The Army personnel system is like the ancient Chinese mandarin system, except that it sucks even at producing mandarins. This should not be news to anybody. Certainly the best and the brightest — hell, even the dull and the dimmest — have been firing cannonades against DOPMA and “up-or-out” since Gabriel and Savage teed up Crisis in Command in the 1970s, and probably earlier. But along comes The Atlantic, commissioning retired general David Barno and some social (i.e., pseudo) scientist to write a jeremiad against the personnel system.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s like one of our VA or TSA stories. Expecting anything other than inept and counter-mission performance from any stumblebum government bureaucracy will end in tears.
Still, Barno and whatserface try.
Let’s start with a spoiled Millennial MI officer who’s all a-whine that the Army is not seeing to his emotional needs:
Jost arrived at West Point during the summer of 2004, nearly three years after the 9/11 attacks. The nation and the Army were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Jost took Chinese language classes to fulfill his single year of required language at the academy, and a summer program in China cemented his love of the Chinese language and culture. According to Jost, he gave up his vacation time nearly every summer to study in China, and graduated with a double major in Chinese and International Relations.
West Point cadets line up at their graduation ceremony in Michie Stadium. (Mike Groll / AP)
Jost excelled in his studies. He was academically ranked seventh out of 972 cadets in his graduating class, and was commissioned as a military intelligence officer. He won a Rotary scholarship for a graduate degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He became proficient in Mandarin, and earned a master’s degree in Chinese studies after a year of intense study. Now it was time to join the Army and use his education.
It would be the last time Jost used his Chinese until leaving the service five years later.
Awwwwww, someone call that (now former) officer a Waaahmbulance. The Army didn’t dispose itself for one millennial’s ultimate self-actualization. Quel horreur!
These Officer Selfie stories make up a good part of the long thumbsucker. Along with Jost, we meet a woman whose life was ruined, ruined, because she could only serve in combat as an attack helicopter pilot, when she really wanted to be an infantry officer. The whole attack-helicopter thing was a sideline for her, and her ambition for higher rank quickly drove her out of the cockpit into pursuit of other avenues towards fame and promotion, all collapsing in a Hindenburg FOOM when she and her officer husband didn’t get matching His & Hers assignments.
The promotion system, Barno and whatserface note, holds back officers of superior ability. Its Industrial Age men-as-interchangeable-cogs ethos has long been abandoned by industry, which can be even more dynamic (and even more focused on superficial, short-term results than the military, which is already too focused on knob-polishing for ticket-punching transient leaders). But it is an ill wind that blows no good, and that same personnel friction also holds back the toxic leader. We all know the type: the narcissistic careerist for whom military service is a love sonnet to self, the one who inverts the officer code of “the mission, the men, and me” to “me, me, me, then the mission, and bleep the men if they can’t take a joke.”
An example of the article’s focus on careerist vs. competent officers is its concern for officers’ graduate-school opportunities. In fact, the Army at least has numerous pathways to grad school and one of their selected whiners went directly from West Point to grad school, as noted above, but he wanted more grad school and he didn’t want to wait for it. We have very seldom seen an officer apply his grad school effectively to the only real reason we need officers, combat leadership. In fact, officers who have led sports teams seem to do much better, on average, than their more intelligent supposed “betters.” (We make fun of colonels who majored in football, here, but it’s probably a better preparation for leadership than any graduate degree, although history and anything highly quantitative — like an MBA — have their applications). In our experience, the paid grad-school thing is mostly just a benefit that accrues to the individual officer, and that he or she takes “up or out” with him and may used to plus up a post-military civilian salary.
As an aside: that Barno seemingly wants to elevate such officers makes us wonder what stripe of leader he was. A friend writes, in introducing this article to us:
The two authors are currently prominent participants in think tank events around town focusing on military and defense. LTG Barno has some actual basis for what he asserts, having actually carried a rifle and rucksack on behalf of America. Dr, Bensahel apparently learned what she knows by reading books and being a member of the chattering class.
