- 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 Capt. Peter Crawford, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest respondent
First, to Major Slider and the rest of my fellow officers who recently received pink slips: thank you for your service and sacrifice. The vast majority of the citizenry you served will never truly understand what you have done. While it is, I believe, our duty to educate them when asked, they have no duty to listen or fully appreciate. Such is the inherent “injustice” of selfless service.
Perhaps unfortunately, this same injustice means that we do not “deserve” any more explanation from the Army than we have already received when it comes to these separation boards. In fact, let’s just stop pretending that the Army owes us anything. We are all public servants — perhaps virtuous for our volunteerism and sacrifice, but virtue is its own reward. When the public no longer requires our service, as determined through the proxies of Congress and military personnel officers, we have no recourse. We know this is true from moment we raise our hands to take the oath of office. Given the nature of the massive bureaucracy in which we serve, even the careers of officers with valor awards and Purple Hearts can stumble on past mistakes and fall victim to policies driven by cold, unfeeling bureaucratic logic.
I am no apologist for our military’s personnel policies. Frankly, I find them absurd; the words “arbitrary” and “unfair” often do not even begin to describe them. As one of my fellow captains in my battalion recently put it to me, “You have to laugh about it because otherwise you’ll just cry.” In these uncertain times for military officers, though, I am an advocate of seeing the nature of military service as it is and not how we want it to be. Nowhere in my service contract with the Army is there a clause guaranteeing me a full and fulfilling career. My commissioning oath does not legally bind the military to employ me to my full potential for a minimum of twenty years, and it does not require the Army G1 to consider the entire body of my work for advancement. This might be unfair, but until Congress changes it, this is our system.
I believe that we have an unhealthy culture in the military of career entitlement. Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of the “up or out” promotion system or one of the many other vagaries of talent management in this business. This culture has not only manifested itself during this era of officer separation boards. Every time we allow a fellow soldier with eighteen years in the military to “finish out his career” despite discovering that he has been stealing from his men for the last eight years, we perpetuate the problem. As officers, in this way we also inherit the Army we deserve. I have seen an attitude of entitlement in some of the arguments brought forth in favor of women serving in combat arms — and I am not the only one who has noticed this trend. To be absolutely clear, I am not making an argument against women in the combat arms; rather, I am suggesting that not being able to serve where you want and achieve the rank and position that you want does not make a solid case for women. Nor does it bolster an argument that demands an explanation for why someone chooses to “remove [your] services” from the American people. Let us meet our bureaucratic adversary with equally cold logic when we have opportunities to identify necessary changes.
To my fellow officers who have not been fired, yet: Yes, the bell tolls for thee, too. Take heed. Our day is coming, whether it is next year or fifteen years from now. We can either start taking a realistic view of our military careers or be caught surprised and unprepared. And when the Army’s personnel reaper comes a-knocking, remember that no cries about how great we are to volunteer for war will keep him from swinging his grim scythe.
At the risk of blasphemy, allow me to paraphrase some of the poetic words from the Book of Job: “The Army giveth and the Army taketh away. Blessed be the Army.”
Peter Crawford is an active duty Army captain serving in Germany. Everything here is his own opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of his unit or the U.S. Army.