Where Have All the Warriors Gone?

Illustrations by Dean Williams.

Washingtonian won a National Magazine Award for Public Service for this 1984 account of dysfunction in military leadership. The story was written by Nick Kotz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and adjunct professor at the American University School of Communication, and fourteen graduate students Kotz was teaching in a course on investigative reporting. Nancy B. Nathan, the student leader, was also an attorney. Cathryn Donohoe was a Washington freelance writer. The other twelve students were Nancy Dettinger Caldwell, Wendy Carr, Deborah L. Gold, Suzanne M. Haynes, Richard James, Ruth E. Kane, Gwendolyn H. Lee, John Libby, Patrick McManarnon, Protas Madlala, Annemarie Roketenetz, and Karen A. Wegrzyn.

Leadership: A process in which a soldier applies his or her beliefs, values, ethics, character, knowledge, and skills to influence others to accomplish the mission….The soldier watches what you do so that his mind and instincts can tell him what you really are–an honorable leader of character with courage, competence, candor, and commitment, or a self-serving phony who uses troops and expedient behavior to look good and get ahead.

–From Military Leadership, a US Department of the Army field manual

On a 160-acre farm, retired Colonel Robert G. Dilger sits at the controls of a tractor, cutting hay. Air Force colleagues call the feisty 50-year-old a “pilot’s pilot.” They also say that Dilger, the flight leader who flew F-4 Phantom jet fighters on 180 missions and never lost a pilot, should be commanding an air wing instead of raising a herd of Appaloosa horses.

As a fighter pilot in Vietnam, Dilger was much decorated, honored with three Silver Stars and four Distinguished Flying Crosses. In one act of bravery, after his own jet’s missiles failed to fire, he literally ran a North Vietnamese MiG into the ground. Later, among other accomplishments, Dilger used his combat experience to design more realistic training pro­grams for fighter pilots and his technical expertise to develop a startlingly effective cannon shell for attack planes that saved the Pentagon a billion dollars.

Yet he never had a shot at making general. At the height of a 24-year Air Force career resplendent with successes as a fighter, combat leader, air-to-air combat trainer, and weap­ons developer, Dilger was eased out of the Air Force and onto the farm.

Why Bob Dilger didn’t make general is a classic study of the written and unwritten rules of military promotion today. His case, say observers both inside and outside the military, shows how the system has come to stifle rather than encourage the leadership qualities that have marked America’s armed forces in generations past. Bob Dilger’s case, many experts agree, is not an isolated one.

What troubles critics most is that the Bob Dilgers, officers of courage, audacity, and promise who lead by example and accomplishment, often are passed over in favor of smoother operators who have their tickets punched in all the right places but seldom stay long enough to make a difference, who learn a little about a great deal, who play it safe.

Explaining the qualities required of a peacetime general, Dilger says, “You have to be charming, well-met, easy to get along with, politically astute….I’ve been out of step with the Air Force often in my career.”

The North Dakota-born colonel, who entered the Air Force as an enlisted man and pursued his education at more than a dozen universities before earning a BA in mathematics at Miami University of Ohio and a master’s in business admin­istration from Auburn, took his last military misstep as the Air Force procurement officer in charge of developing a new cannon shell for the GAU-8, a rapid-firing, seven-barrel anti­-tank cannon on the A-10 attack plane.

Dilger’s shell was a brilliant success. Why? “I’d never been in procurement or development or systems command. I didn’t know how you were supposed to do it; I only knew what seemed to make sense.” Beyond that, the Air Force did not put much stock in the GAU-8 cannon, and therefore left him virtually alone to develop the shell. ”It will fall down on its own, so why give ourselves ulcers over it?” is how Dilger describes the prevailing attitude among his superiors. In fact, while working on the shell, Dilger found and cor­rected a major flaw in the gun itself, vastly improving its effectiveness. He did so by ordering his crew to fire more than a million rounds of ammunition against real tanks at close range, although normal Air Force testing procedures required no more than twenty shots at a target.

Colonel Dilger sidestepped the usual procurement process, bypassing the Army, which normally develops such ammunition. He pitted two civilian manufacturers against each other, giving the contractors incentive to design and produce the best shell at the lowest cost.

