Best Defense

What can Ike and Lawrence of Arabia teach us about Army personnel policy?

By Crispin Burke Best Defense personnel policy bureau A recent Atlantic article by Tim Kane spotlights several top-performing officers who lament the military’s “peacetime” personnel system, which promotes officers along a generic timeline. Many point to the promotion policies during the two World Wars, when innovative officers enjoyed meteoric advancement through the ranks. Anecdotes from ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

By Crispin Burke
Best Defense personnel policy bureau

A recent Atlantic article by Tim Kane spotlights several top-performing officers who lament the military’s “peacetime” personnel system, which promotes officers along a generic timeline. Many point to the promotion policies during the two World Wars, when innovative officers enjoyed meteoric advancement through the ranks. Anecdotes from the private sector and even the State Department suggest that many large, successful organizations promote leaders on a merit-based system, much as the US Army did during the World Wars.

Nevertheless, every personnel system — be it military, government, or private-sector — is fraught with pitfalls and unintended consequences.  Far from establishing a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” organization, a so-called “merit-based” system might easily give rise to nepotism, sycophantism, and ultimately, organizational entropy.

Thus, the promotion policies of the World Wars must be viewed in their unique historical context. We will examine some of these policies through two case studies from the World Wars: Britain’s T.E. Lawrence and America’s Dwight D. Eisenhower.

T.E. Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, joined the British Army in 1914 as a second lieutenant, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel by the War’s end. Prior to the War, Lawrence became an expert in the Middle East, the result of archaeological expeditions and topographical work throughout the region. Lawrence was therefore posted to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, where his meticulous map-making, his knowledge of Arabic, and his work on The Arab Bulletin were invaluable. Nevertheless, Lawrence grew bored of office routine, and, along with other officers within the Arab Bureau, pleaded with General Sir Archibald Murray to support the revolt of the Arab tribes against the Turks. When their efforts proved fruitless, Lawrence took it upon himself to organize a number of military expeditions throughout the Hejaz — to Rabegh, Wejh, and eventually, to Aqaba.

Lawrence’s expedition to Aqaba — arguably one of the most brilliant military operations in the history of warfare — was not blessed by his higher command. In an era when communication across vast expanses of the desert was virtually non-existent, micromanagement was unheard of. Subordinate commanders therefore operated with considerable autonomy. Lawrence merely sent a conciliatory letter to his superior in the Arab Bureau before setting off with hundreds of Arab tribesmen into the wasteland. Indeed, Lawrence had no contact with the British Army for two full months — hardly a normal turn of affairs today.

Based on his role in the capture of Aqaba, Lawrence was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order, second only to the Victoria Cross. As the award could only be presented to a field-grade officer, Lawrence, then a lieutenant (though acting staff captain) was instantly promoted to major in order to make him eligible.

Unlike our modern army, it seems the British Army of the Great War had a decentralized promotion authority, allowed for the adoption of “acting” or “brevet” ranks, and was not subject to elaborate “board” systems.

Though Lawrence — as unsoldierly a character as one could imagine — would find great success in the British Army, an officer from the United States would experience an even more remarkable rise to fame.

Few realize that Dwight D. Eisenhower — who donned five stars in late 1944 — was merely a major some eight years previously. Though assigned the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel during the First World War, Eisenhower reverted to his “permanent” rank of captain in 1920 (though he was promoted to major two days later). Eisenhower then served in a variety of staff jobs during the lean Inter-War years, including service as an aide to General Douglas MacArthur. During his sixteen years as a major, Eisenhower studied military history extensively, discussed armored warfare with West Point classmate George S. Patton, and smuggled Gen. MacArthur’s 16-year-old Filipina mistress out of Washington. (There’s hope for me yet).

After Eisenhower’s stint as MacArthur’s aide in the Philippines, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and to colonel less than five years later, in March of 1941. A mere forty-five months later, in December of 1944, Eisenhower — the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe — would be promoted to General of the Army, the highest rank in the US military. 

These men — certainly the best for their respective jobs — benefitted from three factors. The first two are unique to the military situation of their eras. The third is common in the rise of many successful men (and women), but often gives way to an unsavory alternative.

First, there was the obvious issue of attrition in both the British and US Army during the war. Suffice to say, Lawrence’s “on-the-spot” promotion in July of 1917 likely faced fewer bureaucratic hurdles, considering that the British suffered some 350,000 casualties at the Somme alone, could afford to promote on a whim. Similarly, the US Army suffered from combat attrition during the Second World War — nearly three-quarters of battalion and regimental commanders of the 82nd Airborne Division were killed or wounded in combat.

