*Bleeding Talent*, the Tim Kane critique of the U.S. military

by on January 8, 2013 at 2:19 am in Books, Political Science | Permalink

Here is a review from The New York Times:

In “Bleeding Talent” (Palgrave Macmillan, $30), Mr. Kane gives us a veteran’s proud, though acutely critical, perspective on the American military. He offers an illuminating view of the other “1 percent” — not the privileged upper crust, but the sliver of Americans who have accepted the burden of waging two of the longest wars in our history.

The military is perhaps as selfless an institution as our society has produced. But in its current form, Mr. Kane says, it stifles the aspirations of the best who seek to serve it and pushes them out. “In terms of attracting and training innovative leaders, the U.S. military is unparalleled,” he writes. “In terms of managing talent, the U.S. military is doing everything wrong.”

The core problem, he argues, is that while the military may be “all volunteer” on the first day, it is thoroughly coercive every day thereafter…

ACCORDING to Mr. Kane, “the root of all evil in this ecosystem” is the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, enacted by Congress in 1980 to standardize military personnel policies. But the system has defied efforts by successive defense secretaries to bring about change.

That act binds the military into a system that honors seniority over individual merit. It judges officers, hundreds at a time, in an up-or-out promotion process that relies on evaluations that have been almost laughably eroded by grade inflation. A zero-defect mentality punishes errors severely. The system discourages specialization — you can’t expect to stay a fighter jock or a cybersecurity expert — and pushes the career-minded up a tried-and-true ladder that, not surprisingly, produces lookalikes.

Tim is a frequent (unofficial) member of the GMU lunch crew, and you can buy his book here.  Here is Tim’s Wikipedia page.

1 Infopractical January 8, 2013 at 4:19 am

“It judges officers, hundreds at a time, in an up-or-out promotion process that relies on evaluations that have been almost laughably eroded by grade inflation. A zero-defect mentality punishes errors severely. The system discourages specialization — you can’t expect to stay a fighter jock or a cybersecurity expert — and pushes the career-minded up a tried-and-true ladder that, not surprisingly, produces lookalikes.”

Huh. Sounds like a lot of other areas of American work culture.


2 Rahul January 8, 2013 at 4:26 am

More discretion. Thinner rule-books.

Surgical removal of the cancer called HR.

3 Non Papa January 8, 2013 at 8:14 am

Thin rulebooks only work when staff don’t require management, like during the start-up phase of a tech business (with some notable exceptions, perhaps? Thinking of the discretionary service fund Ritz-Carlton employees get). Massive, bureaucratic organizations like the military have to account for huge variations in ability, motivation, and interests when they consider their policies. The best tack is probably to develop a workable theory of “the HR culture” try to find a few small changes on the margin to ameliorate it. Thick rulebooks are a feature of huge organizations, not a bug, and we should be realistic about that.

4 Rahul January 8, 2013 at 9:52 am

I am not so sure whether thick rulebooks are a feature or a bug; they do give an illusion of control.

Rulebooks might impose consistency but is consistency a metric in itself to strive for? Must massive organizations be necessarily so bureaucratic as the army is? I think the time is ripe for a new model to evolve.

5 Limits not Directions January 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Only a feature if you have limited liability within an organization. But if unrelated people can be on the hook for the indiscretions of a few, big rule books and HR can help to limit liability, allowing big organizations to survive at all.

Imagine how disastrous it would have been for UBS, for example, if Kweku Abodoli’s actions were sanctioned (i.e. not prohibited) by the management.

Imagine how little credence we’d give the police if they didn’t have a huge set of rules governing their behavior, and vigilante cops were permitted to exist.

6 Limits not Directions January 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm

I meant “Only a bug..”

Thick rule books are bad / if –>

7 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 4:24 am

Officer evaluations from the Civil War era were candid and brief. For example, a commander might say that someone is a good officer with some potential for advancement. Another officer might be described as a “foul man with a dim intellect.”

Such evaluations, while refreshing and nonbureaucratic in their brevity and candor, are not especially suited to personal or professional development. Recall that most opportunities in the military officer corps in that age were purchased. Our blunted meritocratic system is far superior than its predecessors.

Having said that, the evaluation systems of the Army (decades ago) were grossly inflated. Noncommissioned officers needed a perfect score to be taken seriously for any privilege such as school or promotion, and officer evaluations would rate nearly everyone as excellent. The real evaluation was the ranking relative to peers. If you were “top block,” then the world was your oyster. If you were “center of mass,” then you could expect a lackluster career. If you were “Atlas holding up the world,” it was time to consider a new profession.