Despite the technical and economic success of the weapon and ammunition now used in 661 A-10s, few of his superiors regarded Dilger’s billion-dollar contribution as a mark of high achievement. In fact, shortly after the GAU-8 was perfected, Colonel Dilger was exiled to an obscure staff job in the office of plans at Tactical Air Command headquarters. For an am­bitious career flier, this was like a transfer to Siberia. Dilger politely refused the offer, retired to Xenia, Ohio, and took up farming.

He had ruffled too many feathers. The colonel had applied his battlefield audacity and common sense in a red-tape arena. He had ignored the standard operating procedures for pro­curement practices that too often have resulted in overpriced and ineffective weapons. He defied the delicate, unstated balance in which military bureaucracies, Congress, and weapons manufacturers maintain close relationships. He broke tradition, insisting on genuine competition for the GAU-8 shell contract. By developing a simple, cheap, and effective weapon, he challenged powerful political and military constituencies who supported more expensive guided missiles.

The real-war hero, behind a desk, had bucked a system in which boldness and innovation, traditional hallmarks of military leadership, now are punished rather than rewarded. And because of his brief, successful detour into procurement, he found himself denied a high-level flying command–an assignment required for the well-balanced resume expected of general-officer candidates.

• • •

The GAU-8 episode was not the first time Dilger had raised hackles by using unorthodox procedures to get the job done. Paul Hoven, a Vietnam helicopter pilot and now a military researcher, remembers that there were complaints in Vietnam about Dilger’s bold flying maneuvers­–“until they realized that everyone was coming home at night!”

“The standard tactic was to go into North Vietnam at 20,000 feet, which practically ensures everyone will know you are there when you go in for a bomb­ing run,” Hoven explains. “Dilger would come in at 50 feet off the ground. When he got ready to drop his bombs, no one even knew he was there.”

After Vietnam, Dilger took his sole criterion for success–combat effectiveness–into peacetime. In Air Force train­ing exercises, where safety regulations in most cases prohibit fighter planes from flying within 5,000 to 10,000 feet of the ground, Dilger advocated training as low as 50 feet to simulate actual combat. Similarly, Air Force exercises usually pit like aircraft against each other and train pilots one-on-one or two-on-two–“almost the only thing you will never find in combat,” Dilger says. He trained his pilots in different kinds of planes and with more planes in the sky, as in a real air battle. And what about safety? “There’s nothing safe about going to war untrained,” he responds.

Today, farmer Bob Dilger still strides into a room with the bearing of a soldier, like a Colonel John Wayne at his authoritative best. To Dilger, the military has only one mission: to be ready to fight a war. Not ten years from now. Not next month. Today.

Dilger’s philosophy of military lead­ership is opposed to the corporate-style management that typically is now the standard in our armed forces: While the manager looks at cost, schedule, and per­formance criteria–many of which “in no way relate to combat,” says Dilger­–the leader “worries about how well it’s going to do in combat.”

US Representative Denny Smith of Oregon, himself a decorated F-4 combat pilot with 180 missions over Vietnam, has followed Bob Dilger’s career for years. “Dilger is not afraid to attack the conventional wisdom,” says Smith. “He is courageous both in combat and in his personal candor. He is innovative and goal-oriented, concerned principally about accomplishing the military mission. And he is an inspiring leader and teacher of other leaders–his pilots followed him into combat because they trusted his competence; they felt that he cared for them and that he would get them home.”

The country, says Congressman Smith, badly needs men like Bob Dilger as Air Force generals.

The Leadership Debate: From Vietnam to Grenada

“The innovation and imagination that emerged from World War Il’s younger leaders won’t be there for World War III.” That’s the chilling assessment of retired Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, chief of Naval Operations from 1970 to 1973.

According to retired Army Colonel Dandridge Malone, military leadership reached a low point during the Vietnam era, when “Duty–Honor–Country” was replaced by “Me–My Ass–My Career.”

Following the October 1983 terror­ist bombing that killed 241 Marines at the Beirut airport, a five-man, blue-ribbon investigating commission headed by retired Admiral Robert L.J. Long faulted the entire military chain of command for not properly ensuring the safety of the US forces there.

The tragedy of Beirut is but one of many examples of post-World War II failures of American military leadership cited in more than 200 interviews we conducted, many with academic and civilian leaders but most with active and retired military officers.

