The Best Defense

Marine captain responds to JOs getting out

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 Capt. Lindsay L. Rodman, USMC
Best Defense office of company-grade issues

I have been thinking a lot lately about whether to leave the Marine Corps at the five-year mark. In response to "We're Getting Out of the Marines" -- I hope I can contextualize what many company grade officers (or "junior officers") are facing.

The problem with anecdotal observation is that we all only have our own experiences to draw from. If the lieutenant who wrote "We're Getting Out of the Marines" is coming face-to-face with incompetence, in a short four or five year career, how does he get a sense of whether that problem is systemic? Or how thoroughly it pervades? One's experience is 100 percent of their exposure, regardless of whether it represents the bottom X percent.

I am career designated and my commitment is up. I am taking note of every bad leader and every good leader I come across. Everyone is an input into the final decision. I know that other top company grades/JOs are doing the same thing (if they have not already decided to get out).

Anecdotally again, and I understand that this is flawed analysis, it really feels like my most qualified and competent peers are getting out. I look at the lists of who is still in (at five years), and the glaring holes are the most intelligent and self-possessed of my cohort. That is not true for everyone, but the percentage of those who are still in is dwarfed by the number of those that have left -- and that number continues to rise.

I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't really want to be anything other than a Marine, so for the time being, unless something crazy happens, I'll stay. But I also fear what the future brings, when our current ranks feel like they are being gutted.

I was recently forwarded the following link by Phil Carter: http://www.mail-archive.com/ctrl@listserv.aol.com/msg94185.html. It is an eerily-similar string of discussion regarding essentially the same cast of characters, including the disillusioned company grade and his decision to get out. Phil's and other sentiments I have read from ten years ago are humbling and have really made an impression on me. We all think our own experiences are novel, and that no one could possibly understand what we currently face. Obviously, not true for me and my peers. I have no doubt that the current company grade/JO perspective is similar, if not directly analogous, to what company grades/JOs have faced for decades. In some ways, though, that is more cause for concern - why have we been complacent for decades? And why are we resigned to that complacency now, when we may have a window of opportunity (more societal interest in preserving competency in the military than in the ‘90s, fewer distractions than in the ‘00s) for change? We have known forever that this bureaucracy needs better meritocratic policies, and better quality management at the field grade level (and I read a good book lately on similar concerns with respect to generalship).

I hope these concerns don't fall on deaf ears because they resonate -- that seems problematic. Rather, I'd hope that they would provoke a desire for change. There is a lot of misfiring when it comes to incentive programs, graduate school, bonuses, promotion systems, etc., that could be used in a targeted fashion to improve retention rates at the top.

Capt. Rodman is a judge advocate currently stationed at Headquarters, Marine Corps. She has been in the Marine Corps for nearly five years, serving in Okinawa, Afghanistan, and the Pentagon. She is a graduate of Duke University (AB '03), Harvard Law School (JD '07) and the Kennedy School of Government (MPP '07). The views presented here are her own and do not represent those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Flickr/United States Marine Corps Official Page

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.

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