Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

JOs, I was sympathetic, but now I’m not. Just take care of your people and move on.

By Capt. Amir Abu-Akeel, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist I’ve read the JO retention debate with quite a bit of interest. Initially, I found myself nodding in agreement with the disgruntled officers, but have since come to re-evaluate my stance. Many company grade officers approach the issue of the military through a narrowly focused, ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Wikimedia

By Capt. Amir Abu-Akeel, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

I've read the JO retention debate with quite a bit of interest. Initially, I found myself nodding in agreement with the disgruntled officers, but have since come to re-evaluate my stance.

By Capt. Amir Abu-Akeel, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

I’ve read the JO retention debate with quite a bit of interest. Initially, I found myself nodding in agreement with the disgruntled officers, but have since come to re-evaluate my stance.

Many company grade officers approach the issue of the military through a narrowly focused, emotionally tinged lens: “It’s too big for me to fix, so why should I stay,” or “my civilian friends don’t put up with this, why should I, and more importantly, my wife.” In most cases their observations are correct. The military is indeed too big to fix singlehandedly, and it asks a lot more of people than civilian jobs, but this view lacks nuance and context.

Junior officers need to understand that they aren’t going to singlehandedly right American foreign policy. Even senior officers have little individual sway over issues. It’s not because the system is broken. Nowadays, most policy decisions are made on a consensus basis. Contrary to what people think, the team-first mantra of the military encourages agreement between ranks even in the presence of a clear chain of command. Leaders don’t make decisions in a vacuum; they listen to the arguments made by their subordinates and peers. Commanders render judgment only after their staffs have beaten the courses of action to death. At the company level, if my first sergeant and I needed to hash something out, we closed the door and talked to each other (often yelled), until someone’s opinion made more sense. Tom’s book Fiasco makes the same case: President Bush didn’t declare war on Iraq; the American security establishment did. JOs have not been in long enough to see this team dynamic play out frequently, and therefore tend to individualize their problems. If you try to take on the big green machine alone, it will beat you down every time.

JOs also need to stop fixating on how they alone will finish the Syrian war, or end government corruption, and instead focus on the responsibilities that really matter: the care of their soldiers. It can be as simple as giving subordinates time off on a Friday afternoon to be with loved ones, or it can be as difficult as serving as a Casualty Assistance Officer. My personal favorite has always been to fend off a random tasker from higher (usually some CSM or division staff officer with a “bright” idea). Strategy is important, and a JO will go far to comprehend the bigger picture, but the soldiers in their immediate care are the priority, and that alone will consume the majority of their time. Aesop’s fable about the astronomer rings true here: “Hark ye, old fellow, why, in striving to pry into what is in heaven, do you not manage to see what is on earth?” Child’s tale, but hey, it’s still poignant, and relevant.

As for considering the career goals of a spouse, I have heard more gripes than solutions. HRC has always been a problem. The organization has close to a hundred-thousand officers to manage. Throw in the excessive branch parochialism and the congressional regulations that restrict officer management, and it’s surprising the command hasn’t suffered a meltdown. Adding the requirement to manage the careers of spouses would probably force the AG Corps to jump off a cliff en masse. That’s not to say we can’t improve the lot of spouses. Creating comprehensive geo-bachelor BAH schemes and offsetting professional certification costs is a good start, but the pie-in-the-sky ideas people have been bandying about are unworkable, especially in the face of a giant RIF.

I don’t write this to belittle anyone’s issues with the armed forces or the security establishment at large, because there are many, and they are serious. But at the end of the day, the military, for all its awesome might, is an organization run by people, and therefore subject to all their human strengths and weaknesses. Show some patience and enjoy the simple pleasures that come from caring for your Joes. You won’t get that direct satisfaction in many other places.

Captain Amir Abu-Akeel is currently an operations officer with the 52d Ordnance Group (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) in Fort Campbell, KY. CPT Abu-Akeel previously commanded the 788th OD CO (EOD) and the 202d OD CO (EOD). His bachelorhood has been ensured by two combat deployments and four PCS moves in the past six years. The views here are his own and don’t represent any government agency, yet.

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

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.