Attrition: Looks Can Kill


March 10, 2012: The U.S. Army is reducing its troop strength over the next decade as a result of the American defense budget being reduced $50 billion a year for the next few years. Over the next five years, army strength will be reduced 72,000. This year alone, personnel strength will be reduced from 562,000 to 552,000.

The army refers to this as a RIF (Reduction In Force). This is what the military calls a layoff and the troops are not looking forward to the process. NCOs (sergeants who have made the military a career) are at particular risk because their records will be scrutinized each time they reenlist (for four or more years). Most of these NCOs always reenlist, until they have twenty or more years of service and can retire. Nearly half of new (first enlistment) troops seek to reenlist, and they will face more scrutiny as well. The army will seek to retain as many combat experienced NCOs as possible, especially those in the infantry, but will apply higher reenlistment standards to everyone.

It's not just the risk of losing your job but the changes that take place in the army culture during a RIF. Already, senior army officials are talking openly about putting more emphasis on marching and similar drills, as well as greater attention to wearing uniforms correctly and saluting every time you are supposed to. More effort will be directed at improving appearances. On the positive side there will be growing emphasis on being physically fit, with more soldiers discharged for being too fat or unable to pass the physical fitness test.

But overall, emphasis will shift from being combat ready to appearing (especially to politicians and the media) combat ready. The troops call this "mickey mouse" (or a lot of less printable phrases). The troops don't like it but the senior officers and NCOs do. This time around the brass promised to change promotion standards to see that more pro-mickey mouse officers and NCOs rise in the ranks. This means going to the right service schools and getting the right assignments, as well as looking and acting like a good soldier should. It's the old "getting your ticket punched" mentality again.

Getting fired outright during a RIF is not a major threat, if only because it's bad for morale. By offering early retirements, buyouts, and increased retention (being able to renew your contract) standards the army plans to avoid just summarily firing people. But those encouraged to stay will generally be the best behaved, not the most effective troops in combat.

All this effort to keep the best and can the rest is nothing new. It was noted as far back as World War II, when detailed records of troop performance were first compiled and analyzed, that some troops were worth making an effort to keep. But there were problems. A disproportionate number of troops that excelled in combat also had disciplinary problems when off the battlefield. The conventional wisdom was that someone with a "taste for combat" also lacked respect for authority or an inclination to look and act like a "good soldier" should. Research since World War II has shown that risk-taking behavior is the basis of brave acts, as well as criminal ones, drug use, and addiction to things like gambling and dangerous sports. The "best people" for combat are not best suited for peacetime military service. Thus it is likely that the most capable combat troops and leaders will get RIFed, while their more tractable, if less combat worthy, comrades will be encouraged to stay. That policy gets more people killed the next time there is a war but the new American policy is to more energetically avoid war. Problem solved.





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