Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Comment of the day: Is the airborne community’s leadership screwed up?

Here’s a comment from over the weekend from "Jonessgp1996," a participant unfamiliar to me, but who self-identifies as an armor officer. He alleges something I hadn’t seen before, that the Army airborne community has an ingrown leadership problem. Below, I have combined two of his posts. He perceives … a line of recent problems with ...

557260_ricks3_1510.jpg
557260_ricks3_1510.jpg

Here's a comment from over the weekend from "Jonessgp1996," a participant unfamiliar to me, but who self-identifies as an armor officer. He alleges something I hadn't seen before, that the Army airborne community has an ingrown leadership problem.

Below, I have combined two of his posts. He perceives

... a line of recent problems with the leadership in the Army's airborne community, which included the relief of a battalion commander & CSM in Afghanistan last year and also the raft of problems with the 82nd's 4th BCT (which included the aforementioned BN CDR). I think the underlying issue is the fact that it remains a very closed (almost incestuous) community. I thought the whole point of the Army's HR system, at least as it pertains to officers, was to make sure that people get a wide range of assignments to ensure that they are well rounded. But when you look at the resumes of a lot of these guys, they have spent a huge portion of their careers in the 82nd, 173rd, and/or 75th Ranger Regiment. By keeping the same guys in the same units over and over, you risk creating a toxic environment where people begin valuing loyalty to individuals and the sub-organization (e.g., the brigade or battalion) over integrity and loyalty to the overarching Army values.

Here’s a comment from over the weekend from "Jonessgp1996," a participant unfamiliar to me, but who self-identifies as an armor officer. He alleges something I hadn’t seen before, that the Army airborne community has an ingrown leadership problem.

Below, I have combined two of his posts. He perceives

… a line of recent problems with the leadership in the Army’s airborne community, which included the relief of a battalion commander & CSM in Afghanistan last year and also the raft of problems with the 82nd’s 4th BCT (which included the aforementioned BN CDR). I think the underlying issue is the fact that it remains a very closed (almost incestuous) community. I thought the whole point of the Army’s HR system, at least as it pertains to officers, was to make sure that people get a wide range of assignments to ensure that they are well rounded. But when you look at the resumes of a lot of these guys, they have spent a huge portion of their careers in the 82nd, 173rd, and/or 75th Ranger Regiment. By keeping the same guys in the same units over and over, you risk creating a toxic environment where people begin valuing loyalty to individuals and the sub-organization (e.g., the brigade or battalion) over integrity and loyalty to the overarching Army values.

Until some leader of character breaks this closed loop, my gut tells me that we will continue to see problems in the airborne community.

…I think the problem with airborne units is parochialism, which stems from their unshakeable faith in their own mythology and which their leaders (and soldiers) almost universally exhibit. Esprit-de-corps is great; disdain for other military units because they aren’t "airborne" isn’t so great. And that brings me to the point from my initial post: by not moving officers and NCOs around to different types of units in order to broaden their perspectives, the Army as an organization is perpetuating the leadership environments in some of these airborne outfits where the rest of us are labeled "legs" or "you mech guys." The Army took a step in the right direction a few years ago when they eliminated the 11M MOS (mechanized infantryman) so that all became 11Bs (infantryman), giving all enlisted infantrymen an equal opportunity to serve in light or heavy units. Nevertheless, for the airborne zealots, time in a heavy unit is seen as the purgatory they have to suffer before they get to return to paradise; it’s not seen as an opportunity to gain an appreciation for other parts of the Army.

The 173rd does a great service to the airborne community by providing a suitable place for airborne soldiers who receive orders to go overseas to serve in an appropriate unit instead of a "leg" unit.

Tom again: Anyone else see this problem?

And some follow-ups:

Stars & Stripes has a follow up report on Col. Frank "paranoid, manipulative, disingenuous, caustic, abrasive and threatening" Zachar with another article that quotes an investigation by Brig. Gen. J.J. Wells that concluded, "I find the command climate within the 172nd BCT to be toxic…[Zachar] refuses to accept responsibility for his failings and instead blames subordinates … He has not been contrite nor appeared to reach out to mend broken relationships. The lack of self-awareness and personal accountability suggests that nothing less than relief will solve the toxic command climate within the brigade."

–Meanwhile, I am told that there is some truth to this New York Post report about what happened with Col. James Johnson, the suspended commander of the 173rd.  It seems that his wife kind of went off the reservation while his brigade was deployed. Memorable quote: "’Was masturbation one of the topics briefly touched on, talked about? Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s normal.’" They’re divorcing, the article says.

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

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.