The discussion of junior leader innovation has slowed as of late, in a post-NWDC conference deep breath. One of the regular criticisms levied at LT Ben Kohlmann, LT Rob McFall, and others who have written about the need for disruptive thinking and junior officer innovation is that this is a case of “same old, same old.” In particular, every generation of junior officers has angst and feels that the system is out of balance. According to the critics it is simply the result of the military’s hierarchical organization and structure and there’s nothing to worry about.
History proves part of this observation correct. MAJ Pete Munson at Small Wars Journal has highlighted the USAF’s “Dear Boss” letters in an illustration from the 1970’s. In the 1950’s Proceedings printed LCOL Robert Heinl’s classic “Special Trust and Confidence” which discussed the issues of trust between junior and senior officers in the Marine Corps. Reminiscent of BGEN Arnold’s recent article “Don’t Promote Mediocrity,” in the first two decades of the 20th century Proceedings published a series of articles from junior leaders debating the promotion system and discussing the need for selection boards to pick the officers who were to promote, rather than using a simple system of seniority.
The question becomes, does the JO angst matter? With the long history of generational conflicts, should we even care? The answer is yes. The history demonstrates that there are many times when the issues raised by junior leaders can have an impact on the military’s ability to fight and win the nation’s wars. I’ll share two brief examples.
Preparing for Civil War
For the first half of the USN’s existence promotion was based on simple seniority. The date that you entered service dictated your rank. When an officer retired, or died as was commonly the case, a slot was opened and the next person in line was promoted. The only way around it was for Congress to act, promoting a specific individual. It makes sense that Junior Officers found this system to be a mess. In some cases Lieutenants weren’t promoted to Commander (the next rank in those days) until the age of 53, and some became Captains in their 70’s.
There were a number of movements to change the system in the first half of the 19th century. All attempts at reform failed until the 1850’s. Commander Samuel Du Pont, who demonstrated his own skill in the Mexican War but could not be promoted to Captain because of the system, led a movement for reform by challenging the senior officers who were simply dead weight. He wrote to Dobbins insisting that the need for reform and personally drafted legislation. The Secretary agreed and wrote in his 1854 Annual Report to Congress, “The magic touch of reform is needed, and if skillfully applied will impart to the now drooping body of the Navy a robust health and a new life.” Du Pont received countless letters from JO’s across the Fleet in support of his efforts.
In 1855 Dobbins and President Franklin Pierce pushed the measures suggested by Du Pont through Congress “to promote the efficiency of the Navy,” which established a board of Lieutenants, Commanders, and Captains to review the personnel record of every officer in the Navy. After working for over a month the board announced that they found over 200 officers who were “unfit for service.” Some of them were cashiered outright; others were placed on retired lists with furlough pay or with leave of absence pay. The “Plucking Board,” as it came to be known, considered everything from officer’s performance during the Mexican War to their drinking habits and personal reputations. Following the “plucking” there was a rash of promotions, as men on the seniority list moved up into the now vacant positions in what became known as the “jackass” promotions.
In the half decade before the Civil War a number of officers like David Farragut and Andrew Hull Foote were finally able to promote out of the junior ranks following the Plucking Board. David Dixon Porter, who had left the service on a leave of absence to pursue a merchant career, also returned. These leaders and many others assumed positions of responsibility and prominence on the eve of America’s most costly war. They went on to serve the Union (and some the Confederacy) with skill. Would they have risen to become the nation’s first Admirals without the Plucking Board? Probably. Combat tends to be the ultimate judge for promotion. However it would have taken longer and the service’s effectiveness likely would have suffered in the early years of the conflict.
A Crisis of Command and Vietnam
In the October issue of The Journal of Military History, William M. Donnelly had an article titled “Bilko’s Army: A Crisis of Command?” In the article the historian from the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History provides an analysis of the Army’s culture between Korea and the Vietnam War. It was a culture that included the introduction of management practices, the inclusion of business principles in military affairs, and growing disaffection among Junior Officers. During this period the young officers who would become the leaders of the Army during Vietnam were trained, educated and promoted.
In 1970 General Westmoreland, then the Army’s Chief of Staff, was briefed on a study that he had commissioned. The study was intended to look into the Army’s culture of leadership and it determined that there was “significant, widely perceived, rarely disavowed difference between the idealized professional climate and the existing professional climate.” The officers that created this divide were the generation of men promoted into their positions between Korea and Vietnam. They were the same senior officers that struggled with the combat leadership and the operational competence necessary to take on the Vietnam conflict.
Donnelly discovers a number of trends in the leadership methods of the decades in question. As early as the Korean War he identifies that “a troubling symptom for some officers was the increasing tendency to judge subordinates by how they met statistical goals” rather than their results in combat operations. In the years following the conflict the Army began to recognize that a growing focus on what it called “career management” might be negatively impacting the quality of leadership. However, senior officers ensured that the only leadership level that was identified officially as deficient was Company grade and below (When an Army contractor suggested studying leadership above that level, since they were the ones teaching the Company grade officers, they were quickly rebuked). Junior Officers didn’t feel that the blame should rest on their shoulders.
Junior Leaders during the period identified their biggest challenge as “oversupervision” (what we today might refer to as micro-management). Training commands began to identify a lack of initiative in Infantry Battalions, and the beginning of a “Mother-may-I” attitude that searched for explicit instruction from superiors. Combat Veteran JO’s began to leave the service in large numbers, and retention at the company grade became a significant challenge. Throughout the late 50’s and early 60’s oversupervision continued to be discussed and identified as a key element to why young officers were leaving. Donnelly relates that “a common complaint from Junior Officers was that an impersonal and often confusing system treated them as interchangeable cogs.” The trends continued and in 1965 CPT Pete Dawkins, an Infantry Officer and later a General Officer, wrote a stinging article entitled “Freedom to Fail,” where he identified a zero-defect mentality and oversupervision as the greatest challenges to the Army’s combat effectiveness in Vietnam.
I can’t do Dr. Donnelly’s article justice in a few short paragraphs, so I encourage you to find a copy through your local library (or better yet, join the Society for Military History and you can also read Kevin Weddle’s excellent 2004 article “The Magic Touch of Reform: Samuel Francis Du Pont and the Efficiency Board of 1855”). The entire article is worthy of your time. In his conclusion Donnelly tells us that the “dysfunctional characteristics of the Vietnam-era officer corps” can be traced easily through the culture of the preceding decades. Officers who thrived in a culture that prized management over leadership, encouraged oversupervision, and had a zero-defect mentality were promoted. These were the mid-grade and senior officers that led combat forces at the start of the Vietnam War. The result was a crisis of command when those officers were suddenly required to display initiative, creativity, and combat leadership in order to win a war.
Angst or Warning?
Generational conflict is a reality in the U.S. military, as much as it is in society at large and in the corporate world as well. Today’s examples of social media savvy senior officers, or those that patrol or fight with the troops, are generally the exceptions that prove the rule. Viewing today’s discussion of disruptive thinking and junior leader innovation through this prism can easily engender the “what’s new?” response. However, there have been examples in history when listening to junior leaders’ calls for reform provided better combat leaders who were more prepared for wartime challenges. Likewise there are examples which demonstrate that ignoring them resulted in mistakes and failure.
Does that mean that every gripe and grimace from the junior ranks should be treated as the next nation saving idea? No. It does mean, however, that we must take the time to listen to the ideas and consider them with an open mind and the intellectual honesty that will help determine their true worth.