Dysfunctional Army Culture

The US Army of today is a product of three major events and timespans.

WWII and the follow on Cold War.
Vietnam and the follow on reforms culminating in Goldwater-Nichols
9/11 and the follow on War on Terror

The global mission and worldwide base structure is a direct consequence of WWII. The “professional development standards” for the Officer and NCO corps (the “up or out” policy being the most visible) is one that made sense when the US needed to maintain a standing army led by professional Officers and NCOs but manned mostly by conscripts. The entire military changed to “all volunteer” but the “up or out” standards that would have destroyed Dwight Eisenhower (whose career stalled at Major for over a decade) are still with us. Inevitably this leads to a culture where Officers who have more “political insight” into how to survive in the organization survive, whether or not they are “better” objectively or subjectively than other Officers. It is a historical dysfunction, put there for good reasons, much like the worldwide base structure, but seems a bit like an appendix at this point.

Vietnam is the direct cause of the all volunteer military. And while the debate raged on for years about whether or not to go all volunteer, eventually it happened with some legal mechanism still in place for the draft (that selective service number you all had to sign up for when you turned 18). Vietnam also gave us the final birthing pains of the SOF community, which was formalized by Goldwater-Nichols which created the beast known as SOCOM. This has allowed Presidents to play “just the tip” with foreign policy to create a level of “less than war, more than peace” for decades at a time. The very last of the Vietnam veterans have left active service now, but their impact is still felt, although the fallout in policy by elected officials still haunts us. Politicians are incredibly casualty averse, and this lead directly to terrorists feeling they could attack America with impunity because the US wouldn’t fight back for fear of “another Vietnam.”

Which leads us directly to…

9/11 and the War on Terror. This is when the entire military shifted into the “Counter Insurgency” or COIN mindset and everyone got a taste of nation building. The traditional Special Forces missions were completely subsumed by “direct action” as SOCOM needed “pipehitters” and the Regular Army stood up an entire Civil Affairs Brigade to try to get a handle on going to a declared theater of conflict with the goal to not shoot people but get the locals to shoot other locals on your behalf. To this day the COIN doctrine is hampering the Army as it seeks to remaster the WWII and Cold War maneuver skills needed to fight against a peer opponent.

Some like to point to Desert Storm as a key point in the culture of the Army, but it really wasn’t. Desert Storm was the Cold War Army doing what a Cold War Army does when faced with a conventional threat in open terrain against an inferior opponent. Of course all the downsizing that happened after the fall of the Soviet Union was important, but it was a much more orderly process than many people think, much like the downsizing under the Obama Administration (started as early as 2010) was more orderly than most people think.

So what you see here, is that each of these major cultural shifts, paid for in blood and treasure, causes the Army to re-create itself to be good at what it just did. The old criticism that the Army always trains to fight the last war is a pretty valid one, although Desert Storm wasn’t Vietnam part two, so the criticism doesn’t hold up to all the history. What is true is that the Army routinely trains to fight wars that it has history in, and tends to do about as well as it did in those wars. Our nation building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Lybia and Syria) are probably about as good as our nation building efforts were in Vietnam.

One of the reasons for this is that we continually change up the Officer branch structure. We no longer have the Coastal Artillery, but then SF became its own branch rather than a capability. Now we have Civil Affairs as a branch, rather than a basic capability. Now we have Cyber, ready to lead the digital charge into the cyberspace to project combat power through networks. In essence, we recognize that all these things are important, or less important as branches go away (EW may be the shortest lived branch in US Army history, I’m not sure though), but we expect branch personnel to do stuff, but often without adequate resourcing, or more importantly adequate command emphasis.

And why do important branches like Ordnance or Chemical get less Command Emphasis? Well because the culture of the Army is essentially about making people compete in order to promote the best (in the “up or out” system of Officer management). Which means in order to have the best “Infantry BN” (or Company, or Brigade) the Commander will focus his units efforts on what his rater and senior rater consider important, rather than on training for what he thinks the next major or minor ground conflict will look like. We train to please, rather than train to win. When you are a Full Bird Colonel able to drop a retirement packet at any time, you should in theory have much more freedom to train your unit to fight the next fight rather than the last one, but by then you’ve had over two decades of surviving and fighting for promotion so odds are you’ve been well acculturated to training to please your rater and senior rater rather.

Now while these observations are interesting, the question remains whether or not these are actually problems. After all, the Army has always had a talent management problem and has still been able to answer the Nation’s Call (ie, politicians orders). So for whatever level of dysfunction the Army has, there is enough function to keep things as they are (the normalcy bias).

But, one should never point out a problem without offering a solution. First, for personnel management, get rid of “up or out” for all ranks. Replace it with a “promote, retain, release” model of evaluations where raters and senior raters must argue their reasoning for the evaluation. Second, promote within branches, this way the Chemical Corps, with it’s traditional “half our Captains don’t make Major” promotion rates is only competing for promotions against other Chemical Officers, so that the poor Chemo who spends all his time in Tactical formations being rated against Infantry and Armor Officers gets the same chance as that Captain who worked in a Chemical unit and got rated by Chemical Officers.

Second, demand that all Officers be schooled in all aspects of military operations. This means everything from “High Intensity Conflict” to “Foreign Internal Defense” to “Stability and Support Operations.” Yes this means we will have to massively increase the amount of schooling required for junior Officers. This is a good thing, as we really do want Officers who are constantly learning in order to have flexible thinkers.

Third, get rid of “key developmental positions” and “broadening assignment positions” as a formalized development pathway. This creates massive turbulence in units as Officers rotate through the KD billets as fast as possible to get the block checked. Unit readiness suffers because of Officer development as the five stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning) are constantly kicked back into “forming and storming.” Longer timelines in each position, and allow Officers to be dual slotted for at least six weeks for transitions between Officers.

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