What we found was a lively and grow­ing debate, both inside and outside the military, fueled by frustrations about failures in a series of wars and “inci­dents” ranging from Korea to Vietnam, from the Bay of Pigs to the botched Iranian rescue effort. The debate extends even to the largely successful 1983 Grenada mission.
Criticism of our current military lead­ership comes from all over. For example, the Congressional Military Reform Cau­cus, a loosely knit group that shares broad concerns, but seldom speaks with a uni­fied voice, includes liberals such as Sen­ator Gary Hart, moderates such as Sen­ators Nancy Kassebaum and Sam Nunn, and conservatives such as Representa­tives Newt Gingrich and Jim Courter.

Many of their concerns are shared­–and voiced–by some of the great leaders of World War Il, including Generals Bruce Clarke and Lyman Lemnitzer, and by such recently retired leaders as Elmo Zumwalt, former Army chief of staff General Edward C. Meyer, and Air Force General David S. Jones, the past Joint Chiefs chairman.

Most important, perhaps, those con­cerns are shared by reform-minded of­ficers within the military and in the Pentagon itself–including the like likes of Army Lieutenant General Jack Merritt, joint staff director for the Joint Chiefs; Lieutenant General Robert Elton, deputy Army chief of staff for personnel; and General Walter F. Ulmer Jr., commanding gen­eral of the Army’s Third Corps–and re­tired officers such as Bob Dilger, Army General Donn Starry, Army Lieutenant General Julius Becton, Army Colonel Dandridge Malone, and others. These are not rebels or renegades or ideo­logues, but rather they are serious mil­itary men, respected in their fields, who are committed to the defense of the country.

Even those who do not think the mil­itary’s leadership problems are of great magnitude recognize that there is cause for concern. Admiral James D. Watkins, chief of Naval Operations, was one of many officers who told us that the mis­sion assigned the Marines in Beirut­–“to maintain a presence”–was militar­ily unsound. Yet he agrees with the Long Commission’s findings of fault in mili­tary leadership. “We should have been much more alert than we were,” the Navy’s top officer says. “It was a failure of this follow-through, this sense of per­sonal urgency for each life that’s way down there….Every person in that chain of command has to accept some of the responsibility, including me as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

There is little doubt that there are out­ standing leaders in the officer corps to­day. And retired Air Force General Rus­sell Dougherty, who headed the Strategic Air Command from 1974 to 1977, puts matters in perspective when he says that all the talk of military failure ignores the fact that mere survival in the nuclear age is a victory. “We’ve won a hell of a battle of deterrence,” he observes.

Still, many of the officers we talked to returned time after time to a series of problems:

  • A promotion system that frequently does not reward the most promising of­ficers, those with the seasoning and po­tential to be the best combat leaders.
  • The loss of too many good officers, particularly those with skills as fighter pilots and combat leaders, who leave out of weariness with the system’s failures or who are forced out prematurely be­cause they are not promoted.
  • A system that places too much em­phasis on details of management and bu­reaucracy, and too little on developing combat effectiveness in officers and their troops.
  • Officers driven more by personal ambition than by service to nation, mis­sion, and their own troops.
  • A highly political system of military procurement that poisons the well of leadership, discouraging officers from giving candid assessments of which weapons they need, and how well they work.

In short, have the classical values of military leadership–honor, technical competence, concern for one’s troops, the ability to motivate soldiers–been eroded by a system that emphasizes less worthy aims?

The officers we interviewed are con­cerned about other critical issues that bear on leadership but were beyond the scope of our inquiry. They worry about the debilitating effects of interservice rival­ries and wonder whether reorganization of the Defense Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff could provide a more co­herent defense effort. They report con­fusion and debate within the military about the “proper nature of its mission”–about what the military can and should rea­sonably be expected to do. And they face the question of questions: Will classical ideals of military leadership even be rel­evant in a nuclear war?

Most of the officers we interviewed believe strongly that military prepared­ness, even in the nuclear age, still depends on the ability of officers to inspire soldiers to fight effectively on the ground, in planes, and on ships.

War, Peace, and the Making of Leaders

Lyman Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 22 years ago, gestures toward the photos of the Army heroes on the wall of his Pentagon office, where he still serves as a consultant, and says bluntly that military leaders can be tested only in war.

“People in this building ask, ‘What chance have I got to become an outstand­ing character in history?’ The answer is, they probably haven’t got a chance,” the 84-year-old Lemnitzer says in a voice still resonant with command. “You don’t have the pressure in peacetime. People have to be content with just their peace­-time accomplishments, which doesn’t give them any chance of excelling, and also doesn’t give them any possibility of fail­ure.” Lemnitzer ‘s own photo hangs be­side Eisenhower’s, Ridgway’s, Gruenth­er’s–other Supreme Allied Commanders of Europe who had World War II in which to prove themselves.

