William S. Lind’s Grim Assessment of the US Officer Corps


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From The American Conservative.   Bill Lind, one of the authors of Fourth Generation Warfare, is often a bit of a scratchy contrarian who is firmly convinced of his own infallibility when it comes to military theory.   Lind has never served in uniform, and often his condescending pontification and admonitions of “You’re doing it all wrong!” to US military thinkers causes his views to be dismissed out of hand.  But Lind is very smart, and often had nuggets of insight that deserve our consideration.  Here are a few from his TAC article:

Even junior officers inhabit a world where they hear only endless, hyperbolic praise of “the world’s greatest military ever.” They feed this swill to each other and expect it from everyone else. If they don’t get it, they become angry. Senior officers’ bubbles, created by vast, sycophantic staffs, rival Xerxes’s court. Woe betide the ignorant courtier who tells the god-king something he doesn’t want to hear.

And:

What defines a professional—historically there were only three professions, law, medicine, and theology—is that he has read, studied, and knows the literature of his field. The vast majority of our officers read no serious military history or theory.

While my personal experience has been that Marine Officers tend to read and discuss military history, it could be that I gravitate toward those who do.  I will admit that I am chagrined at the numbers of Officers of all services who have seemingly no interest in doing so.

Lind also identifies what he calls “structural failings”:

The first, and possibly the worst, is an officer corps vastly too large for its organization—now augmented by an ant-army of contractors, most of whom are retired officers. A German Panzer division in World War II had about 21 officers in its headquarters. Our division headquarters are cities. Every briefing—and there are many, the American military loves briefings because they convey the illusion of content without offering any—is attended by rank-upon-rank of horse-holders and flower-strewers, all officers.

Command tours are too short to accomplish anything, usually about 18 months, because behind each commander is a long line of fellow officers eagerly awaiting their lick at the ice-cream cone… Decisions are committee-consensus, lowest common denominator, which Boyd warned is usually the worst of all possible alternatives. Nothing can be changed or reformed because of the vast number of players defending their “rice bowls.” The only measurable product is entropy.

The second and third structural failings are related because both work to undermine moral courage and character, which the Prussian army defined as “eagerness to make decisions and take responsibility.” They are the “up or out” promotion system and “all or nothing” vesting for retirement at 20 years. “Up or out” means an officer must constantly curry favor for promotion because if he is not steadily promoted he must leave the service. “All or nothing” says that if “up or out” pushes him out before he has served 20 years, he leaves with no pension. (Most American officers are married with children.)

It is not difficult to see how these… structural failings in the officer corps morally emasculate our officers and all too often turn them, as they rise in rank and near the magic 20 years, into ass-kissing conformists.

I cannot help but notice the truth that rings from much of what Lind asserts.  I have made some of those very same assertions myself on more than a few occasions.  Give the article a read.  What does the gang here think?  Is Lind on target?  If so, how do we fix it?  Can it be fixed?

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “William S. Lind’s Grim Assessment of the US Officer Corps

  1. JoshO

    Everyone should have to enlist. Then after at least two years or so of service officers could be recruited and selected from the ranks similar to the way we do with warrant officers. THEN the Army can send them to get the specific education that is required, not necessarily a degree. I feel like this would weed out a lot of the insincere and careerist political game players and people who are only looking for a way to pay for college. It could also be a good way reduce the officer bloat. A lot of jobs probably don’t need an officer to perform them anyway.

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  2. An acquaintance who was also a Reagan Admin appointee, stated succinctly that GoFos are politicians. Alas, this has been the situation for many years and it first started coming to the fore in Korea, and fully flowered in Vietnam.

    When political kissing up becomes the prime requirement for promotion, then you are going to get an organization that starts to fall apart. Things like women in combat and allowing flaming kweers to parade their perversion, are mere symptoms of a much larger problem. It’s a problem of the heart and as our civilization ages, these types of problems will be seen throughout society.

    The military is simply a reflection of the society. Society is pretty much run by low info voters, so why should anyone expect the military to run by anything other than low info officers.

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    • Jeff Gauch

      Oh, please. GOFO’s have always been politicians, dating from the days when they were nobility – that is, shortly after the beginning of organized warfare. Leadership in the Continental Army was fraught with politics. Washington may have spoken humble words when he accepted Commander-in-Chief, but he WANTED it. He showed up to every session of Congress in uniform for crying out loud.

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    • They weren’t always that way in this country. It has become accentuated since WW2 and really came out during the Korean War.

      Winfield Scott, Grant, Lee, Pershing, and MacArthur were anything but politicians.

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    • timactual

      MacArthur not a politician? I disagree, and so did Harry Truman, among others.
      Not always that way? C’mon, man, human nature hasn’t changed in a long, long time. Old Honest Abe would also disagree with you (McClellan, Sykes, etc.), and those are just off the top of my head.

