Best Defense

Think the Army wants free thinking? This is what happened to me after I wrote a piece for Best Defense — with approval

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on November 6, 2015.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on November 6, 2015.

By Alex Frank
Best Defense guest columnist

I wrote a piece for this blog almost three year ago. I was hammered for it. This matters because I think it reflects larger institutional trends in the Army to stamp out creativity and critical thinking.

My battalion commander at the time was fine with it. I told him that it would be mildly controversial. I said that I was going to defend my unit from some recent criticism, relate it to large problems in the Army, and argue that we were overcoming these issues.

The article was published and was a little more controversial than I thought. There were some good criticisms of minor points, a few scathing criticisms, and many people who spoke out in support. A lot of lieutenants, captains, and majors approached me to give their opinion and were glad to have this kind of discussion.

The same was not true of my next battalion commander. He came in a month after the article was published. The first thing he said to me was “oh you’re the blogger.” He informed all of the senior officers in the battalion that he did not feel it was a captain’s place to say those things. He kicked me out of the unit with 10 months of unrated time.

I discussed with him the reasons for moving me a year earlier than was planned. He did not give a logically consistent answer, he said that I “needed to get back into the system sooner.” He assured me that the major gap in my rating was normal and it would be fine.

When I got to my next unit they laughed at me when I tried to explain the huge gap my evaluation chain. I tried contacting my old unit and other authorities but got no action. Most of my peers thought it was a clear case of revenge. I resisted this narrative at first, but after failing to resolve it in a reasonable manner I became convinced.

This is not the first time I have experienced hostility towards creative and reasonable thinking. In Afghanistan I was a platoon leader and in charge of governance issues. I detailed the types of creative solutions I put into effect in this article. My battalion commander viewed this thinking as threatening, and kept acting as if I was trying to one up him. The result was a dismal relationship that hurt my career and that of many of my soldiers.

I am now out of the Army and at Yale Law School.

My story is not typical. But it does reflect a larger trend in the US military institution to crush critical thinking. One of my best friends said “if you had been an officer in the German military you would have been busy studying for the Kriegsakademie exam rather than the LSAT.”

I could not have agreed more. Many other militaries that were more organized and adaptable had specific mechanisms in place to encourage intellectual diversity, to retain, reward, and protect creative and adaptable officers. The German military had a difficult, selective, and institutionally important academic test because they clearly valued nerdy over achievers with a penchant for ruthless organization and creative thinking.

Our education and personnel systems disincentivize this kind of person. The likes of Petraeus and McMaster are aberrations. We select based on more bureaucratic, corporate principles with a narrow checklist of the way we do business. Risk adversity, personality conformity, and technical management have become the bedrock principles. This applies to everything from the personnel system, to warfighting, to getting permission to travel to a different country.

If we want to be able to handle complicated and adaptable problems, we need institutional incentives that encourage adaptable thinking. I propose creating a school and unit devoted to figuring out creative and academically rigorous solutions to the human domain. It would be selective, elite organization of military and civilians devoted to this kind of thinking. It would go a long way towards influencing the conventional Army and be perfect for tackling peace enforcement situations.

Alexander Frank is a JD candidate at Yale Law School. He served for five years as an infantry officer in the Army, including a tour in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. His bachelor’s degree is in Physics from Duke University. 

Photo credit: Alexander Frank

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 @tomricks1

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