Why America’s Best Officers Are Leaving
The American military personnel system works against keeping the best and brightest officers in the service.
Tim Kane, an Air Force Academy graduate and former Heritage Foundation scholar now at the Kauffman Foundation, has an important piece in The Atlantic examining “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving.” His exemplar is a former classmate of mine:
JOHN NAGL STILL hesitates when he talks about his decision to leave the Army. A former Rhodes Scholar and tank-battalion operations officer in Iraq, Nagl helped General David Petraeus write the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, which is credited with bringing Iraq’s insurgency under control. But despite the considerable influence Nagl had in the Army, and despite his reputation as a skilled leader, he retired in 2008 having not yet reached the rank of full colonel. Today, Nagl still has the same short haircut he had 24 years ago when we met as cadets—me an Air Force Academy doolie (or freshman), him a visiting West Pointer—but now he presides over a Washington think tank. The funny thing is, even as a civilian, he can’t stop talking about the Army—“our Army”—as if he never left. He won’t say it outright, but it’s clear to me, and to many of his former colleagues, that the Army fumbled badly in letting him go. His sudden resignation has been haunting me, and it punctuates an exodus that has been publicly ignored for too long.
Why does the American military produce the most innovative and entrepreneurial leaders in the country, then waste that talent in a risk-averse bureaucracy?
He looks to a report from the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and his own survey of West Point graduates for clues. In the latter, “an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of ‘the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.'”
Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more- lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.
The Pentagon’s response to such complaints has traditionally been to throw money at the problem, in the form of millions of dollars in talent-blind retention bonuses. More often than not, such bonuses go to any officer in the “critical” career fields of the moment, regardless of performance evaluations. This only ensures that the services retain the most risk-averse, and leads to long-term mediocrity.
When I asked veterans for the reasons they left the military, the top response was “frustration with military bureaucracy”—cited by 82 percent of respondents (with 50 percent agreeing strongly). In contrast, the conventional explanation for talent bleed—the high frequency of deployments—was cited by only 63 percent of respondents, and was the fifth-most-common reason. According to 9 out of 10 respondents, many of the best officers would stay if the military was more of a meritocracy.
The most blatantly anti-entrepreneurial aspect of the Army is the strict time-in-service requirement for various ranks. Consider the mandatory delay for becoming a general. Active-duty officers can retire after 20 years of service. But to be considered for promotion to general requires at least 22 years of service, and that applies to even the most talented and inspiring military officer in the nation.
John Nagl might have been that officer. His 2002 book, Learningto Eat Soup With a Knife, anticipated the kind of insurgency warfare America was likely to face in the new century, and it proved a prescient warning as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on. After serving in Iraq, Nagl helped General Petraeus write the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine in 2005 and 2006. Conventional wisdom holds that the “surge” broke Iraq’s insurgency the following year. But the surge was more than just the 30,000 or so additional soldiers and marines who were deployed. The key was instead a new emphasis on stability and development, inspired in large part by ideas laid out in Nagl’s book.
In 2008, Nagl hit the 20-year mark, and what happened? He retired. Since he was not yet a full colonel, let alone a general, it was clear that he could be more influential as a civilian. He is now the head of the Center for a New American Security, known in Washington as President Obama’s favorite think tank. Had he stayed in the Army, odds are he would have been a career colonel, or a professor at the Army War College. Now his work at CNAS regularly reaches the White House and the National Security Council. While I assumed the loss of Nagl would be seen as an outrage within the military, most officers I spoke to shrugged it off as typical.
In the current Army, promotion through lieutenant colonel is virtually automatic. We simply need the manpower and are having difficulty keeping enough people in. And Kane’s right: Despite being an obvious standout, John Nagl was exactly the same rank as everyone else from the Class of 1988 at the twenty year mark. (Indeed, ridiculous as it sounds, spending three years at Oxford getting his DPhil likely hurt more than it helped, since he had one less “real Army” assignment on his record.) The first chance to get ahead of the curve is at promotion to major and the second at promotion to lieutenant colonel. And those only allow you to get one year ahead of your class. Essentially, then, there’s no real differentiation between the top 1% and the most mediocre officers in the service until they’re in their 40s.
In this regard, the military is behind not only the private sector but the rest of government. If Nagl had instead gone to, say, Yale and began his career at the Pentagon, State Department, or intelligence community at 22 (or, better yet, at 24 after completing his Rhodes Scholar work) he could have been a lieutenant colonel equivalent (GS-13) before he turned 30 and a general officer equivalent (SES/SIS) at 35. DC is positively overrun with GS-15s in their 30s; there’s no such thing as a 35-year-old bird colonel. And, while it’s rare to be in the Senior Executive/Intelligence Service at a very young age, it happens.
