The personnel problem

In all the armchair analyses of military operations in Afghanistan and the lessons about how to transform the military into a more effective fighting force, the one issue that never seems to get raised is personnel reform. Yet reforming the antiquated system for managing people--a system that treats individuals as interchangeable parts of a vast military machine, regardless of the unique skills or contributions they make--is possibly the single most important challenge facing the military today. Since Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took office last winter, he frequently has complained that the current system of forcing people to retire in the prime of their intellect and transferring them to new jobs or units every two to three years creates unnecessary turbulence in the personal lives of service members, and makes managing programs and operations more difficult than it needs to be. But personnel reform is more than just a matter of improving management. Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who works with Vietnam veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic at Tufts University, says reforming the military personnel system is critical to the health and welfare of troops. "The current personnel system undermines unit cohesion and leadership," Shay says. Shay is a self-described "missionary from the combat veterans" with whom he has worked over the last dozen years. He sees firsthand the human toll of a system that has been broken for at least three decades. Because individual service members are managed individually, and not as critical members of the units they serve in, they are not as likely to forge the relationships with either their peers or their leaders that will sustain them, physically and emotionally, in combat. "When personnel turn over too fast, especially leaders, all the cognitive and emotional resources that should go into learning go into figuring out these new people," Shay says. Three things--cohesion, leadership and training--are critical to preventing psychological injury in combat, he says. What's more, those three factors also increase military effectiveness. "We have known for at least a century that these three things are combat strength multipliers," Shay wrote in an essay for Spirit, Blood and Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century, (Presidio, 2001) a collection of essays on military reform edited by Army Maj. Donald Vandergriff. Vandergriff, an armor officer and ROTC instructor at Georgetown University, is a long-time proponent of reforming the military personnel management system. Yet his message isn't one the Army's senior officers have been particularly keen to hear. For one thing, Vandergriff is critical of what he says is a bloated officer corps. The Army today has the highest ratio of officers to enlisted personnel in its history--1:6. In a paper he wrote for the Army War College, which was later rejected for publication, he writes that the total number of officers increased from 68,850 in 1997, to 77,800 in 2001-while the Army's overall strength was declining. "The number of senior officers--especially at the middle and general officer level--has become bloated with one field grade officer for every junior officer and one general for every 1,100 soldiers. This is not simply a matter of inefficiency or the Army's preoccupation with mobilization. When there is a surplus of officers, officers must frequently be assigned to 'make work' jobs that are not relevant to warfighting and in which military skills atrophy," Vandergriff says. Micromanagement pervades the officer corps and decision-making gets pushed higher and higher, he says. For example, when a cadet decides to leave the ROTC program, a two-star general must sign the paperwork. The glut of officers, the emphasis on careerism and a zero-defects value system that rewards cautious conservatism over innovative thinking that involves risk have been key contributors to two disturbing trends in the military. They are the exodus of mid-grade officers and an increase in the number of assignments turned down by officers commanding troops--assignments historically considered the most gratifying in a military career. "We are a culture that measures everything by short-term performance," Vandergriff says. There is a pervasive feeling among officers that if subordinates screw up, the officer's career is going to be hurt--the result being that too many officers micromanage their subordinates or they turn down those command opportunities that pose the greatest risk to their careers. "The other services are not free from this," Vandergriff says, "It's just that I did my research on the Army." Much of that research and Vandergriff's prescription for reform will be included in The Path to Victory: America's Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs, to be published by Presidio next month. While his publishing efforts have not made him popular among senior leaders, Vandergriff doesn't seem to mind: "I believe I have a duty to do this. People are our most precious resource. I know everybody says that, but I believe it and I want to do something about it."
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