to flow to its niche.
In the military system, by contrast, officers are not even able to guarantee a career field. The idea of a civilian software developer being told (after he has been hired!) that he is being sent to a sales position because the company feels his talents are better suited to sales is ludicrous, and no hiring manager would expect such an employee to be happier. Why, then, does slotting a cadet hoping for a logistics position into a combat arms branch not incite the same reaction?
Many authors have written about how to reform the military’s career system, so I will not belabor the point, except to mention that the more free-moving the military career market can become (within reason, of course), the better. Measures which might help on the “talent supply” side of the equation could include allowing more officers to select their branch, allowing officers to switch branches more easily, making it easier to find “jobs” within a specific branch, and lessening the need for “up or out” promotions, in order to limit the effects of the Peter Principle. Measures to aid the “talent demand” side of the career equation could include giving commanders more leeway over the subordinates they receive, allowing commanders more freedom in requesting specific subordinates, making it easier to fire subordinates, and loosening branch requirements for most jobs.
What distinguishes this article from the others is that this issue is not about retention, it is about whether America can win wars. More than in any other type of conflict, success in fourth-generation warfare and counterinsurgency is determined by the efficacy of the small-unit leader, which means that every obstacle to matching the right leader with the right job directly hinders our mission. In order to get the most talented leaders into the jobs in which they will perform the best, reform of the military career management system is long past due.