Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Our uniforms reflect our culture, and show us part of our problem: We do not value enough the skills needed to prevail

A friend recently sent me his official Army photo.


During this last week of 2016, we are reposting the ten most viewed Best Defense blog items of the year. Here is number eight

By Brig. Gen. Kim Field, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest contributor

A friend recently sent me his official Army photo. My reaction, having spent 27 years in uniform, was appropriate: Wow — a fit looking soldier, three badges above “U.S. ARMY,” two tabs on his left shoulder, a patch on the right. At one glance we can see that at various points in his career he has proven himself in training and operations. He has demonstrated his mettle, his skill in traditional military tradecraft, his physical prowess; he’s a warrior, expert in the application of violence — the essence of why we have a military.

Essence means necessary. Necessary does not mean sufficient. Is this soldier intellectually tough? (This one is, actually.) Does he understand the political and cultural environment he operates in? Is he able to work with dissimilar partners? Can he staff a three or four star command appropriately? Maybe. But it’s not obvious, just by reading his uniform. And it’s not obvious because it is not what the organizational culture reflects as valued. Further, if these things are not overtly valued, why would the organization — beyond the self-selected and serendipitous individual — excel at them?

The trick is to preserve the former set while building the latter. Army leaders have long expressed this desire, despite charges to the contrary from this site and others. But fulfilling these aspirations comes down to choices, risk management, tradeoffs. If a captain goes to language school he may not have enough time to sufficiently master operational science and art. When a lieutenant colonel serves with the Department of State, he is not staffing a division. If you are the one charged with “No More Task Force Smiths” in a limited-resource environment, you also might make choices that consistently favor the Warrior over the (pseudo) Diplomat. (Note: I am focusing on the Army as the service most responsible for enabling the win across a broad spectrum of conflict among people.)

But there is one way to approach this dilemma that does not demand a lot of tradeoffs: Foster appreciation for what others bring to these increasingly complex missions. One small idea — one example — would be to develop some immediately visible displays to indicate a person is a Soldier-Scholar, or a Warrior-Diplomat, or whatever expression rolls off the tongue at retirement and promotion ceremonies. How about adding a small number of wearable signs that indicate that a soldier has mastered another language, attended a rigorous planning course, or done tours with other agencies? Set the initial bar high and reflect degrees of experience and expertise — akin to stars or wreaths — for levels of qualification. Examples could be completion of a multi-year language-culture training program; number of years of embassy duty; levels of post-bachelors, non-military education; or planning experience at echelons above corps, or on the Army, or Joint staff.

Notwithstanding the possibility that “career fields” may be a failed experiment, the Army did not produce insignia for them. I wore Military Police insignia for over 10 years after I left that basic branch to become an Army Strategist. The last explicably important thing I had done was command an MP company in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993. But someone having completed the Airborne qualification course is immediately recognized for having done so, the having done so is recognized as important, and when he or she masters a higher skill level that, too is reflected, e.g. Jumpmaster or a combat jump. This is not a new idea and has usually met with an uneasy reception. Allowing wings for remotely piloted aircraft pilots was controversial. The Distinguished Warfare Medal meant to honor exceptional combat contributions from the rear died before it lived. Space badges? Warriors pooh-pooh. It’s been over ten years since the Sapper badge was designed and people still consider it lesser. I am told the risk in trying again is that there will be a cultural backlash against new awardees. But I have more faith in my combat arms brothers and sisters than that. And even if that happens, if done properly — no Oprah-like “everyone-gets-a-badge” paradigm — such an incremental step toward a culture that appreciates a broader skill set might be worth it.

People who make such arguments are often accused of not understanding why we have an Army, undervaluing combat capabilities, or having a personal chip on their shoulder. I find that an unproductive response — and ironically, less than complimentary of the institution’s aggregate capabilities. All Army professionals understand the need to safeguard a culture that mustvalue tactical excellence where there is little space or material between men and the enemy. Many understand that war pursues political objectives, is dependent on partnership with others, and will be settled among people whom we do not innately understand. We do know that to expect those things to be fully relegated to civilians is not the way things worked for the last fifteen years and not likely to be so in the future. We know that the military must be able to integrate into and enable bigger solutions — and that requires a certain segment of its population to be trained, educated, experienced, and valued in the broader solution set. We understand all of this, but Army culture blocks the way to better actions and outcomes.

Organizational culture is a pattern of basic assumptions, ideas, beliefs, and values that prescribe both external behavior and internal management and integration. Organizational culture is learned; it is considered valid because it worked well in the past. But has it really, in this case? Together — civ and mil — we have not prevailed in the last decades. Soldiers in tactical formations are blameless; the institutions of the Department of Defense and the Army are not.

The military has failed to consistently engage, integrate, support, and enable its civilian partners; the latter’s job is more difficult in many ways, their personnel and money are scarce, and their efforts decisive. While military officers are often more vociferous than civilians in calling for enhanced civilian capability and resourcing, I am convinced we can’t get there from here. In other words, DoD has to give State a boost in order to prove the case. From my current vantage point at State, I can see that with the exception of Special Operating Forces (and ceding more and more space to SOCOM is an issue for another discussion), I have found DoD too pressed with its own business to meaningfully support civilian requests for participation, assistance, access, planning, or joint concept development in the here and now. This is the military’s piece of the failure to “win,” and it comes from a failure to appreciate the criticality of what others bring.

Imagine if a quick look at a soldier’s uniform indicated that he or she can participate in an airborne insertion, has seen combat action, speaks Chinese, and understands State’s role. Two things would be apparent: that soldier has valuable capabilities, and the Army appreciates the skills and partners it takes to actually win our wars.

BG (ret) Kim Field is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. The views reflected herein are hers alone. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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