Guest Post: Addendum to “On ‘Building Better Generals’”

In a response to Rich Ganske’s recent blog on CNAS’ newest report, military historian and author Donald Vandergriff puts forth his views on “Building Better Generals” based on his book, The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs.

Like so many studies done within the establishment and not wanting to offend anyone, the study “Building Better Generals” wants to add more to an already out of date career ladder system with “Opportunities Presented by Extended Career Lengths.” It goes on to say,

For these reasons, the average career of senior flag officers is likely to continue to lengthen in the years to come, with service to 40 years and beyond becoming more commonplace.13 This, in turn, presents possibilities for longer tenure in assignments, thereby fostering longer horizons of strategic thinking, smarter risk taking and more experienced problem solving — which would all help America’s flag officer corps manage the complexities of the 21st-century defense establishment.
Moreover, this extended career timeline will provide more time to invest in the broadening assignments, education and development, and evaluation and feedback that officers will need in order to prepare for and subsequently manage these complex challenges.

It assumes that the number one issue with senior officers today, the inability to adapt to strategic conditions, is due to short tours in multiple assignments during a 30 year career. If we just happen to extend this to 40 plus years, due to longer lives and better nutrition, then these officers can serve longer in positions and take more risks. It is just not the strategic incompetence, but also operational and tactical incompetence as well is at issue due to the addiction to the current personnel management system. Extending the career ladder will not improve this at all. It will likely make it worse as a matter of fact (not only supported by my intense 14 year study of the officer personnel system, but numerous other studies that can be found in my book).

As the former Army Chief of Staff, General Pete Schoomaker said in 2003, the personnel system needs to be torn completely down and rebuilt. The personnel system, built around its holy grail the up or out system and centralized board promotion and selection systems, completely rests upon out of date assumptions. The CNAS report touches upon some of the results, but never takes the chance of mentioning them by name, as it would threaten future money and contracts. How dare we tell the truth today. Adaptability is fine as long as it does not rock anyone’s boat. Inflated egos and self serving agendas in Washington, D.C. do not permit the truth to be spoken, no matter how much evidence supports it. Over 14 years of research has found very few if any studies that support the current personnel system, but it remains resilient because the people it promotes, find it just right for their personal self interests. In turn it is run by retired Adjutant General (AG) officers who know one system and it serves them well. Today, the argue they have never worked harder, and that may be true, but it is like continuing to drive a 72 Cadillac, and saying, it is new because it has a fresh paint job, and because that is all they know.

Another aspect the report has wrong is with its comparison of the rigor of education and development that existed prior to World War II for Army officers, as an example of what today’s Professional Military Education (PME) must become (p.21). Except for the short tenure of George C. Marshall at Fort Benning in the early 1930s, US Army military education was not progressive, was not even education. It was an experience many officers attempted to avoid due to the dogma of the so-called educational institutions such as the Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Free thinking and experimenting with thought was discouraged. Rote memorization of school solutions was the preferred program of instruction (POI). Challenging instructors and the school solution was discouraged, and would even lead to failure if an officer so attempted (please refer to the excellent recent book Command Culture by Jorg Muth). Lesson plans revolved around the memorization of a process. Yes, officers worked hard, but it was all about memorization of the school solution and what egotistical instructors wanted to hear.

While US PME has made strides recently, it remains adhered to the competency theory of education. Often times, POIs cling to more is better as far as requirements, assignments and class time. Very little time is left for reflection, which modern learning theory highly recommends. Very little time is left for the officer to truly experience classical education.

Today’s culture, which rests upon the foundation of the personnel system, has evolved based on several complex factors, such as our tradition of improvisation in the face of war and how the officer corps conducted itself during peace, that led to and forced two dramatic organizational and personnel revolutions in the U.S. Army, transforming the Army and its personnel system into a “technical system.”6 Two periods, Secretary of War Elihu Root’s reform of the War Department in 1899-1904, and General George Marshall’s transformation of a scattered force occupying small posts into an army capable of fighting a global conflict from 1940-1947, are in fact, what prevents today’s culture from achieving effective reform. What has to occur within the next few years is not a technologically driven Revolution in Military Affairs, but a true cultural revolution, where thoughts, practices and the environment molds the minds of officers who are prepared for 3rd and 4th Generation Warfare, assisted by technology.

