The Weekly Standard
Fight for the Army's Soul
Time for a purge.
by Stuart Koehl
02/21/2008 12:00:00 AM
THOUGH IT GARNERS RELATIVELY little attention, military bureaucracy poses a
very serious threat to the long-term security of the United States, and its
pernicious effect extends well down into the chain of command. I have a
friend whose son, now back from his fourth deployment to Afghanistan with
the 75th Rangers, describes precisely the kind of burdensome bureaucratic
regulation that Paul Fussell (in his book Wartime) so appropriately labeled
Chicken**** refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it
need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for
power and authority and prestige . . . insistence on the letter rather than
the spirit of ordinances. Chicken**** is so called--instead of horse--or
bull--or elephant ****--because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the
trivial seriously. Chicken**** can be recognized instantly because it never
has anything to do with winning the war.
One reason for the ubiquity of chicken**** in the modern U.S. military is
the excessively high proportion of officers to enlisted men. In most armies,
there are about seven officers to 100 enlisted men, or an
officer-to-enlisted ratio of 7 percent (as low as 5 percent in the German
army of World War II). In the U.S. Army today, that ratio stands at more
than 15 percent (19 percent by some calculations).
This very high proportion of officers resulted from a deliberate decision
made after World War II regarding future Army mobilization. Post-war
analysis revealed that it was actually easier for the Army to raise new
divisions from scratch using draftees, than it was to shake out National
Guard divisions and bring them up to wartime standards (due to the
prevalence at the time for state governors to use the Guard for patronage
appointments, often of superannuated or incompetent officers, as well as the
poor physical condition and training of Guard soldiers). Army planners
believed that, if adequate officer cadres were available, the Army could
actually mobilize faster by circumventing the National Guard and simply
raising new divisions. Thus, in the wake of World War II, as the Army shrank
back to its peacetime size, twice as many officers were retained on active
service as were actually needed.
As Edward N. Luttwak pointed out in his 1985 book The Pentagon and the Art
of War, this would not have been a problem had the Army merely placed the
surplus officers on half pay, effectively keeping them "on the shelf" in
case of need. But the Army instead kept these men on active duty, and
therefore had to find gainful employment for them. Since, in the peacetime
Army, there were not nearly enough legitimate command and staff positions
for all the officers, new positions had to be created, for which new
functions had to be devised. Thus, the military bureaucracy began to expand,
especially with the proliferation of research and development (R&D) commands
and liaison offices, the expansion of staff billets, and the invention of
new duties basically intended to make work for the underemployed. At the
same time, the Army recognized that these essentially bureaucratic positions
did not prepare officers for combat command, so there arose an insistence on
frequent rotation between staff, administrative, technical, and line
positions, ranging between 12 and 24 months. Officers had to "get their
tickets punched" by serving in the widest range of positions in order to
qualify for promotion (this is sometimes called the "Merit Badge Syndrome").
Officers passed over for promotion were normally required to retire (the "Up
or Out" principle).
As combat commands (platoon, company, and battalion, in particular) were
both the most prized and the most scarce, turnover in these positions was
the most rapid (in Vietnam, combat officers were on a six month rotation,
half that of the enlisted men, in order that more officers could get their
"combat command" ticket punched). The result was predictable: officers were
constantly behind the power curve, and by the time they got their bearings,
they were rotating home, to be replaced by another batch of essentially
clueless "newbies." Proficiency was never established or maintained.
After Vietnam and the transition to a professional, all-volunteer force,
some of these problems were mitigated, while others persist to this day.
Rapid turnover, or "turbulence," as it is called, was recognized as having a
pernicious effect on readiness, so tours for combatant commanders were
extended, as were some staff positions--though talk of establishing a
professional "general staff" career path was rejected. On the other hand,
with the Army greatly reduced in size (a problem exacerbated by post-Cold
War reductions in force in the 1990s), the number of command slots relative
to the number of officers got worse. This was especially true at the higher
end of the chain of command, for battalion commanders and above, which in
turn led to adoption of a "zero defects" mentality within the Army: any
mistake, no matter how minor, at any point in one's career, could prevent
promotion beyond the rank of major. This, naturally enough, encouraged a
very conservative, by-the-book, risk-averse approach in which "thinking
outside the box" was actively discouraged. And that in turn caused many
intelligent, innovative, and aggressive officers either to resign in disgust
or be forced into retirement because of some minor blot on their service
records (one wonders how many of the great commanders of World War II would
have been benched under today's standards).
Thus, the kind of officers rising to the top of the Army chain of command
reflect the kind of hide-bound, bureaucratic mindset that got them promoted
in the first place. Which is what makes a general like David Petraeus such
an anomaly, and why there is widespread dissatisfaction among the company
and battalion officers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq today.
