The recent Military Times report America’s Military: A Force Adrift exposes shockingly low morale in the services. The findings add to those revealed in the 2014 Navy Retention Survey, but they conflict with outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s assessment, as Hope Hodge Seck points out in Chapter 1 of the Times study, “A Worsening Morale Crisis.” Less than a month before its release, Secretary Hagel opined: “overall . . . the morale of our men and women in uniform, our civilians, is high.” The last thing senior leaders need is a looming manpower crisis, but the truth has been uncovered, and that is exactly what they face. This disturbing state of mind and lack of trust challenge retention efforts.
Events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the implementation of a strategic refocus toward the Pacific, the real and perceived impacts of budget constraints, and Congress’ inability to pass defense appropriations on time already compete for leaders’ attention. The findings of these two independent initiatives are equally important.
Based on the Military Times’ survey of 2,300 active-duty troops, only 27 percent—about a quarter of the force—believe “senior military leadership has [their] best interest at heart.” That is disconcerting but not surprising. When one considers that less than half of respondents rate positively their pay and allowances, healthcare, the quality of officers, and their equipment, why would they trust leadership?
Senior leaders influence these factors to varying degrees. Combined with high-profile lapses in personal and professional conduct, constant talk of predators in our midst, and overbearing, nanny-state policies, it is no wonder junior service members have lost faith.
It’s beyond time for improvements, but rarely do we hear of concrete initiatives that address these realities. We see no shortage of unnecessary action on uniforms, hairstyle policies, and mandatory training, but what of the things that matter? It seems the true issues are so severe that leaders have been rendered catatonic, unable to take any action because they don’t know where to begin.
Today’s leaders and their predecessors created this situation. The longer we wait to fix it, the tougher it will be. The issues facing the services have become so complex and intertwined, improving them probably feels impossible. If these studies are to be believed, someone had best ignore such feelings and identify appropriate corrective measures.
We do not yet have a crisis, but we could quickly. Should the economy improve, particularly unemployment, our core troops—middle enlisted and mid-grade officers—could depart in large numbers. This would worsen the “brain drain” about which retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno and others have warned. Good recruiting does not replace lost knowledge and experience, it just improves manning levels—but with inexperienced forces.
As the new year begins, we have a brand new opportunity to focus attention on these troubling issues. We must deliver the quality of life and leadership that makes troops want to remain in the services instead of depending on a poor economy that reduces their options. Senior leaders must demand honest assessments of morale and readiness. Those not willing to hear or deliver bad news should get out of the way.
Troops have lost trust in leaders and, as gauged by Secretary Hagel’s inaccurate remarks, leaders have lost touch with reality. We must reject the empty dog-and-pony shows that prevent us from getting accurate information and instead create meaningful interactions and an honest exchange of information with troops. This will prevent unofficial surveys and journalists from exposing inconvenient truths. Anything less only builds more distrust.
We used to joke that the beatings of the crew would continue until morale improved. Today’s service personnel have returned the favor, beating those who lead them with studies showing the true state of minds. It is safe to say that unless and until leadership proactively addresses these problems, the statistical beatings will continue.