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By Major Donald E. Vandergriff, USA

Yet senior officers continue to state that the U.S. military is effective, and that is the problem. We need to create effective personnel policies and not rely on technology in order to prepare the military for the battlefields of the 21st century. Of course, there are some brilliant men who already understand how to solve our readiness problems if those who make the decisions would only listen.

The late retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd, one of our most creative military thinkers and theorists, was a self-taught mathematician and aeronautical engineer whose energy maneuverability theories of the 1950s and 1960s revolutionized the design of modern fighter aircraft. Boyd's most important insight was, "Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds." 7 To understand which technologies work on the battlefield, for example, one first must understand how people think and act in the fog, fear, and chaos of combat. Only with such understanding is it possible to design technologies that serve the needs of the people involved. Boyd's focus on people has obvious application to the services' officer personnel systems. Just as technology must serve the service member in combat, so too must the military's structures for selecting, indoctrinating, assigning, and promoting officers serve the service member in combat. Only by understanding the needs and dynamics of the people who serve in a fighting unit is it possible to design a personnel system that advances the organization's combat objectives.

Today, the U.S. military's officer culture has strayed far afield from these common sense ideas. Technology now is an end in itself, not a means to an end. Joint Vision 2010 and similar service literature explicitly state that technology especially highly complex, expensive technology will revolutionize the conduct of war. 8 Indeed, the notion that machines fight wars and that people are of secondary importance has become so deeply ingrained that the Department of Defense posters commemorating Armed Forces Day over the past four years glorified the nation's defense arsenal rather than the sacrifices of its service members. Even more troubling, the military's personnel system reinforces these misguided priorities and has created an officer culture that is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War era.

The historical experiences of World War II and the Cold War and their legacies of attrition-style warfare supported by mass mobilization that have shaped the current officer personnel system and its command structure are no longer valid. In addition, the U.S. military's outdated personnel system and command structures are reinforced by, and have contributed to, its preoccupation with technology. The current structure actually militates against combat readiness and effectiveness. The military's future effectiveness does not depend upon a technologically driven revolution, but upon a true cultural revolution. The military's doctrine, education system, and the way it accesses, develops, and promotes officers must be revised to elevate military professionalism above competing political and economic concerns. Inevitably, this will require the realization of Boyd's vision and a shift in our leaders' focus from technology to the people who use technology to defend the national interest.

Why Our Officer Culture Is Harmful

Today's officer culture is the product of four overlapping generations: an early tradition of improvisation and the myth of the frontiersman; personnel policies derived from the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century; World Wars I and II; and the obsession with mobilization for World War III. These periods established trends that can be tied to the change in testimony by the service chiefs regarding deteriorating readiness from February to September 1998. The legacies of the first generation have allowed Americans to forget about their military's initial disasters owing to its unpreparedness. The next three generations saw the implementation of policies with good intentions, but these ended up creating unintended negative consequences. These policies include the up-or-out promotion system which is related to a subjective, highly inflated evaluation system. Together, these are used to determine promotions and selections by centralized boards of senior officers who make the decisions based on selection by exception, or by weeding out officers sometimes on no more than a single negative mark in their service records. These practices also are related to personnel management policies derived from a management practice of trying to give everyone a "fair" chance at critical positions needed for promotion and selection. Finally, when combined with a bloated officer corps at the middle and upper levels, these factors force officers into a few key "jobs" such as command, Pentagon, and Joint Staff time, with little time to learn or gain experience. To the servicemen and women in units, squadrons, or on ships, the process resembles a revolving door. Officers are not allowed to make mistakes or rock the boat without paying for it at the next promotion board. The military has created entire generations of risk-averse officers who see intellectual challenges as threats to their career well-being.