To a man, the military heroes of the past most often cited as role models by officers today–George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Chester Nimitz, Omar Bradley, Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, George S. Patton Jr., Arleigh Burke, Douglas MacArthur, Matthew B. Ridg­way–all won their reputations in war.

These heroes of combat were unique in personality and dissimilar in style. Some led by fear, others by love. Some were flamboyant, some modest. They were not without defects: Washington’s tac­tics remained inappropriately European well into the Revolution. Patton’s daring bordered on recklessness. Puller’s sense of mission overrode his care for life. Nimitz once ran a ship aground.

But patterns exist. Great military leaders spare their soldiers when they can. They show innovation and flexibility of mind–an ability to learn from mistakes and adjust to battlefield reality, then use the lessons learned to achieve surprise. Predictability, caution, and indecision are not their characteristics.

And they know their business–the terrain, the weapons at hand, the strength of their own forces, and the opposition’s probable reactions. The MacArthur of World War II knew the history of every Japanese unit he faced in the field. Later, seeking an assault site in Korea, MacArthur chose Inchon harbor, whose natural and geographic features spelled amphibious disaster to everyone else. MacArthur knew Inchon had been used as a staging area for Japanese assaults on Korea 50 years before.

Another common characteristic of those heroes was that they were all intensely ambitious men, but in each case their ambition was tempered by dedication to their men and to the military task at hand.

With few exceptions, today’s military men don’t see many of their contem­poraries as cast in the heroic mold of past greats. The last great warrior, many say, was the late Creighton Abrams. In World War II, Abrams was a blood-and-guts tank man whom Patton called “his only peer.” Twenty years later, in post­-Tet Vietnam, his mission was to ease his troops, and his country, out of a politi­cally untenable position. “He was the outstanding example of leadership in our time,” says retired Army General Donn Starry. He was so good, he deserved a better war.

While leadership genius emerges in combat, many officers contend that the principal attributes of leadership can be discerned in peacetime, but too often are neglected now.

“Some of those old guys like General Chesty Puller could sure lead men, but they wouldn’t make lance corporal today,” says Colonel James L. Mc­Manaway, the Marine Corps’ director of public affairs. In his view, Puller’s out­spokenness and rugged individualism wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s PR-con­scious services.

On Lemnitzer’s wall hangs the picture of today’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who represents, perhaps, a new breed of leader–the intellectually gifted and coldly efficient Rhodes scholar, Bernard Rogers, a man of dazzling re­sumé. Rogers was decorated for bravery with the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross. His career has ranged from commanding an infantry division to serv­ing as the Army’s chief lobbyist with Congress before becoming chief of staff. Yet some Army men describe him as a manicured manager with no feel for a soldier’s life.

“He doesn’t know people, and he just gutted morale” as Army chief of staff, says William Taylor, a retired Army colonel now at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. Taylor cites Rogers’s order out­lawing distinctive unit patches and be­rets, which, commanders insist, built team esprit.

Civilian Life and a Corporate Military Style

Many of the officers we interviewed re­peated the distinction made by Bob Dil­ger between the imperatives of “man­agement” and “leadership.” No one questions the need for skilled military managers, bureaucrats and technocrats who can run complex, multibillion-dol­lar weapons systems and the support functions necessary to keep millions of troops ready. As General Robert Marsh, head of the Air Force Systems Com­mand, its weapons-procurement agency, notes, “You can’t lead a computer; you have to manage it.” And in the nuclear age, no one wants a reckless, trigger­-happy commando to have his finger on the button.

But military critics contend that man­agement is not being left to managers, but rather that the petty details of man­agement are burdening troop command­ers and strategists, sapping our military strength. Making the situation worse, they say, is that military management has taken on many of the less desirable character­istics of corporate management today. There is a tendency to focus on the short term, on measures of efficiency that can be observed instantly: budget analysis, bureaucratic tidiness, things that can be counted, ranging from body counts and the number of villages “pacified” in Vietnam to participation rates in the lat­est United Fund drive. The same prob­lems that afflict many of our industries­–executives profiting from success meas­ured in quarterly returns produced by ac­counting wizardry, while failing to plan ahead to compete in complex world mar­kets–are suffered by our military as well.

