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. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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

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  4. 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

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  5. 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…

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  6. 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…

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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.

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