8 DKF January 8, 2013 at 10:12 am

(1) Make the pension system portable. Cliff-vesting at 20 years is hugely destructive of healthy professional risk-taking and innovation. Also, the system tends to coddle mid-career incompetents because of a reluctance to cause the loss of such a valuable pension asset. The retention of such individuals causes significant organizational damage.
(2) Open up the promotion system, as the author suggests. There’s little hope of keeping the highest performers when your first merit-based promotion opportunity is 10 years into your career. After 25 years, the first of my classmates are in line to be promoted to Brigadier General…for the top performers, I think that’s far too long.
(3) Eliminate at least some of the duplicative and wasteful civilian infrastructure that serve to make the military culture more insular than it should be. That means eliminating domestic post exchanges, and farming out work from the VA that could be handled by civilian systems, among other items. It’s a small step towards the encouragement of outside thinking into a highly regimented culture.

9 JohnW January 8, 2013 at 10:19 am

The Marines instituted a system in 1999 to combat grade inflation. Grades (they were letter grades from A-H, with H being best) were weighted by the reporting officer’s own standards. So if you gave out a lot of “H” grades, they would mean less then they would if they came from someone who gave mostly Ds. You were no longer competing against all the other reporting officers out there, so a grade of less than perfect was no longer the career-death sentence it once was, but an objective evaluation of the Marine’s strengths and weaknesses.

I thought this was really innovative and smart, but I got out in 2000 and have no idea how well it worked out in practice.

10 Rahul January 8, 2013 at 11:28 am

That system has the risk of good people not wanting to work in the same group.

11 RAR January 8, 2013 at 11:36 am

The problem comes when you have a lot of genuine high performers in a single group. Either people who would be superstars elsewhere get a lower rating to give other high ratings more meaning, or management brings in some so-so folks to take to low ratings so their high performers don’t have to take a grade hit for the sake of the team.

12 JohnW January 8, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Not really, at least not in this case. The weighting was calculated over the reporting officer’s career. So an unusual number of superstars during a relatively brief period should still get their deservedly standout ratings.

Also, ratings were not typically done on all the members of the group at the same time.

13 Ray Lopez January 8, 2013 at 5:08 am

Great effort but has Tim considered that ” A zero-defect mentality punishes errors severely” is like American style ‘defensive medicine’ in that it’s designed to limit casualties? Just a thought. I say privatize the US military and hire mercenaries. Plenty of Buffalo Solders and others who would kill for the money.

14 Blackwater/African Merc January 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Don’t we already?

15 Jim January 8, 2013 at 3:28 pm

” I say privatize the US military and hire mercenaries.”

As with most roiginal and innovative ideas about the military, this one wss tried, centuries ago, and found seriously defective. What it basically coes down to is mercenaries can’t be trusted. This is also why you can’t just hire mid-level talent from outside – other countries’ armies. Can’t really ever be trusted.

The other thing that killed it off was citizenship and the universal voting rights. Serving in the nation’s military was seen as the price of citizenship. That has changed though, now that citizenship is mostly an entitlement culture.

And there are other problems. “” I say privatize the US military and hire mercenaries.”

Does the name “Blackwater” ring a bell?

16 dearieme January 8, 2013 at 6:55 am

“two of the longest wars in our history”: the war against the Red Indians took several hundred years, surely?

17 Non Papa January 8, 2013 at 8:16 am

Sure, isn’t that sort of like saying the longest war in history was between Britain and France and lasted from 1066-1815?

18 anon January 8, 2013 at 8:24 am

Isn’t the longest war in historybetween England and the Irish and still going?

19 Roy January 8, 2013 at 9:47 am

The Indian Wars are really misunderstood, for the most part they were a series of discrete wars with years of peace in between. Often on a particular frontier there would be a series of discrete conflicts over a period of decades, and then a major conflict that ending fighting altogether on that frontier, this was certainly the case in the Northwest, basin, and with the Sioux. It wasn’t anything close to constant warfare everyone imagines except against the Commanche and the Apache, and war again the wars against the Apache had many discrete phases, or in other words seperate wars.

20 TallDave January 8, 2013 at 11:17 am

Yes, neither war actually lasted very long at all — Saddam’s regime fell within weeks, as did the Taliban. The occupations have lasted quite a while, but we’ve been occupying Germany since the 1940s and Korea since the 1950s, and we occupied the Philippines for several decades as well, with varying levels of violence and success.

21 prior_approval January 8, 2013 at 2:05 pm

‘but we’ve been occupying Germany since the 1940s’

Well, until the mid-1950s, according to http://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/cwr/107189.htm

‘In 1949, the occupying powers in both East and West Germany replaced their military governors with civilian leaders, and the occupations ended officially in the mid-1950s. Even so, both sides retained a strong interest in Germany, and the country and its capital remained divided throughout the Cold War. Reunification finally took place in October of 1990.’

Which meant this –

‘The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed in Moscow, USSR, on 12 September 1990, and it paved the way for German reunification on 3 October 1990.