True leadership, in corporate or mil­itary life, is not so impersonal. In his book An Army of Excellence, Colonel Dandridge Malone draws the distinction succinctly: “Soldiers cannot be managed to their deaths. They must be led there.” It has been said that ours is an age without heroes, and it is clearly the case that some of today’s military-leadership problems reflect other, deeper changes in American society itself. The conflict­ing demands of two-career families liv­ing in a more affluent and leisure-ori­ented society are at odds with the conservative, hierarchical values of a disciplined military system. Fighting units would be better prepared for war, more cohesive and effective, if the soldiers lived together in barracks, partied together at military clubs, and formed stronger common bonds. But in today’s world, many soldiers leave work at 5 PM and drive away to a vastly different life, more civilian than military–whether in a trailer court or a suburb.

Some officers say that it is simply peacetime that has dulled the military’s edge, that there have been problems of military readiness and leadership throughout American history–George Washington had trouble getting his military requests through a complacent, di­vided Continental Congress.

Former Joint Chiefs chairman General David C. Jones notes in a National De­fense University publication: “Although most history books glorify our military accomplishments, a closer examination reveals a disconcerting pattern: unpre­paredness at the start of a war; initial failures; reorganizing while fighting; cranking up our industrial base; and ul­timately prevailing by wearing down the enemy–by being bigger, not smarter.”

Yet Jones and others are concerned that we no longer have the time to pre­pare after war is declared. Will we have the warrior leaders when we need them?

Taking Stock: The Impetus for Change

In March 1969, an ex-GI wrote a letter to then-Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland. In his letter, Ron Riden­hour recounted his secondhand knowl­edge of an incident in which, Ridenhour claimed, American forces had raped women, shot and killed old men, women, and children, and burned Vietnamese houses and crops.
That incident, which sent shock waves through the service, later became known as the My Lai massacre, in which 410 Vietnamese, all civilians, had died. My Lai and its aftermath compromised the integrity of the Army and raised ques­tions about Army leadership. General Westmoreland appointed Lieutenant General William Peers to head an inquiry, which resulted in charges filed against fourteen soldiers up to the rank of brigadier general.

“At all levels,” General Peers found, “from division down to platoon, it ap­peared that leadership or the lack of it was perhaps the principal factor in the tragic events before, during, and after My Lai.” Most disturbing to Peers was the massive cover-up, the failure to as­ sume responsibility, to assess blame.

Upon the inquiry’s conclusion, it was widely believed that Peers would be as­signed to command US forces in Korea. He didn’t get the job , nor another chal­lenging one, and retired shortly there­after.

As a result of the Peers inquiry, West­moreland ordered a broader study, di­recting the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to test the moral and ethical climate of the Army. Surveyed in the 1970 Study on Military Professionalism were the Army’s “elite”–the officers, from lieutenant through colonel, being groomed as the top leaders of the future. What they collective­ly told the institution about itself was devastating:

Middle- and senior-grade officers were repeatedly described as “ambitious, transitory commanders–marginally skilled in the complexities of their du­ties–engulfed in producing statistical results, fearful of personal failure, too busy to talk with or listen to subordi­nates, and determined to submit accept­ably optimistic reports which reflect faultless completion of a variety of tasks at the expense of the sweat and frustra­tion of subordinates.”

In essence, the 1970 report confirmed that something had gone wrong . It con­cluded that the climate of the Army “is conducive to self-deception because it fosters the production of inaccurate in­formation; it impacts on the long-term ability of the Army to fight and win be­cause it frustrates young, idealistic, en­ergetic officers who leave the service and are replaced by those who will tolerate, if not condone, ethical imperfection….It stifles initiative, innovation, and hu­mility because it demands perfection or the pose of perfection at every tum.”

The study’s recommendations for im­proving leadership were buried by offi­cers who feared that making the results public would further demoralize the in­stitution. And so for nine years it sat on the shelf, gathering dust.

But in 1979, when General Edward C. “Shy” Meyer became chief of staff, the War College study was resurrected. Meyer, a big man built like a football tight end, is far from shy–hence his ironic West Point nickname–and he was single-mindedly bold about leadership reform. “I saw a focus on the part of the officer corps toward personal gain, as opposed to a selflessness that I thought was essential,” Meyer recalls. “That focus was brought about through policies and procedures that encouraged ticket-punching and quick success, to the exclusion of values and principles.”