Instead, our current culture upholds and practices 2nd Generation Warfare doctrine. It is a linear doctrine, soon enhanced by information technology, and a culture that promotes centralized decisions, stifles subordinate independence and autonomy. 2nd Generation Warfare advocates the use of massive firepower, calling for a strictly controlled battlefield outlined by detailed graphics. For example, the adherence to graphics in our recent conflicts, and our emphasis on teaching checklists and lock-step procedures at our branch schools and combat training centers, as well as the mass teachings to all Soldiers on many politically correct issues confirm this fact. We preach adaptability and Mission Command, but practice something totally opposite.
Future adversaries, driven by the moral forces of cultural and ethnic differences, are learning how to neutralize the technological advantages of industrial-strength, firepower intensive armies, particularly in irregular close-quarters combat in urban and suburban areas. In Chechnya, Beirut, and Mogadishu, front lines disappeared; the distinction between friend, foe, and noncombatant became vague to non-existent, and simple hand-held weapons (RPG-7s), used by well-disciplined, small irregular units, turned armored vehicles and helicopters into coffins and conventional formations into death traps. The Intifada, armed with stones, reinforced by CNN, bought more for the Palestinians than four conventional wars with Israel. The main weapons in the Ayatollah’s arsenal, when he overthrew the Shah, were the moral strength of the committed and the audiocassette recorder. While the form of 4th Generation Warfare has roots reaching back at least to T.E. Lawrence and Lettow-Vorbeck in WWI, it is still evolving and is not yet well formed or understood. One common denominator, however, is beyond dispute: the premium on INDIVIDUAL INITIATIVE has INCREASED, enhanced by information technology. In the future we will also face hybrid adversaries that use a mixture of unconventional and conventional techniques and technologies, as did the Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 to defeat Israel.

The type of revolution that must occur is not technologically driven, but mentally and deals with changing the Army’s culture. Part of the revolution is most assuredly technological. Whatever technology offers us must be validated and vitalized by human nature. The Army’s culture is defined by the way it accesses, develops, and manages its officers, and enforces policies that promote the economic advancement of the individual at the cost of unit cohesion. Such practices have been passed down from generation to generation of personnel managers beginning with the management scientific revolution, or the “Progressive Era” at the end of the 19th Century.

Perhaps by recognizing now the limitations of management science, as well as the compulsion to maintain personnel policies around a personnel system developed for mass mobilization, and the need to be “fair,” which in turn creates competition, the Army officer corps will move forward. Recommendations such as this CNAS study and the one CNAS did in 2010 called Revitalizing America’s Military Officer Corps can become more than a short-term fix that will soon become another of the series of “tweaking around the edges”. Instead, these studies should be viewed as a bridge to more and better reforms in the near future. Eventually, the Army, like society, will create its own military version of a new flatter organization with the inherent officer personnel policies revolving around unit policies that must accompany it. As a result, the Army will reintroduce professionalism to its officer corps.

If we are going to be as bold with our new doctrine and its embracing of new technology, then we need to be as bold and create an institutional culture that creates officers that can handle the tempo the doctrine writers are advocating future technology will create. This is a different culture from the one we have now. We cannot continue to write glowing documents advocating an “agile” officer, yet subtly support peacetime practices which uphold bureaucratic qualities, rather than battlefield qualities, when officers come up for promotion.
To prepare the Army for the 21st Century and create the officer corps of the future, we must

  • Replace the organizational model bureaucracy with a flatter more autonomous organization, including reducing the officer corps from 14.3% of the force to 3-5% of the force.
  • Replace the individual personnel system with a unit personnel system. Revolve all personnel policies around a unit system, and move to an Army force structure that can be supported by a unit replacement system.
  • Eliminate the “up or out” promotion system and replace it with an “up or stay” promotion system.
  • Replace the specific branches, and place officers on a track or category system at the O-3 or O-4 level. Make officer management more flexible.
  • Revise the officer evaluation system to involve a narrative OER on character with a periodic examination to enter the officer corps as well as attendance at Command and General Staff College.
  • Revise the education system, where mid-level education is conducted earlier in an officer’s career, as well as moving to an education system that emphasizes the art of war, including the study of military history as the basis for all professionalism.
  • Do away with the “all-or-nothing” retirement system.

The purpose of all of these reforms is to change the incentive system. They seek to reward strength of character, especially as manifested in a willingness to make decisions and take action, and penalize those who get by, by doing nothing controversial. It does no good to call for promoting the risk-takers when the incentives all work the other way. Once strength of character is rewarded, then loyalty to the nation, the Army, and unit can be established over loyalty to self, which is the centerpiece of management science. It is the reasoning behind the personnel system’s advocacy of the individualistic focus “be all you can be,” the belief that people must be constantly moved, promoted and several make-work opportunities exist for numerous officers to be promoted.

Don Vandergriff is the author of Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.

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