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. lermit says:

    There is a leadership crisis in Uranus!

    .lermit (omgggggggg)

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  2. lermit says:

    There is a leadership crisis in Uranus!

    .lermit (omgggggggg)

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  3. 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

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  4. 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

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  5. sygyzy says:

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

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  6. sygyzy says:

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

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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