Combat losses among the Army’s leadership were compounded by General Marshall’s purging of the senior ranks, ridding the War Department of incompetent and enfeebled officers. Upon the outbreak of war, Marshall relieved three-quarters of his division and corps commanders, and 162 colonels on the grounds that they were unfit for duty. By the war’s end, Marshall would axe nearly 500 colonels, replacing them with more capable officers.

Yet, it is also worth noting that the Army of Marshall’s time was a supremely dysfunctional machine, reminiscent of Victorian-era nobility. According to Morris Janowitz, author of The Professional Soldier, an officer’s work day during the Interwar period typically ended by noon, after which there was much time for horseback riding and other such sport.  Nepotism also ran rampant throughout the War Department; junior officers found marriage to generals’ daughters more promising a career move than attendance at the Command and General Staff College. Gen. Marshall actually issued an order forbidding generals from employing family members on their staffs. Fortunately, our Army does not suffer from the terrible attrition rates of the Somme, nor does it require removing three-quarters of its generals.     

Secondly, the levee en masse of Napoleon’s era gave rise to the “expandable army” of the 20th Century. First advocated by John C. Calhoun during the 1820s, the expandable army consists of a small cadre of professional officers and NCOs fleshed out with large numbers of new recruits during times of national emergency. In this manner, a squad leader might become a platoon sergeant, his ranks filled with dozens more privates.

Thus, the cadre of non-commissioned officers and officers would be granted “brevet” ranks to coincide with their increased responsibilities. These ranks generally expired after the war’s end, though there were a few notable exceptions, such as Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower, for instance, graduated from West Point in 1915 and held the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel by 1918, before reverting to captain upon the disillusion of the National Army in 1920.

But suffice to say, neither the “expandable army” nor brevetting are practiced today. 

Last, and most important, Lawrence and Eisenhower enjoyed the patronage of well-placed generals who were good judges of character. Lawrence was fortunate enough to first meet with General Allenby shortly after his victory at Aqaba. During their first meeting, Lawrence impressed Allenby with his extensive knowledge of the region and keen strategic insight. While Archibald Murray was unimpressed with Lawrence’s unsoldierly ways — Lawrence’s uniform always looked disheveled at best — Allenby would look upon Lawrence with great affection, and the two remained good friends well after the Great War.

Allenby entrusted Lawrence and his Arabs to keep the Turks in disarray through guerrilla tactics: demolishing the railways, and peeling large numbers of troops from the front lines in vain pursuit of Lawrence’s Bedouin. This he did throughout the entire war, allowing Allenby’s forces to break through the Turkish lines at Beersheeba and Gaza, eventually marching in to Jerusalem by Christmas of 1917. Without the patronage of Allenby, it is doubtful that Lawrence would have been allowed to rise to prominence.

Marshall, likewise, kept close watch on several budding young officers prior to the Second World War, such as Omar Bradley, Jim Gavin (a major on the eve of Pearl Harbor), George Patton, and, of course, Dwight Eisenhower. Ike caught Marshall’s attention after publishing an influential article in Infantry Journal advocating the use of armored warfare, for which he was informally admonished.

Gen. Marshall was one of the greatest man-managers in history, and an excellent judge of character. Yet, Marshall’s system of patronage might be criticized as “nepotism” or “cronyism” if it weren’t for the obvious skill of the men Marshall tapped.

While Marshall picked top-performers, who is to say a modern-day Marshall would do just as well?  For starters, few of us are as good a judge of character as we like to think. And even someone as prescient as Marshall made some poor personnel choices, such as tapping Lloyd Fredendall to command the II Corps for the disastrous Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.

Moreover, the military has been known for cliques, factions, “good-old-boy”-ism and “inbreeding” (as it’s often called in operational units). Just witness the rise of the “fighter mafia” in the Air Force, or the powers that kept then-Colonel H.R. McMaster from receiving his star (largely overturned by another influential patron, General David Petraeus). Even today, the informal spousal network, which, during the Interwar period, arranged marriages between fetching young officers and suitable young ladies, could easily rear its ugly head, as one recent case suggests. Most importantly, top innovators rarely win the acclaim of their bosses, as evidenced by Billy Mitchell and John Boyd.

Do our promotion and evaluation policies need to be reviewed? Certainly. Would our problems be alleviated by adopting a promotion system akin to the Second World War? Hardly. These policies were the result of specific social and military conditions. Given today’s environment, our efforts to recreate the achievements of the Greatest Generation might easily backfire. 

The author, an observer/controller at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, would like to thank his fellow observer/controllers as well as the FaST Surgeon. Upon hearing of this topic, they sighed, “Well, duh, that’s because the World Wars were wars!” Also, Great Satan’s Girlfriend did some much-needed, fully crunk editing.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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