01 March 2005

A Numbers Game

Phil Carter and Paul Glastris have published an essay in the Washington Monthly advocating a return to the draft. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that despite some cogent analysis of the historical pressures and some relatively even-handed discussion of alternatives, the article reaches an untenable conclusion.

I have no problem with the principle that some form of national service—I emphasize national service, not military service—should be strongly encouraged. I don't know if it can be by quite as draconian a method as suggested in the article. My problem is with what to do with it.

I don't see the problem as really a numbers game in the same way as do the article's authors. I am not denying that numbers are a significant issue; one must, after all, have the capability of exerting force. The problem that I see is that the military has always alienated its personnel who are not thinking inside the same box as are the top leadership on their perception of current military needs. That, in turn, results in some seriously skewed internal force allocations… and, more dangerously, late recognition of needs that leaves the military scrambling. As a specific example, the Munich Olympics should have graphically demonstrated to the US military that it needed a highly trained force specializing in antiterrorist interventions. Whether it did so is open to question. What it clearly did not do, though, is demonstrate that considering only the Red Menace would inevitably result in both strategic and doctrinal surprise. Thus the problems surrounding the fall of the Shah, which continue to resonate today in Iraq. Despite the linguistic and cultural differences between Iran and Iraq, the physical geography, if nothing else—and there's plenty else—would make understanding the Iranian situation that much more important.

There's an old saying that generals are always ready to fight the last war, not the next one. As a group, of course that is going to be true; they usually get to be generals with successful performance in that "last war," which will influence their thinking. We can't say "General, open your mind!" to a thirty-five-year veteran and put the entire blame on him or her. The problem is that the past rolls downhill. Generals (and admirals—the Navy is, if anything, worse; look at our force mix, if nothing else) have a tendency to gather around them colonels and lieutenant colonels who think like they do. It's human nature; they like to hear things that support their preconceived notions. You can see where this is going, right? It's especially apparent a problem when the average lieutenant, who may well have more practical exposure to the potential threat that is on the ground but out of the box (such as one based in a country with which we have little military experience) if less experience with traditional military means of meeting that threat, is treated roughly like the average two-year-old in his or her ability to contribute meaningfully to the debate.

There actually is a model that tends to mitigate this: The staff/field distinction. Our contemporary military demands that all officers excel in both areas to get promoted. There is certainly something to be said for having competence in both areas; it's a bit much to expect excellence, particularly when that will mask truly exceptional performance in one aspect. Some people are just plain better suited as staff leaders than field leaders, and vice versa. Too many highly valuable "specialists" never get a chance to have their voices heard because their "specialization" is non-promotable. For example—and this is not classified—"area studies officers," who concentrate on the entire cultural, military, financial, and linguistic context of a relatively small region (usually for nontraditional military operational purposes), cannot advance beyond O-4 in that specialty. Above O-4 (major or lieutenant commander), they must be more "generalist." Operationally, that may well be appropriate; it's rather stupid, though, when one looks at how that necessarily prunes the senior ranks. It inherently means that an area studies officer with amibition to be promoted must put forth substantial effort outside of his/her (woefully undermanned) specialization; in other words, one must psychologically reject one's own speciality as being adequate. The implications of this issue should be very troubling. If we somehow do manage to get adequate manpower, we haven't yet solved the problem of figuring out what to do with it, how to keep it trained, or how to allocate it to the myriad of jobs required in a self-sufficient projection of force.

This, though, is only part of a complex picture. Messrs. Carter and Glastris have accurately diagnosed a problem. I have a great deal of difficulty swallowing the solution because I think it ignores critical aspects of "military culture." The irony that this is exactly what the military itself does should not be lost on anyone contemplating a major reform effort.