Leadership: The Boss Is An Idiot And Is Getting Us Killed

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December 23, 2009: Recent surveys have indicated that junior officers in the U.S. Army (and Marine Corps)  still feel a lot of dissatisfaction with the quality of senior leadership. This disconnect between junior officers, and their commanders, has been around for more than a decade. It's gotten worse with a war on, because, unlike past wars, there has not been widespread removal of battalion and brigade commanders who did not perform well. Alas, that is not new either. Even in Vietnam, there was a similar situation. This, despite the fact that, in some divisions, the commander did remove battalion and brigade commanders who were not doing a good job. In World War II and Korea, it was much more common for commanders who did not deliver, to get replaced. With a war going on now, and junior officers facing life and death situations because their commanders were not being aggressive, or innovative, enough, have been leaving the service.

Four years ago, the army was alarmed at the fact that it was losing its lieutenants and captains at the rate of 8.7 percent a year. All indications were that this rate would increase. There were several reasons for the losses. One was the prospect of constant overseas assignments, without their families, for the duration of the war on terror. Then there was the pull of better job prospects in a robust economy. The prospect of losing over ten percent of your junior officers a year was compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of these were those with the most combat experience.

A third factor in the exodus was the dislike of the army’s “force protection” fixation. The army put a lot of emphasis on keeping casualties down. But a lot of the combat commanders interpreted this as doing as little as possible. This, despite the fact that those commanders who get outside their camps a lot, thereby reduce enemy activity in the area, and overall American casualties. But these aggressive tactics come with some risk, and many battalion and brigade commanders (lieutenant colonels and colonels) are more risk averse than the captains and lieutenants (company and platoon commanders). Once you hit lieutenant colonel, you are making the army a career, and are less inclined to take chances. But captains and lieutenants can afford to take chances, and are put off when their bosses are not.

But the frequent overseas service, and better opportunities in civilian life, were the major causes of junior officers leaving, and there’s not much the army can do about that. The young officers are not leaving as frequently, because of the recession, but many still are, and have to be replaced. This is why the army is so energetically getting ROTC back into many colleges that dropped it during the Vietnam era. But with the current recession, many new college graduates have poor job prospects, and a five year gig with the U.S. Army seems attractive, or at least that's the image the army projects.

The recession, and college costs that continue to outpace inflation, has made the U.S. Army ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program grow with unexpected vigor. The ROTC appeal is simple. If accepted into the ROTC, students have their college costs picked up by the government, in return for studying some military subjects in college (including purely military training during the Summer), and then serving as officers for five years after they graduate.

The U.S. Army has been relying more and more on ROTC, to replenish its depleted ranks of junior officers. For the last decade, the army has had a hard time hanging on to junior officers. Too many get out after their 4-5 year initial contract. This translates into a current shortage of about 3,000 captains and majors (officer rank O-1 is Second Lieutenant, O-2 is First Lieutenant, O-3 is Captain and Major is O-4).

The ROTC recruiting effort, even without the recession, has paid off. In 1999, only 430 students accepted ROTC scholarships. Last year, it was 3,179. But last year, the army needed about 5,000 new lieutenants. The shortfall is largely made up by about a thousand West Point graduates, and hundreds of Officers Candidate School (OCS, for enlisted soldiers) grads. Most of those attending OCS already had several years of army experience, including many with time in combat. The three month OCS course is followed by three or more months of branch (infantry, transportation, signal, or whatever) training. At that point you had a new lieutenant who already knew how the army worked, and now knows how to be an officer. These new lieutenants even have an edge on West Point or ROTC (college level Reserve Officer Training Corps) officers, because of their enlisted experience. Such officers were called "mustangs" and were accorded an extra measure of respect by enlisted troops.

But the mustangs had one big problem; they were often not college graduates. This became a problem after about five years, when a lieutenant was eligible for promotion to captain. One of the requirements for that was a college degree. For many mustangs, who didn't want to get a college degree just to advance in army rank, quitting and returning to civilian life was an easy decision to make. This just added to the shortage of captains and majors.

Thus a new army initiative to recruit college grads, who did not go through ROTC, to be officers. These men and women have to successfully go through eight weeks of basic training first. Meanwhile, the army has a new GI Bill that offers better college benefits, and may encourage more mustangs to get a college degree, and return to the army.

But all this does not solve the basic problem that, once you get these young officers, and they have completed their five year obligation, too many of them leave out of frustration with the poor performance of their superiors.

 

 


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