Fixing the Army (By Ruining It)

Thomas Ricks posts several recommendations for fixing the Army. Most of them are really, really stupid.

When Jonathan Jeckell tweeted, “I can’t believe Tom Ricks thinks the Army needs *more* time standing around in formation!” I was immediately drawn to read the article. A couple sentences in, I replied, “Or doesn’t understand joint staff is staff, not command.” A couple paragraphs in, I pronounced it “This may be the single stupid blog post in the history of blog posts, not just Tom Ricks.”

Upon closer examination, I discovered that, while Tom Ricks’ image is atop the blog, and his name appears under the byline, the post in question was actually written by someone under the pseudonym “Petronius Arbiter.” My strong guess is that the author is a non-commissioned officer, probably a Sergeant First Class, with minimal familiarity with Google, much less the Army above the batallion level.

The post is a series of suggestions for fixing the Army.

Downgrade all Army general-level commands to LTG commands. CSA and VCSA would be only 4-star generals in the Army. Army Generals serving in COCOMs could be 4-star. Doing so would help empower the CSA as the commander of the Army. The Army is roughly 60 percent the size it was in the Cold War, but with near-same institutional structure and greater rank structure. If there is concern that 3-star corps commanders could not work for 3-star major commanders, it worked well in WWII. There just needs to be a pecking order of 3-star generals. They will know and they will understand and being the professionals they are they will work together. This would greatly assist in streamlining the Army structure. For every star there is a needed staff of military and civilians to provide staff work. This reduction would greatly streamline the Army and would make it more efficient, taking out layers of bureaucracy.

First off, the Chief of Staff is in no way the commander of the Army! As the name implies, he heads up the Army Staff. Neither the Service Chiefs nor the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are command billets. Combatant commanders report directly to the Secretary of Defense.

Otherwise, I don’t have any real qualms with this suggestion, other than that the downgrade in billets would have to be DoD-wide, not just Army wide, lest Army generals be outranked by peers in the other services. Possibly, there would be similar issues vis-a-vis allied armies as well. But there’s little doubt that the US military has seen rank creep over the years. Then again, the only Army generals by virtue of their Army positions are the chief of staff and vice chief of staff–who Petronius want to retain as 4-stars–and the head of US Army Forces Command, US Army Materiel Command, and US Army Training and Doctrine Command. So, we’re talking about downgrading three billets; that doesn’t save us “layers of bureaucracy.” Hardly the institutional reform I’d start with. All other Army generals with 4-star rank have it by virtue of heading up combatant commands (Africa Command and Northern Command/NORAD, currently, have bosses that are in the Army).

Downgrade existing Army special staff billets from LTG to MG, example Dir Army budget to MG, etc. Leave principle Assistant Chief of Staff, G1 to G8 alone. Other services may have to do same in order for Army to compete in the Pentagon.

I have no idea what this is supposed to accomplish, frankly. The budget savings would be minimal.

Now that the National Guard Bureau has a 4 star seat on the JCS, insist that the NG replace “U.S. Army” on the uniform with “Guardsman.” They are now close to the 6th service. As such, reduce or eliminate Title 10 support to the NG. All NG budgetary and personnel issues should be Title 32.

If I were holding a contest to see who could come up with the dumbest idea for reforming the Army, I’d stop it and declare a winner. This would set the Army back two decades, ruining hard fought gains in achieving a Total Force.

Now, twenty years ago, I’d have given this a big Hell Yes and a Hooah or three. The National Guard was an embarrassment and seeing these fat yahoos in sore need of a haircut running around in my uniform made my blood boil. But a hell of a lot has changed since then. We’ve integrated the promotion system so that Guardsmen have to earn it in the same way that active force soldiers do.  And many Guardsmen have seen more combat time than their active duty counterparts owing to the vagaries of the force structure. These people are every bit the soldier as the guys on active duty now and it would be a slap in the face to label them as second class citizens.

Refer to Soldiers by rank and not pay grade, not all Sergeants are Sergeants; PV1/2 are Privates, SSGs are Staff Sergeant, MSGs are Master Sergeant, etc, and LTCs are Lt Colonel and Colonel (06) are Colonel. Refer to no one as a pay grade. It is disrespectful to do so. No professional wants to be called by or referred to as a pay grade.

