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.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 60


  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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  9. lermit says:

    There is a leadership crisis in Uranus!

    .lermit (omgggggggg)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  10. lermit says:

    There is a leadership crisis in Uranus!

    .lermit (omgggggggg)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  11. frankenduf says:

    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

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  12. frankenduf says:

    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

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  13. sygyzy says:

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

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  14. sygyzy says:

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

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  15. egretman says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  16. egretman says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  17. David Wynn says:

    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?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  18. David Wynn says:

    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?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  19. 711buddha says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  20. 711buddha says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  21. rfyork says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  22. rfyork says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  23. DrCube says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  24. DrCube says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  25. pvanderwaart says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  26. pvanderwaart says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  27. jbhughes says:

    For a comprehensive insider look at Army personnel policies, and recommendations for change, have a look at http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/culture_wars.htm

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  28. jbhughes says:

    For a comprehensive insider look at Army personnel policies, and recommendations for change, have a look at http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/culture_wars.htm

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  29. danweber says:

    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…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  30. danweber says:

    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…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  31. MurphTangClan says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  32. MurphTangClan says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  33. ionember says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  34. ionember says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  35. mariadonovan says:

    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: http://www.stormingmedia.us/38/3857/A385734.html and: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR981/MR981.ch1.pdf instead of posts from someone who seems to have a distaste for the military.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  36. mariadonovan says:

    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: http://www.stormingmedia.us/38/3857/A385734.html and: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR981/MR981.ch1.pdf instead of posts from someone who seems to have a distaste for the military.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  37. MTW says:

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

    Sounds like someone’s reading list includes Starship Troopers.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  38. MTW says:

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

    Sounds like someone’s reading list includes Starship Troopers.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  39. Bruce Hayden says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  40. Bruce Hayden says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  41. Josef Svenningsson says:

    Helen DeWitt? As in the writer of “The Last Samurai”? I guess not, but I just couldn’t help commenting on it since that book is one of my all time favorite fiction books.
    Link to the book: http://www.amazon.com/Last-Samurai-Helen-Dewitt/dp/0786887001/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-6883295-3736735?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1180799943&sr=8-1

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  42. Josef Svenningsson says:

    Helen DeWitt? As in the writer of “The Last Samurai”? I guess not, but I just couldn’t help commenting on it since that book is one of my all time favorite fiction books.
    Link to the book: http://www.amazon.com/Last-Samurai-Helen-Dewitt/dp/0786887001/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-6883295-3736735?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1180799943&sr=8-1

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  43. rogermarsh says:

    I was in the US Army for 20 years. I agree that most all officers can make captain regardless of ability. However, making major is not a foregone conclusion. Many incompetent officers don’t make the cut.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  44. rogermarsh says:

    I was in the US Army for 20 years. I agree that most all officers can make captain regardless of ability. However, making major is not a foregone conclusion. Many incompetent officers don’t make the cut.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  45. dngshouse says:

    the current system favors the mass of the military at the cost of some of the elite young people. Apparently its worth it. Promoting based on merit might be more efficient, but it also hurts the mass.

    I think some people are attracted to the military for their promoting practices. the thought that as long as you keep yourself in shape and do a decent job you will move through the ranks is very appealing to the not-super-smart. quality versus quantity, and the military wants quantity.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  46. dngshouse says:

    the current system favors the mass of the military at the cost of some of the elite young people. Apparently its worth it. Promoting based on merit might be more efficient, but it also hurts the mass.

    I think some people are attracted to the military for their promoting practices. the thought that as long as you keep yourself in shape and do a decent job you will move through the ranks is very appealing to the not-super-smart. quality versus quantity, and the military wants quantity.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  47. Checkmate06 says:

