Losing the 'Best and Brightest,' Again

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

In response to a recent magazine article that asks the question “Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military service?” the editor of ARMY suggested that I update my article on the same subject written for ARMY 10 years ago. I reread the article and chose not to change anything, believing it to be just as appropriate and timely now as it was then. I have, however, added a postscript that addresses some of the complaints, protestations and comments found not only in the article but also in quantity on the Internet.

Once again the newspaper is telling me that the best and the brightest are leaving the Army; the officer corps is beset with disillusion, dissatisfaction and unhappiness; and our noncommissioned officers are convinced that senior leaders are not in touch with real­ity. I cannot dispute these reports, but I would like to converse a bit with sol­diers who are still around.

In late 1945, with about three years of service to my credit, I decided to apply for a Regular Army commission. Around me were untold numbers who could not wait to get out of the Army. Among those, I was told, were “the best and the brightest,” who were returning to college or graduate school or better ­paying civilian pur­suits. None of my ROTC or OCS class­ mates joined me in applying, but I did not care. I liked the Army, and I was quite pleased, in 1947, to accept a reg­ular commission.
One of the things that made an Army career appealing was my conviction that I could do my bosses’ jobs better than they could, so the future had to be bright for anyone who could foster change and make improvements. That conviction wavered slightly when I was exposed to the Army’s officer edu­cation system, where I was appalled at how much I did not know.

I went through the post­ World War II period, when a purposeful destruc­tion of the Army could not have been more effective than the one we went through. When we went home on leave, my wife’s friends had one abid­ing question: “When’s he getting out?” That period was followed by the Ko­rean War. I arrived late, then remained for 22 months, away from my growing family during a period when R and R, home leave and overseas phone calls were unheard of. I learned after that war that the best and the brightest were leaving because of the appalling conditions we were living under. All of my friends who had been recalled to serve in Korea could not wait to get out (again!). And my wife’s friends were still asking, “When’s he getting out?” Actually, I believe she asked that question herself more than once.

There was another exodus of the best and the brightest in the early 1960s because the “whiz kids” were taking over. President Kennedy wanted to turn the Army into Special Forces, and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNa­mara discouraged any lieutenant colo­nel over the age of 40 from thinking he would ever be promoted again. Then, of course, two or three years into the Vietnam War, the best and the brightest saw the spread of indiscipline and the drug problems as harbingers of a hope­ less future and departed in droves. The professional noncommissioned officer corps dissolved and, of course, without the cream of the crop around to help, those who remained in the officer corps were not making great headway in solving some of our chronic problems, either.

The Vietnam War was followed in the early 1970s by the elimination of the draft and the advent of the volunteer Army (Volar), when we painted the barracks in pastel colors and told po­tential recruits we wanted to join them. President Carter’s “malaise” certainly applied to the Army of that period, and all the smart people looked for some­ thing else to do. Somehow, though, during that post­ Vietnam War era, some of the “not-­so-­best-­and-­brightest” reorganized the Army, settled on mod­ernization requirements, fixed the end strength and structure, adopted a rev­olutionary training and education sys­ tem, and evolved new doctrine for tying the whole together as a formidable contender for battlefield domination.

In the early 1980s, President Reagan embarked on rebuilding our military capabilities. In effect, he provided funds for the programs that the “less­-than­-the-­brightest” had devised in the 1970s. Unfortunately, after all those periodic losses of the best and the bright­est, he had inherited the Army leaders who apparently had stayed in the service only because they could not do anything else. From among that motley agglomerate, he had to find people to lead a rehabilitation, absorbing the new technologies and sophisticated equipment, training to the new standards, adopting the new doctrines and finally fighting new wars in Panama and the Persian Gulf.

Can you imagine how much better we could have done if the best and the brightest had been available? How much faster than three days in Panama or 100 hours in Kuwait might the best and the brightest have accomplished those missions?

Somehow in my 40 years, the “less-than-­the-­best” and the “not-­so-­bright” held the Army together, accomplished every mission assigned and drove the modest but effective modernization that kept us ahead of the rest of the world in military capabilities. They accommodated themselves to low pay, poor housing, morale­-sapping inadequacies and even to the imposed­ from ­above fallacies and fantasies, such as Project 100,000 and Volar and much social engineering. They kept a reasonable structure intact, revolutionized training and deterred Cold War adversaries from provoking a hot war. Among them were the architects of the Army that was ready for Panama and the Persian Gulf, and among them also were the leaders who were trained, educated and motivated by the less­-than-­the-­best-­and-­the-­brightest to go on and win those wars.
The message to those who have not joined the latest group to depart: The mission of the Army has not changed, and among you the nation is counting on finding the leaders of the future. The challenge is no less demanding, the re­ wards are no more enticing, but the sat­isfaction of future mission accomplishment will be a legacy of which you will always be proud. Hang in there. The nation needs you.

P.S. The principal complaints found in discussions of this subject are concerns that the Army officer evaluation and promotion systems do not recognize truly superior talent and reward it with promotions and assignments to positions where such talent can make significant contributions. Too many “losers” get promoted just because of time in grade and staying out of trouble, so the truly talented become frustrated and leave for greener pastures.

No organization in the world has spent more intellectual time and effort trying to create objective, unbiased evaluation and promotion systems than the U.S. Army, recognizing that the search for the fully qualified, then the best qualified, is critical for guaranteeing leadership that has no peer in the world. To satisfy a 30­year career pattern, however, while accommodating crisis expansions and precipitate reductions ordered by forces and agencies uncontrolled by the Army is an uncommon challenge. Budget changes, end­strength limits, accommodation of cultural and social demands, the adop­ tion or prohibition of technology or new equipment that has profound im­ pacts on personnel training require­ ments, and limitations established by statute all dictate management compli­cations that contribute to the com­ plaints so often heard.

All attempts at managing these requirements have had flaws that have caused or allowed the mistakes that seem so common, but no other profession has developed better ways to identify, develop and reward its lead­ers. That fact is learned, sometimes sadly, by those who choose to leave the Army and then are frustrated by an inability to return (another frequent Internet discussion topic).

No other profession employs boards of officers to consider reports covering years of service and the evaluations of numbers of raters to approve promotions of the fully qualified (and then to find the truly outstanding). The boards are made up of officers senior to those being considered who have passed through the same periods of complaint, observations and conclusions about the shortcomings of the system. As a member of a number of those boards, I never observed anyone concerned about “selecting someone in his own image” (a favorite cliché of the pundits who decry the methods). All members are in­fluenced by personal knowledge, but the dedicated effort of all is the intent to find those whose records over the years show a consistency of mission accom­plishment and commendable leader­ ship. Mistakes are almost always the fault of an unusual series of inattentive and unaware rating officers, not the system being employed.

The challenges for officers and NCOs who are career-­oriented are as demanding today as they have always been. Management of the total Army program is as complex a task as any ever devised, often frustrating in its pursuit, but as interesting and intellec­tually demanding as any. The health and capabilities of the Army are essen­tial to our national security and a worthy and satisfying endeavor for any who will ensure that our future is se­ cure. If it must be accomplished with­ out those “best and brightest,” history tells us that there is adequate talent among the rest to fulfill the need. Have at it—the Army needs you.