We don’t refer to individual soldiers by pay grade and never have. The reference to pay grade is useful for talking about groupings of soldiers (“All E-4 and below must report to the sergeant major on the first Tuesday of every month”) or for clarity in joint operations (an Army captain [O-3) is a junior officer, whereas a Navy captain [0-6] is a very senior officer). I’m agnostic on the matter of addressing staff sergeants as “Staff Sergeant Jones” rather than “Sergeant Jones.” The Navy and Marine Corps do this; the Army never has.

Expedite soldier valorous awards so that heroism is recognized rapidly. Over three years to award a MoH is absolutely ridiculous, especially in this information age with fast moving communications. Sgt. Basilone, WWII USMC, along with three others, received his MoH 7 months after his action while still serving in the area of operations and they had no internet. The latest USMC award of the MoH took two years to approve. Even that is too long. If it is the veracity of the action that they are concerned about, I think history will tell you that war stories get more questionable with age. Go with the witness statements at the time of the action, not months later. They will be more accurate.

I fully endorse this. I understand that the DoD (the Medal of Honor isn’t an Army award) wants to ensure standardization for the very top awards, not making the difference between a Medal of Honor and a Distinguished Service Cross or even a Silver Star a matter of the literary talents or judgments of the nominating officer. But there just aren’t enough MOH nominations to need to drag the process out this long.

Re-instill drill and ceremonies so that units can at least have confidence in unit abilities to conduct a pass in review at ceremonies. Oh, and when supervised properly, it is a tremendous discipline builder and junior NCO developer, but most officers don’t know that. It is a great way to instill confidence in NCOs and discipline in Soldiers. A lost trade I think . . . unfortunately, and still needed.

I did plenty of D&C as a cadet but can’t imagine when you’d find time to do this at a unit. Especially with the current opstempo, there’s just too much to do. And, frankly, most soldiers would see spending a lot of time practicing for parades to be degrading, not just a colossal waste of time. We’ve cut out shining boots and pressing fatigues; let’s go ahead and keep this gone, too.

Settle on a uniform set and let it alone. There are great frustrations in the Army the last several years over this. In particular, the combat uniform has seen 4 versions in 10 years and they still can’t get it right. The dress uniform is a real joke, especially the Class B uniform. Even the GOs gripe about it. 2 CSAs agocould have stopped it but he did not. His predecessor made so many horrific decisions about everything, especially uniforms, that the Army has been unstable ever since. I guess the bottom line on uniforms is there are no standards. Think CSA Dempsey was on his way to fix all those items but he was there only a very short time. He would have fixed it.

I’m sympathetic to this one. The old battle dress uniform that I wore finally gave up the ghost during the Iraq War, when the Army decided that it just made no sense to have multiple camouflage patterns and went to one standardized one. The hasty replacement, the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) turned out to have multiple problems–most notably that the “universal” camouflage pattern not only isn’t universal but doesn’t even work in the main theater it’s being worn, Afghanistan–so they’re looking to replace it. It’s a bit frustrating.

Getting rid of the polyester green uniforms with the lime green shirt as a garrison dress uniform and making the dress blue uniform the standard service uniform again was something I campaigned for back in the late 1980s. They’ve finally done it. The problem is that, rather than going back to the old tradition of khakis or some other substitute uniform for hot weather, they decided to have a “class B” version of the uniform that consists of the light blue trousers with a white dress shirt and all the ribbons and skill badges on it. This makes soldiers look like shopping mall security guards.

The post also featured some suggestions about changing the acquisition system that strike me as wrongheaded but are sufficiently outside my sphere of expertise that I’ll defer on critiquing them.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. Eric Florack says:

    Having read the post, I must confess a certain mystification as to how the writer considers that these would be improvements. I’ll have to ask my brother, who was a reservist for 20 years and made 1sg about this one. I suspect his comments would be enlightening.

  2. ponce says:

    seeing these fat yahoos…

    That’s the second time today you have used “fat” as an insult, James.

  3. Eric says:

    Just asking, how you fix the Army and/or the US military itself for better?

  4. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: Fat is an insult in military culture and a disqualifier for a combat soldier. It really has nothing to do with the presidency (re: Gingrich) but it’s generally viewed by voters as a sign of sloth, so almost all presidential candidates look a certain way. Chris Christie’s weight, for example, is always right at the front of the conversation.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    But not in the case of say, a Nadler, or a Candy Crowley, I notice.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    The first thing that needs to be fixed is the mission. We can no longer afford our lust for empire. We can no longer afford to fight wars in the ME that make us less safe not more. We can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. When the mission is fixed we can look at what kind of military we need.