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    • timactual, Mac was not a politician. To accuse him of it is laughable. That Truman would disagree is even more laughable. The little Napoleon certainly wasn’t either, which he proved and over again. You might make a case that he was a political appointee, but all your senior officers are.

      There were officers that were appointed for political reasons. Grant was saddled with one and understood what he was and worked around him. Grant also proved over and over he was no politician in the same ways MacArthur did. Mac was something of a primadonna like Patton, but he was no politician. Truman fired Mac simply because Mac’s actions were having serious political impact on Truman and the legacy he wanted to leave. Because of the way he handled one of the most competent officers the country ever produced destroyed anything he wanted leave behind and it harmed his party for 10 years. Mac simply retired after he was brought before Congress and kept to himself. Ike, OTOH, was certainly a politician and proved in the ETO and later when he openly went into politics. MAC and Ike were quite different men, and not just in style.

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    • timactual

      Just what is your definition of a politician?

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  3. timactual

    I have read some of Lind’s work and I agree with your opinion of him. I think his expertise is overrated. On the other hand, I only have four years of military experience, and rate own my opinions just as highly as he does his.

    Oddly enough, however, I agree with all the excerpts you have posted. Particularly-
    “The vast majority of our officers read no serious military history or theory.”

    We spend millions of dollars every year educating officers in every field but the one they work in; International Relations, English, MBA, etc. This does work out well for the officers, if not the military and the taxpayers, because it prepares them for lucrative careers as consultants, etc. when they leave active duty. Gen. Petraeus was almost declared the second coming of Christ because he was the only one who happened to recall that there were whole bookshelves of Field Manuals, studies, memoirs, after action reports, etc. on Counter-Insurgency. I will bet money that less than 10% of the officer corps has a library card or even knows where the post library is.

    Speaking of libraries, the Pentagon has an amazing one. When I was a kid, back in the dark ages, my mother worked there, for ARPA (pre-D). I used to walk into the Pentagon, dressed in tennis shoes, shorts, and t-shirt, visit the bookstore(Brentano’s) in the main entrance hall, then go to the library and find some books I liked. Then I would walk into my mother’s office and tell her the titles, etc. She would check them out for me. That place is heaven for anyone with an interest in military history, etc.

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    • When I was going through Ohio DOT’s Engineer training program I was in a meeting with one of the corridor managers (about 4th down from the Director) and he asked some of the others what the most important card he had was. The answers were all over the place. He then told the group it was his library card. I agreed then, and still agree.

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    • Stormy

      Bingo. One of my greatest frustrations while at the Pentagon is I was never allowed time to USE the library. I knew the answers to a thousand oft-repeated questions lay there. Holy Cr-p Batman! How many times have we paid the likes of WBB for the answer to the same question we asked a year before? If we just slowed down enough to stop, read and think as a part of our job, we’d do so much better. No, instead, I have to change the font to Times New Roman 24 pitch with a color scheme of 244, 150, 76. Now quick, print 20 copies, and make sure it gets to the GO-FO’s inbox before COB on Friday so that he won’t even read it or see it because it’ll sit there until Monday a.m. whereby it’s OBE material because the “crisis” has moved on.

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  4. diogenesofnj

    Another grim assessment from an earlier time:
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.
    I consider the passage to be poignantly applicable to the topic at hand. It ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

    My apologies to both poets.

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  5. Paul L. Quandt

    Perhaps we will find out how good our military is when we have to “jap” slap the PRC and/or Russia. As always, you have to spend ( in the coin of lives ) a large number of troops to find the good officers and NCOs.

    In my time in the CalARNG, I was lucky enough to meet several high quality officers and NCOs in the active-duty Army. I’m sure they are all retired by now however.

    Paul

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  6. Esli

    As a serving officer with 5 years of enlisted and 19 years of commissioned service (and a library card from everywhere I have been, even though post libraries invariably suck), I’m going to say the generalizations are rampant here, but also that the concerns of over-politicization and a lack of serious study are legitimate. My years in service, as well as my lack of desire to command higher than Bn have given me the freedom to command and lead as I think, with little worry. Not sure if this is the norm in my peers, but I am under no pressure to behave “politically” though I do have to comply with higher directives. Where we are failing is not in imbuing our officers with a sense of the historic but in their lack of ability to perform the art and science of their current jobs. Officers must spend the first probably 8 years learning how to fight at platoon and company. How to maintain and account for their equipment. How to utilize NCOs. The facts and figures. How to plan. How to synchronize combined arms. While a knowledge of history helps, it is not a requirement of the job, and will not make you a failure at the company or field grade level. I for one tend to work between 14-15 hours, just to get my job done each day. Most officers will work 12-13 at minimum, and come in on a weekend if necessary. Doesn’t leave a lot of room for the intellectual side. I find that during my hardest jobs, I invariably know less about current events. I “catch up” when at schools, and the odd book or two. In the last two years, I have only conducted three professional development sessions with my Bn that weren’t on maneuver or gunnery, which were on the Yom Kippur War, the Thunder Run, and Korengal Valley. In the same two years, I’ve only been to a couple professional development sessions that were actually on war fighting topics at any echelon higher than mine. I have no idea what the army will expect me to act like, in subsequent jobs, but I think most senior officers are more well versed than we give them credit for, and also less political. Most just hunker down and do the best they can while staving off all of the externally directed requirements while balancing competing demands and hoping they don’t have another SHARP incident. Now if you will excuse me, I am going to put down the Sun Tzu and go put the new spark plugs in my car that I have neglected for about a year as a result of the requirements of just getting my company grade officers to a decent level of proficiency! In short, we are not all the same, but it is a concern.

