An Insider’s View on Modern Military Advancement

Reader Helen DeWitt writes in with the following description of the U.S. military’s current system of officer promotion, as told to her by an Air Force officer who just returned from Baghdad:

Officers rise through the system without relevance to merit; promotions are based on the length of time the officer has been in the system. (Up to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, anyway — to make Colonel you have to have done more than serve time.) Enlisted men are subject to a completely different rule: you see them studying for months, mastering the contents of a book this thick (makes gesture, thumb and fingers about three inches apart).

To be an officer you must either have been to one of the military academies or to college. Because promotion is not based on merit, smart officers get frustrated and leave for jobs where they can make better money; less able officers have every reason to stay, since incompetence is no impediment to career advancement. Since the effect of the system is to retain the least able, it perpetuates the elimination of the able: the norm is for smart young officers to find themselves reporting not to superiors like themselves (the ablest left early in frustration at the stupidity of the system), but to superiors who a) were not frustrated by the system and b) feel threatened by clever subordinates … And that’s how we get the leadership of our defense services.

The war in Iraq has produced plenty of criticism of military management (see here and here). What do you all know — and have to say — about the system described above? Is it as prevalent as DeWitt relates? Is it as problematic as she assumes? Etc. etc.


Hmm, I would contest the generalization across all services. However, that's pretty much how it worked in the Air Force. I got out of the Air Force two years ago because it encouraged officers to do the minimum necessary to avoid punishment, and due to officers position of authority (being able to set the rules and/or pass the blame), that bar was set very low. Thus, there was no reason to have great ideas, and your fellow officers would often frown on introducing great ideas because it made them look bad. It's incredibly demoralizing for those who see a problem and intuitively try to find a better way.


The ADF (Australian Defence Force) is different and generally the poor officers are weeded out early (at least in the Army). Getting through RMC Duntroon is hard enough.

True the Army does operate with a time in rank as part of the promotion but that is a minimum, before the officer can be considered for promotion. Before achieving promotion each officer has to undergo a promotion course which MUST be passed before consideration for promotion (and even having done the course that is not guaranteed).


Sounds like a way to cynical view of things. I was in the Army in the 80's, and, warts and all, cream does evenutally rise through the promotion system. But then, the Air Force is a whole different ball of wax compared to the Army, Mariners, and Navy.


To be honest the Marine Corps enlisted is much the same way as far as promotion. I spent four years enlisted and was honorably discharged as a Corporal in 2004. The Corps values physical fitness over intelligence or even job competency, and loyalty over all else. So by staying in the system and having great physical fitness you can rise through the ranks easily. That is why I decided to get out. The people that I reported to weren't smarter than me, or knew their job better than me. They could run faster and do more pullups in most cases.

Add on top of that the guaranteed paycheck every two weeks and medical benefits for their families is another incentive for people to stay in (at least before the Iraq war). A lot of the people who stay in simply can't compete in the market place for a job because they don't have the competency that their physical fitness would otherwise make up for in the military. So in the end you don't have a military that has the best our country has to offer, you have those that are the most phsyically fit, and too institutionalized to get out and try the civilian world.

This isn't to take away from those who serve our military, I'm just stating the observations I obtained while I served my 4 years at Camp Lejeune. This could be very much different in the other branches, but at least from my experiences and the knowledge I gained from talking to other service people this is the view that I have.



There is a leadership crisis in Uranus!

.lermit (omgggggggg)


maybe this isn't cynical- if, as turners803 points out, the Marines value loyalty over competency, then the system makes sense in terms of cohesion- and it's hard to critique a military that has dominated the globe since the mid 1940s


Is this news to anyone? Seriously. This is also how civil sector government positions work, such as the social security office.


This is also how civil sector government positions work, such as the social security office.

Shoot. This is how half the business/bosses I've worked for operate also. It's just normal human nature of all those who find themselves "left in charge". The primal urge to control to the point that mindless mouthing of the bosses stupidity is all that really matters.

Of course, once you work for a good company or boss you realize just how stupid it really is.

David Wynn

I agree with frankenduf, it's not necessarily wrong that the armed forces value loyalty over intelligence. Looked at in one sense, the armed forces are simply people which the government uses to accomplish its goals. In that light, the government may choose to reward people that they know will be reliable and consistant instead of those who are the most innovative and insightful but speak out of turn or question authority.

Have there been any studies on this subject? Tests are only so good at measuring intelligence, especially intelligence gained through battlefield experience, but isn't there something out there we could use to test out this imbalanced incentives theory?


In the US Army...

All 2LT get promoted to 1LT based on time in grade. The best get waivered and promoted early.

Most 1LTs will get promoted to CPT eventually, even if they are complete knuckleheads. Some small few are passed over but not many.

While CPT they need a company command. There are more competent officers than commands, and while a few slip thru, this is a pretty good gate to promotion. For the most part, the duds are passed over. Presuming a CPT does get a command and they don't mess it up, they can make MAJ.

A sharp MAJ will have little trouble getting promoted to LTC. But a LTC needs a battalion command to progress. Most Battalions have 4 or 5 companies - so things aren't easy. Again, pretty tough hurdle and this time around there's almost no chance you'll only be up against weak competition.