  7. Liberty60 says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    We also need a Constitutional Amendment that prohibits going to war unless The People (via Congress) approves.

  8. Rick Almeida says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Candy Crowley is running for office?

  9. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Liberty60: No, we don’t need a Constitutional ammendment for that. All we need in a Congress with enough spine to declare wars instead of allowing the President to engage in War Power’s Act proxy “police actions.”

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Liberty60: I guess the problem I have with that is that congress is totally dysfunctional and would be unable to make a decision. The idea of an imperial presidency scares me but the fact that it may be a necessity scares me even more.

  11. Scott says:

    I think whoever wrote these suggestions is unwittingly responding to the inevitable decline that results from 10 years of continuous warfare. There is a cost to the institution that is not manifested until after peace is restored. One the number of GO billets, it is hard to explain why they don’t decline with the same percentage as the service totals. In the AF, it was considered an insult to call someone an E-9 vice a Chief. I’m unwilling to dump on this individual because there may be some rot occurring but he can’t diagnose correctly,

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Scott: I don’t recall any individual ever being addressed by his pay grade during my time in the Army. E-9s were invariably addressed as “Sergeant Major” and referred to as either “Sergeant Major Jones,” “Command Sergeant Major Jones,” or “the sergeant major.” Ditto E-8 first sergeants. E-8 master sergeants were simply referred to as “sergeant.”

    The only time when pay grades were used was to refer to groupings (“E-4 and below,” “E-6 and above,” and the like).

  13. Mr. Prosser says:

    @James Joyner: I think you are correct. During my time in the Navy all Petty Officers were referred to as “Petty Officer Jones” when formally or semi-formally addressed by a superior. Petty Officers were in pay grades E-4 thru E-6. E-1 thru E-3 were referred to in the same manner as Seaman, Airman, Constructionman, etc. depending on his general mos. All Chief Petty Officers, E-7 thru E-9 were referred to as Chief unless in a formal address. During standard work everyone used last names or nicknames unless the person addressed was a Chief. All Warrant Officers and junior officers were referred to as Mister, as in Mr. Roberts. Senior officers, Commander and above (your light colonel and above) were referred to by their rank. Finally the commander of a ship, no matter his official rank, was referred to as Captain.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Mr. Prosser: That’s pretty much Army culture, too, with two minor exceptions. Lower enlisted men (E-4 Specialist and below but not E-4 corporals, who are NCOs) were addressed in most cases simply by their last name and officer ranks are less formalized in use. That is, the Navy will address a lieutenant commander as “Lieutenant Commander Jones” and a commander as “Commander Jones” whereas the Army will address both a lieutenant colonel and a colonel as “Colonel Jones” in all but the most formal occasions.

  15. Barry says:

    James: “I’m sympathetic to this one. The old battle dress uniform that I war finally gave up the ghost during the Iraq War, when the Army decided that it just made no sense to have multiple camouflage patterns and went to one standardized one. The hasty replacement, the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) turned out to have multiple problems–most notably that the “universal” camouflage pattern not only isn’t universal but doesn’t even work in the main theater it’s being worn, Afghanistan–so they’re looking to replace it. It’s a bit frustrating.”

    That’s the point – a one–for-all camouflage pattern means none-for-any.

    As for Khakis, I was issued them, just as they were being phased out. WTF is it that the Army can’t keep those? They look good, are simple, and look military. Instead the Army seems to go for odd things that just look dorky.

  16. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Fat is an insult in military culture and a disqualifier for a combat soldier.”

    Agreed. A fat soldier is a poor soldier (and I say this as a former soldier who was always bumping up against the limits).

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Barry: When my dad was in, the Army had a great combo of uniforms: an olive drab fatigue uniform that was dirt cheap and easy to care for, a green Class A uniform with a khaki shirt, and the summer khakis as the main uniforms. (Also, blues, whites, mess dress, etc. for specialized uses.) They decided in the early 1980s that this was too complicated and phased out the khakis and replaced the khaki shirt on the A’s with a lime green one and declared that simply taking off the jacket rendered it a “B” uniform. Tie mandatory with long sleeve shirt, optional with short sleeve shirt. This was simpler but uglier. And the BDUs were hot, expensive, and hard to keep looking decent because of the giant pockets.