    I’d like to address three key points: First, Helen DeWitt’s comment that “Officers rise through the system without relevance to merit” (emphasis added) is simply untrue. As a former Army Aviation branch assignment officer for captains, I spent much of my time preparing officer files for upcoming promotion boards. Officers with mediocre files – especially in critical job positions such as platoon or company command – were considered “at risk” for promotion to major. Among the roughly 250 officers I managed at one time, roughly 20 were passed over for promotion any given year. Conversely, officers with exceptional files were competitive for “below-the-zone” (BZ) selection to major, meaning they would be promoted to major earlier than their peers and advanced a year ahead for promotion consideration to lieutenant colonel. Roughly 15-20 officers in Aviation branch are promoted BZ in any given year. This example clearly reflects a merit-based promotion system – in both directions.
    Second, DeWitt concludes “Because promotion is not based on merit, smart officers get frustrated and leave for jobs where they can make better money.” Again, while promotions to 1LT and CPT appear automatic, it is not always assured. The new Army promotion system “masks” junior officer evaluations – unless they have disciplinary reports in their files – to enable officer growth and development. Thereafter, they are subject to the merit-based promotion system I outlined above. In response to the second part of her statement, officers get out of the Army for many reasons. Family considerations, changing ambitions or goals in life, and general unhappiness with military life and/or those with whom they serve are among the principal reasons. But many officers elect to stay, and many are exceptionally bright and talented. Regardless of the reasons officers decide to leave, reducing their motivations to the pursuit of “better money” cheapens the contributions and sacrifices they made while they served.
    Third and finally, DeWitt states “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.” Again, DeWitt’s argument rests on the presumption that the “smartest” reside at the lower ranks, while the lame and incompetent occupy positions of authority. This conclusion is silly and baseless. How many of us have worked for a “bad” or “incompetent” boss? How many believed we could do a better job? Many, I’m sure. This isn’t some new or startling phenomenon developing within the military. I’ve worked for my share of mediocre officers, but more often than not I worked for some stellar ones. And the good ones worked hard to take care of their soldiers and repair “the system” at their level. It may not be a perfect system, but I’m certainly proud and happy to serve.
    Helen DeWitt would do well to interview more than one officer before settling on such misleading conclusions.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  48. Checkmate06 says:

    I’d like to address three key points: First, Helen DeWitt’s comment that “Officers rise through the system without relevance to merit” (emphasis added) is simply untrue. As a former Army Aviation branch assignment officer for captains, I spent much of my time preparing officer files for upcoming promotion boards. Officers with mediocre files – especially in critical job positions such as platoon or company command – were considered “at risk” for promotion to major. Among the roughly 250 officers I managed at one time, roughly 20 were passed over for promotion any given year. Conversely, officers with exceptional files were competitive for “below-the-zone” (BZ) selection to major, meaning they would be promoted to major earlier than their peers and advanced a year ahead for promotion consideration to lieutenant colonel. Roughly 15-20 officers in Aviation branch are promoted BZ in any given year. This example clearly reflects a merit-based promotion system – in both directions.
    Second, DeWitt concludes “Because promotion is not based on merit, smart officers get frustrated and leave for jobs where they can make better money.” Again, while promotions to 1LT and CPT appear automatic, it is not always assured. The new Army promotion system “masks” junior officer evaluations – unless they have disciplinary reports in their files – to enable officer growth and development. Thereafter, they are subject to the merit-based promotion system I outlined above. In response to the second part of her statement, officers get out of the Army for many reasons. Family considerations, changing ambitions or goals in life, and general unhappiness with military life and/or those with whom they serve are among the principal reasons. But many officers elect to stay, and many are exceptionally bright and talented. Regardless of the reasons officers decide to leave, reducing their motivations to the pursuit of “better money” cheapens the contributions and sacrifices they made while they served.
    Third and finally, DeWitt states “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.” Again, DeWitt’s argument rests on the presumption that the “smartest” reside at the lower ranks, while the lame and incompetent occupy positions of authority. This conclusion is silly and baseless. How many of us have worked for a “bad” or “incompetent” boss? How many believed we could do a better job? Many, I’m sure. This isn’t some new or startling phenomenon developing within the military. I’ve worked for my share of mediocre officers, but more often than not I worked for some stellar ones. And the good ones worked hard to take care of their soldiers and repair “the system” at their level. It may not be a perfect system, but I’m certainly proud and happy to serve.
    Helen DeWitt would do well to interview more than one officer before settling on such misleading conclusions.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  49. cascobay says:

    I am a former Navy junior officer. My experience of the military promotion system is similar to that discussed in #12. At junior levels (where you can’t do much damage) promotion is mostly related to time in grade. However over time there is a series of “gates” which winnow down each cadre. Talent,drive and experience counted over the long run.

