At the outset of World War II, our senior military commander General George Marshall made a key decision that would guide much of the most critical decision-making throughout the conflict. He decided that as military units in combat suffered attrition through death, wounds, illness or other causes, the missing personnel would be replaced individually, one at a time.

This had not always been the standard operating procedure. It is well established in military lore that a combat unit’s cohesiveness depends on the loyalty of troops to each other. Groups of men who go through training together develop teamwork and personal attachments that are invaluable under the stresses of the battlefield. They know each other. They can compensate for each other’s weaknesses and draw on each other’s strengths.

In contrast, sending replacement troops into veteran units in the field one at a time invites inefficiency. The veterans who have fought together resent the newcomers who they do not know and trust. The newcomers feel shut out and isolated. Not surprisingly, a great many of the replacements did not survive long enough to become part of the combat team. I have heard veterans of WWII, and my own conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, say replacements all too often disappeared before their names were known to their comrades.

Marshall’s logic however was compelling. He knew if we kept introducing fresh combat units into the war zone to support those that had lost personnel, the result would be an excess of senior commanders and headquarters staffs falling all over each other, breeding infinite confusion and waste of resources. The shortcomings of replacing fallen fighters one at a time were well known but it was deemed the lesser of two evils.

Unfortunately, the military command does not really need an all-out conflict like World War II in order to replicate itself to excess. We have over time created the same phenomenon that Marshall was concerned about — too many senior officers heading up too many commands scattered all around the nation and the world. In this case, however, it is not a problem of replacing combat personnel lost to attrition. Rather it is a matter of providing career advancement opportunities to legions of ambitious officers.

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