The Not-So-Long Gray Line
Lucian Truscott IV, West Point Class of 1969 and noted author, discusses the low retention rate of Academy graduates in an op-ed in today’s New York Times.
June is the month in which West Point celebrates the commissioning of its graduating class and prepares to accept a new group of candidates eager to embrace the arduous strictures of the world’s most prestigious military academy. But it can also be a cruel month, because West Pointers five years removed from graduation have fulfilled their obligations and can resign.
My class, that of 1969, set a record with more than 50 percent resigning within a few years of completing the service commitment. (My father’s class, 1945, the one that “missed” World War II, was considered to be the previous record-holder, with about 25 percent resigning before they reached the 20 years of service entitling them to full retirement benefits.)
And now, from what I’ve heard from friends still in the military and during the two years I spent reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems we may be on the verge of a similar exodus of officers. The annual resignation rate of Army lieutenants and captains rose to 9 percent last year, the highest since before the Sept. 11 attacks. And in May, The Los Angeles Times reported on “an undercurrent of discontent within the Army’s young officer corps that the Pentagon’s statistics do not yet capture.”
I’m not surprised. In 1975, I received a foundation grant to write reports on why such a large percentage of my class had resigned. This money would have been better spent studying the emerging appeal of Scientology, because a single word answered the question: Vietnam.
I have met many lieutenants who have served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, practically back to back. While everyone in a combat zone is risking his or her life, these junior officers are the ones leading foot patrols and convoys several times a day. Recruiting enough privates for the endless combat rotations is a problem the Army may gamble its way out of with enough money and a struggling economy. But nothing can compensate for losing the combat-hardened junior officers.
In the fall of 2003 I was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq, and its West Point lieutenants were among the most gung-ho soldiers I have ever encountered, yet most were already talking about getting out of the Army. I talked late into one night with a muscular first lieutenant with a shaved head and a no-nonsense manner who had stacks of Foreign Affairs, The New Yorker and The Atlantic under his bunk. He had served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and he was disgusted with what he had seen in Iraq by December 2003. “I feel like politicians have created a difficult situation for us,” he told me. “I know I’m going to be coming back here about a year from now. I want to get married. I want to have a life. But I feel like if I get out when my commitment is up, who’s going to be coming here in my place? I feel this obligation to see it through, but everybody over here knows we’re just targets. Sooner or later, your luck’s going to run out.”
A couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail message from another West Point lieutenant; he was writing from a laptop in a bunker somewhere in Iraq. “I’m getting out as soon as I can,” he wrote. “Everyone I know plans on getting out, with a few exceptions. What have you got to look forward to? If you come back from a tour of getting the job done in war, it’s to a battalion commander who cares more about the shine on your boots and how your trucks are parked in the motor pool than about the fitness of your unit for war.”
There was a time when the Army did not have a problem retaining young leaders – men like Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, George Marshall, Omar Bradley and my grandfather, Lucian K. Truscott Jr. Having endured the horrors of World War I trenches, these men did not run headlong out of the Army in the 1920’s and 30’s when nobody wanted to think of the military, much less pay for it. They had made a pact with each other and with their country, and all sides were going to keep it.
The Army goes through these cycles. West Point graduates are perhaps slightly more cynical than their ROTC peers, because they spend four years immersed in an ivory tower being told about an ideal Army that doesn’t exist. Indeed, when I started the ROTC Advanced Program after a year and a half at USMA, I was horrified at how cavalier the instructors were in teaching us to pick our battles with the heirarchy and that doing the honorable thing all the time was a surefire way to kill one’s career. Sadly, they were right.
The clash of the bureaucratic Army and the wartime Army is also something that makes men cynical. When my unit rotated back to Germany after Desert Storm, we immediately started getting an influx of new officers, including a new battalion executive officer. Their spit-and-polish, garrison mentality was sneered at by the young lieutenants who had just come back from war, where these concerns were put into their proper context.
A decade plus of high operations tempo fighting unpopular wars from Somalia to Bosnia to Haiti to Iraq has undeniably taken a huge toll. Having to live that lifestyle, with its brutal impact on family life, has predictably led many who might otherwise have spent 20-30 years in the Service to get out.
Still, I continue to be amazed at the good attitude of those who decide to remain in. Most of the officers I’ve talked to who have been to Iraq, including a couple who were pretty badly wounded, are eager to go back. It’s the bureaucratic Army of endless PowerPoint briefings that they can’t stand, not the wartime Army.