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. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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.

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