Full disclosure: LTG Barno and I, when we were captains over 30 years ago, were classmates (which does NOT translate to friends) in an Army course. While I recall him, I doubt that he would recall me.
So, is there nothing of value in Barno and whatsername’s report? No. They do manage to get in a good condemnation of up-or-out, the Original Sin in DOPMA which drives much of the ticket-punching, short-term, superficial activity of toxic leasers.
Quoting the RAND Corp:
While breaking new ground (permanent grade tables, single promotion system, augmentation of reserve officers into regular status), DOPMA [of 1980] was basically evolutionary, extending the existing paradigm (grade controls, promotion opportunity and timing objectives, up-or-out, and uniformity across the services) that was established after World War II.
They also note that, unlike civilian businesses, there’s no way to military leadership except the DOPMA-dictated process of plodding apprenticeship:
This legacy system is woefully archaic in the 21st century—and far removed from the best talent-management practices of the private sector. It may well be the last untransformed segment of an otherwise modern, flexible, and adaptable U.S. military. Yet the personnel system touches every single person in the military every single day of their career—and determines how much they are paid, where they live, what kind of jobs they perform, and how often they move or get promoted. Neither officers nor enlisted troops have any substantial input in how they fit into this system—nor how to maximize their talents for the greater good.
The U.S. military is largely a closed-loop system for talent. Lateral entry is nearly nonexistent outside of unique specialties such as medicine. The four-star generals and admirals who will be the chairman and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in 2035 are serving in uniform today as majors or lieutenant commanders with somewhere between 10 and 16 years of service. Even the members of the JCS in 2045 are already serving in uniform, just starting out as ensigns and lieutenants, most with fewer than four years of service. Losing talented, experienced, and innovative leaders in the first 10 years of their military careers means that those leaders will not be available to serve in ever-more senior military leadership positions during the next the 20 or 30 years. This problem deserves rapt attention because getting the quality of the force wrong—unknowingly keeping in less capable leaders while losing the best and brightest talent—could have debilitating effects on fighting and winning the complex wars of the future.
It’s actually worse than they suggest, because it’s extremely hard for officers to choose and change branches. The signal or QM officer who burns to lead infantry units is practically a wachword, and there’s no way for him to do it, because we decided who was going to be an infantry officer when he was 17 or 21 years old, and that’s that. There’s little traffic and few pathways between the officer and NCO ranks — given our educated enlisted corps these days, there should be more traffic on those paths, and it should be bidirectional. There are still restrictions on Reservists coming on to active duty, and there is no possibility for an officer to opt to take a few years in the reserves, perhaps to raise children or to bank some money for their future education. Sure, you can leave active duty and take a reserve or Guard commission, but you’re passing through one of the personnel system’s beloved one-way diodes on its busy wiring diagram: there is no return.
The personnel system’s drag isn’t just applied to the most ambitious officers (whom Barno and whatsername conflate with the best), either. The byzantine system is a huge brake on everything the Army does. Around the time of the Gulf War we were shocked to discover that the Army, admittedly larger then, had approximately 50,000 enlisted personnel clerks, almost 10% of its active duty strength. Companies with thousands of employees employ single digits of personnel in their HR departments: these clerks are 99.9% superfluous, and exist to serve the organization; while their assigments might be merely orthogonal to the mission, their practical effect is negative because they bear down so much on everything the service does.
Finally, one goal of DOPMA is not mentioned by Barno and whatsername, even though it is one of the few that the act actually met: removing partisanship from officer selection and promotion. This article does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of an organized campaign in support of an initiatiave by SecDef Ash Carter, whose objective is to remove these requirements from both DOD civilian and officer billets. This would allow free and unlimited hiring and firing — and it would allow the even more rapid advancement of the one kind of officer proven to beat the DOPMA system: the political suck-up.
Whatever new Frankensteinian abomination flows from this, they will call it progress.