Best Defense

The Hodges-Barno smackdown: A view from the cheap seats of a junior officer

By "Si Syphus" Best Defense junior officer panel "Let’s get ready to RUMBLE!" I can just picture Michael Buffer announcing the upcoming "prize fight." In the blue corner stands Lt. Gen. (R) David Barno and in the red corner stands Lt. Gen Fredrick ‘Ben’ Hodges. The main event: Are we losing talent in today’s Army? ...


By "Si Syphus"

Best Defense junior officer panel

"Let’s get ready to RUMBLE!" I can just picture Michael Buffer announcing the upcoming "prize fight." In the blue corner stands Lt. Gen. (R) David Barno and in the red corner stands Lt. Gen Fredrick ‘Ben’ Hodges. The main event: Are we losing talent in today’s Army?

Reading the differences between senior leaders is quite hilarious. I would equate it to watching two dudes argue about (insert sports teams here), in an alcohol-induced stupor, less the possibility of violence. Both bring up valid points, yet one uses "how they see the facts" to support their argument. However, no matter who is right and who wrong, what is lost in translation is the actual premise of the argument — in this case junior leaders — and nothing is done to rectify the situation. The end result is an epic 12-round bout with a split decision resulting in a draw, and a re-match likely on the horizon in a couple of years.

Lt. Gen. (R) Barno’s "Military Brain Drain" echoes the position of Tim Kane’s Bleeding Talent, stating that "if you ignore the expectations of today’s young, combat-experienced leaders as you shrink the force, your most talented officers and sergeants will exit, stage left." Both Barno and Kane lament protecting the "crown jewel" of talented junior leaders is required for future success.

On the other hand, Lt. Gen. Hodges disagrees with Barno’s supposition that there is a "brain drain" in the Army based on four main points: 1) junior officers are doing good things deployed, 2) there are "broadening" opportunities, 3) what his peers have to say, and 4) senior leader examples.

My response, for what it’s worth:

Round One: Yes, junior leaders are doing exceptional things while deployed. That is because there is "freedom of maneuver." Problems are complex and our junior leaders are excelling with the opportunity to demonstrate their innovativeness, adaptability, and unique ability to solve the complex issues. However, when these junior leaders come home, this ability is stymied due to the fact of not being at war. The "garrison" Army was, is, and will continue to be a polar opposite to war-time. Junior leaders, ones that currently have less than 12 years of service, know absolutely NOTHING about "garrison." We are operationally minded, doing one of three things: prepare to deploy, deploy, recover. This has been the cycle, but that is about to change. Bottom line: There is not enough money or incentives in the world that will be able to keep 100 percent of the targeted group to stay in the Army, unless there is a change.

Round Two: Lt. Gen. Hodges mentions various things that the Army is offering to junior leaders — "the best and most expensive" universities, fellowships, and training with industry. Let’s be honest, all of these things are pretty cool and the fact that it is an option, also pretty cool. However, let’s be realistic. The Army has the Olmstead Scholarship — one per year. Congressional fellowships — 25 per year. Advanced civil schooling — a generous figure would be 400 per year. A realistic amount of junior leaders receiving this "broadening" any given year would be about 600. However, when applying for these opportunities, a junior leader is grouped with a total of about three year groups’ worth, or about 6,000 other people. So this "broadening" is available to about 10 percent of junior leaders. If the target is to retain the "top 20 percent" and this is all the incentive, then we are falling short. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good start. But let’s not use this as the be-all end-all answer to saying quality junior leaders are not leaving. This is more of a "look what we are going to keep some of the talent."

If you have sipped the green Kool-Aid and are immersed in current Army rhetoric, now might be a good time to stop reading. Otherwise, you might berate me as a junior leader who doesn’t know shit.