    I guess whomever wrote the orginal post felt the experience of the junior officers reflected the entire officer corp. This seems to be a case of partial truths which don’t add up to the whole picture.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  50. cascobay says:

    I am a former Navy junior officer. My experience of the military promotion system is similar to that discussed in #12. At junior levels (where you can’t do much damage) promotion is mostly related to time in grade. However over time there is a series of “gates” which winnow down each cadre. Talent,drive and experience counted over the long run.

    I guess whomever wrote the orginal post felt the experience of the junior officers reflected the entire officer corp. This seems to be a case of partial truths which don’t add up to the whole picture.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  51. shnarg says:

    I was a civilian employee of the Military for 32 years. Prior to that I served a single stint in the military. My service spanned the draft days through to today’s “all-professional” military. During my time I saw the effect of increasing careerism in the officers at the expense of common sense and character. Career officers displease their commanders at the risk of their livelihood. The cycling of short term civilian soldiers through the system provide a check against the dangerous martinets that thrive in a “all-professional” force.

    Also “all-professional” military establishments are dangerous because they eventually produce a “them & us” mentality, where the “them” are the citizenry. The same situation that exists in out of control police establishments. A camo line instead of a blue line.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  52. shnarg says:

    I was a civilian employee of the Military for 32 years. Prior to that I served a single stint in the military. My service spanned the draft days through to today’s “all-professional” military. During my time I saw the effect of increasing careerism in the officers at the expense of common sense and character. Career officers displease their commanders at the risk of their livelihood. The cycling of short term civilian soldiers through the system provide a check against the dangerous martinets that thrive in a “all-professional” force.

    Also “all-professional” military establishments are dangerous because they eventually produce a “them & us” mentality, where the “them” are the citizenry. The same situation that exists in out of control police establishments. A camo line instead of a blue line.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  53. SphereTrader says:

    As a former US navy junior officer (5yrs submarines), I concur with many of the other posts of those who actually served as junior officers. Time in service directly determines promotions O2,O3. There are some merit based shortcuts to 04, but you generally can make it there based on time. O5 and up is highly merit driven. Given the shrinking of our submarine fleet, as the pyramid shrinks, I’ve actually seen one or two very good officers not make it to Captain.

    There’s always uninspiring O2-O4s that I’ve served with, but at least in the submarines I had direct, daily exposure to the Commanding Officer (O5). I found all these gentleman to be worthy of my respect. Was I more “clever” than many? Of course I thought I was at the time. Did I have their accumulated knowledge and base of experience to evaluate how “clever” I truly was? Of course not.

    My main psychological justification for leaving the Navy was exactly this “whoa is me, I’m too good to suffer under this fixed, merit-less path to promotion” argument espoused in the article. Guess what, the corporate business world is exactly the same way (I emphasize corporate, not entrepreneurship).

    Given that it is no different on the outside, do I regret leaving?
    Not a chance. Ego-boosting psychological rationales left behind, I’m just not altruistic enough to be a career officer. I fully enjoy the privilege of earning 3X what I would be making in the Navy, going home to my family every night, and not being awoken every two hours to review paperwork. Finally, I do not take for granted the stress reduction that comes from no longer having a job in which a wrong on job decision could kill or injure myself and a crew of 120 others.

    Other commenters have pointed out the parallels to civil service, business. Perhaps the more interesting discussion is around whether this is endemic to the control of large organizations.

    As mentioned by others, if the officer’s key skill-set is their leadership, is not some minimum time in service to accumulate experience important? How would the author propose we test this on a written exam?

    Please send me the 3-inch thick book that tells me exactly how to be an inspiring, experienced leader. I’m a fantastic scholar; I’ll be ready to take that test for CEO in months.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  54. SphereTrader says:

    As a former US navy junior officer (5yrs submarines), I concur with many of the other posts of those who actually served as junior officers. Time in service directly determines promotions O2,O3. There are some merit based shortcuts to 04, but you generally can make it there based on time. O5 and up is highly merit driven. Given the shrinking of our submarine fleet, as the pyramid shrinks, I’ve actually seen one or two very good officers not make it to Captain.

