SecDef Gates: “I should not have allowed it.”

Near the end of his book Duty, the former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates offers a strong criticism of the personnel system. Even many authorities who work on personnel issues may not be aware of his opinions on this topic, oversahdowed by other, flashier observations about the presidents he served, the wars he helped fight, and the culture of Washington. But this is the most interesting stuff he has to say, in my opinion:

Over the ten years of the Iraq and Afghan wars, too many officers were assigned to command positions because the stateside personnel system identified them as “next in line” rather than because they were selected as best qualified for the combat mission.  And too many talented officers who achieved real battlefield success were rotated out of command in Iraq and Afghanistan too soon simply to keep the personnel system running smoothly.  When we are in a fight, field commanders and the combatant commanders should be given the authority to relieve underperformers or keep good officers in command.

There’s more, but let’s stop and analyze how radical a proposal is being made here.  The key fact is that, as a general rule, military commanders do not have authority to hire, retain, or dismiss their own people. That is something men and women in uniform take as natural, but it is astounding to civilians. To outsiders, the dysfunction this invites is obvious, and not just for current military operations. Think for a second about the culture clash when troops leave the service and seek employment in the real world. They are totally unprepared. I can vouch for this among my friends of high rank and extraordinary accomplishment in uniform: the civilian job market is like the vast territory that is blank on their maps.  Is it any wonder the unemployment rate is high for veterans? Consider this from GEN James Jones (USMC ret) and Dan Goldenberg:

Nine percent of Gulf War-era II veterans remain unemployed, according to statistics released March 20 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). … The unemployment rate for veterans remains higher than for America’s non-veteran population, and 21.4 percent of the youngest Gulf War II veterans (ages 18-24) remain unemployed. And much of the problem lies in a failure to connect veterans to the right employment services in the right place at the right time.

Everyone know this is a scandal, but Jones and Goldenberg are neglecting the fact that “employment services” cannot remedy a paternalistic employment culture after the fact. Until command authority for managing talent is restored in the military, troops will continue to pay the price later in life, no matter how superb the out-briefing.

Now back to Bob Gates:

In wartime, I believe the routine peacetime officer-assignment process should be set aside and senior field commanders should be empowered to choose their subordinate commanders. The failure to do this was, in my view, consistent with the peacetime mentality that pervaded the entire Defense Department, business-as-usual the order of the day among senior civilians and even among most generals and admirals, even as the troops were fighting and dying. I should not have allowed it.

I really admire Gates for writing these words. I think he can be forgiven for focusing on war strategy and not personnel structures, but I dearly hope policymakers listen and act on this call. The only question that remains is why we should limit this proposed management authority to wartime?  Why limit it to senior commanders? Why exclude the centrally planned markets for enlistees and non-command officers?  The same dysfunctional principles haunt the whole gamut of people in a profession that has the pretense of saying that it puts people first.

Many, many, many uniformed officers know this. They want to fix it. The final irony is that the rapid rotation culture edges senior officers out of power just as they figure out how the system isn’t working.

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