- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best Defense department of junior officer retention
I’m an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. I deployed last year to Helmand Province on an embedded training team with the Afghan National Army. It was an incredible experience, and I’m proud of what we accomplished together, but now I’m in my last month of active duty and I’ll be getting out as a first lieutenant. I decided to leave the Marines a few months ago. (I was career designated, which I say not to brag, but so you don’t think I’m some disgruntled jarhead.)
I’ve been closely following the discussion that you kicked off with your book, your piece in The Atlantic, and on Best Defense. I want to weigh in on one point about which I feel strongly — it is that firing certain generals will send a message to junior officers about the value of adaptability and critical thinking. I don’t know that it will, but you are absolutely correct that such a message is necessary.
The conclusions you fear people may draw regarding Petraeus’s departure — "critical thinking and ideas are overrated" — were particularly poignant. I know you’re talking Army. Sadly, it applies to the Marine Corps, too.
An example: As the wars draw to a close, the Marine Corps is preaching a return to its roots. This is all well and good. But it seems as if everyone is holding up the 1990s as an idyllic time in the Marine Corps’s history, as if the past decade with all of its lessons and changes was an aberration. My fear is we will learn very little from it.
In my battalion’s after action report from the deployment, there are more than fifty topics discussed. Just three of them relate to partnering, the main effort in Helmand and our primary mission. The rest are tactical prescriptions with a few operational suggestions thrown in — not the sort of analysis you want from a battalion staff.
If you’ve read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, you know how General Larry Nicholson is portrayed. He isn’t perfect, but he at least "gets it." My impression, having endured dozens of empty speeches from generals these past few years, is that men like him are few and far between. What concerns me much more, though, is that among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don’t feel the organization values them.
During the summer of 2011, the author served in Helmand Province as a Tolai Advisor to the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps. The views presented here are his own.