Military Bureaucracy

Two separate reviews of The Fourth Star, a new book by David Cloud and Greg Jaffee, touch on a theme that has fascinated me since I wrote a dissertation on the subject.

fourth-star-generalsNYT foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins (via SWJ):

“The Fourth Star” paints wonderfully dramatic portraits of the four senior officers highlighted here, but at its heart it’s a story about bureaucracy. As an institution, the United States Army has much more in common with, say, a giant corporation like General Motors than with a professional sports team like the New York Giants. You can’t cut players who don’t perform, and it’s hard to fire your head coach. Like General Motors, the Army changes very slowly, and once it does, it’s hard to turn it around again.

Actually, it’s arguably easier to “cut” bad soldiers than bad football players nowadays, since the latter often have huge signing bonuses and hold teams hostage in a salary cap era.  But, otherwise, Filkins is right.  While the military is relatively efficient, it’s not only a bureaucracy but the very thing bureaucracy was modeled after.  Which makes it amusing when conservatives simultaneously rant about the inefficiency of bureaucracy while extolling the virtues of military efficiency.  (The military, along with their brethren in the intelligence community and foreign service, does tend to be more motivated and obedient to orders from above than your average bureaucracy.)

New Kings of War blogger “Captain Hyphen.”

One of the most trenchant discussions of these wrong “lessons learned” post-Vietnam is General David Petraeus’ PhD dissertation, which the review of The Fourth Star mentions tangentially. While Petraeus might have “irritated many of his fellow officers on his way up,” he also identified an important bureaucratic reality, noting it in his dissertation: any serving officer who writes a PhD dissertation critical of the US Army as an institution and publishes it as a book will not rise to the ranks of the general officer corps. Petraeus, of course, heeded his own advice, as his dissertation remained safely tucked away in the Princeton library (until the age of scanning and posting to the Internet; h/t to Paula Broadwell for sharing the link). He was able to continue his upward trajectory, unlike such recent soldier-scholars as Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) John Nagl, whose Oxford DPhil became Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, arguably a self-inflicted career wound as an Army officer because of its coherent, incisive critique of the Army’s failures as a learning organization.

Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, however, is the exception that proves the rule, because it was only the patronage of General Petraeus that made him a general officer after twice being passed over for promotion from colonel to brigadier general. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty was the oft-cited, seldom-read mantra of senior officers in the last decade and appeared to be part of the hold-up for his advancement. Further compounding the delay, his successful counterinsurgency campaign as the commander of an armored cavalry regiment in Tall Afar made his conventionally-minded brigade commander peers look bad (or at least that’s one interpretation of how it was viewed within the Army).

How a bureaucracy without lateral entry promotes and selects its leaders is a vital issue with implications measured in decades, dollars, and lives. I look forward to reading how Cloud and Jaffe capture this dynamic in the US Army today.

One could argue McMaster exemplifies, rather than serving as an exception, to the rule. Generally, being passed over — let alone twice — for promotion pretty much indicates that you’re done.  Certainly as a prospective general officer.   Conversely — and I don’t claim to have any inside scoop here — Nagl certainly seemed to be an officer on a fast track who left the Army voluntarily to 1) so his family could settle down and 2) to take advantage of a flood of opportunities to apply his expertise in the think tank arena.   It seemingly proved a wise choice, as he soon wound up as president of CNAS.

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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.