Jewish World Review June 18, 2002 / 8 Tamuz, 5762

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Consumer Reports

Why the military
is so messed up | Why do really smart guys in the Army tend to top out at colonel, while blockheads like Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and Central Command commander Tommy Franks become four star generals?

Major Donald Vandergriff, who is still a serving officer, has the good sense not to ask this question. But he answers it in his book, The Path to Victory. Most of us think the purpose of the Army is to protect our nation.

But evidently the Army thinks the purpose of the Army is to provide satisfying careers for its officers.

Study after study makes it clear unit cohesion is the most important factor in the performance of ground combat formations. The better soldiers and their leaders know each other, the longer they are together, the better they fight. But the Army sabotages unit cohesion for the sake of its personnel management system. The typical infantry, armor or artillery battalion commander has spent less than a third of his career actually serving with troops, Vandergriff notes. He is inexperienced in his job, and a stranger to his men.

The key to promotion for an officer has been to get a smattering of experience in a variety of command and staff positions. Getting the "tickets punched" of as many officers as possible has taken precedence over combat effectiveness.

This system reached ludicrous heights during the Vietnam war, when platoon, company and battalion commanders typically served six month tours - so more would get the opportunity to command - while the soldiers they led had to spend a year in harm's way. You can imagine what this did to troop morale. It also explains why the Army learned so little as the war progessed. The Army wasn't in Vietnam for ten years. The Army was in Vietnam for one year - ten times.

The best illustration of the dangers the Army's personnel management system poses comes from the Korean War. In December of 1950, the Chinese launched a massive surprise attack on the Chosin Reservoir. The Army's Seventh Infantry Division was on the east side of the "frozen Chosin," the First Marine Division on the west.

The Seventh Infantry swiftly collapsed. All its artillery, vehicles and crew-served weapons, and nearly half its soldiers, were captured by the Chinese. The Marines brought out most of their artillery and their vehicles, their wounded and their dead, and inflicted six casualties on the Chinese for each one they suffered.

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The principal difference was leadership. Not one of the battalion or regimental commanders in the 7th had commanded at the same level or the one below it during World War II. (The desk jockeys needed to get their tickets punched.) All battalion and regimental commanders in the First Marine Division had.

In recent years, Army personnel policies have wasted more money than lives.

The Army maintains at Fort Irwin, California, a training center where armor and mechanized infantry brigades come to fight a mock battle against a force trained in Soviet tactics. The OPFOR typically beats the hell out of the inexperienced visitors, so much so that the rules of engagement have been revised to restrict the humiliation that can be visited upon them. Some valuable lessons are learned. But they mostly are wasted, because nearly all the platoon, company and battalion commanders who learned them will rotate out before (in about 2 1/2 years) the brigade returns to Fort Irwin.

The Army personnel system institutionalizes stupidity. Those who question it are considered troublemakers, and don't go far. Those who don't question it are, by definition, not very bright. This helps explain why we have a senior Army leadership that can't figure out that the Cold War is over; a chief of staff who thought it would boost morale to take the black beret away from the Rangers, and a Central Command commander who let his lawyer talk him out of killing Mullah Omar when we had him in our sights early in the Afghan war.

Solutions to the problems Vandergriff illuminates are obvious: A system of unit rotation rather than individual replacements in combat zones. Longer command tours. An effort to keeps soldiers in the same brigade, and officers in the same division, for most of their careers. But these solutions won't be implemented until current Army leaders are replaced by people capable of reflective thought.

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© 2002, Jack Kelly