Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Army and post-9/11 change

The Army’s chief thinker about the future dropped by the office yesterday to talk to CNASties about how his service is changing. It clearly is down with advances in information technology, which I would expect. "We’re cranking out apps" for soldiers, reported Lt. Gen. Michael Vane. It is teaching soldiers differently, with, he said, less ...

The U.S. Army/flickr
The U.S. Army/flickr

The Army's chief thinker about the future dropped by the office yesterday to talk to CNASties about how his service is changing. It clearly is down with advances in information technology, which I would expect. "We're cranking out apps" for soldiers, reported Lt. Gen. Michael Vane. It is teaching soldiers differently, with, he said, less "sage on the stage" and more "guide on the side."

What the general had to say was almost all reassuring. The Army is thinking differently about leadership. It knows it needs to push down certain skills to lower levels. It also needs to develop leaders who can handle ambiguity, historically a weak point for American generals, according to a psychological survey I was looking at the other day.

My worry is that it is one thing to say it, but another to do it. Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics, and people who know what they are talking about talk personnel policy. It's been nearly 10 years since 9/11, and I really don't see any significant changes in how the Army thinks about raising the force, training it, or promoting it. Why does there seem to be no relationship between command performance in combat and subsequent posts? I will believe that the Army is really responding to its strategic and operational shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistan when I see changes in personnel policy. For example, why do generals appear to have tenure these days, with removal occurring only in response to zipper problems or other moral embarrassments? How about rewarding success and punishing failure? You can talk about change all you want, but until you change the personnel policies that create the internal incentive systems, you probably won't be able to institute sustainable change.

The Army’s chief thinker about the future dropped by the office yesterday to talk to CNASties about how his service is changing. It clearly is down with advances in information technology, which I would expect. "We’re cranking out apps" for soldiers, reported Lt. Gen. Michael Vane. It is teaching soldiers differently, with, he said, less "sage on the stage" and more "guide on the side."

What the general had to say was almost all reassuring. The Army is thinking differently about leadership. It knows it needs to push down certain skills to lower levels. It also needs to develop leaders who can handle ambiguity, historically a weak point for American generals, according to a psychological survey I was looking at the other day.

My worry is that it is one thing to say it, but another to do it. Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics, and people who know what they are talking about talk personnel policy. It’s been nearly 10 years since 9/11, and I really don’t see any significant changes in how the Army thinks about raising the force, training it, or promoting it. Why does there seem to be no relationship between command performance in combat and subsequent posts? I will believe that the Army is really responding to its strategic and operational shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistan when I see changes in personnel policy. For example, why do generals appear to have tenure these days, with removal occurring only in response to zipper problems or other moral embarrassments? How about rewarding success and punishing failure? You can talk about change all you want, but until you change the personnel policies that create the internal incentive systems, you probably won’t be able to institute sustainable change.

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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