Morale: The Kids Are Not Alright


January 6, 2022: For a long time, the American military was the most respected and trusted government institution. In the past the military realized when it was having problems and corrected them. In the last two decades there has been another cycle of bad leadership at the top and despite surveys of departing officers pointing out a loss of confidence in their superiors, the problems continued. The public noticed, after all it was their sons and daughters who provided the officers and enlisted personnel and the kids were not all right with how their senior commanders were operating.

The public noticing this failure is relatively recent. In 2018 70 percent of Americans had a great deal of trust and confidence in the military. That has since declined to 45 percent and is apparently continuing to fall.

Over the last decade the U.S. Army stopped trying to pretend that growing corruption among their officers did not exist and was not a serious problem. The other services are in a similar situation and are right behind the army in being open about corruption and seeking solutions. This is not a new problem, except this time the people at the top, in many cases, see nothing wrong. That is different. In the past these problems arrived and departed in cycles. The last time around, corruption peaked during the late 1960s in Vietnam and in the 1970s the army made a real, and effective, effort to clean it up.

After 2001, once more, during a war, the corruption returned. During Vietnam the corruption crept back in part because better communications created a faster news cycle and enabled senior commanders and politicians to have direct control of the troops that was never possible before. This led to all sorts of problems that only got worse when the Internet became popular and allowed even more new leadership problems to develop unnoticed. The core problem was what the military calls micromanagement and it led to impossible and unreasonable demands on commanders and troops which then led to the troops rationalizing cutting corners and telling their bosses what they wanted to hear, whether it was true or not.

The impact of this was first noted a few years after September 11, 2001 when the army found that an unusually high number of junior officers were leaving the army. When these officers were asked why, one reason that kept coming up was a loss of trust in their commanders and the belief that junior officers could not rely on honest answers from their bosses, who were often more concerned about the opinion of the media or politicians back home. Army researchers and analysts began to monitor this sort of thing and have been releasing more and more data on what they have found and a lot of that dirt is becoming public knowledge. The growing lack of trust led to more cheating and corruption in general as subordinates strived to meet the unreasonable (“zero tolerance”) demands made on them.

Those studying the current problem found that when they looked at the U.S. military during Vietnam, where there was a similar pattern of corruption. Micromanagement, first seen during the Vietnam War when advances in communications allowed someone in Washington to speak directly with commanders in combat, reached new heights during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and caused major headaches for another generation of battlefield commanders with serious micromanagement problems.

All this got really bad in 2004 when the U.S. Department of Defense decided to provide the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) with a real time combat command capability. This meant that the JCS, led by its chairman, now had a combat command center in the Pentagon where they used satellite communications to directly observe, and sometimes control, combat forces anywhere on the planet. This contradicts the experience in combat, where the best approach was giving subordinates their mission and leaving their subordinates to figure out a way to do it. But now, with a generation of senior commanders with no experience of being micromanaged platoon leaders in Vietnam, the insidious and crippling micromanagement disease crept back into the White House and Pentagon and there were not a lot of people who knew of the flaws. The result was field commanders being second guessed by nervous superiors halfway around the world. These same superiors were now calling in lawyers to help them make the right (for the guy in Washington) decision while the troops were under fire and waiting for permission to proceed. It wasn't always this way and the exodus of junior officers with personal experience with how the system was broken, was a warning that has largely been ignored at the very top.

It was only in the past century that a government gained the ability to exercise any control at all over armed forces far from the capital. This was first done with the introduction of overland and undersea telegraph lines in the 19th century and world-wide radio broadcasting equipment early in the 20th century. Before that an admiral or general was sent off with orders to accomplish a mission and pretty much allowed to get it done as they saw fit. The generals and admirals rather liked this approach, as their job was hard enough without a bunch of politicians looking over their shoulder and second guessing their every decision. Even with the radio messages from back home, the combat commanders were still left to sort things out on their own. The radio was used mainly to report progress, or lack of it, not ask permission for every move.

But by the 1960s it was possible to patch through a telephone call from the White House to an infantry battalion commander deep in the Vietnamese bush. And it wasn't just the dreaded phone call from the president you had to worry about. The beleaguered battalion commander might have brigade, division, and corps commanders circling overhead in helicopters, all of them observing and offering advice or giving orders. This "micromanagement" was much disliked by the guys on the ground, trying to run a battle they were right in the middle of.