By late 1981, Meyer had instituted new goals designed to restore emphasis on classical leadership values–ethics, professionalism, mission accomplishment, and concern for people. At Army posts around the country, programs were set up to develop leadership. One was a new personnel system designed to restore the cohesion essential to the fighting spirit of small units–a unity that was missing because troops were being shuffled through in quick rotation. In Meyer’s “cohort” units, troops stayed together from the time they entered basic training through their tours of service.

Meyer lengthened commanders’ tours of duty from two years to three. The need for longer tours had become evident in Vietnam, where the services sent officers through duty tours too fast to permit them to become effective leaders. But institutional pressures within the Army killed this initiative under Meyer’s successor, General John Wickham Jr. The traditional view–that tours must be kept short to give all officers a chance at the varied assignments needed for promotion–prevailed. Some of Meyer’s reform ideas remain, but they are still in their infancy.

The General Who Wasn’t

Dandridge “Mike” Malone lives on seashell-sprinkled Sanibel Island, Flor­ida, and spends part of his time as a commercial fisherman. A wiry, leathery­-faced man who prefers faded jeans and flannel shirts to the stiff collars and ties he wore as an Army colonel, Malone still talks about his first love, the Army, with deep concern and fondness. A tape re­cording in which Malone extols the hard­ship, sacrifice, and romance of soldier­ing has been passed from hand to hand by dozens of men who share his views about the demands and rewards of the military life, and of the challenge to lead.

Malone is virtually a cult figure among the informal cadre who seek a tough­er, more effective military. The Army now pays him as a consultant on how to improve military leadership and

“Mike Malone should have worn many stars,” says Brigadier General Charles Bussey, a respected infantryman, now the Army’s deputy chief of public af­fairs. Bussey and a lot of Army men, including former chief of staff Meyer, regretthatMalone,54,isnolongerin theranks.ButMalonewasdeniedpro­motionfromcoloneltogeneralandre­tiredtofishingandpreachingmilitary leadership.

Malone’s distinguished career in­cluded commanding troops, from a pla­toon to a battalion in Vietnam. His book, An Army of Excellence, originally was authorized as a training manual. In it, Malone characterizes the military leaders needed today:They…are not the prisoners of their procedures, but leaders whose hallmarks are initiative, innova­tiveness, independence of action, flexi­bility, and the willingness to take risks. Our Army is not a ‘corporation.’ De­fending this nation is not an ‘occupation.’ And being a soldier is not a ‘job.’ There is no business firm anywhere that has, as its foremost objective, the re­quirement to fight and win the land battle.”

“I could never have made general be­cause I never could have gotten to be the best there is in leadership training and still have made all the necessary rounds to be general,” reflects Malone. He chose to leave the Army so that he could pursue his specialty–training and teaching the art of leadership. Malone’s advancement was not helped by the fact that, from the early 1970s, he had been a critic of what was wrong with Army leadership.

Mike Malone’s aborted career is cited by reformers within the Army as an ex­ample of the rigidities of the promotion system. The officer corps of every serv­ice is a human pyramid topped by its chief, with 10,000 ensigns or second lieutenants at its base. Culling, or “se­lection,” begins near the base and continues throughout an officer’s career, growing ever keener as he or she nears the pinnacle. Way stations on the path to the stars are fairly standard–field commands, Pentagon duty, academic credentials, service schools. Those who cannot or, like Malone, will not move up by the route prescribed by the system must give up the race.

Ticket-Punching to the Top

This “up or out” system guarantees a young force and eliminates the dead wood that characterizes, for instance, the So­viet services, but it tends to give its men a cookie-cutter sameness, at least in their service experiences. And not until the moment of war may the nation ever miss the unorthodox talent that fell, jumped, or was pushed from the trail along with the true culls.

Officers learn that the more impres­sive their credentials and the faster they accumulate them–the morepunches” in their “tickets”–the greater their chances of promotion. They move, then, an average of once every two years from station to station (at an annual taxpayer cost of $2.6 billion), seldom staying long enough to learn a job well.

Department of Defense figures for 1983 show that less than half of all officers and enlisted men in the four services will stay with their units for even a year. That means lack of unit cohesion and constant retraining.

Until he resigned last year to join a Wall Street investment-banking firm, Brigadier General Peter Dawkins was considered the ultimate career role model, a sure bet to become Army chief of staff. All-American football player at West Point, Rhodes scholar at Oxford, MA and PhD from Princeton, White House aide, holder of a variety of field commands, usually brief ones: At 43, he was the youngest general in the Army. Some call his resignation a loss to the Army. Other military men say he represented the classic case of a fast-traveling ticket-puncher who hit the glamour spots but never stayed long enough to make strong contributions.