The following two examples are used by Lt. Gen. Hodges to support his argument that I take issue with the most:

Round Three: Lt. Gen. Hodges starts his argument saying he is "disappointed" in Barno’s position because it is not something he sees or hears in his "dealings with senior Army leaders" or his peers. (Ok, I am going to believe it now because a bunch of crusty old men are saying it’s not true. Sure.) I’m pretty sure this is the whole "group think" mentality we are trying to go away from. What about "outside the box" thinking? Apparently this only applies to junior leaders. What do other senior leaders and other generals know about why junior leaders are staying in? I got an idea: How about asking them and not your peers.

Lt. Gen. Hodges also claims that Barno’s comments about the best leaving are "an insult to the thousands staying." Not the case. I stayed, and I’m not insulted. Lt. Gen. (R) Barno or Tim Kane never referred to me as "not talented" because I chose to stay. I understand where they are coming from when they point out the facts that quality junior leaders have left up to this point (true) and quality junior leaders will continue to leave until this situation is rectified (also true). I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid and buying into a senior leader telling me I should be insulted for something that is the truth. I’m also not buying it just because a bunch of them are saying it.

Round Four: The justification I most take exception to is the "this worked for me" approach.

"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 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."

This statement is what is wrong with our current Army and exactly the premise that Barno and Kane are using to explain the exodus of talented junior leaders. Just because this worked for Lt. Gen. Hodges does not mean that it will work for all current junior leaders or for that fact even the majority. While this style might have worked for Lt. Gen. Hodges’s three decades of service (20 of which were predominantly during times of peace), this should not be the direction of the future.

The Army currently is structured in such a way that in order to be successful, you have to meet certain "gates" at certain times. If you don’t meet them, no matter how much talent you possess, you are considered "at-risk" for advancement, as well as ineligible for any of the extra incentives Lt. Gen. Hodges invoked. Likewise, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you checked the right block at the right time, then you are good to go. Hypothetically speaking here, what is wrong with a captain who doesn’t want to be a commander but makes a great intelligence officer, signal officer, or whatever staff position? If
he or she had the opportunity to continue as a staff officer, he or she could be an integral component of the team. Why must that individual be a commander, where he or she might not excel, just to be eligible for promotion?

Let’s take an example of two Army captains. In this example, all things are equal. They are in the same year group and have the exact same jobs. Captain #1 has been stationed at Ft. Hood (heavy) for 3 years, and wouldn’t mind staying for another 3 years. Captain #2 has been stationed at Ft. Drum (light) for 3 years and really wants to go to Ft. Bragg (also light). Captain #1 receives orders for Ft. Bragg because he doesn’t have light experience. Captain #2 receives orders for Ft. Hood because he doesn’t have heavy experience. Why is it not possible for the two to switch and be happy? Well, it has been determined that in order for both to be successful, they need to be diverse. The outcome of this scenario: two disgruntled junior leaders who might end up deciding to get out. On the other hand, had the opportunity presented itself to get what they both wanted, both might stay in.

Nowadays people want stability over anything else, especially as we begin to emerge from a decade at war. I would venture to say that this is the driving factor over anything else on one’s decision to "stay or go." Being obligated to pick up and move (children are deep-rooted at a school and/or a spouse is well-established in a career) just to check the block for promotion presents an officer with an undesirable choice. Nobody should fault that individual for choosing to get out — that is, putting family first.

Rather than argue and maintain a stubborn mindset that there is nothing wrong, or that the Army is better off without the junior officers who choose to leave, my first recommendation is that current Army senior leaders LISTEN to what Barno and Kane are saying on the subject. Barno said it perfectly in his 13 February "Military Brain Drain" article:

There is no reason not to listen and respond to the concerns of younger officers — while also fully meeting the needs of service. But you can’t do it with a World War II mindset, an insular outlook, or an industrial aged personnel system- all of which are markedly in evidence today. And in the coming years, throwing money at the problem is not likely to be as easy as in the past.

The decision: Talk to junior leaders and find out what THEY want. Continuing down the current path won’t "break" the Army; however, it certainly will hinder it for future generations.

"Si Syphus" is the company-grade officer sitting just a few desks away from you. Go ask him what he thinks.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola