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Goodbye, Good Soldiers

by David French

Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution, by Tim Kane (Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pp., $30)

‘Why does the Army make it so hard to serve your country?” my wife asked. She was, truth be told, slightly peeved. I had waited more than a month to get paid for a simple two-week training assignment, had accumulated an ever-increasing amount of unreimbursed expenses because of the hopeless morass that is the Defense Travel System website, and had just spent hours assembling what felt like a book-length promotion packet that might get (at most) three minutes of real scrutiny.

And that is just my petty tale of bureaucratic woe. As a JAG officer, I have advised a series of commanders — both active and reserve — who confront a personnel system that empowers the worst performers while alienating many of the best. At times, it seems as if the Army bureaucracy is almost intentionally designed to take the bravest Americans, place them in an institution of rich traditions, and then slowly drain the idealism and hope from all but the most patient and resilient of them.

So you might say I read Tim Kane’s book in a state of frustration.

The book did not improve my mood.

Bleeding Talent may be the most important depressing book you read this year. Kane clearly understands America’s military excellence, and does not claim that the Army is producing poor soldiers or is anything other than tactically superior to every other military in the world. But he also clearly understands that the greatest threat to our military superiority doesn’t come from a resurgent China, a muscular Russian regime, or the various jihadist militias: We have met the enemy, and we are it.

More specifically, it is our system of personnel management, a system that increasingly drives the best and brightest officers, including the boldest risk-takers, straight out of the military. To understand this book’s achievement, consider an analogy from civilian life: Imagine a book written about the Apple computer corporation at the very height of its power — when its stock price made it the most valuable company in the world, and its cash reserves exceeded the U.S. government’s — that spots a disturbing trend that could make Apple go the way of Dell in just a few short years and become, while still powerful, a shadow of its former self.

Kane takes readers on a painful historical tour of military personnel management, of an antiquated system that was imperfectly designed for a mid-20th-century labor force and that now works mainly to stifle creativity and elevate mediocrity. Consider the following.

• The evaluation system is so broken and beset by grade inflation that thousands of candidates at a time can all achieve perfect scores, requiring promotion boards to read between the lines of words and phrases to crack the code of the “true” evaluation to make informed promotion decisions.

• No matter your personal excellence or mediocrity or even incompetence, you’re likely to be promoted at the same pace as the rest of your “year group,” receive the same pay, and follow much the same career track until the very highest ranks.

• Commanders have little to no control over the make-up of their staffs, and staff officers have little to no control over their next assignments. The “needs of the Army” trump personal desires — which makes sense — but the assignment system itself is so hopelessly complex that spreadsheets and computer matching software seem to have more authority than military professionals.

• In the absence of truly merit-based promotions and evaluations, a “zero defect” mentality takes over — particularly in the garrison environment — which makes officers cautious and reluctant to take risks. In a particularly effective portion of the book, Kane analyzes the careers of great American generals and demonstrates how several of them could never have succeeded in today’s Army. Their careers would have ended over early mistakes well before they saw their first promotion to colonel or general.

• Officer-retention rates are below historical norms, and have been since even before 9/11 and the multiple deployments that followed. This has led to a “brain drain” severe enough that the military has been forced to hang on to mediocre performers just to maintain necessary force strength, resulting in promotions that are no longer truly selective until the highest ranks.

As a result of all of this, the system often fails to recognize unconventional military talents, to say nothing of revolutionary ones, and creates the sort of military that was slow to adapt in the face of the Iraqi insurgency from 2003 to 2007. Why, Kane asks, was the Army forced to turn to the same general, David Petraeus, twice — in Iraq and Afghanistan — to salvage the war effort in two different countries? Was the counterinsurgency bench that thin, even after a decade of war?

Kane’s background as a former Air Force officer, an entrepreneur, and an economist gives him a unique inside/ outside viewpoint, but his obvious enthusiasm for entrepreneurs and corporate management may be the cause of the book’s one weakness. He delivers a devastating critique, but the solution he offers is so radical and such an extreme departure from current military practice that even he tacitly acknowledges that the reforms he favors are unlikely to occur.

Kane suggests turning our All Volunteer Force (AVF) into a Total Volunteer Force (TVF). In other words, coercion would be virtually removed from the personnel system in favor of a market-based model that would allow commanders to select their staffs, allow for lateral transfers to the military from the private sector (even at higher ranks), and permit soldiers to specialize and focus their careers well away from the “standard” military track.

This system would be so revolutionary that Kane can’t point to a military analogue for it anywhere in the world; he relies instead on large, successful private corporations to show how a market and entrepreneurial leadership models can succeed even in companies with tens of thousands of employees. (Of course, the military is far larger than the largest of corporations — a point Kane readily acknowledges.)

As for critics who argue that such a system would leave the “tougher” assignments unfilled, Kane understands the military well enough to know that the “tougher” assignments are often the most desired ones. Based on my own military experience, I can easily imagine a TVF with combat slots oversubscribed and with many support slots left to collect the rejects. After all, many recruits join the Army because they want to see action, not because they are trying to avoid it.

A sympathetic critic of Kane’s reform agenda has said, bluntly, “It will never happen.” So I find myself longing for a fallback position, for further discussion and exploration of a series of simpler and more attainable reforms that would keep just a few more good people.

At the conclusion of my Iraq tour, I was distressed that so many of my friends — my brothers — were leaving the Army. Fewer than half of the staff officers with whom I served are still in uniform. Yes, the deployments were hard. By late 2008, most of my fellow officers were veterans of the battle for Tal Afar — one of the most intense urban conflicts of the entire Iraq War — and also veterans of a grinding, costly subsequent deployment in Diyala Province, where casualty rates were high, and the enemy elusive.

But many of them didn’t leave the Army because of the deployments: They left because of the situation described in Bleeding Talent. In fact, while reading the book, I sometimes felt as if I’d already heard the audio version — but with more profanity — late at night in tents and bunks across eastern Iraq.

Our military is an amazing institution, able to recruit men and women who are not only brave but idealistic, creative, and sometimes just a little bit crazy (and I mean that as a compliment). Kane’s book is a labor of love for the people who serve this great country. It’s the warning of a friend, designed not to shame but to prevent greater loss and wholly unnecessary mission failure. Sure, the military will never implement all of Kane’s ideas, but even some response will likely be enough to keep a few more of our best and brightest in uniform. And those few more may well be the difference between victory and defeat in a new, deadly, and surprising battlefield in an unknown future against a currently unknown enemy.

– Mr. French is a senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice and a veteran of the Iraq War.

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