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Fight for the Army's Soul

Time for a purge.

11:00 PM, Feb 20, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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THOUGH IT GARNERS RELATIVELY little attention, military bureaucracy poses a very serious threat to the long-term security of the United States, and its pernicious effect extends well down into the chain of command. I have a friend whose son, now back from his fourth deployment to Afghanistan with the 75th Rangers, describes precisely the kind of burdensome bureaucratic regulation that Paul Fussell (in his book Wartime) so appropriately labeled as "chickenshit":

Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige . . . insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called--instead of horse--or bull--or elephant shit--because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.

One reason for the ubiquity of chickenshit in the modern U.S. military is the excessively high proportion of officers to enlisted men. In most armies, there are about seven officers to 100 enlisted men, or an officer-to-enlisted ratio of 7 percent (as low as 5 percent in the German army of World War II). In the U.S. Army today, that ratio stands at more than 15 percent (19 percent by some calculations).

This very high proportion of officers resulted from a deliberate decision made after World War II regarding future Army mobilization. Post-war analysis revealed that it was actually easier for the Army to raise new divisions from scratch using draftees, than it was to shake out National Guard divisions and bring them up to wartime standards (due to the prevalence at the time for state governors to use the Guard for patronage appointments, often of superannuated or incompetent officers, as well as the poor physical condition and training of Guard soldiers). Army planners believed that, if adequate officer cadres were available, the Army could actually mobilize faster by circumventing the National Guard and simply raising new divisions. Thus, in the wake of World War II, as the Army shrank back to its peacetime size, twice as many officers were retained on active service as were actually needed.

As Edward N. Luttwak pointed out in his 1985 book The Pentagon and the Art of War, this would not have been a problem had the Army merely placed the surplus officers on half pay, effectively keeping them "on the shelf" in case of need. But the Army instead kept these men on active duty, and therefore had to find gainful employment for them. Since, in the peacetime Army, there were not nearly enough legitimate command and staff positions for all the officers, new positions had to be created, for which new functions had to be devised. Thus, the military bureaucracy began to expand, especially with the proliferation of research and development (R&D) commands and liaison offices, the expansion of staff billets, and the invention of new duties basically intended to make work for the underemployed. At the same time, the Army recognized that these essentially bureaucratic positions did not prepare officers for combat command, so there arose an insistence on frequent rotation between staff, administrative, technical, and line positions, ranging between 12 and 24 months. Officers had to "get their tickets punched" by serving in the widest range of positions in order to qualify for promotion (this is sometimes called the "Merit Badge Syndrome"). Officers passed over for promotion were normally required to retire (the "Up or Out" principle).

As combat commands (platoon, company, and battalion, in particular) were both the most prized and the most scarce, turnover in these positions was the most rapid (in Vietnam, combat officers were on a six month rotation, half that of the enlisted men, in order that more officers could get their "combat command" ticket punched). The result was predictable: officers were constantly behind the power curve, and by the time they got their bearings, they were rotating home, to be replaced by another batch of essentially clueless "newbies." Proficiency was never established or maintained.