A more controversial career path was followed by retired General Alexander Haig. Haig’s meteoric rise from colonel to four-star general in four years was spurred not so much by his military prowess as by his success as an aide, first to Joseph Califano at the Pentagon during the Johnson administration, and then to Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford in the White House. Haig is a decorated combat veteran and has his admirers, but one tough military analyst dismisses his service as that of “a horse holder to the great.”

Through such “careerism”–which James Fallows, in his book National De­fense, defines as “the desire to be, rather than the desire to do”–the officer learns to see himself as an isolated, self-inter­ested individual whose link to his unit­–the most life-sustaining bond of com­bat–is tenuous at best.

But nothing better illustrates this system’s misplaced values than its treatment of legitimate heroes. Although the Navy has raised half a dozen of its Vietnam prisoners of war to the rank of admiral, the vast majority have left the service or languish at lower ranks because their time in Hanoi kept them from command and staff work the Navy thinks more vital. Captain Ray Alcorn, shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and now a train­ing administrator for the deputy chief of Naval Operations for air warfare, says his record can’t match that of his com­petitors. “My experience has been lim­ited by sitting in jail for seven years. If you needed someone to train on how to be a POW, I might be chosen. But we don’t have that kind of specialty, he laughs.

Too Many Bureaucrats

The “ticket punch” is common to the services. In the Navy, a thick manual called the Unrestricted Line Officer Career Planning Guidebook, in effect a roadmap to the top, goes to every newly com­missioned Navy officer. In so many words, the handbook describes “how to make the system work for you.” It stresses the value of graduate education, service college, and command. Every move, every promotion, requires a selection or screening board. Every rank requires a sea tour.

Detailed charts explain the “career paths” of combat and noncombat offi­cers; these tell the new men and women when they’ll go to sea, when they’ll go ashore, and when they’ll go to Washington. In practice, Pentagon duty is considered as crucial to success as sea command is; as an officer gains seniority, repeated tours there are the norm.

Four-star admirals, the most successful Navy men, show a career pattern that begins at Annapolis (until last year, when one non-Academy man became a full admiral, all eight were Academy grad­uates) and moves immediately to sea duty or flight instruction, followed by two or three years of staff work or schooling ashore, with another sea tour to round out ten years.

By then, most successful officers­–the so-called hot runners–will have be­come lieutenant commanders with post­-graduate or Naval War College creden­tials. They’ll be second in command of a ship or sub. (Aviators take fifteen years to reach this point in a squadron.) And they will have left behind more than 60 percent of their fellows. According to Vice Admiral Robert L. Walters, deputy chief of Naval Operations for surface warfare, an officer who fails to make second-in-command (executive officer) has little chance of further promotion and should switch to a noncombat specialty like public affairs or engineering duty.

At ten years, a hot runner is on the verge of his first, critical Washington tour–in the office of the chief of Naval Operations, at the Navy’s personnel bureau, or as an aide at the White House or the Navy Secretary’s office.

The value of early Washington duty can’t be overestimated. Rear Admiral Sayre A. Swarztrauber, recently retired after 31 years and now superintendent of the Maine Maritime Academy, reached the Pentagon as a lieutenant and spent the rest of his career shuttling between sea duty and Washington. “If you do a good job as a lieutenant in Washington,” he says, “you go back as a lieutenant commander, you go back as a com­mander, you go back as a captain, and they’ll make an admiral out of you!”

Annapolis men, he says, learn as much as they can about the sea, about weapons systems and shipboard operations; they leave the Academy determined to become the best ship drivers the Navy has ever seen. But after five years at sea and a close look at their superiors’ career patterns, they learn that they must move up by accepting the Navy’s plans for them. And they end up as bureaucrats.

The most coveted assignments at the higher ranks, Swarztrauber says, are as executive assistant to the Navy Secre­tary, to the vice chief or chief of Naval Operations, or to the deputy chief for plans and policy. A “purple suit” post (so called for the combined uniform colors of the four services) with the policy directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or as an aide to the chairman himself, is also a plum. An Air Force careerist can make a name for himself by working for the Secretary of Defense, but for Navy men the Navy and the Joint Chiefs come first. Swarztrauber complains that this system produces too many bureaucrats (“like me,” he says) and not enough shipboard-operations experts.

