There is a lot of talk in the media, and amongst soldiers, about how and why the Army has come off the rails in so many ways. Some of it is the same bitches, gripes, and complaints that have been around since the Romans sacked Gaul, but the use of statistics to measure job competency, online safety training, and e-mail (rather than human) based organizations are a relatively new phenomena.
A common complaint is that, during the Clinton administration, a new era of Political Correctness was ushered into the US Military. I don’t deny that political correctness exists throughout the government, however this phrase has come to dominate the discussion as a catch-all, and because of that has lost much of its meaning. Political correctness also gives the impression that the people making the changes are ideologically driven. On this point I strongly disagree: the motivations are corporate career-driven.
I also thought that it was the era of PC that really began to change the Army during the 1990s until just recently. I recently finished reading a superb Vietnam memoir called Mike Force by Lt. Col. L.H. “Bucky” Burress, a book that disabused me of the notion that the Army’s corporatization began in the 1990s. In fact, it started right after the Vietnam War.
Most of us understand that the years following the Vietnam War were a challenging time for the Army, and for the military in general. America had finished fighting a protracted and unpopular war. The Army’s morale, budget, and the soldiers themselves were in shambles in so many ways. Let us look at a few of the points that Lt. Col. Burress makes in relation to that other Post-War Army, the one we are about to have in 2014.
Education has become more important to an officer’s career than experience, management more critical than leadership. (242)
Today’s military is placing an added emphasis on education, particularly in Special Forces. This is an initiative that Linda Robinson has supported in her “Future of SOF” white paper. Q-Course graduates now graduate with an Associate Degree. Officers are being encouraged to attain graduate degrees. Some day, NCOs in Special Forces may also need to have a Master’s Degree to attain certain duty positions. I’ve supported this myself, provided the education focuses on foreign cultures, military history, terrorist networks, and other subjects which the soldier can actually use. We don’t need to waste a Green Beret’s time by sending him to PE class or English Lit.
But this brings about other issues. When that soldier is receiving his education, he is removed from the force. His peers are out actually doing the job. Now, do we promote these Officers and NCO’s with advanced degrees over their team mates who have more actual job experience? Education may be important, but is it as important as experience?
In Vietnam, with the ever-increasing number of staff positions versus field leadership positions which were created…the norm was for a captain to spend six months in command of a company-at best barely enough time to learn the job. (242)
This has been an issue throughout Special Operations. From Platoon Sergeants to Battalion Sergeant Majors in the Ranger Regiment to Team Leaders in Special Forces, many of these positions are only occupied for two years by the soldier until he has to move on due to career progression requirements. In Special Forces, it is commonly said that you need three years just to learn how to do your job. By the time you learn your job and establish good rapport with your peers, you are already forced to move on.
This isn’t just an informal career progression arrangement but doctrine, as ODA Team Leaders are doctrinally supposed to hold that position for only two years. However, this has recently changed. In 2007, there was a big push to bring more Army Captains into Special Forces as the SF Groups were expanding to include additional battalions. No one considered that SF would now be at 225% strength on Majors today! Because of this, ODA Team Leaders are now being kept in that position for 3-4 years, in many cases.
With the Army downsizing as the war winds down, many officers are going to be given six months to get out of the Army and transition to civilian life. How all of this plays out will be interesting, to say the least.
“Leadership from 3,000 feet.” “The C&C bird” was the villain- a helicopter crammed with radios from which the commanders at every level from battalion up were able to fly over their subordinate units and “command” them from a vantage point high above. From that lofty position, it was very easy for a battalion commander to direct not only the companies under his command, but also the platoons, and even squads. “Get that left-flank squad up and moving” was an effortless thing to demand over the radio. That was easy to say from a position high above, where the air was cool, the fatigue of having humped a rucksack all day nonexistent, and the deadly stream of steel from a hidden enemy machine gun was well out of range. But it was all the vogue of the recent Vietnam War, and it carried over into the Army afterward. It created role models that must have made George Patton want to return from his grave. (243)
I am sad to say that the level of micro-management that Lt. Col. Burress experienced after Vietnam has gotten worse. Much, much worse. Computers, radios, satellite phones, and other instantaneous communications systems have allowed those at the highest levels of command to reach all the way down through the command structure to dictate actions to the lowliest soldier on the ground. Not only that, but these electronic systems are now trusted more than actual soldiers on the ground.
In Ranger Battalion, we went and blew this guy’s door in three nights in a row. We would drive up to his house at night, explosively breach, enter and clear, and find no bad guys there. Civil Affairs would come out the next day, buy him a new door, and then we would come blow it down again that night. All because electronic intelligence gathering was trusted over the ground truth experienced by the soldiers who were there.