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    • The post libraries I saw in Germany were pretty good. That’s a relative term. From a professional military standpoint, however, I would agree with you. I noted the lack of certain things in retrospect, but I never saw a lack of military history books. The problem there, however, is military history for the popular market is different than that for the professional market.

      I would hope there would be a military library maintained by the post administration that would be restricted to the military reader, with reading from those stacks being strongly encouraged. If you really don’t have the time to read, then there need to be serious questions asked of the Army that there are such time suckers just in normal life that keep you from advancing your military knowledge. Also, not requiring that the obligatory Master’s degree be in a military area is a scandal that needs to be dealt with.

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  7. Jeff Gauch

    I think there’s an important point to remember. There’s a difference between “best” and “good.” Yes, there are strong forces keeping mediocrity in power, but those forces are universal and much stronger in other cultures. Conflicts with both Russia and China have been mentioned, does anyone here seriously believe that the PLA and Russian Army have fewer political pressures than ours?

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    • The problem is the US has been seeing the forces that keep mediocrity in power increase in strength and influence during my adult life. It’s probably already past the tipping point in the military, while it is long past the tipping point in the civilian world. As strong as it’s been in the civilian world, it was going to get into the military world sooner or later and it really started to infiltrate strongly about 20 years ago with Slick Willie and his social reforms. Bush did nothing to set those reforms back, and now the rot has truly set in with Zer0’s influence.

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    • Jeff Gauch

      Except that combat ability has little to do with your sex and nothing to do with your sex life. You allude to the real problem – the social justice warriors who destroy unit cohesion – but you don’t realize that your bigotry is part of the problem. There are plenty of women and gays who are more than capable of effective combat, but attitudes like yours force them into the arms of the SJW’s for protection, and those small-minded commissars aren’t good. They also aren’t unique to the US military. Heck, our opponents are more saddled with political officers (though the politics they enforce are slightly different) and they lack the cultural thread of tweaking authority (what are the Russian or Chinese counterparts to McHale’s Navy, Sgt. Bilko, or Hogan’s Heroes?)

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    • ultimaratioregis

      Combat ability has a great deal to do with gender, especially ground combat. Strength and endurance are not just helpful, but are necessary for the possibility of survival.

      We are told otherwise, in fact, are told that such assertions are not only wrong, but morally wrong bordering on criminal. For which expressing them is punishable. Despite millenia of history which proves them so, and not a single shred of evidence to the contrary.

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    • timactual

      “There are plenty of women and gays who are more than capable of effective combat…”

      I think you have fallen for that “Army of One” recruiting BS. All that Rambo, Terminator, etc. stuff is fiction. In the real world battles are won by units. It is irrelevant how women and gays perform INDIVIDUALLY in combat. What is relevant is how they contribute to the success of the unit, in combat and in garrison.

      If it is bigotry to recognize that there are physical, mental, emotional, and other differences among human beings, then I guess I am a bigot, and proud of it. Actually, I guess that would have to be a military or demi bigot, since I do not mind working, associating, or even living with gays as a civilian. You, obviously, are one of the SJWs.

      I have never served with women, but I am 99% sure I have served with gay men. Not being gay myself, I cannot be 100% sure. I have literally slept “cheek to cheek” with them. Both sets of cheeks, incidentally. There were times when I was made uncomfortable, such as the guy who used to serenade me in the latrine with improvised songs about me. This was back when homosexuality was illegal and you got a less than honorable discharge.

      Today they call it sexual harassment, and I cannot imagine that it is anything but worse.

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  8. Here is one service’s idea of what you should read:

    http://home.comcast.net/~antaylor1/usmccommandant.html

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  9. NaCly Dog

    Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.

    There’s a saying in the fleet: “There are no new lessons learned here, it is just new people learning the same lessons.”

    Note: the Battle of Savo occured over 9 months after Pearl Harbor. ADM Turner, who made some questionable decisions and scattered his tactical assets over a wide area, was not admonished for the defeat.

    Admiral Turner on why the defeat occured:

    “The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”.

    Yhis is still relevant.

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  10. Pingback: Some Pushback on that Lind article… and some agreement too. | Bring the heat, Bring the Stupid