LOSING THE ARMY’S BEST AND BRIGHTEST…Back in December 2007, military journalist Andrew Tilghman warned in a Washington Monthly cover story about a deeply worrisome trend: the Army’s most intelligent and best-trained junior officers were leaving the service in record numbers. The grinding pace of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan was a factor, but, as Tilghman learned in his reporting, not the only one — indeed the trend was evident before those wars began. What was really driving out the best and brightest young officers was their sense that their ideas about how to better prosecute the war weren’t being listened to by their superiors; that their initiative and performance wasn’t being rewarded by the promotions process; and that their marriages couldn’t survive the Army practice of moving officers around geographically every few years, often to Army outposts in rural parts of America where their spouses — like them, typically well-educated professionals — couldn’t find jobs.

The potential consequences of this trend, Tilghman warned, were grave:

[T]he greatest concern is how the exodus of the best and brightest will affect the Army’s long-term capacity to win wars, counter threats, and keep the peace. Today’s lieutenants and captains are the pool from which three- and four-star generals will be chosen twenty years from now. If the sharpest minds aren’t in that pool, we could wind up — to put it bluntly — with a senior leadership of dimwits.

That was three years ago. The bad news, according to a story in the latest Atlantic Monthly, is that military’s talent drain continues unabated. The good news is that the author of the piece, Tim Kane, a former Air Force intelligence officer now at the Kauffman Foundation, thinks there’s a solution: change the military’s rigid, bureaucratic personnel system.

In today’s military, individuals are given “orders” to report to a new assignment every two to four years. When an Army unit in Korea rotates out its executive officer, the commander of that unit is assigned a new executive officer. Even if the commander wants to hire Captain Smart, and Captain Smart wants to work in Korea, the decision is out of their hands — and another captain, who would have preferred a job in Europe, might be assigned there instead. The Air Force conducts three assignment episodes each year, coordinated entirely by the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, in Texas. Across the globe, officers send in their job requests. Units with open slots send their requirements for officers. The hundreds of officers assigned full-time to the personnel center strive to match open requirements with available officers (each within strictly defined career fields, like infantry, intelligence, or personnel itself), balancing individual requests with the needs of the service, while also trying to develop careers and project future trends, all with constantly changing technological tools. It’s an impossible job, but the alternative is chaos.

In fact, a better alternative is chaos. Chaos, to economists, is known as the free market, where the invisible hand matches supply with demand. The Strategic Studies Institute report makes this very point. “Giving officers greater voice in their assignments increases both employment longevity and productivity,” it concludes. “The Army’s failure to do so, however, in large part accounts for declining retention among officers commissioned since 1983.”

Here is how a market alternative would work. Each commander would have sole hiring authority over the people in his unit. Officers would be free to apply for any job opening. If a major applied for an opening above his pay grade, the commander at that unit could hire him (and bear the consequences). Coordination could be done through existing online tools such as monster.com or careerbuilder.com (presumably those companies would be interested in offering rebranded versions for the military). If an officer chose to stay in a job longer than “normal” (“I just want to fly fighter jets, sir”), that would be solely between him and his commander.

Seems like an idea worth trying, especially given the alternative.

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.