The Army is losing good people. That is only a symptom of a more serious problem.

Yet again the public has discovered that our Army has difficulty retaining good people.  A big story, but only in the sense that Columbus discovering America was a big story.  In both cases, the thing discovered was already there for a long time, had been repeatedly “discovered” — and the discovery was only one incident in an important and larger process.

Esp note this:  Army Effort to Retain Captains Falls Short of Goal, Wall Street Journal, 26 January — subscription-only:

“The program persuaded 11,933 captains to commit to additional Army service, short of the 14,184 goal. The military will pay out more than $349 million in bonuses to the officers who took the incentives.  All told, 67.6% of those eligible for the program — which offered officers cash bonuses of as much as $35,000, the ability to choose their next assignment or military-funded graduate school — agreed to serve another one to three years in the Army.”

LTC Nagl leaving is a loss to the army.  The departure of so many of the Army’s top COIN experts is bad.  But these represent only the surface of a serious problem.  Zenpundit digs to find a more serious issue in his post Canaries in the mineshaft:

Nagl is merely the well-known face of an ominous trend. When an institution – be it military, educational, corporate, civic, religious – reaches a point where it is merely a farm team that regularly sends it’s best and it’s brightest elsewhere then it is an institution on it’s way out.

Even this does not go to the core:  the Army’s senior leadership has known of this critical weakness for over a decade and still not seriously addressed it.  Only a very sick institution does not respond to serious problems after their discovery.  In The Army’s greatest crisis I give links to seven major reports over three years (2000 – 2001) about this.  Nor were these the first, as the issue was well-known in the late 1990’s, and probably before that.

Unfortunately these recurring waves of articles, like today’s about LTC Nagl, seldom place the problem in context as a long-standing one resulting from deep structural causes.  Hence no easy fixes.


For more information

Other posts in this series:

For a wealth of information about this topic see the FM Reference Page An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports.

For descriptions of causes and possible solutions I suggest reading Donald Vandergriff’s many articles and books:

6 thoughts on “The Army is losing good people. That is only a symptom of a more serious problem.”

  1. What frustrates our Army is what frustrates anyone who bothers to read up on current events. We are going bankrupt, we are losing the War(s) on Terror, and nobody cares. The troops know this better than anyone. The real untold story is that we still have any decent, moral, intelligent people left in our cumbersome, bureaucratic army.

  2. If so many people believe these things, why do they not care? Even to vote on those beliefs at the polls?

  3. A major reason the United States Armed Forces have difficulty attracting and retaining good people is the goofy, illogical structure of the military pay system. In the United States military a married person is paid significantly much more than an unmarried person of equal rank. It costs a person money, lots of money, to be unmarried in the United States military. This both restricts the recruiting pool and gives many personnel who are in the armed forcs just one more reason to get out.

  4. Constitutionally, I thought that the military was under civilian leadership. How is Nagl moving towards the civilian side bad? Is there some reason he needs to be out in the field? Isn’t he moving in the right direction or do you believe it is the military side that needs changing? It seems to me they win most battles. It seems to me it is the civilian side who are clueless. Don’t you think his expertise could be helpful to these, so-called, think tanks? As yourself an obvious military officer, could you not use Nagl’s input?

  5. Larry, The ability of an organization to attract and retain talent is one of the best indicators of its vitality. Failure in these things is imo always serious. The inability to respond to a recognized problem in this area signals a structural illness.

    Organizations and sectors within a healthy society compete for talent. That is why I attach little significance, as discussed in this post, to Nagl’s departure — as an isolated event. But his departure is another datapoint in a long series, one showing a deteriorating trend. Worse, it occurs as the Army desperately needs innovators in order to adapt to an age in which 4GW has become the dominant form of warfare — a game which we have not yet learned to play.

  6. Dear Fabius Maximus:

    Regarding the articles on the crises facing our army and military generally, the armed services are years – even decades – behind the curve in such important areas as human performance, personnel development, and allocation of human and financial capital where they are most needed.