    There’s always uninspiring O2-O4s that I’ve served with, but at least in the submarines I had direct, daily exposure to the Commanding Officer (O5). I found all these gentleman to be worthy of my respect. Was I more “clever” than many? Of course I thought I was at the time. Did I have their accumulated knowledge and base of experience to evaluate how “clever” I truly was? Of course not.

    My main psychological justification for leaving the Navy was exactly this “whoa is me, I’m too good to suffer under this fixed, merit-less path to promotion” argument espoused in the article. Guess what, the corporate business world is exactly the same way (I emphasize corporate, not entrepreneurship).

    Given that it is no different on the outside, do I regret leaving?
    Not a chance. Ego-boosting psychological rationales left behind, I’m just not altruistic enough to be a career officer. I fully enjoy the privilege of earning 3X what I would be making in the Navy, going home to my family every night, and not being awoken every two hours to review paperwork. Finally, I do not take for granted the stress reduction that comes from no longer having a job in which a wrong on job decision could kill or injure myself and a crew of 120 others.

    Other commenters have pointed out the parallels to civil service, business. Perhaps the more interesting discussion is around whether this is endemic to the control of large organizations.

    As mentioned by others, if the officer’s key skill-set is their leadership, is not some minimum time in service to accumulate experience important? How would the author propose we test this on a written exam?

    Please send me the 3-inch thick book that tells me exactly how to be an inspiring, experienced leader. I’m a fantastic scholar; I’ll be ready to take that test for CEO in months.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  55. Nick says:

    OK, so now economists are debating issues based on single data point, second-hand anecdotal stories? Geesh!

    As a former Army NCO, I will tell you that the book wasn’t that thick and was easy to memorize. No one I knew sweated that part. They may have studied for a weekend, but that’s about it.

    I will say that typically anyone willing to do the time could make it to captain. However, I saw a lot of captains riffed out before making major, so I really don’t buy the original premise above.

    For field level officers on the ground leadership is more important than intelligence. Most of the LTC’s were pretty competent, and the colonels and above even more so.

    And this comes from a guy who really hated being in the military, so I’m not just blindly defending a broken system. There were many other things broken in the Army, and promotions weren’t anywhere near my top 10 list.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  56. Nick says:

    OK, so now economists are debating issues based on single data point, second-hand anecdotal stories? Geesh!

    As a former Army NCO, I will tell you that the book wasn’t that thick and was easy to memorize. No one I knew sweated that part. They may have studied for a weekend, but that’s about it.

    I will say that typically anyone willing to do the time could make it to captain. However, I saw a lot of captains riffed out before making major, so I really don’t buy the original premise above.

    For field level officers on the ground leadership is more important than intelligence. Most of the LTC’s were pretty competent, and the colonels and above even more so.

    And this comes from a guy who really hated being in the military, so I’m not just blindly defending a broken system. There were many other things broken in the Army, and promotions weren’t anywhere near my top 10 list.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  57. Not-a-DAT says:

    There is, of course, some ways to measure this. One that comes to mind is: when eligible, how many people are selected for promotion?

    To make Specialist (E-4), for example, you must have so much time in the Army, and so much time in the rank of PFC (E-3). Yes, some can make SPC early — it’s called getting a waiver — but that’s actually something that is doled out rather arbitrarily (but sometimes using knowledge as a factor). Additionally, if one has the time in grade and time in service, the Army comes looking for the documented reasoning for why that person have not been promoted to SPC — maybe they are awaiting discimplinary action or failed a PT test (called being flagged). Looking at the numbers for eligible vs promoted for the junior enlisted (E1 to E4) will show numbers near 100% — you have to really have done something to keep from making these ranks, to give the Army a reason to not promote you.

    To make SGT and SSG, you go to a local promotion board — and this is where that whole studying thing comes into play. Yes, there is a time in service and a time in grade requirement, too, but really, you have to “pass the board” and make the promotion list, and to then wait for their to be a vacancy on the rolls of the Big Army’s numbers before you get promoted. Yes, one can “pass the board” and be considered promotable, but linger and linger for a long time before being promoted. To look at these numbers, I suspect that you’d find high numbers for those who have the time in grade and time in service requirements met, and who have “pass the board”. But actually getting promoted, as I mentioned, means having a slow on the Army’s big books that needs to be filled, and thus those numbers would be lower. Supply and demand.

