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. 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?

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  2. 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?

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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