It gets no easier at COL, then you need a Brigade or Regimental Command to progress. The army weeds them out pretty good.

Of course, this does nothing to weed out the non-combat arms/combat support officers (finance, AG etc.) The stars don't often land on their shoulders though.



On the one hand, some things have changed, other other....

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I enjoyed a brief and colored career as a US Navy Ensign (honorably discharge as an Ensign!). With the draft still in force (1967), seniority was not always the key factor in promotion, although it has always played a large role. One could say, for those in Vietnam, simple survival was the key factor in promotion.

In those days, a substantial portion of the junior officer corps were "partial" draftees. I say partial because many of us who were draftable often volunteered to go to Officer Candidate Schools for the better treatment and pay. Unfortunately, the records show that the mortality rate in Vietnam was high for junior offices, 2nd Lieutenants in particular.

I am not sure what the equivalent statistics are in today's equally stupid conflict.

But, to speak to the point, seniority should count for a great deal in officer promotions. Particularly in a volunteer army. The fact that an officer can reach O4, Lt. Colonel or Commander, provides an incentive to stay in. Unless things have changed these people can collect a pension after 20 years. And, like senior NCOs, they keep the enterprise going.

I agree with 711buddha. Even forty years ago, the ability to move on to significant rank, Colonel and above, was definitely based on proven ability.

And by the way, egretman hit the nail on the head. I have experienced both the military and the wonders of large corporations. In both environments, simply showing up is often enough to remain on the payroll.



I'd like to point out that, in the US Army at least, the book "this thick" that the enlisted soldiers have to study to get promoted is full of worthless trivia that very rarely pertains to their jobs. The "promotion points" system in place to promote junior NCOs is just as flawed as the officer systems related above, although I admit it takes into account more than just time in service. If you shoot accurately and are physically fit (which shouldn't just apply to NCOs), and can regurgitate arcane regulations from memory, you can pretty much count on being promoted. Job competence and leadership ability have almost no bearing on promotion at this level either.


General Halftrack may have been promoted via time-in-grade, but there is a reason why he is at Camp Swampy. No one gets to be, say, commander of a nuclear submarine just because it's his turn.


For a comprehensive insider look at Army personnel policies, and recommendations for change, have a look at


Doesn't this seem like a lot of union jobs? You climb the latter with "seniority," and the people at the top of the pyramid are scared of the clever subordinates...


As a former Noncommissioned officer, I couldn't agree more with this critique of military officer personnel management. I've found myself under superiors where I've really felt that the mission was compromised. I just didn't think that they were the capability I needed them to be so that I may do my job. I've found myself picking up the pieces of officers (including West Point grads) that they left in their wake of strain under power. It really does take more in the Army to become a Buck Sergeant then it does to become a company commander. A company command position is automatic for an officer, but a Buck Sergeant, at least when I was in, took a board appearance and meeting a point system based on accomplishment. I had to study a book "this big" to get my stripes, but a college degree takes a back seat to merit in the military every day. This is not to say that all the officers are terrible, but a terrible officer does a lot more damage than a terrible private.



I agree that the writer takes a typical civilian dim view on mil promotion system. Yes, time in grade does count. But if you want to be "high speed", just like in the corporate world, it takes a bit more than simply being there. As a current Nat'l Guard OCS candidate, I can assure you old timers that things havent necessarily changed. My reading list is quite a few books thick, ranging from why Xerxes lost the big one to the care and feeding of privates. On top of that, I am about ten years older than the the non OCS kids and still drill with them regularly, and am expected to lead by example by running them down. So, sorry, writer of that particular blurb, you are a little mistaken in your understanding of the system.


This is possibly the most ridiculous post I've ever read on this site. My husband was in the Army and I was in the Air Force after we both graduated from the AF Academy. We both oppose the war and have from the very beginning, but the failures in utilizing our military do not come from within. We chose to get out to pursue different careers, but it had little to do with having to report to superiors "who a) were not frustrated by the system and b) feel threatened by clever subordinates." This very "scientific" third person explanation sounds like it came from a disgruntled employee. Yes, there are many problems with our military, including the promotion system, but if you want an accurate take on the issue, I'd suggest reading: and: instead of posts from someone who seems to have a distaste for the military.



"My reading list is quite a few books thick, ranging from why Xerxes lost the big one to the care and feeding of privates."

Sounds like someone's reading list includes Starship Troopers.

Bruce Hayden

Let me suggest that this is more the situation with the peacetime military than the wartime one. And, thus, most often when we go to war, we flounder around for awhile, while those promoted for other than performance are finally weeded out, pushed to the side, or up and out of the way. And then, the military is able to fight successfully.

It can be argued that that happened in the Civil War, with a succession of generals until Grant and his crew took over and won the war for the Union. The next couple of wars didn't last long enough for us for that to happen. But then again, in WWII, the invasion of North Africa was a disaster on our part. But as the war wore on, the competency of the surviving officers increased significantly. And it appears to have happened in Vietnam too. Finally, there is some indication that for the Army and Marines in Iraq and Afganistan, the underperforming officers are not being sent back, and the competence there has increased significantly.

Of course, when we hit peacetime, those services will likely revert to form, and the Navy and Air Force haven't been in harm's way nearly as much, so this dynamic is likely not as evident there.