The first generation, which began with the establishment of the Continental Army under George Washington, was shaped by two disparate influences: the aristocratic traditions of the British officer corps and the challenges of the American frontier experience. The continuation of the aristocratic model during the early national period has left the Army and the other services with traditions of anti-intellectualism and anti-professionalism, and a belief that Americans simply can improvise required armed forces during war-time. In addition, with Washington's and succeeding generations, officers' energies were channeled into the pursuit of career advancement. With very little to do during the duty day, and because they were recruited from a relatively broad social base, American officers took matters of rank and promotion seriously. A tradition began of identifying rank as the principal determinant of both status and financial well-being. This later would be labeled as careerism. Despite this, in the period between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, professionalism began to take hold in the form of professional journals and the establishment of military schools. 9

The second generation of American warfare began with Secretary of War Elihu Root's attempt to professionalize the Army following General Emory Upton's visit to Germany in 1876, and encompassed the Army's failure to mobilize effectively to fight the Spanish-American War in 1898. The age of Progressivism was sweeping the country. While younger officers embraced professional studies and education in military arts, the more senior officers were shaped largely by the theories of management science involving the bureaucratic organizational model and an education system that followed Cartesian methods of math, which follow a systematic approach to problem solving; i.e, if one simply follows a formula or checklist, the problem will be solved. When applied to the battlefield, Cartesian methods treat the enemy as a nonthinking entity and assume that well-served technology will overcome any opponent. The need to mobilize, train, and ship millions to Europe rapidly for World War I only tightened the second generation's grasp on linear solutions to nonlinear problems. 10

The third generation, which began in World War I and continued through Vietnam, was characterized by an authoritarian and centralized command structure. With only a small peacetime officer corps consisting of a few professionals who understood war during the interwar period, there was no choice but to choose a top-down style of command in order to execute an attrition-style doctrine, enhanced by technology. The expansionist nature of the military created a doctrine that emphasized firepower. Attrition doctrine with its industrial-age individual replacement system, supported by the vastness of American industrial might was assimilated easily by the millions of amateurs the country began to train. 11 After World War II, Chief of Staff George Marshall institutionalized the mobilization strategy by convincing Congress to pass OPA 47. The impact of OPA 47 is felt today with a bloated officer corps in all the services at the middle and upper grades; the up-or-out promotion system; and the all-or-nothing, 20-year retirement system. These three factors lie behind today's culture, which is characterized by a destructive competitive ethic, constant promotion anxiety, and officers who are risk-averse. 12

But when these approaches led to failures in combat, officers did step forward to challenge and reform the culture. The fourth generation encompasses the military's dramatic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s which affected almost every aspect of the military's operations except its officer personnel system. A new, more maneuver-oriented doctrine called AirLand Battle was adopted by both the Army and Air Force and actually aligned emerging technology with the way the United States fought. Education was improved, while the Army and Marine Corps strove vainly to make a unit-replacement system work within a larger individual personnel system. This dramatic move within the personnel bureaucracy sought to do what history has proven to be a combat multiplier forming and keeping individuals and leaders together for years by rotating cohesive units in combat. Instead, the personnel system analysts destroyed these programs by applying tangible measures applicable to individuals such as reenlistment rates and individual weapon qualification to whole units. Measures that are quite effective in determining the worth of weapon systems failed in quantifying unit personnel systems. 13

Ironically, the victories in Panama in 1989 and the Gulf in 1991, and the drawdown of the military afterwards, allowed the military to retain its old culture and diminish the effect of the reforms of the late 1970s and 1980s. While many senior leaders pointed to the downsizing of the early 1990s as a cause for increased careerism, downsizing actually exposed the larger problems that had been covered up because of the plentiful years under President Ronald Reagan. As a result, we have returned to our old friend technology as the solution to all problems.

Keeping the Past

Before Congress addresses readiness by throwing money at the problem, it must insist that the military first reform, reshape, and readjust its officer personnel system. The personnel bureaucracies in the services no doubt will oppose any diminution of its power. The effects of the officer personnel system, including its accession, promotion, and development subsystems, feed and shape the doctrine, acquisition, training, and education that build and maintain a war machine. It has produced a war machine with at least three interrelated consequences that weaken our military's responsiveness and its capacity to fight effectively.

