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.

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  1. quksilver says:

    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.

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  2. quksilver says:

    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.

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  3. simoncast says:

    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).

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  4. simoncast says:

    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).

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  5. RobertSeattle says:

    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.

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  6. RobertSeattle says:

    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.

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  7. turners803 says:

    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.

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  8. turners803 says:

    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.

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