Interestingly, too, it wasn’t always this way with the American military. As recently as World War II, it was possible to rapidly advance in rank during wartime. We had battalion commanders who were four years out of West Point. Now, despite the fact that the American Army has been pretty much continuously deployed for two decades, everyone has to wait their turn.
Kane’s proposed solution is a radical overhaul of the personnel system; indeed, he turns it on its head.
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 isassigned 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.
Now, I should note, the Army didn’t adopt its current personnel system in 1983. Promotions and assignments have been centralized for decades. So I’m not sure it’s the total explanation for the retention problem.
Regardless, I’m intrigued by Kane’s idea. And, really, it’s not all that radical. Indeed, it’s pretty much how the rest of the Federal Government manages personnel! There are career GS-9s who just do their job with no thought toward moving up the management chain. And there are eager beavers who become GS-15s by 30 and move into the executive ranks and/or become presidential appointees by the time their military peers are still waiting to pin on the silver oak leaves of a lieutenant colonel.
The obvious down side of this, however, is that it virtually invites cronyism. Those who’d curried favor with the right mentors would move ahead, whereas those officers who either backed the wrong horse (say, their company and battalion commanders from their lieutenant and captain days got out of the service) or weren’t part of the Good Old Boy network would get shunted aside. Depending on which wave was in favor, those who liked to hang out at the bar or at the Officers Christian Fellowship meetings would be In or Out.
Relatedly, it would privilege those officers whose view of the Army matched that of the current leadership. Right now, it would presumably mean that the COINdinistas and acolytes of David Petraeus would move ahead of the old school Big Army types. Five years ago, though, it would have meant just the opposite: Those trying to upset the applecart would have been left behind, since those in position to make key hires would have felt threatened by those who wanted to transform their Army.
Still, the private sector, intelligence community, and diplomatic corps manage to rapidly promote the best and brightest despite those obstacles.* And I do think the problem that Kane has identified — the inability to promote the superstars ahead of their peers during the first two decades of their careers — is a significant one that needs to be fixed.
But here’s the thing: Despite the inability to retain the John Nagls of the world, our armed forces nonetheless manage to retain enough of its stars to produce some pretty terrific colonels and generals (and captains and admirals). Like Nagl, Petraeus is a West Pointer with a prestige PhD. Admiral Jim Stravridis, the current SACEUR, is a Naval Academy grad with a PhD and MALD from Tufts. Most of the lieutenant colonels and colonels I meet — and I meet a lot — strike me a bright, competent officers. And, again, this is in an environment where promotion to those ranks is much less selective than it has been traditionally.
Kane cites Paul Yingling’s recent classic “A Failure in Generalship,” which argues that America’s military leaders made the same mistakes in Iraq as their predecessors did in Vietnam. Namely,
First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America’s generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America’s generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.
Despite paying lip service to “transformation” throughout the 1990s, America’s armed forces failed to change in significant ways after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Yingling argued that, “An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army’s senior generals speaks another language.” Like Kane, he attributes these flaws to the personnel system: ”In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”
Yet, while I agree with every bit of that, I’m not sure this is fixable. Much less that it would be solved by Kane’s bottom-up promotion and assignment system. Unless a David Petraeus or Jim Stavridis is doing the picking, what are the odds that a commander is going to prioritize graduate degrees and language skills? Especially since, until the last 15 years, it was by no means obvious that these traits were desirable.
Furthermore, I’d argue that the more important flaw in our system as it stands today is that there simply isn’t any time for officers to acquire these skills. The mid-career officers that I talk to have a hell of a time scheduling a War College assignment, much less civilian education and language training. While those things were easy to do twenty years ago, today’s young officers are too busy being deployed to war zones and getting ready to redeploy to do much of anything else. And, since going to grad school for a couple years comes at the expense of gaining combat experience, it’s quite likely that today’s battalion commanders would look askance at a captain with a new master’s degree from Princeton.
*UPDATE: To come full circle on this, while I agree fully that the problems Kane and Yingling identify exist and largely agree with the causes they identify, I’m not at all convinced that the United States military does a worse job of promoting outstanding leaders than the private sector.
Indeed, I’m not even sure that it’s any worse at retaining superstars than are American corporations. If John Nagl had gone to work for IBM or Microsoft 20 years ago, he’d doubtless be a wealthier man today. And he’d likely have advanced more quickly relative to his peers. But he may well have left those firms well before the 20 years he gave the Army.
All large organizations are bureaucratic and tend to look askance at those who haven’t paid their dues. The military is just more ritualized, because there’s a set career path that requires certain tickets be punched, in terms of both assignments and schools.
Even in the think tank sector, John would likely not be running Brookings or CSIS had he been there 20 years. He’s president of CNAS because he got in on the ground floor of the nascent operation and was tapped to take over two years later when its founders went into the administration.
Ultimately, the way a true superstar gets to the top in the private sector is to start his own company. John did the next best thing.