Under the terms of the treaty, the Four Powers renounced all rights they formerly held in Germany, including in regard to the city of Berlin. As a result, the united Germany would become fully sovereign on 15 March 1991, with Berlin as its capital. It would be free to make and belong to alliances, and without any foreign influence in its politics. All Soviet forces were to leave Germany by the end of 1994. Before the Soviets withdrew, Germany would only deploy territorial defense units to areas where Soviet troops were stationed. After the Soviets withdrew, the Germans could freely deploy troops in those areas, with the exception of nuclear weapons. During the duration of the Soviet presence, Allied troops would remain stationed in Berlin upon Germany’s request.

Germany was to limit its combined armed forces to no more than 370,000 personnel, no more than 345,000 of whom were to be in the Army and the Air Force. Germany also reaffirmed its renunciation of the manufacture, possession of, and control over nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and in particular, that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would continue to apply in full to the unified Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany). No foreign armed forces, nuclear weapons, or the carriers for nuclear weapons would be stationed or deployed in six states (the area of Berlin and the former East Germany), making them a permanent Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. The German Army could deploy conventional weapons systems with nonconventional capabilities, provided that they were equipped and designed for a purely conventional role. Germany also agreed to use military force only in accordance with the United Nations Charter.’


Of course, it is quite possible this all happened before you were born, so it is understandable not having noticed.

22 TallDave January 9, 2013 at 3:22 pm

By that logic we stopped occupying Iraq around 2005, making it a very short occupation. Officially, the rest of the time we’ve been there was at the invitation of the Iraqi government.

23 Chris January 10, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Except there is a big difference between those occupations. US troops weren’t continuing to fight insurgencies in either Germany or Korea. When the war was over, it was because there was no more war. The “occupation” in Iraq and Afghanistan were very different as soldiers were still fighting, killing, and dying. Maybe technically different wars, but still war. The occupation in the Philippines after 1898, of course, was its own war. Perhaps we should be using a different word to distinguish between wartime occupations of conquered countries, and peacetime occupations after the war until official peace (or simple garrisoning of troops in legal agreements afterwards).

24 revver January 8, 2013 at 7:40 am

The system is also to blame for the staggering suicide rate among U.S. servicemen. Forget the “Fiscal Cliff”, this is the real national emergency. The U.S. military is a rotting carcass in more ways than one.

“…soldiers believe they’ll be deemed weak and denied promotion if they seek mental health aid”


25 prior_approval January 8, 2013 at 7:46 am

‘The military is perhaps as selfless an institution as our society has produced.’

Wow – considering how many bodies, not to mention pieces of bodies, the military produces, that is really saying something about selfless American institutions. Normally, only chickenhawks write such things.

Oh wait – the people our military kill don’t count in that selflessness, do they?

And before anybody misunderstands – a military incapable of killing is a military which is not worth having.

Which is why these discussions are always so strange – but having just read about how Kane was never in combat (if wikipedia is to be trusted), I see he really is not what someone who has would call a veteran.

For reference, from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=REMF

July 15, 2007 Urban Word of the Day
Rear Echelon Mother Fucker. One who has no frontline or combat experience, and therefore makes huge errors at expense of human life.

The REMF’s decisions make sense only if you think of human beings as statistics. This is the main problem with REMFs- they think of people as numbers.
Shit! That REMF canceled the supply drop! We’re on our own for this one!’

Hmmm, interesting example in the context of economics.

Also, for a variation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogue

26 anon January 8, 2013 at 8:27 am

I see he really is not what someone who has would call a veteran.

I see he really is not what I would call a veteran.

There, fixed that for you – since I assume you don’t speak for all vets. Or do you presume to do so?

27 prior_approval January 8, 2013 at 11:34 am

Well, I guess I grew up in the wrong place – the combat veterans I knew (from WWII, Korean, and Vietnam) might have included carrier pilots in their category of ‘veteran,’ but they never considered someone who served for less than 20 years worthy of much respect. Admittedly, this was back in the age of the draft, which undoubtedly influenced their view.

And mine, it would seem. Though the paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne I lived with for a couple of years back in the late 80s never considered himself a ‘veteran’ either – having only served for a couple of terms and never having been in combat.

28 mike January 8, 2013 at 8:30 am

Yeah, I’m not really seeing anything selfless about our military. It’s a massive welfare program that provides huge benefits and its members are treated like kings, even though nothing they’ve done in the past 50 years has been of any benefit to the American people. At this point it’s basically a big circle jerk of empty patriotardism and a dog and pony show to distract people from the decrepit degenerate state of affairs at home.

29 John Mansfield January 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

Even if what this former officer has to say is irrelevant to combat, the military’s support functions are still vital and where the bulk of the work is. If his advice is only applicable there, that’s still a huge domain of interest worth improving.

30 TallDave January 8, 2013 at 11:11 am

Even for you, this is ridiculous. The “selflessness” is the fact they’re risking their lives. The people they kill tend to be people that badly needed killing.

31 prior_approval January 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I keep wondering how many children deserve to be killed when their family house is destroyed. You seem to have that calculus worked out, however.

32 Da January 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm

It’s the democratically elected government that tells the soldiers where and what to strike and what costs are acceptable.
No one is saying the US (or any other) government is selfless.

