An Army officer is most likely to catch sight of it when he’s a captain—four, four-and-a-half years out of West Point, edging into his late twenties, probably married, perhaps even with a child or two. It’s time for him to start thinking seriously about his life. The Academy obligated him to five years of service, but after that he’s a free man if he wants to be. So the question is, should he stay in or get out?

Civilian life has its attractions. For the smartest West Point graduates, who are likely to be engineers by training, the pay is better outside. There’s the freedom to choose where you want to live and to stay there; there’s the longer career; and there’s the ability to drive home in the evening and leave it all behind. The Army doesn’t offer that. It’s a life, not a job: a life of one- or two- or three-year tours of duty, of quarters on the base, of saluting and following orders, of wives who are Army wives and kids who are Army kids.

Most officers hadn’t decided at the time they entered West Point that this is the life they want. The appeal of the Academy is largely financial (it’s a free education and a good one, which is saying a lot these days). And West Point still means something in the class (middle-middle and lower-middle) most cadets come from. It impresses people; the military is still an honorable calling. You don’t think much beyond that when you’re 17.

Even at the Academy most cadets don’t worry too much about where they’ll be 20 years down the road. The curriculum is mostly scientific, intellectual, with little emphasis on the real gritty work of the Army. Cadets’ first—and practically only—experience with field operations comes in their yearling summer, when they go through a mandatory, unpopular course in infantry training.

When they graduate, then, cadets aren’t eager to get out into that part of the Army. The ones with the best class standing are allowed to pick their branch, and they often choose something they think will recreate the intellectual atmosphere of the Academy—Corps of Engineers, or Signal Corps, or Quartermaster. The Infantry tries to lure cadets by saying it’s the branch that generals come from—which is true—but it’s still often the last to fill up. After all, less than five per cent of every West Point class will make general; most cadets assume they’ll retire at lieutenant colonel or colonel.

The first years after the Academy—or after ROTC, which even more than West Point attracts students for financial, rather than career-planning reasons—are routine. You’re commissioned as a second lieutenant and rise automatically to first lieutenant after two years and nearly automatically to captain after two more. The key assignments come to almost everyone. You go to an advanced school in your branch (the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, for instance), and then you command a platoon of enlisted men, 30 kids who are kept in line by a senior sergeant while you learn the ropes.

So it’s not until captain that most officers start to think really seriously about the Army as a career. At that point a lot of factors come into play. There’s the old creed, of course: Duty Honor Country. Serving the United States of America is different from selling widgets, though not as different as it used to be. There’s the travel, the action, the camaraderie. There’s the unusual degree of responsibility—a 29-year-old captain can easily have 150 people and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment under his direct control, while that would be extremely rare for a junior executive in private industry. There’s the prestige that an Army career brings in many parts of America, especially the South. There’s also—a more and more significant factor lately—the same generous pay, benefits, and job security that make the civilian side of government so popular. An officer makes less money than a doctor or a banker, but more than a teacher or a small businessman. After a point he has tenure, and he can usually retire in his forties at 50 to 75 per cent of his base pay.

A lot of the officers, especially the best ones, have also become used to—and thrive on—the never-ending series of competitions and awards the Army provides, starting with admission to West Point and stretching off into infinity. The life of an Army officer is full of what B.F. Skinner calls “positive reinforcements,” more so than the life of a civilian. It’s good to go to the Academy. It’s good to have a high class standing there. It’s good to be on the football team, to be in the choir, to be (best of all) first captain of the corps of cadets in your final year. Winning these competitions lends a gratifying shape and purpose, if an artificial one, to your life. For a captain deciding to stay in, part of the allure of Army life is being able to play in the biggest competition, the one for promotions—to major, to lieutenant colonel, to colonel, even (though to expect this is certainly folly) to general.

Some of the men who are captains now—the first generation of officers in the present Army many of whose members missed service in Vietnam— will resign their commissions and get out. Some will decide on a pleasant, unspectacular life in the active-duty Reserves or in a branch like Finance or Adjutant General. Moit will be happy enough to make lieutenant colonel or colonel. But some will decide it’s time to start playing for the highest stakes, and those officers will begin to do the dozen or so things they have to do in the next ten or 15 years if they want a good shot at a star. The process is unofficially called ticket-punching: an Army career is like a long train ride where you have to have your ticket punched by the conductor at certain stations and at certain times along the way in order to be able to stay on the train until it reaches your final destination. If you somehow stop at the wrong stations, or at the right stations according to the wrong schedule, you’ll end up somewhere else than where you had hoped.

Ticket-punching is a repellent idea to some officers, who see it as selfish self-advancement, undistinguished by devotion to the larger cause or even the desire to do a good job. To other officers, it’s just the form that a normal and common sentiment—ambition—takes in the Army. Both perceptions of ticket-punching can be true, of course—not only in the Army, but in the other armed services (where the places to get your ticket punched are quite similar) and in every area of organized civilian life.

