Best Defense

More on hawks and ducks

From an Army officer now in Afghanistan familiar with personnel issues. I especially like his emphasis, near the end of his note, on the persistence of peacetime personnel policies, and on the lack of creative thinking in dealing with personnel issues: I recently read your post of dismay at those Soldiers and Marines who’ve not ...

From an Army officer now in Afghanistan familiar with personnel issues. I especially like his emphasis, near the end of his note, on the persistence of peacetime personnel policies, and on the lack of creative thinking in dealing with personnel issues:

I recently read your post of dismay at those Soldiers and Marines who’ve not deployed, or not enough.

I used to work in the bowels of my service HQ preparing graphs exactly like that. Even better, I had the unfortunate opportunity to analyze those charts and provide my GO comments as to what the numbers really represented. 

You’re 100% justified in your disbelief in the number of 0-1 deployers. There is a good number of those people who are avoiding the work. As the saying goes, "if you’re going to take the king’s money, you better be prepared to fight the king’s wars."

There is, however, a reasonable explanation for a fair share of those who have not deployed. For example, when I was crunching numbers in 2005-7 there were a significant number of LTs who did their initial training, went to a unit just back from deployment, did a year or two with them, then went to recruiting duty. Following recruiting duty they would go to a career course for a year, and then a service headquarters job as a senior captain or junior major. They never deployed, but they were a part of keeping the institution running.

Likewise, take my case as another example. I was recalled to active duty in 2003 to lead a team looking after the wounded passing through Landstuhl. I spent OIF assigned to Germany. After a year I was assigned to Tampa. From there I went to the NoVA area for a couple years. At each assignment I asked to deploy. The response from the colonel was (paraphrased), "you can go when I retire."  In 2007 I decided to return to regular active duty. My thank you note from the headquarters was a set of orders back to Tampa. Well, finally, enough is enough. Six plus years in I’m on my first deployment.

So, my point is the numbers don’t tell the whole story. You already know that though. I’ve spent several years examining the data. I’ve sliced and diced the numbers. I’ve gone down every rabbit hole. I’ve even looked at individuals’ assignment histories. The vast majority of those who haven’t deployed can be reasonably explained based on current personnel policies. Yes, some people are avoiding deployment, but nowhere near all of them.

Current personnel policies are the true problem. I suspect you already know that too. We are operating our service personnel programs under a peacetime model. There is no appetite for creative thinking. There is no willingness to examine and understand the issue. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that manpower management does not exactly attract all-star players.  It’s hard to think outside the box when you don’t really understand what’s inside the box.

Is there an answer? Maybe. We could throw some money at the problem. If we are going to deploy Soldiers and Marines we could come up with interesting ways of taking care of families without jerking them around with unnecessary PCS moves. We could force the G1s and G3s to talk to one another. Maybe if the 1s understood the scope of the operational requirements they would have a greater motivation to provide viable solutions. We could also take a chance that non-traditional career patterns won’t hurt chances for promotion and retention. Do a good job in a given assignment is what makes people promotable and keeps them in the service.  

I don’t have any earth-shattering remedies. We could start by spending some money (we’re spending it anyway — just move it to another pot), improve operational understanding, and take risk with career progression.

 

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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