The army as an institution though, and the people it consists of, a.k.a. the soldiers, those guys are indeed selfless in that their job’s gain/risk ratio is among the worst.

33 GiT January 8, 2013 at 7:56 pm

The military as an institution is a grasping, bloated, redundant pile of waste, which has aggrandized its own budget over the past 60 years. Not very selfless. But many of the soldiers may be quite selfless.

34 prior_approval January 8, 2013 at 11:59 pm

The quote from the review is ‘The military is perhaps as selfless an institution as our society has produced.’

The ‘selfless’ describes an institution whose purpose is death and destruction – and as pointed out by myself above, a military unable to create death and destruction is worthless.

People have such a hard time with this reality of the people I grew up around – a destroyer officer who shelled Vietnamese villages, a Marine officers who had fought in Korea, an Army officer buried at Arlington who was in the first day of the D-Day landings, carrier pilots who flew over Vietnam, and Army armor officers who fought in Vietnam.

None of them were stupid enough to think that they didn’t kill people who simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time – welcome to war. And being a combat veteran.

And to keep going with this term ‘veteran’ – everyone I grew up with that had an academy ring (at least five neighbors) served 30 years – Kane seems to have served the minimum term to cover his education before leaving (wikipedia is not perfectly clear on this part of his service record). None of my neighbors would have called him a veteran, nor would have that paratrooper, nor, it is reasonable to assume, essentially all the other men in the neighborhood, they all having served as draftees in the 40s or 50s.

‘Veteran’ was a term reserved for those that saw combat, or those that served long enough to retire from the military with at least half pay. Probably, considering just how universal military service used to be in the U.S., the term would have become meaningless, and lose all distinction for those that had earned it.

35 TallDave January 9, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Even at that level, the U.S. military generally targets only heinous regimes and makes a large effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Of course no reasonable effort will ever make the military-haters happy, they’re incapable of seeing a moral difference between the Normandy invasion and the Holocaust.

36 TallDave January 9, 2013 at 3:24 pm

The U.S. military goes to great lengths to avoid killing civilians, unlike the people they are typically killing.

Ask the Kurds about this. They have pretty strong opinions on the matter.

37 shecky January 8, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Over 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, who were badly in need of killing, a good deal due to the selfless efforts of American soldiers. Voluntarily enabling the state exercising its most grandiose power. So wisely applied.

38 TallDave January 9, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Such ignorance.

The U.S. military killed perhaps 10,000 people, the vast majority of whom were either AQ or Saddamist, both of whom badly needed killing. The large majority of civilian Iraqis who died were killed by AQ and Saddamists.

Seriously, you think all those car bombs in Iraq were set off by the U.S. military? Really?

39 Noah Yetter January 10, 2013 at 12:19 am

Risking one’s life in the service of useless-to-counterproductive goals chosen by evil men is not “selflessness”. It is the utter abdication of morality.

40 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 4:33 am

Well, in colloquial speech we think of “veteran” as someone who served during wartime. But in reality a veteran is anyone who served in the military, even those who were discharged under other than honorable conditions. The latter, though, lose most of their veterans’ benefits.

Training has its own hazards. I recall a statistic during the Persian Gulf War that more soldiers were killed in training or automobile accidents in the US than in the war. The life of a foot soldier is difficult regardless of whether they serve a single day in combat.

Imagine if our nation was blessed with 50 years of peace. The Army in the 50th year would likely be devoid of anyone with combat experience. Yet we would not expect that Army to be any less capable in our defense nor would we honor those soldiers any less for their voluntary service, their commitment to duty, and their sacrifices.

Not many soldiers were deployed to the Persian Gulf War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, etc. An entire generation of Army retirees between 1976 and 2003 saw no combat whatsoever. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, the percentage of soldiers who cross the wire every day is relatively small. When you consider the number of soldier-days served in those two wars, the casualties are likely the lowest of any wars in US history. (And when people hear ‘casualties’ they usually think of deaths, but actually it includes the wounded)

41 TallDave January 9, 2013 at 3:35 pm

In fact, iirc some years of peacetime during the 1980s had a higher rate of death than some of the war years since 2003.

42 Bill January 8, 2013 at 8:34 am

This book takes the position that humans would not take a statute and use it for their own purposes.

Come on. People get what they want regardless of the rule books you throw at them.

This is a highly bureaucratic, hierarchical organization. Do you expect individuals welcome job insecurity, or do you expect them to maximize personal security and their own welfare, especially if you stay in for awhile and there are few uses for your talents outside of the organization.

The short time I spent in the military convinced me that it was a huge waste of money and human talent. Maybe some of it has changed, but in looking at the recent experience of one relative, I don’t think so.

Pass me form DD-xxx-001 dash 2.

43 Brian Donohue January 8, 2013 at 10:58 am

“This is a highly bureaucratic, hierarchical organization. Do you expect individuals welcome job insecurity, or do you expect them to maximize personal security and their own welfare, especially if you stay in for awhile and there are few uses for your talents outside of the organization.”

