July 1, 2012  

Letter to the Editor

Promoting conformity

THE JUNE ARTICLE BY BRIG. GEN. MARK C. ARNOLD, “Don’t promote mediocrity,” addresses a critical failure of the military bureaucratic mindset that treats leaders as if they were identical products of an assembly line, rather than individuals with varying abilities and talents.

This concept arose from the industrial concept of war, which sought to mass produce leaders as we did tanks and liberty ships. That paradigm has been tossed into the dustbin of military history, yet we continue to let it be our organizational model in an age of small professional, long-service volunteer armies. It is as if we had inherited a fine set of British Imperial tools but everything is now in metrics. The old tools work just well enough to deceive us that they are appropriate.

The Army’s umbrella policy is another useful analogy. It is an old and honored tradition that a soldier does not carry an umbrella. Unfortunately, it is based on the fact that opening an umbrella scared the horses. So we bleed talent because personnel policy is based on concepts as irrelevant as not scaring the horses.

It is the reason that so many of the most intelligent and imaginative of our junior leaders leave the service, a phenomenon noted by the great military sociologist Morris Janowitz in his book, “The Professional Soldier,” more than 50 years ago. It is an indictment of the services that, as institutions, they have not had the wit to recognize this problem. The result is the promotion of too many timid and unimaginative careerists who keep their mouths shut and their shoes shined.

A few years ago, a friend pointed to a photo in the Pentagon of the USS Hornet about to launch the Doolittle Raid and asked, “What chance do you think that operation would have of being approved in this building today?” The answer was self-evident. These policies also drastically shrink the pool of potentially brilliant general officers. So we see ourselves flailing for years in Iraq and Afghanistan until we could find someone like Gen. David Petraeus. Instead, men like him should have been thick on the ground.

British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery got it right when he wrote, “My own feeling now, after having been through two world wars, is that an extensive use of weedkiller is needed in the senior ranks after a war; this will enable the first-class younger officers who have emerged during the war to be moved up.”

I would suggest that the use of weedkiller is more appropriate during the war. The Royal Navy rose to dominate the waves for two hundred years because it put a premium on men of talent with a bold killer instinct. It established that by shooting Adm. John Byng on his own quarterdeck in 1757 for “failing to do his utmost.” That prompted Voltaire’s famous quip that it was done to “encourage the others.”

The U.S. Army has a further problem in that it has slowed the rise of the first-class younger officers or driven them out of the service by rigid promotion policy that not even the pressures of two wars could budge. For the first time in our history, there have been no battlefield commissions for superb leadership from the enlisted ranks or battlefield promotions of officers who have shown exceptional talent. It is a rigid and unimaginative mindset that values conformity over excellence.

So imagine the Army career of 2nd Lt. Alexander D. Great. At most, he would be promoted one year ahead of his year group. When he died in the Pentagon at age 32, no doubt while preparing a PowerPoint briefing (surely of apoplexy), he had only reached the rank of major.

In a different age, where only excellence mattered, he had conquered the world.

— Lt. Col. (ret.) Peter G. Tsouras, Army Reserve, Alexandria, Va.