I’ve learned that writing down your thoughts is a good way to clarify what you actually believe. Being forced to put things to paper requires codification of nebulous thoughts and feelings. I’ve known for a while that I intended to get out of the Army at the end of my service obligation, but I wanted to force myself to clearly articulate why. This is all obviously just based off of my own personal experience and opinions, so take it with a grain of salt.
#1 – The Army is not a meritocracy
DA PAM 600-3 shows you your future. It shows when you will be promoted, what positions you will be required to complete, and when you will be expected to pass through all of these milestones. For the vast majority of officers, there will be no deviation from this path. That terribly incompetent classmate of yours from BOLC, as well as the Rhodes Scholar with all the badges, will hit the same gates as you at the same times, more or less. The skill with which you do your job in the Army does not matter. You will progress along the ranks at the same rate as all the other officers in your clustered year groups. Some will be selected below the zone, and some will be selected in their second look, but for the most part, time in service will be the determining factor of your promotions. In an Army where orgnizational change is really only possible from the top down – from positions that literally take decades to reach – any enterprising individual will have to wait their turn, suffering through years of purgatory, to reach any meaningful position in the Army, regardless of their own competence.
This makes it plainly – and painfully – obvious that the Army is not a place for high achievers. No matter how many extra hours of work you complete, or how much more successful you are in your current position, nothing will change. You will still be required to check all the boxes even though, by virtue of sheer competence, you might be prepared to command a company, battalion, brigade today. Your bosses will be your bosses sheerly because they have been in the Army longer than you, not necessarily because they are more skilled, competent, or knowledgeable. This conundrum causes – in my non-scientific opinion – the brain drain the Army is suffering throughout its JMO ranks. Why would a smart captain who has the potential to succeed in the business world stay in an Army that doesn’t incentivize boldness or success? The short answer is that they don’t, and that is precisely why JMO retention is plummeting despite a decrease in combat deployments. You can write your own ticket in the civilian sector based off of your performance, for the most part, but you cannot do so in an Army obsessed with pipelines, rigidity, and structure for the sake of “professional development”.
#2 – The Army cultivates a sycophantic attitude
Through its ratings system, the Army has created an environment that rewards pleasing bosses as opposed to performance and truth. Everyone who has attended a QTB or command and staff meeting knows that the quickest way to appear competent is to have the status for all of your vehicles, equipment, soldiers, and other random tasks be green, regardless of their actual status. Commanders are quick to equivocate their deficiencies, and turn all things with a ‘red’ or ‘amber’ status ‘green’ in time for their boss to look at the meeting slides and not judge their organization as a failing one. No one wants to be the person to brief the boss that the training that has been stuffed onto the calendar to pad the boss’s resume will not happen due to a lack of manpower or equipment. So, they lie. It is a well documented occurrence since the publication of the “Lying to Ourselves” essay that came out several years ago. Because officers think their OERs matter so much, they do whatever they can to ensure their boss gives them a favorable rating.
The second aspect of this is that I am convinced that the rank structure of the Army cultivates a stronger culture of sycophantism than what exists in the civilian world. Rank creates an additional veneer of authority that does not necessarily exist in the business world as it does in the military. Your boss has the legal authority to tell you what to do in the Army. Granted, if your boss is competent and understanding, then the legal authority that comes with that higher rank isn’t so bad; but to have an incompetent boss who makes poor decisions lord that authority over you (that they have merely because of point #1) creates an environment that devolves into pure sycophancy quickly. Most people resort to trying to please the unreasonable boss in an effort to avoid being the target of his/her ire. Doing what the boss wants becomes more important than doing what is right in an effort to not rock the boat and move quickly and quietly on to the next assignment with a decent to good OER.
#3 – The Army is engaged in a set of meaningless wars
The ‘Afghanistan Papers’ showed what many people in the military already knew: the War in Afghanistan has not progressed in any meaningful way in the almost two decades of fighting. Like in Vietnam, the government knew very early on that there was no true hope of a pure ‘military’ solution to the problem we faced, yet the war has continued and many Americans have died pointlessly. It stings to say their sacrifice was in vain, but to try and justify their deaths is an attempt to lend credibility to the false idea that we will have accomplished something in Afghanistan if/when we withdraw troops and negotiate a ‘peace’ settlement. Al Qaeda still exists despite Bin Laden’s death. Many other terrorist/insurgent groups such as ISIS-K have flourished in the chaos allowed by the war. The Taliban are resurgent. We will most likely leave, heralding a ‘peace’ accord as a triumph, and let Saigon fall all over again.
Afghanistan is just one example of the global war on terror gone awry. We are at war in more countries than Americans realize, and have strained our global credibility. The forever war will not end because terrorism will never end. Ambitious general officers who benefit from a nation at war will find reasons to stay in the Middle East, and a defense industry that profits from it all will most likely be loathe to turn off the cash faucet as well. Our nation at large is indifferent past the obligatory two minute salute to heroes at any sporting event. I’m sure someone somewhere high up thinks that the strategic value of staying in Afghanistan, i.e. having a well secured base (BAF) in a strategic location in Central Asia is worth the price of a couple dozen American lives in the ‘War on Terror’ every year. But if that is the case, then say it, and don’t hide behind the ‘noble’ veneer of a global anti-terror campaign that has begotten more terror groups than it has eliminated.
What I mean to say with this last point is that I do not support the War on Terror, and I don’t want to part of its continuance. It is resource intensive, wastes lives, and is utterly pointless. We will inevitably create more terrorists before we kill all of them. I don’t want to spend a career rotating in and out of different Middle Eastern countries to perpetuate a conflict whose endstate has never been clearly articulated because politicians aren’t held accountable because the public doesn’t care. That’s it. Too many good Americans have died for no reason. They, and their families and their communities and this Army, deserve better.
I do not think that the grass is automatically greener in the civilian world. I assume that people are just as self interested and shitty out there as they are in the Army. That’s fine with me though. I will have more freedom to choose what I want to do, will have more control over my time, and I will (hopefully) get paid more. That’s enough for me. I’d be lucky to work in a field where I feel as though I am doing some type of ‘good’, but if I can’t line that up with my desire to go forth and prosper, that’s fine too.
I don’t know how the Army can change for the better. I don’t necessarily know if it needs to be better right now, anyways. Terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States. Global power competition might be, but who knows. Germany, as a nation, survived two catastrophic world war failures. If the Army needs to adapt and get better when the next great conflict happens, I’m sure it will; it might just take a couple of disastrous defeats for the required changes to take place. It managed to right itself during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII.
The Army is the right organization for many people. It is not for me. There are good people who are willing to endure the shittiness of this organization for a multitude of reasons, and this essay is not a condemnation of them.