THE ARMY’S OTHER CRISIS….In the December issue of the Monthly, Andrew Tilghman takes a long look at a subject that gets only sporadic attention in the daily press: the intense pressure that the Iraq war is putting on the Army’s ability to retain its midlevel officer corps. The exodus of officers with between four and nine years of experience has jumped from 8% to 13% just in the past four years, and the officers who are leaving are disproportionately some of the Army’s highest performers:
Colonel George Lockwood, the director of officer personnel management for the Army’s Human Resources Command [has] estimated that the Army already has only about half the senior captains that it needs. “Read the last line again, please,” Lockwood wrote. “Our inventory of senior captains is only 51 percent of requirement.” In response to this deficit, the Army is taking in twenty-two-year-olds as fast as it can. However, these recruits can’t be expected to perform the jobs of officers who have six to eight years of experience. “New 2nd Lieutenants,” Lockwood observed, “are no substitute for senior captains.”
Even the pool from which the Army draws its future leaders is being diluted….The number of OCS graduates has more than tripled since the late 1990s, from about 400 a year to more than 1,500 a year. These soldiers may turn out to be good commissioned officers. But they are also needed in the noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps, the parallel structure of senior-level sergeants who form the Army’s backbone, responsible for ensuring that orders are effectively carried out, rather than making policy or strategic decisions. Yet the Army is already several thousand sergeants short and has been reducing NCO promotion times in order to fill the gaps. Sending more soldiers who are NCOs, or NCO material, to Officer Candidate School is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul.
….In Washington, I met Matt Kapinos and his longtime friend Jim Morin for lunch….Both men were frank, thoughtful, and occasionally sarcastic about their disillusionment with the Army; it was clear that they’d discussed the subject repeatedly before. “You have a three-star general like John Vines come down to talk to us, and he says, ‘Just go out there and shoot people,’” Kapinos said. “And you know that that is not how to fight an insurgency. Everyone who’s ever read the most basic article on counterinsurgency knows that is not how you’re going to win.”
“Yeah,” Morin agreed. “The general would come out and give these bellicose speeches, and every time he did that, I’d have to go back to my guys and say, ‘What the general really meant to say was … “
There are plenty of reasons for the Army’s retention problems that go beyond the Iraq war, but Tilghman reports that the war has intensified them in two ways: first, through simple weariness caused by multiple deployments thousands of miles from home, and second, through frustration with a senior officer corps that doesn’t understand modern counterinsurgency and seemingly has little desire to learn. And without midlevel officers, you don’t have an army:
Civilian hawks in the government believe that the way to reduce the grueling pace of deployments while continuing to prosecute the war for “as long as it takes” is simply to increase the size of the force. Rudy Giuliani, for instance, has called for adding ten combat brigades. But who is going to lead these new forces if seasoned young officers continue leaving the Army in droves? Calls to expand the Army are empty rhetoric if the military brass and their civilian bosses fail to grapple with whether the services can recruit and retain junior leaders in both numbers and quality.
One final thought: the four-star generals of tomorrow are the captains and majors of today. If you’re losing the best of those midlevel officers, you’re not only losing the backbone of today’s Army, you’re losing the leadership of tomorrow’s. “The generals who will appear before Congress in twenty-five years are in the Army right now,” Tilghman says. “They’re junior officers, probably captains. And keeping them in uniform might be the Army’s most important mission.”