ELITE GENERALS. Fred Kaplan

ELITE GENERALS. Fred Kaplan has an interesting look at the officer structure in this week's NY Times Magazine. The armed forces, like many institutions, are slow to adapt and change, and the way officers are promoted hasn't changed much either, leaving a genuinely homogeneous pool to plan war strategy. This is a problem I've heard many people from inside and outside the military complain about. The same kind of innovation that comes from diversity in the private sector could help the military as well. But the pool itself is in trouble. The officer class from West Point has gone through some major flux in the last two years, Kaplan reports:

West Point cadets are obligated to stay in the Army for five years after graduating. In a typical year, about a quarter to a third of them decide not to sign on for another term. In 2003, when the class of 1998 faced that decision, only 18 percent quit the force: memories of 9/11 were still vivid; the war in Afghanistan seemed a success; and war in Iraq was under way. Duty called, and it seemed a good time to be an Army officer. But last year, when the 905 officers from the class of 2001 had to make their choice to stay or leave, 44 percent quit the Army. It was the service’s highest loss rate in three decades.

Hardly surprising, considering how the blame for the failures in Iraq is shared by high-ranking officers in addition to administration officials. The article addresses an important question:

Lt. Col. Allen Gill, who just retired as director of the R.O.T.C. program at Georgetown University, has heard versions of this discussion among his cadets for years. He raises a different concern about the Army’s “can do” culture. “You’re not brought up in the Army to tell people how you can’t get things done, and that’s fine, that’s necessary,” he said. “But when you get promoted to a higher level of strategic leadership, you have to have a different outlook. You’re supposed to make clear, cold calculations of risk -- of the probabilities of victory and defeat.”

The problem, he said, is that it’s hard for officers -- hard for people in any profession -- to switch their basic approach to life so abruptly. As Yingling put it in his article, “It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late 40s.”

There's an increasing tendency to blame the current situation in Iraq on poor planning -- an attitude that's almost approaching conventional wisdom. Since generals are called on to propose strategies only, this becomes a danger. Officers are trained to work on the "how" of a problem and they never are allowed to question the judgment of the decision itself. The administration called on generals to plan a war, but it was never their role to think about whether going to war was a good decision. Is this a good way to train the highest level of advisers to the commander in chief? Probably not.

--Kay Steiger

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