After Vietnam the Department of Defense tried to deal with this problem by establishing regional commands to cover the entire planet and then appoint four-star generals or admirals to command all American forces in that region if there were a war. The rest of the time they would keep an eye on things and get ready for any possible war. These commanders in chief (or CINCs as they are still called, unofficially) were sometimes guilty of micromanagement, although all experienced combat commanders recognized that it was best to leave the commanders of the fighting units alone. This was the lesson. Micromanagement was bad but it persisted. Why?

Blame it on the media. Just as military communications had improved, so had the ability of the media to get the story back to their audience of voters, pundits, and unfriendly politicians. In the past the commander on the spot might do things that did not look good in the media but it took so long to get the story back that the operation was over by the time it did. If the battle was won many sins would be forgiven. That no longer works. Communications now allow reporters to deliver color commentary while a battle is going on. The president, the ultimate (by law and in fact) commander in chief, is held responsible for whatever the troops do. It is not possible, politically, to wait for the combat commanders to finish their job before the president, or his aides make judgements and issue new orders.

Examples of micromanagement were abundant in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Washington often had to be consulted before sensitive attacks were made, like having a Predator UAV launch a Hellfire missile at some guy on the ground who might be Osama bin Laden, or some tall Afghan with a beard, a new SUV, and a commanding manner. The JCS Command Post was an attempt to deal with this problem. The JCS and the Secretary of Defense are the president's senior, and most frequent, military advisors. Ultimately, the buck stops with the JCS. So, by plugging the JCS into a world-wide command system, politically sensitive decisions can be resolved quickly, in minutes, or at least in less than an hour. The more frequent contact between the president, the Secretary of Defense, and the JSC with combat commanders might build up a degree of trust that would enable sensitive decisions to be made more quickly. This would happen, in a best-case situation, because the JCS Command Post had developed confidence in the judgment of the commanders out there.

The reality, as is often the case, was different. But the JCS Command Post has just become another layer of management that slows down decision making without improving the ability of the troops to get the job done. To solve this problem, it was proposed that the CINC be reduced to the status of a staff officer. The CINC and his several hundred staff officers and support troops, would be the repository of knowledge about the local situation and would take care of all those logistical and support details that enable the combat operations to happen. So far, the CINCs have successfully resisted this, but it's happening anyway whenever the folks back in Washington want to throw their considerable weight around.

Speaking of staff work, one thing combat staffs are increasingly concerned with is how to deal with politically delicate situations that the media could run with, often in uncomfortable directions. This sort of thing has been seen frequently since September 11, 2001. For example, when sandstorms seemed to have "stalled" the American advance on Baghdad in 2003, the president, or at least the Secretary of Defense, had to be in touch with the commanders inside the sand storm and then say something to the press that would defuse the story and wouldn't blow up later if it proved to be false. For those who didn't catch the follow up on the stand storm, the troops were delayed by the need to resupply, especially fuel for their very thirsty M-1 tanks and the storm actually helped because the Iraqis thought they could safely move Republican Guard divisions under cover of it. They couldn't, as there were American satellites, UAVs, and sensors on the ground that could see right through the sand. Iraqi tanks and troops got shot up on a massive scale before they realized that the airborne sand blinded them more than the Americans.

The ability to quickly communicate between the battlefield and the Pentagon came in handy after Baghdad fell and the Baath party diehards continued to resist with ambushes. But all of this communication was improvised. That experience naturally led to the idea that better preparation for that situation would have improved communications and decision making. The Pentagon and White House already expected to see real time UAV video coverage of critical events. But there are often dozens of video feeds running through Department of Defense satellites, and the JCS Command Post tries to sort it all out and have the most important videos marked for the attention of the president, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the JCS, or for release to the media.

Sometimes the micromanagement backfires, as it did during the disorganized and very flawed withdrawal of the last American troops in Afghanistan at the end of August 2021. Thousands of Americans, or foreign U.S. residents with green cards, were left behind in a very public fashion with on-the-scene cell phone videos getting back to the U.S. while American politicians and military leaders were insisting there were no problems.

Micromanagement originally appeared because the technology was there to make it possible. New technology keeps showing up, making more mischief, or benefits, possible. As always, it's up to the people using the technology to make things happen or screw things up. All this is another example and unintended consequences, when something new is available and when it is used unexpected bad things result. It takes a while for people to sort out the cause and effect and even longer to decide on a cure. Meanwhile the problem continues to fester and create a corrupt atmosphere that is costing the military the respect and confidence of the American people.




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