The Best Defense

Army officer: I think I know why those departing Marine LTs wrote anonymously

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on Jan. 7, 2013.

By Lt. Roxanne Bras, US Army
Best Defense office of JO issues

Speaking authoritatively for a cohort is difficult and dangerous, but what's been said in the two Marine JO's blog posts resonates with much of what my peers say daily. That's not to say that their ideas are correct; perhaps junior officers always feel marginalized and hostile to the senior officer promotion system. But I'd argue that the spirit of the posts is accurate, both as perceived by JOs and as demonstrated by the military's HR system.

But first, to the anonymity and its ensuing controversy, I'll bet that the Marines didn't use their real names for precisely the same reason that I hesitated to write this. Instead of engaging with an idea on its own merits, many quickly look to the author to discredit him. Detractors love any evidence of inexperience as an excuse to ignore the substance. The chorus of critics cry, "He only served like 6 months. Never saw real combat." Or "he's not infantry/isn't tabbed." Or "he's such a self-promoter and only wrote that for attention." The ideas are forgotten and what remains is slander. So why attach your name to something if it will only detract from the argument? Until the military community becomes more idea and less individual/ORB/ribbons focused, people will hesitate to participate in open forums.

As to the ideas, identifying the top 20 percent of JOs isn't easy. There are late bloomers, people who are academically talented but are poor leaders, etc. But just because talent identification is hard, doesn't mean the Army shouldn't make incremental steps toward improving it

Just one example: The first experience JO's have with Army promotions systems is with the Order of Merit List, used to determine branch and first assignment. The OML weights PT, academics, and military proficiency. It also sends a huge message: academics is about checking the block. While GPA is weighted as something like 40% of the OML, there are no adjustments for rigor of institution or major. A 2.0 at MIT is the same as a 2.0 at any other school. That only makes sense if the army thinks there is zero correlation between the standing of the institution, or the relevance of the major to a specific branch, and a JOs performance. And if that's the case, why care about GPA at all? Just make the Army an institution that promotes PT and other metrics of proficiency.

Improvements don't have to be complicated. Many institutions and businesses identify, incentivize, and promote talent. How to tailor these existing solutions to the unique nature of the military? That would be a conversation worth having.

And even small improvements in the military's HR system would be significant to JOs because they're symbolic. Instead of the mantra, "a degree's a degree," something countless officers have told me, the Army could have the mantra, "we are a profession and so value education." That doesn't mean that we are a profession that gives extraordinary weight to eggheads, just that we acknowledge that education, self-improvement, and rigor are real things and might eventually impact the way an officer conducts a war.

Seeing incompetents and careerists advance is frustrating, but is something I imagine I'd see even if I left the military. But the inevitabilities of bureaucracies shouldn't excuse the specificities of the military's talent retention problems.

(For what it is worth: I am not getting out, am not infantry, do not claim to be a bad ass or an expert in anything, and am always interested in learning how to better think about these issues.)

Roxanne Bras is a 1LT in the U.S. Army, serving at Fort Bragg, NC. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Oxford University. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

National Archives

The Best Defense

We're getting out of the Marines because we wanted to be part of an elite force

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on Jan. 4, 2013.

By "yet another Marine LT"
Best Defense department of the JO exodus

Why are we getting out? It's about the low standards.

We joined because we wanted to be part of an elite organization dedicated to doing amazing things in defense of our nation. We wanted to make a contribution to something great, to be able to look back at a decisive chapter in American history and say "yeah, I was part of that." We joined the Corps because if we were going in to the fight, we wanted to serve with the best. We wanted the kind of job that would make our friends who took soulless, high-paying corporate jobs feel pangs of jealousy because we went to work every day with a purpose.

It causes a deep, bitter pain to acknowledge that I don't think this is the organization in which I currently serve. The reason we're getting out is because the Marine Corps imposes a high degree of stress, yet accepts Mission Failure so long as all the boxes on the list are checked.

I'm talking about the Field Grade Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan who didn't know who Mullah Omar was. I'm talking about a senior Staff NCO in the intelligence community who could not produce a legible paragraph. I'm talking about a Battalion Commander who took pride in the fact that he had done zero research on Afghanistan, because it allowed him to approach his deployment with "an open mind." I'm talking about contractors, some of whom were literally paid ten-fold the salary of my junior Marines, who were incapable of performing basic tasks and functionally illiterate. The problem is not so much that these individuals pop up every now and then, as every organization has its bad eggs, but rather that we see them passed on through the system, promoted and rewarded. If we are truly the elite organization we claim to be, how do we justify the fact that we allow these individuals to retain positions of immense influence, much less promote through the ranks? How do we justify this endemic tolerance for mediocrity or outright incompetence?

If you really want to know what an institution values, don't look at its mottos or mission statements. Look at how it spends its resources, especially its human capital. Economists call this "Revealed Preference."  When I was in the midst of a time-critical project aimed at mapping insurgent networks in Helmand, I was told to put the project on hiatus so I could organize a visit from General Allen. The implicit message was that a smooth itinerary and content General were more important than catching an insurgent cell before they left for Pakistan. How else was I supposed to interpret this? In my opinion, it's not so much that the Marine Corps doesn't value ideas, but that -- when the chips are down and careers are at stake -- it values appearance and conformity more than winning. The implicit message -- what the Marine Corps reveals by its actions -- is that it's okay to fail to provide any added value, so long as the PowerPoint slides are free of typos, no serialized gear is lost, and everyone attends the Sexual Harassment Prevention training

The biggest issue is that few are willing to acknowledge Mission Failure because doing so is considered "unprofessional," especially for a lieutenant. As an Army Special Forces veteran I worked with was fond of saying, "you get what you incentivize." As it currently stands, there is an overwhelming incentive for officers at all levels to simply keep their units looking sharp, turn in rosy, optimistic assessments, keep off the XO's radar and, above all else, keep from rocking the boat. No matter what becomes of your battlespace, eventually the deployment will end and you can go home. Why risk casualties, a tongue lashing or missed PT time when the reward might not come for years down the road? Why point out that the emperor has no clothes when everyone one involved is going to get their Navy Comms and Bronze Stars if we just let him keep on walking down the road.

We should be better than this. I have found several of the comments and reviews of your latest book baffling. We can quibble about the merits of Marshall's management techniques or the specific metrics by which we should measure officer performance. But can't we unanimously agree that sub-par commanders should be weeded out, especially in an organization that calls itself "the finest fighting force on the face of the earth?" The practice of actively relieving (and eventually separating) leaders for under-performance is no panacea, but shouldn't it at least be a starting point?

I don't want to be misunderstood. The most extraordinary and talented people I've ever met are still serving in the Corps. I live in a wonderful area, I'm well-paid and generally like the people I work with. Given the chance, I would happily deploy again. But looking down the road at what the billet of a Field Grade officer entails, I have to wonder whether the sacrifices will be worth it. Maybe they will. I've seen some Field Grade officers who love their jobs and feel like they're serving a purpose. But I'm not sure I'm willing to take the gamble.

I was told at The Basic School that the most important role as a leader is to say, when everyone is tired and ready to declare victory and just go home, "guys, this isn't good enough, we have to do better." I simply don't see enough leaders willing to say, regarding the things that really matter, "guys, the last eleven years weren't good enough, the nation needs us to do better."