Just as ambitious Army officers will try to get the most career-enhancing assignments, a lawyer who wants to be a partner on Wall Street will try to have his ticket punched at an Ivy League law school, on the law review, and in an appellate-court clerkship. A reporter who wants to work his way onto The Washington Post might have his ticket punched at the Louisville Courier-Journal or the St. Petersburg Times. An ambitious doctor wants to intern at Massachusetts General Hospital. In all these cases, the ticket-puncher might be sincerely gathering helpful experience and doing a good job, or he might be engaged in craven credential-mongering.

But there are some common qualities to all ticket-punching. In all cases, there’s some logic behind the system—what you learn as a law clerk often does make you a better lawyer, and Mass General’s training is better than most other hospitals’. In each profession somebody at some point decided what the ticket-punches should be on the basis of what kinds of skills and experiences were most valuable to the profession. On the other hand, any ticket-punching system takes on a life of its own, so that even if the ticket-punches’ relevance evaporates for some reason, they will continue to attract the smartest and most ambitious people for as long as they provide a route to the top. In the Army, the traditionally prestigious horse cavalry had units in Europe as late as 1943—having once been identified as a good ticket-punch, for legitimate reasons, it continued to be identified as one just because it had in the past, although the days of sending in the troops on horseback had long since passed.

A Residue of Distrust

What distinguishes the Army’s world from the world of the other bureaucracies, especially since the Vietnam war, is its isolation. Where America’s other wars all have left a residue of good feeling between the military and civilian society, Vietnam left a residue of distrust and ill-will. The officer corps became hostile toward the press, hostile toward the political policy-makers, hostile toward the universities that produced the war protestors. Where other wars have given the nation brave and fiercely independent heroes, Vietnam destroyed what heroes there were, like General William Westmoreland, whose career had been heaven-blessed until 1968. Where at other times the Army’s best-known officers had been larger-than-life public figures with political ambitions—MacArthurs and Eisenhowers and Grants—the best-known general today is probably that master of bureaucratic survival, Alexander Haig.

These are not just symbolic changes. ROTC, the main source of Army officers, has largely disappeared from the northeastern universities. The officer corps, especially at the junior levels, has virtually no representatives of upper-middle-class professional America. Young officers say there are still some colonels around with Boston or New York accents, but most of the captains and lieutenants seem to have a Southern or Western twang.

The bad blood between the Army and the rest of the country was one factor—the end of the war was another—in the major budget cuts that hit the Army in the early seventies. With adjustments for inflation, the Army budget today is about three-fifths of what it was ten years ago. To the average officer, that doesn’t mean less pay, but less of the little conveniences he might once have taken for granted. You have to buy your own pens now, your own pads, your own gas, even your own toilet paper. More important, after Vietnam the officer corps underwent what every bureaucracy fears most—a Reduction in Force. This meant not only that Reserves were let go, but that thousands of officers in the Regular Army were fired too. In 1969 there were 169,000 commissioned Army officers; today there are 65,000.

The end of the war also meant that ticket-punching became more difficult. Promotions always come more slowly in peacetime than wartime, and the most important ticket-punch-commanding troops in the field—became much harder to come by with the end of the war. Command is what every ambitious officer most aspires to. It’s the most difficult, challenging, rewarding job in the Army, a leader’s job, a man’s job. It’s also the most reliable way to get ahead, to prove you have what it takes to move up—which makes sense in that if the Army should be rewarding any single skill in officers, it’s the ability to lead troops in battle.

The Opportunity to Command

During Vietnam about two thirds of the lieutenant colonels had the opportunity to command. Now it is less than one third. That’s a debilitating change to a group of people who see command as their central function, and the Army has responded to it in the last five years by setting up special, objective boards to parcel out the few remaining high-level command slots in scrupulously fair fashion. It has also made some moves in the direction of encouraging more specialization in the officer corps, so that fewer people will undergo the disappointment of not being able to fulfill a career-long dream of leading troops.

But the credentials that lead to a general’s star are still thought to be primarily in the area of leading troops and secondarily in advanced education. So the key places to get your ticket punched are these:

• Go to West Point, rather than ROTC or Officer Candidates’ School. The Army denies that this makes a difference and constantly tries to eliminate any favorable treatment Academy graduates get, but it still helps. West Point graduates make up eleven per cent of the officer corps and 46 per cent of the generals.

• Join one of the Army’s “combat arms” branches—those branches that actually fight the wars. Infantry is considered the best for getting ahead, with Field Artillery and Armor close behind. Air Defense Artillery is not as good as it once was because the Air Force now does most of that kind of work. In the early sixties John F. Kennedy’s pet section of the Army, Special Forces (better known as the Green Berets), was a good place to get your ticket punched, but no more.