    For NCO’s, after that, it’s a centrally managed promotion selection — supply and demand. No studying, no quiz. Performance and potential, and how many are needed (by job speciality) for selction for promotion. If the Army is expanding — as it is these days, across the board — I would expect to see higher numbers that we saw in, say, the mid 1990′s, during the draw-down.

    I would offer, for the officers, that trends and patterns for promotion are all wonky these days (yes, that’s a technical term). Current senior officers (LTC and up) are all Gulf War vets, guys who were in when the Army went through the belt-tightening after Desert Storm. Theu survived the RIF, and they survived a time when selection for promotion to CPT and to MAJ was, at times, below 60% (and lower). Selection for promotion is screwy — they Army first decides how many slots at the higher rank need to be filled, and then they look amongst those who have the time in rank (i.e. eligible), and finds the top number of those folks. Need 400 more MAJ’s? Go find the best 400 eligible CPT’s, and pick then. Then, in batches, work from that list of 400 and promote them over the coming year. Not amongst the 400? Better luck next year. Passed over a couple of times? Well, back in the day, that would mean you’d be washed out — seperated from the Army — but, well, that’s gauche today. Retain but do not promote, is the current buzz phrase.

    When they go looking for the, say, top 400 eligible CPT’s to promote to MAJ, yes, your merits do count. The issue of just how much is counts varies from time to time. For those senior folks today, who faced low selection rates to MAJ (back in the day), it mattered a whole bunch — making MAJ was a huge hurdle. In contrast, when I was picked up for MAJ about 2 years ago, the selection rate was almost 100% — I am not kidding when I say that, literally, six guys who were eligible CPT’s were not selected. The need for folsk to promote to MAJ almost exceeded the number of those eligible for consideration for selection for promotion (say that three times fast). What does that do for our self-esteem? Well, I know I’m better than six guys (or gals), who I assume had gotten a DUI, or were awaiting prison time at Leavenworth, or who had been sleeping with the general’s daughter and been caught (or his son, for that matter).

    Looking at the numbers for officers today, I suspect, would show that most everyone who have the time in grade requirements (at least through LTC, maybe through COL) and who hasn’t been caught doing something seriously wrong, or who hasn’t decided to punch out and head to civilian life, is getting promotion.

    But the raw numbers are there. Someone just needs to cull them and filter them some.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  58. Not-a-DAT says:

    There is, of course, some ways to measure this. One that comes to mind is: when eligible, how many people are selected for promotion?

    To make Specialist (E-4), for example, you must have so much time in the Army, and so much time in the rank of PFC (E-3). Yes, some can make SPC early — it’s called getting a waiver — but that’s actually something that is doled out rather arbitrarily (but sometimes using knowledge as a factor). Additionally, if one has the time in grade and time in service, the Army comes looking for the documented reasoning for why that person have not been promoted to SPC — maybe they are awaiting discimplinary action or failed a PT test (called being flagged). Looking at the numbers for eligible vs promoted for the junior enlisted (E1 to E4) will show numbers near 100% — you have to really have done something to keep from making these ranks, to give the Army a reason to not promote you.

    To make SGT and SSG, you go to a local promotion board — and this is where that whole studying thing comes into play. Yes, there is a time in service and a time in grade requirement, too, but really, you have to “pass the board” and make the promotion list, and to then wait for their to be a vacancy on the rolls of the Big Army’s numbers before you get promoted. Yes, one can “pass the board” and be considered promotable, but linger and linger for a long time before being promoted. To look at these numbers, I suspect that you’d find high numbers for those who have the time in grade and time in service requirements met, and who have “pass the board”. But actually getting promoted, as I mentioned, means having a slow on the Army’s big books that needs to be filled, and thus those numbers would be lower. Supply and demand.

    For NCO’s, after that, it’s a centrally managed promotion selection — supply and demand. No studying, no quiz. Performance and potential, and how many are needed (by job speciality) for selction for promotion. If the Army is expanding — as it is these days, across the board — I would expect to see higher numbers that we saw in, say, the mid 1990′s, during the draw-down.