Bill, Champion of Public Choice Theory!

44 Bill January 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm

I call them the way I see them.

45 Tarrou January 8, 2013 at 8:48 am

Couple points. (And can I just say, I am kind of giggly over the prospect of being able to speak with more authority on this subject as opposed to economics, where I remain a rank amateur).

1: The horrendous risk aversion of officers is real, but it is exclusive to the officer corps, which is a rotting bit of medieval vestigial BS anyway. Among NCO’s, a certain amount of misbehavior or mistakes, a few Article 15s, a demotion or two, are considered not only to be ok, but the sign of having a backbone. People who skate through without making hard decisions are punished by their peers and shuffled off to non-combat jobs in S-2 or 3.

2: This entire problem rests not on some bureaucratic manual, but on the separate tracks for enlisted and officer. This was one thing in the days of conscription, where officer candidates were chosen from among the general recruits, and there was little initial separation. Today, officers come into the military to be officers, not soldiers. Now, social fraternization is bad, and that is a good rule, but the complete separation of the tracks mean that NCO’s have to impress their soldiers, the other NCO’s and every officer in their CoC, while an officer’s only path to promotion is to please his immediate superior. This means the officer corps quickly became insulated post-Vietnam. My favorite metaphor is that an Army officer talking about war is like the Mayor of Chicago talking about street cleaning. They are vaguely aware that this process happens, but are completely ignorant of every single practical aspect of it.

46 Andrew' January 8, 2013 at 9:08 am

“an officer’s only path to promotion is to please his immediate superior.”

Who is probably trying to please the next guy up the chain. A guy who probably assumes that he gets no points for being shown up by someone below him.

47 Rahul January 8, 2013 at 10:04 am

Your metaphor would indicate officers are isolated from war; but how is that true? Lot of officers are indeed on the frontlines of combat aren’t they? Probablistically is an army officer less likely to see combat than a non-officer?

48 Tarrou January 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm

The officers sit in the FOB, attend meetings, congregate around the coffee machine, dream up secret squirrel hoops for the enlisted to jump through and only ever leave the FOB on a convoy to Baghdad or for their one big brigade-level “raid” (which will find a grand total of nothing, because you can’t sneak up on Haji with several thousand men and hundreds of vehicles) for which they all sit down and nominate the officer to their left for a Silver Star. Go ahead, take an officer to the range. Hand him some boots and a ruck. Hell, give him an e-tool and tell him you want overhead mortar cover on your fighting position. Tell him to put his own fill in his radio. Ask him his weapon serial number. Quiz him on when the PMCS was last done on his vehicle. Ask him how much sleep his men have had in the past week. Be prepared for a long and confused stare. Officers do not go “on the frontlines” unless by that you mean in the middle of a walled-off compound. Of course, there are a few exceptions, I hear some of the 82 actually patrol with their troops. Probably some SF, and the random conscientious dude who stumbled into his butterbar and will never make Captain. But officers as a whole? You have a better chance finding a sober person in the pub at 0200 than an officer who’s seen actual combat, it’s certainly possible, but you won’t find many. Probabilistically, an officer is many times less likely than a man under his command to see action. Only lieutenants have much chance at all of seeing regular combat, and then only if they try. Captains and up? Please.

49 Rahul January 8, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I couldn’t find a great authoritative source but one estimate from circa. 2008:

“Enlisted personnel make up 83% of the total force, and experienced 90% of the total casualties. Officers comprise 17% of the DOD force and had 10% of the casualties.”

Sure, enlisted men are more likely to die; but this doesn’t seem to support your picture of officers ensconced in almost total safety.

50 Tarrou January 8, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Look, part of this is the greater technology and lower manpower used in modern combat operations. A patrol used to be a company. Now it’s nine guys, or a squad. The leader of a squad is an E-5 or 6. You don’t send a lieutenant to command eight other soldiers. Building clearance is done in teams, and teams are commanded by E-4s and 5s. Route clearance is done by squad. Very few actions involve even a whole platoon, and even if it does, there is no reason why the butterbar should command instead of the platoon sergeant. I’ve been on a grand total of one mission larger than platoon level, that was regimental, and the Sgt. Major ran that one. Even if officers are present on a mission, they generally have the good sense to let the professionals handle the actual mission.

And no, officers are not always “ensconced in safety”. Even FOBs get mortared. And I said, a few officers do go out. And with the absence of “front lines”, even the POGliest of Fobbits can catch a bad break. I’m just saying, in one deployment, I was a participant in a dozen or so raids, 33 observation sets, and over a hundred patrols. And I never once took an order from an officer in the field. I rarely saw one outside the FOB, and the most common one to see outside the wire was the Chaplain (Col. Kuhlman, a damned fine soldier, and a good man, nothing of the scorn I heap on the officer corps should be construed as pertaining to him, he’s an exception).