• Work for a good division. In wartime, a good division is one that’s fighting at the front; in peacetime it’s not so clear. A lot of officers try to get assignments to Fort Carson in Colorado, because of the skiing, or to Fort Lewis in Washington state, because of the pleasant location, but these are not prime considerations for the up-and-comers. Better places to go are the Eighth Army in Korea, because that’s as close as you can come to a real combat situation; the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Maxwell Taylor’s old division; or, best of all, the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, James Gavin’s old division, where nobody is assigned unless he asks to be. To wear an airborne patch is to show that you’re brave, fit, and technically skilled.

• Command a company. Captain is where officers get serious about their careers, and company command is the first place where the standouts can distinguish themselves from their compatriots. A captain might already have had command of a platoon and been the executive officer (number-two man) of a company, but these are easy jobs to come by and company command isn’t. You have to ask your battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, for the assignment, either straight-out or circuitously, depending on the old man’s tastes. But it’s essential that he know you’re not the kind who wants to stay in a plush job at the headquarters rather than getting out and running 150 troops.

• Get promoted early to major and to subsequent ranks. At captain an officer will face a promotion board for the first time, but since about three fourths of captains make major, getting past the board is no great distinction. But while most captains are promoted to major in their eleventh year of service—that’s called the “primary zone of consideration”— promotion boards are allowed to move up a small number, from five to 15 per cent, a year or two earlier, while they’re in the secondary zone of consideration. These “secondary” or “below the zone” promotions are something to which every fast burner and water walker in the officer corps aspires.

• Go to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. All majors and the older captains are eligible for one of the Army’s staff colleges, the most prestigious of which is the one at Leavenworth. If a special board picks an officer to go there (and the presence of these boards along the way is a sign that a key ticket-punching moment is at hand), he takes a rigorous course in advanced military skills and tactics. Most generals have been to Leavenworth, and the most ambitious students there study hard, knowing their class rank will follow them through their careers.

• Work at the Pentagon. There are times in his career when even the best officer can’t command troops—for instance, the closest a major can get to command is to be the number-two officer in a battalion. During these interludes officers work in staff jobs, and the best staff jobs are in the Pentagon, on the Department of the Army staff, the Defense Department staff, or the Joint Chiefs staff. This is a time when an officer can attach himself to a powerful general, make friends, and become visible. All staff jobs in the Army are said to be equally important, but everybody knows that Recruiting, say, is Siberia.

• Get a master’s degree at a civilian university. M.A.s became wildly popular during the McNamara whiz-kid era at the Pentagon, when systems analysis was king, and now almost all generals have them. Getting a master’s is a rare opportunity to see the civilian world.

• Attend a war college. Most majors—about 70 per cent—make it to lieutenant colonel, but at that rank many officers will end their careers. Less than half win their full colonel’s eagles, and less than a twentieth of the colonels make brigadier general. So lieutenant colonel is a time of winnowing out. Six thousand lieutenant colonels a year are considered—again by a board—for a place at a war college, and only 300 make it. It’s virtually impossible to make general if you haven’t been to a war college. The best ones, for an Army officer, are the National War College in Washington and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. If staff colleges teach majors how to run the Army, war colleges teach lieutenant colonels how to run the world. The curriculum is cushier than at staff colleges, running into lectures by national policy-makers on strategy and national security. You meet these people there and sometimes even brief them, and of course the other students are good people to know too.

• Command a battalion as a lieutenant colonel. This is the key discriminator, considered a prerequisite for winning a star. Since the time when he was commanding a company, a promising lieutenant colonel has been through a lot of staff work and education, but he has probably been away from troops. Commanding a battalion is a big, tough assignment. You have direct responsibility for 700 or so men. You’re not anybody’s assistant. It’s a tough assignment to come by, too (again, a board parcels it out). When the battalion command list is posted, a lieutenant colonel knows if he’s really going places or not.

All these ticket-punches give an officer visibility—visibility to his promotion boards, which can see the key assignments on his record, and visibility among his peers, the most promising of whom he’s likely to know from West Point and Leavenworth and Korea and the War College and the Pentagon. A member of a promotion board has a minute, a minute-and-a-half to look at each officer’s folder, so your promise has to be obvious. However, it’s important to understand the distinction between visibility within the Army and visibility outside. It’s not good for the career to go public, particularly with criticism of the Army, but even with praise. The officer Corps is supposed to be faceless. No officer is allowed to talk to reporters on the record without clearing it first with public affairs. The best-known member of the officer corps, Colonel Peter Dawkins, All-American football player, Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow, Army War College graduate, a much-interviewed, widely proclaimed future Army Chief of Staff, didn’t make the battalion command list the first year he was eligible for it. Dawkins was able to line up something close to command at Fort Ord in the interim, and he made the list the next year, but the gossip was that he was being punished for having his head up too high.

