Best Defense

From Ivy League to olive drab (III): what happens once they’re in

Here Navy Lt. Jonas Akins offers a thoughtful report from Baghdad. He makes the point that the military doesn’t retain a lot of these young eager-beavers from the Ivies. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think of my first boss in journalism, Peter Braestrup, who graduated from Yale, served as a Marine ...

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Here Navy Lt. Jonas Akins offers a thoughtful report from Baghdad. He makes the point that the military doesn’t retain a lot of these young eager-beavers from the Ivies. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think of my first boss in journalism, Peter Braestrup, who graduated from Yale, served as a Marine platoon leader in the Korean War, was severely wounded, and then went into journalism. When I began writing my book about Marine boot camp, I suddenly recognized where my journalistic training had come from.

But I do take his point on the stultifying nature of the military personnel system. It feels to me locked in the 1950s, moving people around every couple of years as big corporations did then, and seeing the people as interchangeable machine parts. This is the military equivalent of insisting that new sailors chip paint on ships for a few months, just because that’s how the old chiefs down in the goat locker started. Also, as Kalev Sepp has pointed out, peacetime personnel processes have persisted at the Pentagon in wartime. (For those of you keeping score, that’s “The Five Deadly Ps.”)

Defense Secretary Gates also has been hitting this point in his recent round of very good speeches at the service war colleges. “I kept running into the fact that the Department of Defense as an institution, which routinely complained that the rest of the government wasn’t at war, was itself not on a war footing,” he said last Thursday, April 16, at the Army War College. 

I think we could have a lot more flexible personnel system that is a lot more user-friendly — and that might retain smart young officers from Harvard and yes, from Troy State!  

I am using Lt. Akins’s note and his name with his permission:

Hello from Baghdad. I read your post this morning on the influx of folks from Ivy League schools who are joining up and I think you’re onto something with the combination of seeking and the challenge of the present, but I also think it’s only half the story. I don’t know quite how college is different now than it once was, but Harvard for me (I graduated in 2001, taught school in England for two years and then came back to join the Navy) was not nearly so aware of its history as my own high school, Milton Academy, or the school at which I taught in England, Sedbergh School. 

At Sedbergh, Remembrance Sunday service at the War Memorial Cloister is a visceral experience, for the smallest boy or the oldest Old Sedberghian, back for the weekend. At Milton, the school gathers around the flagpole on Veterans Day as the flag is lowered to half mast, Taps is sounded, and then the flag raised again. At Harvard, if you chose to go to Memorial Church on the Second Sunday in November, you usually got Peter Gomes at his best, but you could very easily get through four years without any idea of the sacrifices made by hundreds of Harvard men (and three Radcliffe women).

Five of my classmates and great friends either are or were on active duty, four Marines, one Army, and we all seem to have, if not a reverence for, than certainly an appreciation of, those who have come before us. And dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan (and a whole host of other areas) IS the defining challenge of our generation. But those same classmates also demonstrate part of the problem that the military hasn’t quite figured out.  It is a good thing to have “the elites” join up, and I’m sure it is, but how do you then retain them?

Of the five, one is now out of the Marines, back at Harvard in a three year course at the K School and HBS. Another is out of the Army and graduated from Stanford Business School last June. A third is just back from 7 months in Now Zad with 2/7 Marines and considering what he wants to do (he took the reverse route and got his JD from UVA before heading to Quantico). The fourth is an F-18D pilot, so he’s got a few years to decide. And then the fifth (and I) are coming up on the end of our obligations.

There is a well-trodden path that leads from an Ivy League school to the military and then to a top business school and then to something exciting, either an I-bank or venture capital or private equity (though perhaps less so in the current economic climate).  To really get somewhere in the military, at least in terms of having an affect of operations, as opposed to tactics, four or five or six years isn’t enough. And for the sort of unrelenting engagements in which we’re currently involved, we need good people to become company commanders and battalion S2s and battalion and squadron commanders and strike group N2s. But all five of us, and we’ve had many long and involved conversations, most recently in Madrid on my R&R, are very frustrated by the unresponsive nature of military assignments.

There is, currently, no way to promote individuals ahead of schedule until about the 9-year mark. And even that doesn’t really matter, as promotion rates to O-4 approach 90% and even 100% in some designators and MOSs. And it is possible to be picked out for special assignments, but you still have to “hit the wickets.”

I’ve been watching some of “Band of Brothers” while I’ve been out here. Nixon and Winters and Easy Company could (and did) fight to Berlin, and then head home. But there is no Berlin. And there’s no Tokyo Bay either. So this war (overseas contingency operation, perhaps?) is going to require good people doing hard things for a long time. And right now the military is doing a poor job of retaining folks from Ivy League schools. 

I don’t have the statistics to back it up, but I’ve got plenty of anecdotes (and friends at HBS). I’m also not sure what the best way to retain kids from Harvard and Yale and Princeton and other top schools is, but I think making some provision within the promotion and assignment system that allows a certain percentage to break out and do interesting and challenging things would be a welcome beginning.

