The Best Defense

Is there a natural rate of relief of about 9 percent for commanders in combat?

That's the question that occurred to me as I read Douglas Allen's fine essay on how the Royal Navy managed its skippers -- and provided incentives for aggressive approaches -- during the age of fighting sail. I was struck by his passing observation that in the mid-18th century, 8.5 percent of its captains were dismissed or court-martialed.

That's not far from the rate of relief of 16 out of 155 U.S. Army generals who commanded divisions in combat in World War II -- the point of departure in my latest book. So I wondered: In organizations determined to enforce standards and insist on aggressive competence, is there a natural rate of relief of roughly 9 or 10 percent? Business is not the same as military operations, but I also remember that three decades ago, when I was a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Florida, one of the better banks in the state, Barnett, had an annual branch manager relief rate of 10 percent. A couple of people also have reminded me that GE, under Jack Lynch, had a policy of easing out the bottom 10 percent of its managers every year.

But the piece on the Royal Navy is much more far-ranging. It essentially is a study of how the Navy leadership of the 18th century addressed the important question of how to run a large organization with global reach but iffy communications. (The person who sent it to me was thinking about how one might organize command and control of a future U.S. space fleet.) It was also a successful organization, in which, despite being "constantly outnumbered in terms of ships or guns,...still managed to win most of the time." Professor Allen outlines what he calls "the critical rules of the captains and admirals" that ensured that commanders would operate more or less in the interest of the nation rather than in their own. "The entire governance structure encouraged British captains to fight rather than run" -- and so also to have crews trained to fight.

Prize money was especially important. Some senior officers grew rich off the capture of enemy ships. "At a time when an admiral of the fleet might earn 3,000 pounds a year, some admirals amassed 300,000 pounds of prize money." The awards also trickled down: In 1799, when three frigates captured two Spanish ships, each seaman in the three crews received 182 pounds -- the equivalent of 13 years of annual pay.


The Best Defense

Women in combat in the military: Dudes, where’s the old can-do spirit?

By Brandon Friedman

Best Defense guest columnist

Regarding this discussion about women in combat, I have to say I'm amused by the sudden absence, in some quarters, of the "can-do" spirit that has typically defined America's armed forces.

This directive was signed by the secretary of defense and backed by the commander-in-chief -- after being endorsed unanimously by the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

And instead of, "Roger that, sir, we'll make it happen," we see foot-dragging and explanations for why this won't work and how it's unfair and impractical. Maybe this also happened when women were allowed into West Point and Airborne School. I don't know.

Such arguments would be understandable during the debate, but this is a done deal. The decision has been made. So I'm just surprised there's not more discussion about how to make this work -- as opposed to the hand-wringing about how awful it is.

I would argue that such an attitude is more dangerous to our military than women serving in combat roles.

Brandon Friedman served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an officer with the 101st Airborne Division and is the author of The War I Always Wanted. He is now a vice president at Fleishman-Hillard International Communications in Washington, D.C.