The Overall Structure

The system has changed in small ways over the years, but its overall structure—a succession of military schools and command posts—remains the same. A half-century ago, General Maxwell Taylor rose in this fashion: Fourth in his class at West Point, he went into the Corps of Engineers but fortuitously switched to the Artillery.

He went to the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College. He commanded a battalion and served on the staff of General George C. Marshall, then the chief of staff, just as Marshall had served on the staff of General John J. Pershing when he was chief of staff. Ticket-punching in the Navy and the Air Force works the same way—staff service academies, staff colleges, and war colleges, are equally important ticket-punches, and command (of a submarine or a destroyer in the Navy, and a squadron of planes in the Air Force) at the upper-middle level is, similarly, the most important credential of all.

There are two important tests of the value of any system of ticket-punching. The first is whether it channels the best people into the areas that are most essential to the organization. Does General Motors, for instance, make it clear that the way for junior executives to get ahead is to be involved in making better and cheaper cars, or does it promote mainly from the corporate finance division?

On this count, the Army’s record is pretty good. Although it claims to be encouraging specialization and lessening the bias toward the combat arts (this is known in the trade as not training every officer to become Chief of Staff), unofficially the word is that now more than ever, you’ve got to be out with the troops. The ambitious young captains and majors who looked over the most recent list of promotions to brigadier general saw 20 of the 36 men awarded stars coming from Infantry, Armor, and Field Artillery. The fifties, it’s said, was the decade of tanks, the sixties of counter-insurgency techniques and airborne equipment, and the seventies, with its smaller budgets and de-emphasis of equipment, is the decade of the infantry. What officers most need to know—how to command troops—they have to know to be promoted to high rank. The Army is better at this than civilian society, whose example, if the Army followed it, would have the generals coming out of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

The second test of a ticket-punching system is whether it really finds and puts in top positions the most talented people in the organization. Do you have to be able to really deliver the goods in order to amass the credentials it takes to get ahead, or is it necessary only to be there when the conductor comes by with his puncher. Just having a job on the Courier-Journal won’t get you on the Post; you have to write good stories too. But on the other hand, once you’ve got your Supreme Court clerkship, how you perform in it is immaterial to your later success. By this measure the Army fails, because it’s more important to get the right jobs than to do them well.

In theory, that’s not so—in theory, the most important part of an officer’s file and hence the key to promotion is his Officer Efficiency Reports, a series of performance ratings that every officer gets every six months or so all the way from second lieutenant to major general. In practice, the OERs, like the dollar and grades in college, are badly inflated. Commanding officers know that good scores make for happy subordinates, and that bad scores, rather than serving notice of temporary failings, can wreck careers. So the maximum score of 200 is common, and 185 is a disaster. If you average below 195, it’s thought to be impossible to make major.

To be sure, there are subtle ways a rater can damn an officer without having to give him a low rating. For instance, a rater can say in his typed comments on the officer that he did “a superior job” and leave the officer’s career in ruins. Elsewhere on the report “superior” appears as the second-best adjective in a hierarchy of praise that’s led by “outstanding,” so to call an officer superior is to call him second-rate. Also, promotion boards go through OERs so fast that any reservation—expressing word like “but” or “despite” or “although” is thought to stand out as a red flag of disapproval regardless of its context.

Because no officer who wants to advance himself can afford a bad report, no officer can afford to cross his boss. You’ve got to be on the same sheet of music. An officer always has more assigned tasks than he has time to do, so a case can always be made against him—he was supposed to do so-and-so and didn’t, a hostile superior can say. There are good and bad bosses, of course, but on the whole, if you’re living in fear that you won’t max your next OER, you’re not going to tell your boss what he’s doing wrong, or that things aren’t going well below.

The inflation of OERs also blurs any distinction between officers on the basis of their performance, in that on the record almost everyone’s performance is nearly perfect. Only outstandingly bad performers stand apart from the crowd. The good officers have to find other ways to make their files shine. Special letters of recommendation help, as does a nice looking photograph (8-by-10 glossies are required in all officers’ files, and it helps to look the part—which is why there are few generals who are short and fat and wear thick glasses). But by far the most important is the list of assignments—what jobs you’ve had and where you’ve had them. An officer on the way up makes sure to get acquainted with the person at the Military Personnel Center in Alexandria, Virginia who handles assignments for his rank and branch. More and more of the best assignments are being parcelled out by boards, but even there the board members are judging your eligibility for future plum assignments largely on the basis of which past plum assignments you’ve had.

The reason we have an Army is to keep World War III from happening now, and to fight it when it comes. In the unpleasant event of the latter, it’s comforting to know that, for the moment at least, the people who are running the Army are the ones who know how to lead troops in battle. It’s not so comforting to know we have no idea how good they’ll be at it.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.