From Tim Kane’s article in Atlantic Monthly. His is an Army-centric article, but has clear implications across DoD. Especially in wake of the last few days, these words jump off the page:

But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command.

The article has its interesting points, some plausible and some implausible recommendations. Changing the “up or out” and time-in-grade requirements may be possible, they may not. (Great Britain’s Regimental System, which gave way to amalgamation in the 1970s, carries a romantic notion, but in reality had its drawbacks in modern combat.) But it is an article worth reading.

Oh, and h/t to the lovely Ms Laura.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, History, Marine Corps, Navy

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  • RickWilmes

    “According to 9 out of 10 respondents, many of the best officers would stay if the military was more of a meritocracy.”

    This sentence says it all.  You can not have a meritocracy in a system where selfless selfsacrifice to a cause higher than oneself is the standard.

    By their nature, they are a contradiction in terms.  The best and brightest may not know this explicitly but they know it implicitly and the result is that they walk.

  • “You can not have a meritocracy in a system where selfless selfsacrifice to a cause higher than oneself is the standard.”

    Rick – can you expound on that? I’m not following your logic.

  • RickWilmes

    Sure can.  As wikipedia points out, meritocracy is an ideology.

    “Meritocracy itself is not a form of government, but rather an ideology. Meritocracy itself is frequently confused as being a type of government, rather than correctly as a methodology or factor used in or for, the appointment of individuals to government. Individuals appointed to a meritocracy are judged based upon certain merits which could range from intelligence to morality to general aptitude to specific knowledge. A criticism of this methodology is that [3] “merit” itself is a highly subjective, vague term potentially lacking clarity allowing for potential misuse. The use of objective and valid measures circumvents this problem.”

    URR wants to look at this issue as DOD wide and not Army centric.  Tim Kane mentions that he attended the Air Force Academy and talks about John Nagl who attended West Point. USNI is closely associated with the Naval Academy.

    Since we are looking at officer retention and meritocracy.  The first step is to ask what ideology is being taught to our officers and is it compatible with a meritocracy.

    I would say that the common ideology across all of DOD in general and the service academies in particular is selfless selfsacrifice to a cause greater than oneself.

    Meritocracy, on the otherhand, in essence measures individual selfworth through education and experience.  Meritocracy requires  individuals to think and solve problems. Selflessness requires the opposite. Instead of thinking and holding true to ones conclusions and convictions, selflessness says to sacrifice those conclusions and convictions to others.  In the context under discussion, individual judgement is deferred to the bureaucracy that has taken over the military.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    “Our best” is a little hard to predict at EAOS for the O3. Life and fate are more chaotic than that. “Our most promising” is a little more realistic. A LOT of those leave at the first opportunity.

    Key factors:

    Mentors and leaders. The first CO (and to a lesser degree, wardroom)are huge. For big ships the XO and Dept Heads loom larger, as the CO is remote.

    The reward and esteem shown for those above by those far above.

    Perception of order and likely reward of effort. This ties in with timely recognition for excellent performance, be it a letter in a frame, a bit of ribbon, or a chunk of cash.

    Perception of the decency and competence of colleages and subordinates.

    Perception by the spouse that the officer is valued and well treated and the organization is fundamentally decent. The “can I build a life with this person and their career choice” question. If the call is “me or the damn Navy, baby” the Navy in general loses. If the spouse sees the JO as abused and devalued, the two of them will be GONE.

    Character of the JO, the family, and the piece of the Navy they live with. If that piece of NAV Universe eats its own as a ship, squadron, or force, the feet will move to the door.

    The more the outfit approached meritocracy as a limit, the more of the good ones stay.

    How is the Navy? Estimates vary. The active duty JO’s will have to tell me, I am out of that loop.

    When the pressure is to shed people, it is all to easy to call anybody who leaves substandard. ‘Taint always so, IMO.

  • Mittleschmerz

    @Rick – I see where you are coming from now…but, I think you interpret “meritocracy” differently than the author of the article intended it, and I also disagree with your interpretation of what the Academies are teaching. You may want them to teach mids and cadets the “selfless selfsacrifice to a cause greater than oneself” but that is not the lesson I see them coming out with…not for a very long time.

  • RickWilmes


    ” I see where you are coming from now…but, I think you interpret “meritocracy” differently than the author of the article intended it”

    What is a meritocracy?  This is what the author says,

    “But the talent crisis persisted for a simple reason: the problem isn’t cultural. The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy.”

    Ask the 9 individuals who want the military to be more like a meritocracy and you will probably have 9 different conceptions of what a meritocracy actually is which is one of the reason’s why I used the wiki quote.

    Notice this from the original article,

    “In a recent survey I conducted of 250 West Point graduates (sent to the classes of 1989, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004), an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.” By design, I left the definitions of best and early up to the respondents”

    In otherwords, the definitions of “best” and “early” is purely subjective, which is an issue the wiki quote I used addresses concerning what is a meritocracy.