    I would offer, for the officers, that trends and patterns for promotion are all wonky these days (yes, that’s a technical term). Current senior officers (LTC and up) are all Gulf War vets, guys who were in when the Army went through the belt-tightening after Desert Storm. Theu survived the RIF, and they survived a time when selection for promotion to CPT and to MAJ was, at times, below 60% (and lower). Selection for promotion is screwy — they Army first decides how many slots at the higher rank need to be filled, and then they look amongst those who have the time in rank (i.e. eligible), and finds the top number of those folks. Need 400 more MAJ’s? Go find the best 400 eligible CPT’s, and pick then. Then, in batches, work from that list of 400 and promote them over the coming year. Not amongst the 400? Better luck next year. Passed over a couple of times? Well, back in the day, that would mean you’d be washed out — seperated from the Army — but, well, that’s gauche today. Retain but do not promote, is the current buzz phrase.

    When they go looking for the, say, top 400 eligible CPT’s to promote to MAJ, yes, your merits do count. The issue of just how much is counts varies from time to time. For those senior folks today, who faced low selection rates to MAJ (back in the day), it mattered a whole bunch — making MAJ was a huge hurdle. In contrast, when I was picked up for MAJ about 2 years ago, the selection rate was almost 100% — I am not kidding when I say that, literally, six guys who were eligible CPT’s were not selected. The need for folsk to promote to MAJ almost exceeded the number of those eligible for consideration for selection for promotion (say that three times fast). What does that do for our self-esteem? Well, I know I’m better than six guys (or gals), who I assume had gotten a DUI, or were awaiting prison time at Leavenworth, or who had been sleeping with the general’s daughter and been caught (or his son, for that matter).

    Looking at the numbers for officers today, I suspect, would show that most everyone who have the time in grade requirements (at least through LTC, maybe through COL) and who hasn’t been caught doing something seriously wrong, or who hasn’t decided to punch out and head to civilian life, is getting promotion.

    But the raw numbers are there. Someone just needs to cull them and filter them some.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  59. Junior Officer in Iraq says:

    I am a junior Army officer currently serving in Iraq. Let me say that I am very proud to be serving and I love the Army.

    However, I largely agree with this post. The current Army promotion system does not allow for any waivers for early promotion of high performing young officers. A good young officer will be promoted at exactly the same pace as a lackluster junior officer. Merit does not factor one iota into promotions from 2nd to 1st Lieutenant and from 1st Lieutenant to Captain. It is only based on time in service.

    At exactly 18 months for active (and 24 for Reserves) you will be promoted, no matter how high or low you perform (unless you do something really bad like a DUI).

    I was ranked by my Battalion Commander as the top 2nd Lieutenant in the Battalion, but it did not help me get promoted faster. Lieutenants who had received official letters of reprimand or who had been relieved of their positions still got promoted before I did. Why? Because they reached the required time before I did, and time is the only factor for jr. officer promotions.

    I think that this does drive some (certainly not all) high performing officers out of the military, and it rewards low performing officers who are guaranteed promotion at least thru major.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  60. Junior Officer in Iraq says:

    I am a junior Army officer currently serving in Iraq. Let me say that I am very proud to be serving and I love the Army.

    However, I largely agree with this post. The current Army promotion system does not allow for any waivers for early promotion of high performing young officers. A good young officer will be promoted at exactly the same pace as a lackluster junior officer. Merit does not factor one iota into promotions from 2nd to 1st Lieutenant and from 1st Lieutenant to Captain. It is only based on time in service.

    At exactly 18 months for active (and 24 for Reserves) you will be promoted, no matter how high or low you perform (unless you do something really bad like a DUI).

    I was ranked by my Battalion Commander as the top 2nd Lieutenant in the Battalion, but it did not help me get promoted faster. Lieutenants who had received official letters of reprimand or who had been relieved of their positions still got promoted before I did. Why? Because they reached the required time before I did, and time is the only factor for jr. officer promotions.

    I think that this does drive some (certainly not all) high performing officers out of the military, and it rewards low performing officers who are guaranteed promotion at least thru major.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0