Army Fears Exodus of Young Officers

Some senior Army leaders are worried that the strains of constant deployment will lead to the mass exodus of young captains who have completed their military obligation.

Officers Plot Exit Strategy (LAT)

More than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks spawned an era of unprecedented strain on the all-volunteer military, it is scenes like this [a rambling, unrepresentative anecdote that goes on for several paragraphs] that keep the Army’s senior generals awake at night. With thousands of soldiers currently on their second combat deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan and some preparing for their third this fall, evidence is mounting that an exodus of young Army officers may be looming on the horizon.

It is especially troubling for Pentagon officials that the Army’s pool of young captains, which forms the backbone of infantry and armored units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be the hardest hit. Last year, Army lieutenants and captains left the service at an annual rate of 8.7% — the highest since 2001. Pentagon officials say they expect the attrition rate to improve slightly this year. Yet interviews with several dozen military officers revealed an undercurrent of discontent within the Army’s young officer corps that the Pentagon’s statistics do not yet capture.

Young captains in the Army are looking ahead to repeated combat tours, years away from their families and a global war that their commanders tell them could last for decades. Like other college grads in their mid-20s, they are making decisions about what to do with their lives. And many officers, who until recently had planned to pursue careers in the military, are deciding that it’s a future they can’t sign up for.

The officers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan just wrapped up a year of grueling counterinsurgency operations — a type of combat the U.S. largely avoided after its struggle in Vietnam and that many in the Pentagon believe is the new face of war. They were in Iraq during last spring’s uprisings in Fallouja and Najaf, June’s transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government and block-to-block fighting during the retaking of Fallouja in November. These officers have, in most cases, more counterinsurgency experience than any of their superiors. And they are the people the Army most fears losing.

The officers interviewed for this article are proud of what they accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are generally optimistic that the two nations can eventually emerge as functioning, if unstable, democracies. Those just returning from Iraq ended their combat tours on a positive note with successful parliamentary elections in January, which had been the singular focus of their deployment. Yet their pride is tempered by uncertainty about what lies ahead in an unconventional war in which victory may never be declared. “The undefined goals of the war on terror are making it really hard for the Army to keep people right now,” Fulton said.

A troubling situation, to be sure, but hardly unexpected. The Army’s ability to retain junior officers and mid-career non-commissioned officers is critical to maintaining an outstanding force. It is, and always has been, cyclical. More senior people have little leeway, as they have too much time invested and are too close to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow–a rather generous retirement benefits package at the twenty year mark–to quit. So, young sergeants and captains are the ones who have to decide whether to make a career of it or seek greener pastures elsewhere.

The Army had a similiar problem during the mid-1990s, as people who had joined expecting large blocks of peacetime duty and war only in the event of a major international crisis instead got deployed to “peacekeeping” mission after “peacekeeping” mission. Many quit.

Most soldiers are willing–indeed, eager–to fight in the war on terror but the sacrifice of family is, understandably, more than many are willing to bear.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Difference is during the mid-90s we weren’t fighting in two theaters and doing back to back deployments. Sure there will be replacements, but the experience lost with these company grade officers and NCOs is irreplaceable when lives are on the line.

  2. joe says:

    DC loser (above) is right. This is more than cyclical, unless you include Viet Nam in the cycle. Yes, “most soldeirs are willing.” The trouble is there are fewer soldiers, and no one’s coming up with a solution. Personally, I like Paul Glastris and Phillip Carter’s draft proposal and think it’s really problematic that no elected leader acknowledges the problem with a proposal of a solution, or even a call to sacrifice.

  3. McGehee says:

    Aaaaand here we go again with another moonbat idea: the draft.


  4. Lt bell says:


    about like having bush go do some real time on the line
    but then again , perhaps we would not be having this
    war if the people with all the cards and all the keyboards did something besides talk, talk, talk.

  5. NOTR says:

    In this instance, Iraq is like Vietnam. I remember reading essentially the same article in the early 1970’s.

  6. McGehee says:

    Yes, Bell — just like back when your buddies were simultaneously trying to resurrect the draft with legislation and trying to scare young voters that Bush was going to bring back the draft.

    MOONBAT is what I said, because MOONBAT is what it is.