Actually, Lt. Gen. Barno, the best and the brightest are staying in uniform.
While I respect his service and perspective on today’s military strategy and issues, I was astonished and disappointed after reading retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno’s column "Military Brain Drain." His premise was that current and former Army general officers are either dismissive or indignant at the notion that the best and brightest junior and mid-level officers are choosing to end their service. In fact, this sentiment is not at all a reflection of what I see or hear in my dealings with senior Army leaders or my peers. Furthermore, the evidence does not support his claims that the best are leaving. What an insult to the thousands who are in fact staying.
In mid-2010, former vice chief of staff of the Army, retired Gen. Jack Keane, was visiting Afghanistan at the invitation of the commander of International Security Assistance Forces, Gen. David Petraeus. What he observed during his visit were dozens of innovative, adaptive captains and lieutenants who were given enormous responsibilities and significant autonomy to solve complex problems. As the director of operations for Regional Command South, I was escorting Gen. Keane on his visit to southern Afghanistan. Flying by Blackhawk helicopter over Kandahar province, he gave me some stark, unsolicited words of advice. To paraphrase, Gen. Keane said the Army cannot make the mistake of returning to pre-war practices and policies, which would suffocate these battle-tested, proven leaders. The old bureaucratic approval processes for the simplest decisions, such as granting their troops time off, would cause them to quickly become disenchanted with the "garrison Army." This is the "brain drain" that Gen. Barno correctly warns against. But clearly, contrary to his assertion, senior Army leaders were already recognizing the potential problem and were looking at how to retain these terrific young men and women. I worry that Gen. Barno’s article could succeed at perpetuating a self-defeating myth that the Army is somehow non-adaptive, too inflexible and unimaginative. This is nonsense and I reject it.
Both Gen. Barno and Tim Kane, who also wrote an article for FP on this topic, outlined some well-considered prescriptions, but your readers — some of whom are likely the very leaders at the heart of this matter — should know that Army senior leadership (past and present) is aware of and has responded to this concern.
Following more than two centuries of historical precedent, the Army was required to dramatically reduce its forces at the end of the Cold War and, repeating the cycle, had to grow rapidly after 9/11. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once lamented, "Four times in the last century the United States has come to the end of a war, concluded that the nature of the world and man had changed for the better, and turned inward, unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important to our national security — in the process, giving ourselves a so-called ‘peace’ dividend. Four times we chose to forget history."
Here we go again. After working hard to grow quickly, we are once again undertaking a reduction of force, but this time Army leaders are determined to retain the very best talent while respecting and appreciating the service of all. The bottom line is that the Army is adapting to conditions it helped create and has committed resources, research, and training to ensure retention of its best officers and sergeants.
When he was chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the Army’s goal is to be "the nation’s preeminent leadership experience." As the saying goes, "follow the money." We have spent the capital to reward and harness the experience and energy of the most talented company and field-grade officers with an eye on tomorrow’s Army. For those who have a record of strong performance and potential, the Army has expanded access to meaningful broadening opportunities as well as flexibility between assignments "in the line." Examples include graduate degree funding, the Olmsted Scholarship award, training with industry, and government fellowships with the White House, Congress, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff — all of which involve some of the nation’s best (and most expensive) universities. In my previous assignment, I was chief of the Army’s Legislative Liaison Office. One of my duties was supervising our Congressional Fellowship Program. Each year, the Army pays for 23 officers and two senior sergeants to attend graduate school at George Washington University, followed by a year on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer, so they can apply and broaden their knowledge before assignment to their next duty station. The other services have taken notice and have begun to emulate the Army by implementing their own graduate study initiatives.
Gen. Dempsey believes that our leaders need these experiences in their formative years as officers. He himself reached the conclusion that the Army was the right career for him precisely because of his non-military experiences, in which he "had seen other possibilities" and "interacted with some of the best and brightest in America."
Given the examples above, Gen. Barno’s assertion that senior Army leaders are not interested in retaining the best young officers is not very compelling. I for one am confident that when measured against private industry, government, or academia, the Army is an institution and profession where the most resilient, industrious, and creative officers will seek to remain if they are given the ability and freedom to make informed choices about their career options.
But Gen. Barno does raise a fair point. None of these programs is a substitute for active and sustained counseling and mentoring, which the Army leadership has directed and taught us to do. The branch managers and promotion boards operate to fulfill the demands and projected personnel needs of the Army. However, it is the leader’s duty to ensure that the people under his or her charge are growing professionally, developing their potential, and progressing toward their future career goals. Again, I know that I am not the only senior leader in the Army who gets this concept. I see my peers do this all the time. But it is critical that our battalion and brigade-level commanders and staff fulfill this duty of talking to their captains and lieutenants.
Senior Army leaders have emphasized this repeatedly and are setting an example by doing it themselves. My own experience validates this. In 33-plus years of service and about 25 different duty positions, there were only two times when I ended up in a duty position I had specifically requested or pursued. Every other assignment was the result of the personal intervention of commanders, mentors, or some senior leader in the span of my career who wanted to invest in me and prepare me for greater challenges. That has been my experience — indeed, that is the norm I have witnessed for over three decades — and it’s the legacy I have tried to pass to others.
In order to ensure our security, avoid war, and deter aggression, we must maintain the most effective military in the world. But in this era of austerity, our nation cannot make the miscalculation of relying on advanced technology in order to save on manpower. Our land forces must be led by soldiers with the right values, an innovative and adaptive way of thinking, and mental and physical fitness.
After 2014, we will transition back to a training and contingency methodology and tiered readiness. Clearly, we will need to retain the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to train and lead our forces in the coming years. Senior leaders know this and are taking action. Admiral James Stavridis, the commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, specificall
y charged me, as commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command, with the responsibility of retaining the effectiveness and interoperability NATO forces have achieved over the past decade. He said we’ve got to ensure we don’t lose all those leaders and their hard-earned experience from 10 years of fighting and operating together. Every other senior Army leader I know sees it the same way.
In his 2011 speech at West Point, Secretary Gates said, "One thing I have learned from decades of leading large public organizations is that it is important to really focus on the top 20 percent of your people and, though it may be politically incorrect to say so, the bottom 20 percent as well. The former to elevate and give more responsibility and opportunity, the latter to transition out, albeit with consideration and respect for the service they have rendered. Failure to do this risks frustrating, demoralizing, and ultimately losing the leaders we will most need for the future." Based on the talk in my circles and reforms underway in our evaluations system and assignments process, the message was well received and is being heeded.
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