51 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 4:41 am

An infantry officer is supposed to be where he can best control his elements. For a platoon leader, that usually means in the center of three squads – the vanguard squad being the most likely to make enemy contact. The tactical idea is to make enemy contact with one squad, maneuver to the enemy flank with another squad, and use the third squad for security, supporting fire, or as a reserve.

The squad leader (sergeant) of the squad in contact is likely to be under fire, but if a platoon leader (lieutenant) finds himself in the kill zone of an ambush, he really messed up. There is an identical description for a company operation consisting of three platoons, and the company commander (captain) is both likely and ideally not under enemy fire.

Officers who do their jobs correctly are not subject to enemy fire. That is at least one reason for the disproportionately low casualty rate. But I do not dispute that many officers, particularly on battalion, brigade, or task force staffs are “in the rear with the gear.” But again, their job is to NOT be under enemy fire. If your TOC is under fire, your commander either a serious mistake or enemy special forces or artillery have found their mark.

52 Cliff January 8, 2013 at 10:15 am

I don’t know many Army officers, but I do know a Colonel who up until recently was active in Iraq, and he seemed to know quite a lot about war. Quite a lot.

53 Tarrou January 8, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Hey, maybe you know that one-in-a-thousand. But I doubt it. Also, it’s pretty easy to sound knowledgeable to a civilian, no offense intended. I mean, a physicist could pretty much tell me anything he wanted about quarks and I’d believe him. Basically, officers exist in this parallel universe where what they decide matters. In reality-land, they dream up complicated and subtle “maneuvers” and some sergeant days “yes sir” and proceeds to ignore all that idiocy and remake the whole op-order so that it can actually be accomplished.

54 stuhlmann January 8, 2013 at 3:57 pm

“Now, social fraternization is bad, and that is a good rule, but the complete separation of the tracks mean that NCO’s have to impress their soldiers, the other NCO’s and every officer in their CoC, while an officer’s only path to promotion is to please his immediate superior. ” This may be true for staff officers, but not for officers in leadership positions – platoon leaders and commanders. Soldiers will not willingly follow an officer that they find to be incompetent or untrustworthy. Junior officers have to prove themselves to the men they lead, just as NCOs do. This is one reason why lieutenants have high casualty rates in combat – they lead from the front.

55 Tarrou January 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Except junior officers don’t generally “lead” troops. Some E-6 or E-7 is commanding every patrol, every raid, and the E-5s are running the teams. At what point do you think the officers “lead”? I only ever saw my officers when I came out of the field and reported on my mission. I never, ever was commanded by one in the field. Not once. They might ring me on the radio from their chair in the FOB and tell me to do something stupid, but that gets ignored quickly. You are right, soldiers won’t follow the officers that are incompetent. Luckily for us, we don’t have to.

56 LibertyRisk January 8, 2013 at 8:59 am

I haven’t read the book but from the summaries provided I think Mr. Kane is spot on with his arguments. I’m a submarine officer set to resign in a few months and the lack of meritocracy is one of the primary reasons I’m doing so. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m bitter, I had a lot of great experiences and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to serve. I’m going to look back on this period of my life fondly. However, as a top performer it can become frustrating.

I would stay in the military if I could be the captain of my own boat within the next few years. I understand the value of experience and dues paying to some degree but the modern military has taken it to an extreme level. I would have to spend over a decade punching the clock to reach that goal, and the rules are set up so that it’s impossible to speed up the process. My career will advance at the same rate as an average performer for the first 15 years at least. It’s difficult to stay motivated to do the best job you can in that kind of environment. I’m fairly self motivated and have been ranked first among my peers for 4 consecutive years. I’m very proud of that but it will have little to no impact on my career trajectory and I took on a lot of additional responsibilty and stress to make it happen, more or less sacrificing any type of satisfying personal life in the process. The road ahead looks bleak and frustrating so I’ve decided to try to find a field in the civilian world where I’ll be rewarded for top performance (I realize this kind of environment is hard to find in general but I’m still relatively young and single so it’s worth rolling the dice).

57 Andrew' January 8, 2013 at 9:10 am

Sales. That’s all I got.

58 DKF January 8, 2013 at 9:40 am

Yep, your story is repeated thousands of times each year. I left as a junior officer over 20 years ago, with the same reasoning. Happily, I can report the business world provided much of what I was missing in the military–although I do miss the sense of mission that one finds in the military on its best day.
A word of advice–you’ll be well-recruited by defense contractors, and by large, bureaucratic organizations who find that ex-officers are a good fit for their culture. It’s easy to fall into a job that way–you’ll get a substantial boost in your compensation versus where you are now, and you’ll feel secure. Resist the urge to do that–better a small organization that’s going places, a high-risk turnaround, or to strike out on your own. If you’re going for a change, don’t trade what you have for a better-comped imitation with different titles. Good luck.

59 Ray Lopez January 8, 2013 at 11:14 am

There’s a lot of ex-US service people who end up CEOs. Lots. For example, Chainsaw Al Dunlap. Not the best example but you see my point.

