- By Thomas E. RicksThomas 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Chris Mondloch
Best Defense guest columnist
Wrapping up 13 years of fighting in Afghanistan this year, the U.S. military will surely face many challenges in the near future. Transitioning to a peacetime force, large-scale personnel cuts, advancing technologies, and the growing debate over women’s role in combat all signify the ever-changing nature of the armed forces. On a recent morning, the Reserve Officers Association turned to an important yet often overlooked group — company-grade officers — to discuss their perspective on the emerging trends and challenges facing the military today.
The discussion panel consisted of three Marine Corps officers who recently separated from the Corps as either first lieutenants or captains. All three had combat experience in Afghanistan and enjoyed serving their country — yet decided against making a career out of the Marines. One main area of concern among the three men is the military’s failure to retain competent officers after their initial service obligations are filled. The notion that certain officers are "too educated" or "too good" to remain in the military — the Marine Corps, specifically — is a problem, according to panelist Ben Luxenberg.
Over all else, the Marine Corps values leadership and decisiveness in its officers. Luxenberg said that those officers who proved to be competent leaders who could "make the trains run on time" were targeted for retention over top intellectual achievers after their first term of service. The lack of innovative thinkers will continue to create problems by perpetuating the notion that the military is not a place for intellectually-minded individuals. According to Luxenberg, the term "the best and the brightest," often used to describe the corps of young Marine officers, should actually be split: "the best or the brightest."
Joe Tate, an infantry officer with two deployments to Helmand Province, said he benefitted greatly from his Marine Corps leadership training but, after multiple combat tours and the additional rigors of the infantry, he felt the need to transition out of the military. One way to retain and revitalize young officers is through education and diversification. Ensuring that four- or five-year officers are afforded the opportunity to seek higher education and diversify their military resumes could offset rigorous initial tours of duty.
Andrew Tuttle, an intelligence officer who has been doing management consulting since he left the Marines in 2011, called for the military to overhaul its personnel management system. According to Tuttle, we live in the most fluid labor market ever, and the military needs to adapt. Instead of advancing along with the private sector, the military’s management techniques remain archaic. For example, officers are often assigned to new duties based on numbers and availability, without taking individual talents into account.
There is no doubt that junior officers, being the future leaders of the U.S. military, are an important group to target for policymakers looking to improve the administration of the armed forces at this critical time. Retaining the "best and the brightest" — whether they are cut from the leadership cloth or destined to become innovative staff officers — is essential to ensuring the smooth operation of a peacetime military.
As a Marine myself, I agree that retention is a problem. On both the officer and enlisted side, I have seen too many intellectually-minded men and women who felt like the Marine Corps was not the right place for them when they finished their first term. Instead, less-cerebral "type-A" individuals have thrived and renewed their contracts, creating a disparity between bright junior Marines and their intellectually deficient senior leadership. Although I would say this is more of an issue on the enlisted side, I think it is of vital importance for the Marine Corps, and the military as a whole, to reverse this trend of the true "best and brightest" officers moving on after their first four or five years, because this is a perpetuating cycle. I can attest to the major challenges that the military faces today. We are going to need a combination of strong commanders and bright young staff officers to navigate through the changes that lie ahead.
Chris Mondloch served as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps for five years, including a deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2012. He recently received his Bachelor’s Degree from George Mason University.