Monday, April 18, 2011

Wanted: More Grants, Less McCellans

IN THE peacetime military officer corps, the most skilled bureaucrats and accommodators tend to rise to the top like butterfat from milk. They look pretty, Gen. McCellan. Very pretty. But, as the proverbial saying goes, can they fight? Only in war does the reckoning come, the removal of the wheat from the chaff.

Gen. George B. McCellan (left) was a dashing soldier but a lousy general in the Civil War. At the cost of lives and battles lost, it took time for Lincoln to find his Grant (and Bush to find his Petraeus). And yet, the in-house gene pool from which great commanders spring has always been small. The most gifted tend to leave for greener pastures long before they attain flag rank.

So, I’ve been nonplussed over a string of reports about the “discovery” that many of our best junior officers have been bailing out in recent years. As Tom Ricks noted, a new Harvard survey found that the two top reasons for leaving were "limited ability to control their own careers" and "frustration with military bureaucracy." Constant war since 9/11 is a factor, but not the leading one. Ricks wrote that the “former officers overwhelmingly believed that the [military services] did not reward talent with faster promotions, and did not do a good job of matching talent to jobs.” This isn’t news. Not really. It eerily sounds like little has changed since my time as a young Marine lieutenant back in the 80s.

Will the military change its ways? Doubtful. There’s always been just enough talent to keep it from collapsing under its own bureaucratic weight. And, importantly, there’s always been a Grant when needed. But as the debacles from Bull Run to Kasserine Pass to Abu Ghraib have shown, the military’s institutional clumsiness and shortsightedness in not keeping more of its talent is not cost free.

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