I saw it again in Special Forces. About once a month, my ODA would have to drive out into the city, knock on someone’s door, and drink some chai with them. It wasn’t a social visit; we did it because if we didn’t, then the Task Force would send in Rangers to hit the house, potentially hurting our rapport with the locals. Hitting bad guys is great, but hitting civilians when we know for a fact there are no bad guys there is beyond asinine.
The ODA we relieved warned us about this, as the Task Force had wanted to hit the house every week. All because one source provided very sketchy intelligence about the “target,” and that source’s word was trusted over 12 Green Berets who knew the people who lived in that house by name.
…they [officers] had somehow gotten the idea that they shouldn’t get too close to their soldiers-that emotional involvement with their men might cause them to hesitate to risk their men’s lives when it became necessary That’s a weakling’s excuse for distancing oneself from his troops…making them mere pawns instead of fellow human beings, and enabling him to sacrifice them with emotionless, electronically delivered commands from high above or far to the rear, instead of with the traditional order of the Infantry officer-an order shouted above the din of battle from the combat leader’s rightful place-at the front and center of his soldiers… (243)
Do you want to know why the numbers of soldier and veteran suicides is “shockingly” high? This is it. We’re afraid to get our hands dirty and actually engage with our troops on a man-to-man level. Once upon a time, a First Sergeant would buy a soldier a beer and ask him what seemed to be troubling him. Today the Army replaces human beings with sterile suicide dashboard gimmicks on their computers and “don’t kill yourself” briefs. There is no substitute for real leadership, and no excuse for not getting to know the soldiers under your command. Pack up those nonsense command climate surveys and start asking soldiers what is really going on. I’ve seen officers and NCOs who still do this. It means a lot to the troops and allows leadership to assess where the points of failure exist within the organization.
When Bucky has his soldiers piss tested to begin weeding out drug addicts, he finds himself getting dressed down by his superiors.
It would look bad in the quarterly statistics. And that would make the battalion commander look bad. And that might hurt his Officer Efficiency Report, which could hurt his chances for promotion. (245)
Today’s obsession with statistics is another de facto violation of a SOF truth, that humans are more important than hardware. The military still believes that SOF soldiers are interchangeable parts, like cogs in a machine. See my statements above about soldier suicide rates, for instance. These are soldiers, not statistics. They need to be given some pride in their job. That comes from hard training and shared purpose. It does not come from the current metrics used to measure command success, such as what percentage of the force has completed their information awareness training on some website, and obsessing over shot records on MEDPROS. These metrics for success need to be replaced with ones that measure the technical and tactical proficiency of the soldiers in the unit. Incentivize leaders to lead, place emphasis on combat training and war rather than bullshit and all the rest will fall into place.
But why was all this happening to begin with? Bucky’s take:
It was a time of strange priorities and weird values, brought about, I believe, by the Army’s being forced to adapt to the cultural revolution in American society which had occurred while we were focused on the task at hand in Vietnam. (247)
This is where the political correctness comes in. I don’t doubt for a moment that it exists, but the enforcement mechanism (the nonsense described above) happens because of careerism which is detached from any specific ideology. In other words, civilian political leaders and high-ranking Generals and Admirals (who are also political survivors) set policies based upon political correctness. That is to say, they make military decisions based upon real or perceived shifts in social norms. Lower ranking officers and NCOs then enforce these policies because they want to get promoted, and rocking the boat by not supporting said policies would be career suicide. Remember, in OERs and NCOERs there is a block that gets checked for “loyalty.” If you don’t support policies, then you may be perceived as being disloyal by your superiors.
What I’ve come to realize from reading the works of Jim Morris and Lt. Col. Burruss is that none of the negative things I saw in SOF are “new,” but rather they were simply new to me. These issues have existed since at least the Vietnam War. They have simply escalated and gotten worse because of shifts of American social values, and because of the advance of technology which allows greater levels of micro-management.
So how do you attempt to rectify these problems? Bucky asked his Sergeant Major this same question.
The same thing good American officers have done for the last two hundred years, sir…The same damned thing you did in the Mike Force when you were given a mission; attack it, sir. Attack!
I’m getting tired of bitching about the same old shit. The same shit that has been infecting the US military for the last fifty years. Rather than complaining, it is time to attack the problem. The next step is to plan for the future of Special Operations. My next project is to write a white paper on just that. The threats America faces into the rest of this new century are something that we are currently unprepared for.
The solutions are not going to be programs, or weapons, and certainly will not be ill advised attempts at political correctness. As it stands we will be as bad at counter-insurgency and unconventional warfare in fifty years as we are now. It isn’t because we can’t identify the problems but rather that we can’t change our manner of doing things. It is a question of culture and paradigms.
We need to start looking for new paradigms, and we need to do it sooner rather than later.