- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on Jan. 7, 2013.
By Lt. Roxanne Bras, US Army
Best Defense office of JO issues
Speaking authoritatively for a cohort is difficult and dangerous, but what’s been said in the two Marine JO‘s blog posts resonates with much of what my peers say daily. That’s not to say that their ideas are correct; perhaps junior officers always feel marginalized and hostile to the senior officer promotion system. But I’d argue that the spirit of the posts is accurate, both as perceived by JOs and as demonstrated by the military’s HR system.
But first, to the anonymity and its ensuing controversy, I’ll bet that the Marines didn’t use their real names for precisely the same reason that I hesitated to write this. Instead of engaging with an idea on its own merits, many quickly look to the author to discredit him. Detractors love any evidence of inexperience as an excuse to ignore the substance. The chorus of critics cry, "He only served like 6 months. Never saw real combat." Or "he’s not infantry/isn’t tabbed." Or "he’s such a self-promoter and only wrote that for attention." The ideas are forgotten and what remains is slander. So why attach your name to something if it will only detract from the argument? Until the military community becomes more idea and less individual/ORB/ribbons focused, people will hesitate to participate in open forums.
As to the ideas, identifying the top 20 percent of JOs isn’t easy. There are late bloomers, people who are academically talented but are poor leaders, etc. But just because talent identification is hard, doesn’t mean the Army shouldn’t make incremental steps toward improving it
Just one example: The first experience JO’s have with Army promotions systems is with the Order of Merit List, used to determine branch and first assignment. The OML weights PT, academics, and military proficiency. It also sends a huge message: academics is about checking the block. While GPA is weighted as something like 40% of the OML, there are no adjustments for rigor of institution or major. A 2.0 at MIT is the same as a 2.0 at any other school. That only makes sense if the army thinks there is zero correlation between the standing of the institution, or the relevance of the major to a specific branch, and a JOs performance. And if that’s the case, why care about GPA at all? Just make the Army an institution that promotes PT and other metrics of proficiency.
Improvements don’t have to be complicated. Many institutions and businesses identify, incentivize, and promote talent. How to tailor these existing solutions to the unique nature of the military? That would be a conversation worth having.
And even small improvements in the military’s HR system would be significant to JOs because they’re symbolic. Instead of the mantra, "a degree’s a degree," something countless officers have told me, the Army could have the mantra, "we are a profession and so value education." That doesn’t mean that we are a profession that gives extraordinary weight to eggheads, just that we acknowledge that education, self-improvement, and rigor are real things and might eventually impact the way an officer conducts a war.
Seeing incompetents and careerists advance is frustrating, but is something I imagine I’d see even if I left the military. But the inevitabilities of bureaucracies shouldn’t excuse the specificities of the military’s talent retention problems.
(For what it is worth: I am not getting out, am not infantry, do not claim to be a bad ass or an expert in anything, and am always interested in learning how to better think about these issues.)
Roxanne Bras is a 1LT in the U.S. Army, serving at Fort Bragg, NC. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Oxford University. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.