    Ask those nine respondents if their decision to get out was an act of selflessness or an act of personal self-interest?  To an individual they have probably discovered, at least implicitly, that a career in the military no longer serves their self-interest.

    My point being is that the best and the brightest figure this out sooner than later.

  • NavyDave

    I gotta say that ALL our best (or most promising) aren’t walking and never did. We’ve heard the argument for years that our best leave…with the unspoken implication that all is left are those that weren’t the best. My experience (as one of those apparent losers who stayed in for over 25 years) is that we have always lost a mix of officers. As a squadron CO I was damn sad to see some of my JOs get out of Naval Aviation, especially those who I thought really had the potential to lead their own squadrons some day. But there were also those who I didn’t try to convince to stay. Those that did stay were a healthy mix of great leaders (some now in command of their own squadrons) and good leaders who could do the command job but won’t make it through the screen.

    I’ve also gotta say that there must be some value in the commitment it takes to stay in and fight the bureaucratic inertia we all hate. Perhaps some of those great young officers who got out didn’t have the commitment it took to stay and try to change things they didn’t like. I’ve told lots of JOs (some who stayed and some who didn’t), “you can’t fix it from the outside.”

    In the end, this talk of losing all our best officers is something that repeats. It is similar to another conversation we’ve all heard regarding the notion that every new generation of aviators is somehow not quite as good as the last. In absolute terms, both arguments such arguments fail in the face of our ability to still do things no other navy on earth can do; deploy the strike groups, launch aircraft from ships, save folks after tsunamis, etc, etc.

    The truth is somewhere in the middle. We must constantly be introspective as an officer corps, change as necessary to retain the very best (within our end-strength needs) and give the great young men and women who join the leadership they deserve.

  • Mittleschmerz

    NavyDave – the article spoke of “half or more of our best” not “all”.

  • NavyDave

    Thanks, Mittleschmerz. Poetic license based on the numerous similar articles and claims I’ve read and heard over the last 25 years. I’m not sure what Kane’s agenda is (every writer has one) but there are those who would use every possible approach to illustrate what they are sure of is the corrosion of quality in the leadership of our armed forces. We certainly need the transparency and criticism that comes with the free society we defend, but we can also rest assured the sky isn’t falling. The dialogue and discourse, push and pull from those inside and outside of the military is healthy. I’m just pushing back on what I think is an old and tiresome story line. All that said, I do think we have many serious issues to address to maintain the health of our officer corps.

  • RickWilmes

    @ NavyDave

    I’ll take a stab at the purpose behind Kane’s article.

    Consider the following,

    Kane on Nagl,

    “He won’t say it outright, but it’s clear to me, and to many of his former colleagues, that the Army fumbled badly in letting him go. His sudden resignation has been haunting me, and it punctuates an exodus that has been publicly ignored for too long.”


    “In 2008, Nagl hit the 20-year mark, and what happened? He retired. Since he was not yet a full colonel, let alone a general, it was clear that he could be more influential as a civilian. He is now the head of the Center for a New American Security, known in Washington as President Obama’s favorite think tank.”

    Now consider the following from Col. Macgregor, whom I think is a better example of an officer that left the military too soon as opposed to Nagl.

    “Commenting on CNAS’s role in Washington discourse on security policy, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos wrote in The American Conservative, “COIN today is the realm of CNAS, as if Frederick Kagan and AEI had never existed. But it won’t do to deny the family resemblance, says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor: ‘You will hear the same things at the Center for a New American Security as you will at the American Enterprise Institute. Nation-building at gunpoint, democracy at gunpoint. What’s the difference?’” [13]


    “Gentile is one of the few officers with the guts and brains to tell the truth at a time when the truth is very unpopular,” says Ret. Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, another dissident voice in the beltway wilderness. Like Gentile, he struggled to be heard during the Bush years against the preponderant neoconservative din. Today, it is the liberal interventionists, mostly Clinton-era throwbacks with a taste for nation building from the Balkan Wars. “Sadly, men like Gentile are currently in short supply.”

    Kane’s article is an attempt to portray Nagl and the neoconservatives as defenders of merit and capitalism.

  • Flashman

    Grandpa Bluewater —

    How is the Navy? I’m an active, junior LCDR, and most of the article rang true with some key exceptions.

    Generally, I see positive things at the unit level (squadron, ship, and below). We know what good leadership is, and what it isn’t, in that context. There are still good units and bad units, and it’s the experience in those units that seems to be most instrumental in shaping perception of the individual officer’s merit in the larger organization. In my case, I have been an intelligence officer serving in special operations units for the past few years/assignments. Things are good — the mission is good and, aside from some key issues specific to resolving the intel role vis a vis the special ops/SEAL role, the recognition has been good and career rewarding.