First, it takes a long time for our military to prepare to fight. The United States either must rely on a strategy to buy time, such as using a coalition that is willing to hold and bleed an opponent for months or years (e.g., France and Britain in World War I, or the Soviet Union in World War II), or have an adversary give us an inordinate time to build up and train a force for action (e.g., Iraq before Desert Storm). 14

Second, the prescribed preparation period is made longer and more turbulent by the use of a management-driven individual replacement system, rather than the more cohesive unit rotation system (where personnel are kept together and units replace units). This prevents the United States from applying low-cost, yet constant, political and military pressures in contingency situations with an ability to rotate cohesive units that are maintained at high readiness levels. 15 Instead, units are stripped of individuals sometimes from returning units in order to fill deploying units to authorized levels. 16

Finally, once this unwieldy bureaucratic mammoth actually goes to war, it employs a doctrine of centrally controlled firepower that would make World War I British General Douglas Haig and French General Robert Nivelle smile in vindication. The main thought behind U.S. operational art is to throw in the tonnage and push opponents back with a bloody, attrition-driven frontal attack (e.g., it took outside intervention by the Defense Secretary and National Security Advisor to get General Norman Schwartzkopf to plan a "left hook" into Kuwait, rather than a frontal assault up the Wadi al Batin and still about half the Republican Guard escaped through the open back door). 17 It is clear that even as it fights a new, attrition-driven conflict in the Balkans, the U.S. military remains very conservative in its thinking.

The Trend Continues

Our military is fueled by a culture that views argument directed toward higher command as disloyalty. Dr. Williamson Murray, a renowned military historian in his article, "Military Culture Does Matter" warns of the dangers inherent in a military culture that discourages free thought. Dr. Murray contends that any military "that remain[s] totally enmeshed in the day-to-day tasks of running [its] administrative business, that ignore[s] history and serious study, and that allows [itself] to believe [its] enemies will possess no asymmetric approaches [is], frankly, headed for defeat." 18 Active and retired officers have called attention to the fact that the officer corps discourages academic debate about its decisions concerning doctrine, force structure, and personnel issues. In the foreword of Bob Leonard's book, The Principles of War for the Information Age , Major General Robert H. Scales Jr., Commandant of the U.S. Army War College, scolds the officer corps for its lack of debate. He writes, "Increasingly, our young army officers do not include themselves in the great doctrinal debates, nor are they challenged enough to investigate the principles which form the very basis of our profession." Leonard adds that, "The problem is that [debate] is not rigorous. It has yet to seriously challenge basic beliefs and gut-level issues. Military and civilian leaders are still in their comfort zone concerning the character of future war." 19 With these points in mind, generals and civilian leaders should be asking what is causing this aversion to dialogue, and whether it is good for the U.S. military and the country.

Not surprisingly, we are seeing the results of this one-dimensional mindset demonstrated with the continuing air war against Serbia. Historians recall how similar attacks affected the morale strength of their targets in years past. The German V-2 missile attacks on Britain enraged the British. Saddam's scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia enraged Americans. It is unclear at this point whether or not the bombing of Serbia has had any meaningful effect on the Serbians' willingness to resist. Because most of the so-called defense intellectuals do not understand war, the fear of even the smallest number of casualties limits the United States to poor strategic options. Is this because of a lack of confidence in the ability of men to do the job, and a greater faith in machines? If officers within the military particularly senior officers cannot debate among themselves, then how can they be expected to tell Congress the truth? If this trend continues, the use of e-mail remains the only way the truth will continue to rise from the ranks to disclose true readiness problems. 20

Major Vandergriff currently is serving as assistant professor of military science at Duke University, Army ROTC.

