- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
I recently had the opportunity to speak to approximately 1,400 majors attending the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Ninety-eight percent of the U.S. Army majors at CGSC are combat veterans. Over 80 percent have more than one combat deployment, and nearly 40 percent have deployed three or more times.
But for all the hardships they’ve endured over the past decade, the next few years will be still be challenging, but in a different way. Our active-duty Army will trim nearly 70,000 soldiers from its ranks, with over 24,000 being involuntarily separated. Those who make up our formations may become frustrated as training resources dwindle, and as soldiers spend more time at stateside bases performing duties that just a few years ago none of them would have even had time to do, like picking up trash and mowing the grass.
However, this cycle is nothing new. I first experienced it 37 years ago, as a second lieutenant fresh from West Point. In 1976, I joined an Army which had just emerged from a painful war in Vietnam, and was beginning to transform from a large conscript force of nearly 1.5 million soldiers to a smaller, volunteer Army roughly half that size. Many predicted that the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) would be an absolute failure; yet, by the time I was a major, our volunteer Army had won one of the most overwhelming victories in military history.
What made the difference? We did have great weapons, but our ultimate success was the result of the quality of our men and women in uniform. After Vietnam, we made leader development our top priority, investing in our people, and in their education and training.
In 1974 only 61 percent of recruits had a high school diploma. During the latter years of the draft — as well as the early years of the AVF — crime, drug use, and racial tensions ran high. To fix the force, we had to concentrate on recruiting and retaining quality people. We instituted a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs, eliminating nearly a division’s worth of soldiers for substance abuse in the early 1980s. Instead of relying on draftees — committed only to a few years of service — we developed a skilled, professional Army. To grow such a force, we had to invest in programs which helped keep soldiers in uniform for a lifetime, such as increasing pay and offering re-enlistment bonuses. We also began to institute family support programs and child care services, making the Army a family-friendly institution. Today, 60 percent of the active-duty force is married.
The new Army required recruits with the education, intelligence, and motivation to operate its new high-tech equipment. We also discovered that the best predictor of successful adjustment to Army life was a high school diploma. Today, over 99 percent of our active-duty Army has a high school diploma or its equivalent, and recruiters are excluded from signing up those who score within the bottom tier of their mental aptitude tests.
Finally, the Army underwent a revolution in training, establishing its Combat Training Centers, starting with the National Training Center in the California desert in 1980. There, entire brigades could participate in large-scale mock battles with a fully-equipped Soviet-style opposing force. The training was so rigorous that many felt that a rotation through NTC was actually harder than the Gulf War.
Having spoken to the most battle-tested group of officers our Army has ever produced in my career, it’s clear that we must retain the last decade’s worth of talent and experience, all while cultivating the Army’s future leadership.
Leader development begins with a focus on making leader training our number one priority. However, during peacetime, professional development is especially difficult. Units may be manned at less than optimal levels, and commanders may be tempted to "hang on" to a stellar performer, instead of allowing them to attend the developmental opportunities they deserve. It will be easy for many to justify short-term success for their organization at the expense of the long-term health of our Army. Our future leaders must be able to think strategically, understanding how their actions affect the Army at large.
They’ll have to reflect upon, and write about, the lessons learned from the last decade of war, and they’ll have to apply those lessons or principles to future conflicts. At the same time, they’ll need to realize that future conflicts rarely resemble the last one. Our adversaries have noticed how reliant we are on digital communications — and are trying to hack our computers, jam our signals, and neutralize our satellites. When these systems fail, we’ll truly appreciate the value of leader development. Mission command can only succeed if the next generation of leaders is trained to think strategically — "two levels up," as we say. We need leaders who can fight and win with minimal guidance. To do that, we must afford them the opportunities to learn and grow, and to capitalize on their unique experiences and knowledge.
LTG William B. Caldwell is currently the commander of U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He will retire in July, after 37 years of active service, to serve as the president of Georgia Military College.