    At the broader level, my community exudes the false sense of egalitarianism described by Kane. I’ve seen a host of intel (excuse me, ‘information dominance’) O-6’s and their clones preach the “one intel officer is as good as another” doctrine that kept my community from specializing for most of its history (there have been, admittedly, some breakthroughs in the last two years where we’re actually allowed to have AQDs…we’re still a long ways away from detailing or using AQD system effectively, but it was one small step). I’ve frequently seen a community that evaluates its members on relative meaningless standards (how well does the LT brief?…rather than how well does the LT understand HUMINT, SIGINT, etc., and apply the discipline effectively in support of a commander?).

    On that vein, and a quick personal story — as a mid-grade LT in 2005, I returned to a joint intelligence command as part of a group of returning individual augmentees. Our group of 12 officers included three Bronze Star awardees (all LTs). A few months after the return, our CO, a colonel (acting on the recommendation of a Navy deputy CO), shuffled the deck of LTs for rankings…putting all the IA LT’s squarely in the middle of the stack. Her justification? Their performance in Iraq and Afghanistan could not be used as a basis for their performance as it had not been performed in the same environment as the gals/guys that stayed behind. Her #1 pick was a guy from the briefing team who had stayed home.

    The false egalitarianism and lack of a focus on a commonly identified “bottom line” allows poorly formed junior officers to regularly become senior officers (the guy who hid out as an intel analyst at JFCOM as a LT is just as likely to be your CSG /ESG N2 as the guy who did four tours in Afghanistan and a tour at NAVCENT). Due to the lack of meritocracy, the members of the community tend to drift towards patronage to establish a pecking order. It’s been an interesting few years to watch senior officers from an ‘in circle’ get promoted.

    As you can guess, with meritocracy giving way to patronage, this leads to lots of other interesting and misplaced organizational behaviors – conformity and groupthink being among the obvious.

    So, how’s the Navy? Grandpa Bluewater, if I could just hook and jab through the rest of my career, I’d be fine. The mission was worth it. The general recognition of my peers and immediate superiors was good. Unfortunately, my community is one of the heavily bureaucratic ones where the transition from ‘metal ship’ to ‘metal desk’ comes earlier in an officer’s career and the influences that shape the cubicle-bound, metal desk Navy tend to grind out innovation and debate, and expectation of merit.

  • Flashman

    At most units I’ve served, all rankings for junior officers were predominantly based on relative seniority, mostly irrespective of actual duties and performance of those duties. The best unit I served in wasn’t quite as rigid with the seniority=high ranking equation, but still followed it as a concept. Does anyone want to defend that practice (in light of this article)?

  • NavyDave

    Flashman, we still have way too many COs who won’t make the hard calls and reward those who are not “next in line.” That said, I think that tendency breaks down somewhat (though perhaps not often enough) at the higher ranks and screenings where the selection percentages are much lower. Perhaps a 360 performance review system could help, but I know our cultural biases has a very hard time getting our heads around having peers and subordinates provide input to FITREPS. Equally damaging is how many COs or other reporting seniors flat out don’t know how to write a FITREP, or worse, try to assuage egos by giving out more than one #1 ranking in the same competitive group. It’s cliche, but this can all come under the title of a “leadership issue.”

  • CDR Ret

    Because the system is not meritocratic, the habit of ranking by seniority evolved to be as fair as possible, because everyone is regarded as a “round peg”. Of course that encourages the best to leave, but the system is designed to promote the closest to the average, not the best. Unfortunately, the Navy now is paying the price for emphasizing the promotion of the most mediocre. In the “old era” – the cold war, which emphasized stability and predictability, it worked better – the system wanted conformists, not innovators. But now we’re in a new world and our old institutions and habits don’t work any more. But our system systematically weeds out innovation and entrepreneurialism – just when we need it most.

  • Flashman

    Gents, thanks, appreciate the comments.

  • All,
    Thanks for the comments on my essay … excellent discussion. I am a bit reluctant to dive into this as I want to let the article stand for itself. Thanks for those pointing out the careful wording of the survey, as I disagree with the simplistic argument that “all the best” leave versus the selfless clowns who say … what a bunch of junk. I am deeply honored to have served, and deeply respect the good people who serve today. You don’t have to look far to find excellence in the military. I hope the piece makes clear that the personnel system is failing not just in retention of talent, but in management of talent. That’s the crime of a centrally planned bureaucracy.

    Anyway, I just wanted to comment on the speculation as to my motivation. Pretty simple. It is to fulfill my oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I want nothing more than a strong military, and when it is weak due to incompetent management, we need to work on it together to improve. I mean, you can chalk up this conversation only so many times with fellow veterans before you have to wake up and realize the bureaucracy is detrimental to national security.