   1. Rick Maze, "Congress hears readiness woes," Army Times , 12 October 1998, p. 4. back to article
   2. This includes the United States and its NATO allies, and South Korea divided by a combined dollar value spent by rogue states as North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and possible opponents such as China and the Soviet Union.
back to article
   3. This can be seen in a number of e-mails that Congressmen, journalists, prominent defense reformists, and senior officers receive. The author daily receives e-mail that concern readiness problems. back to article
   4. Discussions with Mr. Franklin "Chuck" Spinney on 8 October 1998. Mr. Spinney is a noted defense analyst who has compiled detailed and accurate data on the cost of the modernization program that is undermining readiness and costing the American taxpayer billions of dollars. back to article
   5. A number of works discuss the influence of management science on the officer corps: Andrew J. Bacevich, Jr. "Progressivism, Professionalism, and Reform," Parameters , March 1979, p. 4; Samual P. Hays, "Introduction," in Jerry Isrel, ed., Building the Organizational Society (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1971), p. 3; Jack C. Lane, The Armed Progressive (Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1978), p. 150; Paul Y. Hammond, Organizing for Defense: The American Defense Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 10; Russel F. Weigley, "Elihu Root Reforms and the Progressive Era," in William Geffen, ed., Command and Commanders in Modern War (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1971), p. 24. back to article
   6. U.S. Congress, Officer Personnel Act of 1947 (Congressional Record, 1st Session, July 1947), p. 289. back to article
   7. John Boyd, "A Discourse on Winning and Losing," unpublished briefing, August 1987, pp. 5-7. Discussions with Mr. Franklin Spinney. back to article
   8. Joint Warfighting Center, Concept for Future Joint Operations: Expanding JV 2010 Ideas (Fort Monroe, VA: U.S. Training and Doctrine Command, 1997), pp. 2 & 13. back to article
   9. Faris Kirkland, "The Gap Between Leadership Policy and Practice: A Historical Perspective," Parameters , September 1990, pp. 54-55. Discussions with Dr. Faris Kirkland, 12 April 1998. See also Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime 1784-1898 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 61-64, 194-198. back to article
  10. James H. Hays, The Evolution of Military Officer Personnel Management Policies: A Preliminary Study with Parallels from Industry (Washington, D.C.: RAND, 1978), pp. 105-114. back to article
  11. Kirkland, "The Gap Between Leadership . . . ," pp. 54-55. back to article
  12. William Hauser, "Restoring Military Professionalism," (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1985), pp. 1-3. back to article
  13. William Hauser, "The Peacetime Army: Retrospect and Prospect," in Robin Higham and Carol Brandt, ed., The United States Army in Peacetime (Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs, 1975), p. 217. See also David McCormick, The Downsized Warrior: America's Army in Transition (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 89-111. back to article
  14. Edward N. Luttwak, The Pentagon and the Art of War (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1985), pp. 100-105, 188. back to article
  15. Based on discussions with Dr. Steven Canby. back to article
  16. Russell F. Weigley, "American Strategy from its Beginnings through the First World War," in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 439-441. back to article
  17. James F. Dunnigan, How to Make War (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1993), p. 584-585. See also James Burton, "Desert Storm: A Different Look," unpublished briefing, June 1995. back to article
  18. Williamson Murray, "Military Culture Does Matter," Foreign Policy Research Institute Wire (downloaded from the Internet), January 1999. back to article
  19. Robert Leonhard, The Principles of War in the Information Age (Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1998), pp. vii & xiv. back to article
  20. Chuck Spinney, "Email Common Sense (II): TacAir Readiness, Suppressing Email from the Troops, and the Widening Wedge of Mistrust," Chuck Spinney Comments (downloaded from the Internet), 6 Feb 1999. back to article


Major Vandergriff is a senior analyst in leader and Soldier development at the Army Capabilities Integration Center Forward in Crystal City, Virginia. He served 24 years on active duty as an enlisted Marine and Army officer and has written 50 articles and four books including Path to Victory: America's Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs (Presidio Press, 2002).

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