60 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 4:49 am

Well, I left the Army for similar reasons related to general unfairness, but as a lawyer I had much more lucrative opportunities outside the military once I had litigation experience.

Ironically, I only worked a few years as a lawyer in government and the private sector before becoming jaded with that profession. Not only could I not accept the moral and ethical compromises required for the job, there was an appalling lack of fairness in merit.

I ended up in financial services where my rewards were much more highly correlated with my performance. Although unexpected market movements were beyond my control, my client base remained remarkably stable and funds under management didn’t vacillate as much as one might expect. I suppose our relatively conservative investment strategies and cool-headed client base smoothed out the rough spots. Not everyone in financial services can claim to live in a fair world, but I did OK.

61 DCBILLS January 8, 2013 at 9:16 am

Great comments above. Someone who can do something needs to make some big changes. Robots anyone? I am a veteran and have seen what Senator Kaine describes so well.

62 Affe January 8, 2013 at 10:14 am

This topic seems related to the one raised by Tom Ricks in his recent book “The Generals”, about the failure to remove non-performing top brass over the past few decades. Great quote in there: “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

63 Ray Lopez January 8, 2013 at 11:20 am

Losing a war is not a big deal–if you regain it later. George Washington lost a lot of battles, as well as Rommel, and so did this guy: Lord Chelmsford http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederic_Augustus_Thesiger,_2nd_Baron_Chelmsford but they did better later (for the latter, see Battle of Ulundi). Let’s face it: with war becoming more robotic, these kinds of problems will fade over time as the only drawback to losing a robotic war is that you wrecked some expensive equipment.

64 Affe January 8, 2013 at 11:47 am

Battles, not the war. You lose some expensive equipment… and potentially leave “their” robots to roam Ghengis/Predator-style all over your population…

65 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 5:02 am

While this is a seemingly paradoxical result, consider that a private has far more control over his rifle than the general has over the war.

Rule 1: A leader is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do.
Rule 2: Never hold someone accountable for something they do not have the power to control.

Leadership accountability is a delicate balance.

66 TallDave January 8, 2013 at 11:08 am

That act binds the military into a system that honors seniority over individual merit.

Just like our failed public education system. Incentives matter!

67 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 4:59 am

Seriously, where in government is this NOT the rule of the jungle?

68 j r January 8, 2013 at 11:17 am

I’m not sure that there is a practical way around the up or out structure of the military. The military is necessarily a pyramid. You need more platoon leaders than batallion commanders, more fighter pilots than wing commanders. And you can’t expect someone to be a battalion commander unless they’ve spent some time as platoon leader, company commander, staff officer, etc. That means that you have to rotate people through these positions.

It’s possible that someone could make a really great company commander or intelligence analyst, but is simply not cut out to be a field grade officer. If you keep that person indefinitely in the position that he or she is good at, it creates a bottleneck that keeps those coming in behind from being able to cycle through the necessary positions.

Also, officers are by definition managers. So, someone who is good at his or her particular specialty but unable to handle increasing levels of managerial responsibility is not a good officer. I guess you could create a further managerial class within the officer ranks, but that seems ridiculously redundant and would only create more bureaucracy.

69 Peter January 8, 2013 at 6:44 pm

They actually used to have something similar to what you are suggesting a long time ago, at least at the sub-officer level. In the Army, on the enlisted side, you had (after E3) a management chain (NCO) and a specialist chain (specialist) that no longer really exists outside name only at the E4 level (Specialist v. Corporal but in reality the specialist is just a glorified private). There also use to be a stronger warrant office corp but they have also been slowly eroded over the years.

Basically you have the standard “Peter principle” problem you have in most organizations but, unlike the private sector, they are hard to get rid of (easier to promote them somewhere else, i.e. “fuck up move up”) or have little incentive to move on (effectively near automatic promotions of marginal candidates, i.e. “Don’t embarrass your boss and you will at the minimum make E7 / O5) and can just wait out the twenty year.

What I would REALLY like to see is more movement of staff functions to the civil service with support enlisted functions turned over to contractors with the green suitors mostly be combat oriented or tactical support. No reason not to make your A/S/J/N level officers primarily career civil servants / bean counters. Would also like to see more officer billets moved to warrant positions, less officers period (ideally command only), and a reinstatement of the specialist v. NCO concept where yes you could have a Spec-7 who lacks the NCO’s commadn authority and functionally acts as an “enlisted warrant”.

Other than that though, I agree with your main point that the military by it’s very nature needs to be extremely command oriented and hierarchical.

70 Tarrou January 8, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Peter’s got some good thoughts. Personally, I’d dispense with either specialist or Warrant, they’re the same concept, just have one. And I’d dispense with all enlisted ranks above E-7, and start officer ranks with Captain, right above that. Promotion could track at the E-4 level and again at E-7, shunt the technicians into Warrant (or specialist, whatever) and command potential up the chain. And I’d completely eliminate officer entrance as a separate track, and promote from the ranks exclusively. Of course, not going to happen, but it’s a nice thought.