    Military personnel policy is so full of illogic and holes that it is tough to know where to begin. During the recruiting crunch I and a number of friends tried to join the military – either the army or the navy. We were willing to serve as either enlisted personnel or as officers. All of us are well-educated, with college degrees (in some cases graduate degrees) and responsible careers, physically fit, patriotic, motivated to serve, and have no arrests or other troubles with the law. We should be everything the military is looking for… but all of were rejected because of being over age 35. Ostensibly, this is because we are regarded as not physically fit enough, and also because statute sets mandatory retirement 20 years after you get in, and you must enter in time to serve 20 years for retirement. This makes no sense; many people over age 35 serve well in the military – the service stipulates that one cannot begin service after age 35 (now after 42 in the army) but if one is already in by then, there is not a problem. The private sector gave up this sort of thinking a long time ago – and pension-based retirement is becoming a thing of the past (for better or worse) in private, non-governmental organzations. Moreover, shouldn’t the military be interested in people willing to serve without the possibility of retirement? Paying out pension benefits is expensive, last I checked. We were willing to forego retirement benefits, anyway. And let us not forget that many, many servicemembers opt out of the service after serving the minimum obligation required to repay loans or similar. As far as physical fitness is concerned, we can all meet the same standard of fitness required of any 18 year old recruit; we are not asking for any breaks.

    Our military is wedded to an industrial age model of selecting and using people, one designed to raise and train a huge conscript army for wars like WW1 and WW2. It pre-screens prospective applicants by a series of somewhat arbitrary criteria – such as age, weight, height, educational achievement, etc. – even when these criteria result in many false-positives and false-negatives.
    BG Charles E. ‘Chuck’ Yeager, USAF (ret.) is generally regarded as the finest test pilot ever produced by this country – and is famed as the man who broke the sound barrier. Yet – he was almost bounced out of the AF because he lacked a college degree. Similarly, Audie Murphy – our nation’s most decorated WW2 soldier, was rejected by the USMC as too small and almost couldn’t get into the army for the same reason. Luckily, these men slipped through the system and were allowed to compete and win places in our military, where they then excelled. But what about all of the people rejected by the system who’d have been suitable and all of those admitted who failed to perform as advertized once in the service? We must give our senior military leaders the latitude to bend and break regulations when necessary to field te best possible forces, not withstanding pre-arranged criteria. Results – what the Germans used to call ‘mission orders’ are enough; we ought not to care if a mission CO fields a unit of old men – as long as he gets the job done. Performance is what matters, not adherence to outdated, beaucratic types of thinking.

    The point is that our system of selecting and using people should be based in peformance, and not statistical and/or actuarial charts or similar tools. A more reliable way to get and keep high-quality people is to cast as big a net as possible, using generous standards to prescreen people and then allowing the excellent to select themselves out via actual performance of the job for which they are being considered. That means, for example, instead of requiring intelligence people within the military to possess certain college degrees such as political science or international relations, admit anyone to the community who demonstrates an aptitude for the work, regardless of their qualifications. Under this model, performance is all that counts – not age, not sex, not education, etc. If a 45 year old man can pass the PT for being a combat medic or corpsman, and satisfies the other requirements, let him serve. If a 37 year old mother of three kids has the ability to collect and interpret intel, let her do so. Who cares what she majored in while at college? It can be home economics for all I care, as long as she performs her intel duties well.

    The military also lies to itself and the taxpaying public by pretending that performance standards are all that matter to the services. We pretend women have the same physical abiity and emotional aggressiveness as men, and push them into jobs where they cannot perform at the same standard as men. Political correctness is so rampant within the services that NCOs and others in the know cannot speak out for fear of losing their careers, but it is simply a fact that there are women serving (as MPs for example) who do not have the strength to pull back the charging handle on a machine gun, or pick up/drag a wounded fellow soldier to safety. Why do we admit phsycial under-performers such as some young women when plenty of men age 35-50 far surpass their performance? The army pretends that unit cohesion, readiness and other issues are not affected by such double standards, but they are.

    It gets better: The military uses amputees on active duty – as shown by the numerous amputees kept on duty after losing limbs to IEDs and other violence in Iraq or Afghanistan. These young people who’ve given so much deserve every accomodation and break we can give them. The point is that we are kidding ourselves when we pretend that a person of say 30 years of age, with one prosthetic limb, is fucntionally the equivalent of a man of say 40 or 45 with all of his limbs. Why is one allowed to serve and the other is not?

    Of course, soldiers over age 35 will never comprise the bulk of our forces, but they can supply peoeple with enormous untapped talents that would be of tremendous benefit to out forces and nation. Even allowing for the fact that maybe some older soldiers are unfit – for what ever reason – to serve in combat, why not allow them to serve in staff positions, or CSS. There is no reason an otherwise qualified person over age 35 cannot man a radar console, or repair helicopters.

    I won’t delve into the broken procurement system or the manner in which our miliary fails to supply badly needed but basic supplies, goods and services to ground troops, but buys yet another gold-plated multi-billion submarine or aircraft that is not needed. Barrett Tillman does a good job with “What We Need” which examines that very issue.

    Georgia Boy 61

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: