Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Sherman (VIII): Individual replacement is a better personnel system than rotation

It turns out that William T. Sherman, one of the best American generals ever, was no fan of the practice of rotation that the Army follows today. Rather, like retired Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Robert Rush, he favored the World War II method of sending in new men to seasoned units. Sherman wrote that, "I believe ...

National Archives/Flickr
National Archives/Flickr
National Archives/Flickr

It turns out that William T. Sherman, one of the best American generals ever, was no fan of the practice of rotation that the Army follows today.

Rather, like retired Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Robert Rush, he favored the World War II method of sending in new men to seasoned units. Sherman wrote that, "I believe that five hundred new men added to an old and experienced regiment were more valuable than a thousand men in the form of a new regiment, for the former by association with good, experienced captains, lieutenants and non-commissioned officers, soon became veterans, whereas the latter were generally unavailable for a year."

Sherman felt so strongly about this he took time out from the Vicksburg campaign to write a lengthy letter to his commander, General Grant, about this policy, with a request that his views be forwarded to President Lincoln.

It turns out that William T. Sherman, one of the best American generals ever, was no fan of the practice of rotation that the Army follows today.

Rather, like retired Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Robert Rush, he favored the World War II method of sending in new men to seasoned units. Sherman wrote that, "I believe that five hundred new men added to an old and experienced regiment were more valuable than a thousand men in the form of a new regiment, for the former by association with good, experienced captains, lieutenants and non-commissioned officers, soon became veterans, whereas the latter were generally unavailable for a year."

Sherman felt so strongly about this he took time out from the Vicksburg campaign to write a lengthy letter to his commander, General Grant, about this policy, with a request that his views be forwarded to President Lincoln.

I think Sherman and Rush are right, for commanders as well as the enlisted troops. When you have one-year rotations of units, no one "owns" a war. They get in and get out. One way to do it differently would be to have units assigned to rotate in and out every couple of years, perhaps with commanders from brigade up doing four-year stints to provide continuity. To do that, you’d need to give them months off every year, and so they’d need very strong XOs.

So it would be difficult. The personnel people will say too hard. But perhaps better to do difficult and win, than do easy and lose?

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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