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Nobody Asked Me But…A Few Good Men...But Not Always

By Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Williams, U.S. Marine Corps

A particularly egregious case in point is provided by the FY 1996 selection list for colonel, which contains the name of an officer who recently had been relieved for cause. This relief did not stem from a personality conflict; it was a matter of operational incompetence. Nevertheless, this same officer subsequently has been selected for top-level school and for command as a colonel. The existence of "teflon men" like this one sends a clear message: somebody Up There likes them. Was this travesty an isolated incident of tampering, an honest mistake, or a clear example of a broken, inequitable selection system? Whatever it is, the official silence about this has been deafening.

The growing perception in the Corps is that to have any kind of future one must became a hand-picked member of the "core of elite" early on, usually as a captain or major. That is the only way to survive in a flawed system that has little or nothing to do with demonstrated contributions to the Corps' prowess as a war fighter, or sheer diversity of experience. On the other hand, it seems to have everything to do with ticket-punching and sponsorship, where subjectivity can overcome the perils of a zero-defects de-selection board mentality. The present system is causing officers—of all services—to focus more on the danger-avoidance management of their careers than on selfless performance of duty.

Our priorities are out of whack. Statistics show that more credit is given by selection boards for being a general's aide than for valorous service in combat or top-quality performance in demanding operational assignments. Personal decorations—awarded for valor or meritoriously—seem to carry little weight with board. Goldwater-Nichols notwithstanding, being a "joint"-qualified officer also appears to carry little weight in board deliberations. This is evident in the low rate of selection of joint-service officers on the FY 1995 and FY 1996 colonels selection lists. Is the Marine Corps merely paying lip service to jointness, while holding back its "core of elite" from joint duty?

Our professional-education and command-selection processes also contribute to the problem. The most extraordinary bit of deception in these transparent preference processes is the official assurance that officers are "still competitive," even after failing selection for top-level school or command assignments, or that such selections are not pre-ordained stepping stones to promotion. To the contrary, there appears to be a direct correlation between those lists and upward mobility. Just match the FY 1995 and FY 1996 command and top-level school selection results against subsequent promotions.

It's not easy to be a Marine. If it were, our Corps would not have maintained its hard-won reputation over the years. Not everyone can become a Marine, and everyone cannot keep on being promoted as selection opportunities narrow at the top of the pyramid. Nevertheless, there has to be a better way of selecting those few at the top—one that rewards honest achievement and eschews favoritism.

Being a Marine is about dedication, professionalism, life-threatening risks, and personal sacrifices. As success-oriented achievers, Marines find it hard to accept failure of selection for promotion without a valid explanation. They shouldn't be expected to retire quietly, without questioning the process that forced them into retirement. "Life is not fair," some senior officers will say—trying lamely to explain the inexplicable. That may well be true. But when it comes to managing a controllable selection process, it is a cop-out.

More frustrating yet is to observe less-qualified officers promoted instead of others more deserving, then hearing that there is "no apparent reason" the others weren't selected, as well. In time, repeated use of this non-explanation leads growing numbers to believe that a secret, subjective process exists within the system. Such unexpected and unexplained failures of selection can leave passed-over Marines feeling tainted, thinking ill of themselves, and in time, convinced that they have been betrayed by a corrupt system.

Under a fair and equitable system, only the best and most qualified officers would be selected—and none of the ticket-punchers would. These ticket-punchers usually turn out to be risk-avoiding officers who shy away from practically every challenge but that of being continually servile to those who outrank them-to the detriment of Marines they purport to lead. Most Marines see through this before long. And when the selection rate to colonel is averaging about 40%, the undeserving who may be hiding in that fortunate 40% quickly will feel the animosity within the remaining 60%.

General Krulak notes in his Planning Guidance that "there is a growing lack of faith of our Marines in the system's ability to accurately identify their skills and potential." Knowing this, how can he ensure that Marines will continue to take care of their own? How can the system be fixed, then improved?

More objectivity can be introduced into the selection process by developing a numerical cutting-score system for officers, patterned to some extent on the in-place enlisted system. Following this concept, every officer billet in the Marine Corps would be assigned a degree-of-difficulty value. Other things that would receive numerical ratings would include; total Fleet Marine Force time; combat experience; deployments and amphibious operational experience; other operational experience; decorations and awards; meritorious augmentation; peer evaluations; professional writing; advanced education; acquisition qualification; and physical fitness test scores. Less-quantifiable qualities to consider are staff qualifications, leadership, and moral courage.

Under such a system, a high cutting score will lead to selection, not a board member's bias. The secretive selection system we have now grants board members immunity from challenge. Human dynamics can never be eliminated completely from the process, but for the process to gain rank-and-file credibility, we must create an objective mechanism that alleviates the general doubt and suspicion that exists today.

In selecting officers for promotion, we must take the same care we do in procuring equipment. Our Marines are the most precious commodity in our inventory, and they deserve nothing less than the best leadership—top to bottom—we can pick for them. Once this proposed selection process has been completed, a separate validation board would examine the findings and recommendations of the selection board. We would then be able to learn the reason one officer might be picked over another. This would restore considerable trust and confidence in the system. This question is larger than just the promotion of one Marine over another. It is about restoring fairness to and confidence in our system. Even the best of our officers seldom know where they stand, once they become eligible for selection. Such uncertainty spreads mistrust of the system. Compounding the difficulty is the reluctance of many of our senior leaders to admit that a problem exists. The system worked for them, didn't it?

The Marine Corps must be capable of change from within, as called for by the Commandant. To meet the high standards we set for ourselves, we need a superior selection system. We should begin by fixing the one we have now.

Lieutenant Colonel Williams is a Marine infantry officer who has served two combat tours in Vietnam. He is the operations officer for the Integrated Logistical Support Directorate in Albany, Georgia.

 

 
 

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