71 Peter January 8, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Well the nice thing about keeping two levels of specialists, just like command (commissioned officers v. NCO’s), is you can break up responsibility / training levels. Easy examples here (I’m not saying every MOS needs to have specialists) are medical (Make all the docs warrants, make the nursing/support staff specialists and toss in a few NCO’s and CO’s for command / overall supervision), chaplain (warrant priest, specialist assistant), or even something like communications electronics repair (something like an old MOS 74G) where the warrant is a EE equivalent and the specialist is more soldering, switching circuit boards, etc. In the IT fields you can have a warrant as something like your tier 3 support (network and systems engineers) whereas the day-to-day O&M Tier 1/2 admins are specialists. You then tier it within those levels between junior and seniors (i.e. your Spec-4 74B (?) might be tier 1 help desk / unit level IT support / rack monkey / log monitor) whereas your spec-7 might be tier 2 or installation O&M (NOC, etc)).

But regardless agree with you it will never happen as way to many politics 🙂

72 Tarrou January 9, 2013 at 8:11 am

Another thought I had is a method of paying by seniority but commanding by merit. One problem is a ton of guys who are happy in their job are forced “up or out”. This plus financial constraints as soldiers age and gain families, etc. As it is now, the Army promotes everyone except the worst of the worst. In the enlisted, they just bust down the NCO’s who don’t work out. In the officer corps, they shunt them around to staff work. If we could pay by seniority to some degree, i.e. have a basic raise every three years instead of an expected promotion, that takes the pressure off and the military could be more selective in its leaders.

73 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 4:58 am

I was surprised to learn on a recent trip to a floating museum that most aircraft carrier commanders serve for about one year.

On the one hand, it’s an amazing waste of talented experience. On the other hand, the quick turnaround creates opportunities for more officers. Those selected for Admiral can continue, and those not selected can retire with a substantial chip on their shoulder.

74 Gene Callahan January 8, 2013 at 9:43 pm

“Tim is a frequent (unofficial) member of the GMU lunch crew”

Your lunch group has *official* members?!

75 prior_approval January 9, 2013 at 12:16 am

For those interested, via metafilter ( http://www.metafilter.com/123605/Firing-on-Air-Force-Kind-of-a-Drag-on-Navy-Career ) –

‘The U.S. Senate has declined to promote Captain Timothy W. Dorsey to the rank of rear admiral (lower half). Dorsey, currently serving as Navy Reserve inspector general, was involved in one of the more bizarre friendly fire incidents in U.S. Military History, intentionally shooting down a U.S. Air Force jet during military exercises some 25 years ago.

On September 22, 1987, then Lieutenant Dorsey intentionally fired on and destroyed a U.S. Air Force RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft, forcing the two Air Force pilots to eject. While a subsequent investigation found Doresy guilty of committing an “illogical act” and the Navy banned him from flying, he continued to enjoy a long career in military intelligence. He was nominated for promotion on Febuary 9, 2012. The Department of Defense claims the Navy did not provide full information about Dorsey’s past. Despite this recent hang-up in his career path, Dorsey looks forward to being confirmed by the Senate when his nomination is resubmitted.’

And note how he continued his career in ‘military intelligence,’ yet again proving just how oxymoronic the term is.

76 John Mansfield January 9, 2013 at 8:15 am

So, should there be/is there a zero defect mentality that severely punishes errors or not?

77 prior_approval January 9, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Well, read the information from the link to find out how the Navy works, at least (hint- McCain benefitted from the same system, though admittedly less appallingly, in his case).

78 Willitts January 9, 2013 at 4:54 am

The drawdown in forces during the 1990s is probably the most significant factor in the degradation of the US military. During that decade, the leadership pyramid became more narrow, opportunities outside the military became more lucrative for high ability people, and the ‘zero defects’ mentality permeated the military based on the political sensitivities of its commander in chief. The drawdown and the associated command climate caused a lot of good officers and noncommissioned officers to leave. Those who remained generally consisted of two types – the fiercely loyal high performers and the low opportunity cost dullards who couldn’t do better outside the military. I would like to say that the former always outperformed the latter in career progression, but that was not always the case. Dullards in the military can attain rank simply by waiting their time and not stepping on a career ending landmine such as drunk driving.

79 John Mansfield January 9, 2013 at 8:23 am

This calls back to memory something a then recently retired young submarine officer said to me around 1995. “Military people are not all the same. On any issue—gun control, abortion, what have you—you’ll find all kinds of views. There’s only one political thing we all agree on, and that’s that we all hate President Clinton.”

80 prior_approval January 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Well, except for those people in the Navy that didn’t – I’m thinking specifically of a Naval Academy fellow graduate of McCain’s (who refused to vote for him after he picked Palin, though he had been a tepid supporter before that point).

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