The Army is in an unusual situation in that the normal "experience pyramid"
has been inverted. Normally, one would expect that the higher the rank, the
greater the experience. But in Iraq and Afghanistan today, we have
lieutenants, captains, and majors who have made three, four, or even more
rotations to a combat area, and thus have more real combat experience than
most of the colonels and generals who give them their orders and direct
policies in the Pentagon (in fact, today's company and battalion officers
have more than twice as much combat experience as their World War II
counterparts, making them among the most "battle hardened" officer corps
since Napoleon's Grande Armee fought its way across Europe at the beginning
of the 19th century).
These junior officers can see quite plainly the disconnect between the
directives they receive from the Pentagon (and often from their immediate
commanders at brigade and division) and the realities they face on the
ground. They struggle hard to reconcile the two, sometimes successfully,
sometimes not. They are deeply aware of the "chicken****" factor, deeply
resent it, and at the end find that they no longer have the ability to
resist it. This, as much as the long and frequent deployments, the
separation from home and family, and constant exposure to the stress and
carnage of war, is the leading cause of junior officers--some with the
potential for brilliant careers--walking away from the Army.
Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the special operations forces. In
the first place, special operations officers (and enlisted men) tend to be
extremely intelligent, independent, and highly motivated. Mission focused
and used to shouldering responsibilities normally assigned to officers two
or three grades higher in rank, they have a keen eye for what is essential
and what is superfluous. They are deeply resented within the "regular" Army
because they tend to operate outside the normal "rules" and have their own
chain of command that often places them outside the control of regular line
officers. This resentment is further exacerbated by the fact that special
operations forces are the cutting edge in both counter-terrorism and
counter-insurgency, and thus are getting a "leg-up" over officers in the
traditional combat arms.
In fact, it is not unreasonable to speak of there being two armies today:
the "small army" that is focused on counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency,
stabilization and reconstruction (S&R), and the myriad species of low
intensity combat (LIC); and the "Big Army" that is constantly preparing to
fight the Big War of tanks, infantry combat vehicles, and artillery that is
very much the exception rather than the rule. The small army is dominated by
combat-tested junior officers who have learned first hand on the
battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan the demands of 21st century ground
combat; the Big Army is dominated by generals and colonels who came up in
the Cold War, who have made their careers managing big-ticket weapon systems
and commanding large formations intended to stop the Soviet Army in the
Fulda Gap. There is a chasm between the two that is difficult to bridge.
In fact, it is not too much to say that there is a fight going on for the
soul of the Army today, between the old guard of the Big Army, fighting
budget battles to preserve expensive and only marginally useful programs
such as the Future Combat System, who see the future of the Army revolving
around major conventional wars; and the Small Army of bright young company,
battalion, and even brigade commanders, who understand that most of our
future wars will look a lot more like Iraq, and who are developing the
skills, tactics and equipment to fight them. Evidence of this ongoing fight
can be seen in the decision to bring General Petraeus back to the United
States to sit on the recent promotion board for brigadier generals. This was
apparently done at the behest of Defense Secretary Gates, who was anxious to
break the mold of previous promotion boards and institutionalize the changes
made by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan by advancing officers who embodied
those changes. Whether, in the long term, this will lead to systemic change
is an important question.
One way of ensuring that it does lead to systemic change would be a reform
of the entire officer corps, shrinking it to a size proportionate to that of
the Army as a whole, and closer to the traditional normal
officer-to-enlisted ratio of 7 percent. The rationale for maintaining the 15
percent ratio has evaporated with the adoption of the Total Force policy, in
which the Active, Reserve, and National Guard components of the Army train
to the same standard. Guard and Reserve formations have been fighting side
by side with the Active Army in Iraq and Afghanistan for five years now, and
have proven their ability. In addition, there is no evidence that the United
States will require, in the foreseeable future, mobilization on a scale that
would see the Army double in size overnight, removing the need to raise new
divisions from scratch.
A reduction of the officer corps would have several beneficial effects.
First, it would allow the Army to clear out a lot of dead wood, officers
whose careers were made in obscure offices with no real relation to the
mission of the Army. Second, it would force the Army to focus on its core
mission, since there would no longer be enough officers to fill all the
bureaucratic, make-work positions created to provide employment for surplus
officers; those positions could either be civilianized or eliminated
altogether. This, in and of itself, would do much to reduce the Army
bureaucracy and eliminate the chicken**** factor. Third, the Army could be
much more discriminating in its selection process, promoting only those
officers who show the aptitude for higher command; and since the number of
command positions would be more closely matched to the number of officers,
the Army could move away from the zero defects mentality and encourage
officers to experiment and innovate without fearing for their careers.
Fourth, tours in combat commands could be extended, allowing for greater
proficiency and stability in combat units. Finally, reducing the officer
corps by half would open about 36,000 personnel slots for light infantry and
other combat troops--about the equivalent of nine additional Brigade Combat
Teams--significantly increasing the Army's combat power.
There are very strong institutional forces militating against this idea, but
it is increasingly apparent that the Army is top-heavy with officers, and
too sclerotic in its thinking and action to cope with the rapidly changing
nature of war in the 21st century. Something has to give, at some point.
Stuart Koehl is a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD blog.
C Copyright 2008, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved.
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