This note got rather longer than I intended it to be, and, on reflection, it sounds unpleasantly arrogant to suggest that the Army or the Navy or the Marines should have to DO something to keep top-quality young officers (or even to suggest that my friends and I might be such officers) in the ranks. Shouldn’t the nobility of our cause be enough?

Thanks for your articles and your books and your blog. I’m saving “The Gamble” until I’m not part of it!

All very best and v/r,

Jonas Peter Akins”

Meanwhile, from the posted comments, here is a somewhat more optimistic comment from John Adamo, who identifies himself as a Marine officer now in Iraq:

I’m a Marine Officer currently deployed to OIF so I will attempt to keep this as politically neutral as I can and mostly a reflection of perspective on my short military service so far. I would agree in part with both of your perceptions of this rise in military service from men and women of our elite universities. However, I have my doubts that at a school like Princeton, from which I graduated in ’07, students who are joining the military feel negatively about themselves as people, from an intellectual or moral standpoint. I was pushed by some amazing professors to find myself as an individual, but never did I ever encounter a professor or advisor who shunned the idea of serving something larger than myself. After all, Princeton’s motto is “in the nation’s service, and the service of all nations,” and we have a strong ROTC program (I went the OCS route for the USMC). I will admit that I was part of a very small group of students concentrating in History and Near Eastern Studies, and an even smaller group studying Arabic or having the moral courage to live in the Middle East for a semester or two, and the ONLY Marine commission in my graduating class. Most of my friends who took the finance route are now either going back to school, got laid off, or are quitting their jobs because of lack of substance these jobs possess. Quite simply, making money for money’s sake is not all it is hyped to be.

Your second point I think has value, but the historical roots for Ivy Leaguers to join the military goes much further back than the 9/11 era, back when the term noblesse oblige actually meant something. I was a member of Cottage Club, one of the historic eating clubs at Princeton, and on the second floor there were walls lined with pictures of former members who left the life of erudition and privilege during WWI and WWII to serve their country without hesitation, I am sure, some who never returned at all. I would walk that hallway frequently, after a meal, or sometimes late at night in a drunken stupor, and I would smile deeply at the fact that I was part of an elite group of men that was willing to move to the sounds of the guns if only for the preservation of the high-life they enjoyed at home. I am by no accounts a careerist. I chose to serve because it is the right thing to do. I didn’t accept my commission to go to war or experience the predicament we face in Iraq or Afghanistan caused by shoddy policy and reactionary military leadership. I accepted my commission because I am a servant to the freedom and privileges I enjoyed at an incredible institution like Princeton and was afforded by dedicated parents and friends. I will do my part, stand on the wall, and pass my post off to those that follow so we can keep this thing called America going.

In addition, the military needs men and women from these schools. We need a complete overhaul, maybe from the bottom up, that supports ideas of fourth generation warfare and armed conflict against non-state entities. Without this pressure from junior officers, senior leadership will continue to search for the kinetic fight where firepower is the easy answer for “victory,” and resist the cultural, linguistic, and other non-kinetic ammunition necessary for the establishment of long-term political relationships. While this is a non-traditional mission for the military, and for Marines, time and time again we have been tasked with doing exactly this. Maybe if we do it right this time, my kids, if I ever live long enough to have them, won’t have a repeat performance.

I rememeber a few years ago at my brother’s wedding, I was talking to one of his friends about my intentions with OCS and the Marines. His father was in Vietnam and had experienced a lot. In short, he was trying to dissuade me from pursuing the course I had just even barely begun. He said, “John, there are two types of people in this world – frontliners and strategists. You are a strategist.” I smiled and politely said ‘F— that, I’ll be both.'”

And also from the posts, a concluding thought from where this began. A Princeton man who joined the Army almost 20 years ago writes:

I will be honest that along with a sense of duty and a desire to serve a higher purpose, the full scholarship to Princeton was a big reason I started in the Army. Back in 1984 when I was coming out of high school, I also considered attending USMA (which would have cost the taxpayers more than my Princeton education did). When I had to decide between attending both, I had the opportunity to visit West Point “to experience the fourth class system,” and see what plebes had to go through. I stayed at West Point for 24 hours and, after discussions with many students, I decided that I didn’t want to go there. One discussion with a senior has stuck with me to this day. He told me that West Point is a leveler. It does not let anyone excel in any area too much. If you are a good football player, you’ll have to spend too much time in class or polishing brass beltbuckles to be a great football player. If you are a good scholar, you’ll have to spend too much time in the boxing ring and polishing brass to be a great scholar. If you are good at polishing brass, then the Academy life might be a perfect fit.

West Point, like ROTC and OCS, does produce a number of high quality officers for the Army. West Pointers in particular are grounded in a common ethic and molded by common experiences. As they like to say, they are the keepers of the ethic of “Duty, Honor, Country” for the Army.

That said, in my experience West Point officers do not bring the same varied experiences and different view points that other commissioning sources provide.

As an Ivy League alum, I don’t think that coming from an Ivy League school makes me any better as an officer. I do think that having officers from varied backgrounds, including schools like Princeton, makes for a better Army.”

The West End/Flickr

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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