Washington jobs abound. Today, 119 of 216 naval officers of commodore and admiral rank are stationed in the immediate Washington area. Of 344 Air Force generals, 107 serve in Washington.

The Air Force–with one officer for each 4.5 enlisted men–has the largest officer corps, a total of 106,500 officers in a force of 590,000. The Army has 72,500 officers and 669,300 enlisted personnel; the Navy has 65,400 officers in a total force of 568,000. The Marine Corps is the smallest service, with 18,700 officers among its total force of 195,000.

Retired General Bruce Clarke says to­day’s military creates unnecessary jobs so that more officers can become gen­erals. “There are 63 Army generals serv­ing as assistants,” he says. “There weren’t even 63 generals in the Civil War.”

Short Tours, Self-Service

Army Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr. is an active-duty officer deeply concerned about problems of military leadership and not afraid to speak boldly about them. He has earned decorations for bravery, including the Silver Star, in eight battle campaigns, starting as an enlisted squad leader in Korea and continuing as an of­ficer through the final evacuation from South Vietnam. Now quartered in a small office crowded with military books at the Army War College, the 51-year-old au­thor of the much-praised book On Strat­egy teaches and writes about military strategy and leadership. Summers tells a story to illustrate how the ticket-punch­ing syndrome can reach extremes:

In 1973, toward the end of the Viet­nam war, the Army sent a new chief of intelligence to Saigon. “He needed a short tour for promotion, and he needed it in Vietnam,” recounts Summers. “The only problem was that he was an Indonesia specialist. There were plenty of Vietnam specialists in the Army then, but they already had Vietnam tours.” In this case, the needs of the nation and the Army came second to an officer’s next ticket punch.

The Army wasn’t the only villain of ticket-punching in Vietnam. “A lot of lives were lost because a lot of managers went over to have their tickets punched,” charges retired Marine Colonel Gerald Turley, who says that the Marine Corps now has recovered from that dark era.

“What you need to do is create an environment where careerism serves the needs of the nation,” says Summers. “You want people to be ambitious. You want people to seek out difficult jobs. What you need to bring out is that the jobs that enhance their careers are the most difficult to do. If being a general’s aide enhances your promotability, that’s dumb! To want to be a company com­mander is a legitimate ambition because that enhances the future of the Army.” Quoting Confucius, Summers says: “The superior man does what’s right; the lesser man does what pays. Since almost all of us are lesser men, what we need is a structure, a system where what’s im­portant pays.”

Yet many within the Army argue that rotating officers through short duty tours is necessary to keep up morale–to give everyone a chance for a shot at the top spots–and that short tours are necessary to provide future leaders with a variety of experiences, a range of knowledge, in preparation for the responsibilities of higher rank. And in the real world of American politics, they insist, men must serve in the internecine atmosphere of Washington government, learning how to fight for appropriations, to deal with Congress, to maneuver within the Pen­tagon and the White House.

The reformers’ concern is that officers need depth as well as breadth, substan­tive experience more than the finesse of a much-traveled, skillful bureaucrat. Describing the erosive effects of the promotion process, Ward Just, in his book Military Men, writes that “the system seems to wear most men as smooth as beach pebbles.”

Generalists vs. Specialists

Retired Army Colonel William J. Taylor Jr., director of political-military studies at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, ar­gues that the military needs more spe­cialization.

“Tell me,” Taylor asks, “how having a general serve as director of military personnel when he’s a three-star, as com­mander of the Third Infantry Division when he’s a two-star, as assistant direc­tor on the Joint Chiefs’ staff as a one­-star, as chief of staff of the 9th Infantry Division when he’s colonel, working on a weapons program when he’s a lieuten­ant colonel, and going to command and staff college at Leavenworth when he’s a major–tell me how that gives a four­-star a world view.”

In Taylor’s view, specialists such as Army Colonels Harry Summers and Mike Malone–men with fighting experience, but also with strong intellectual backgrounds devoted to probing important military issues–should reach high rank. However, a reputation as an intellectual usually is not helpful for promotion; and an intellectual critical of his institution must plan early on for a second career writing books.

Taylor says the US military’s pro­motion system is hard to change because the kind of specialization needed for modern times–the kind the British, Ger­mans, and Israelis all use–would “rip apart the entire promotion and manpower system as it exists today.” In the German and Israeli armies, an officer may spend an entire career as an infantry captain or fighter pilot.

One argument for encouraging and re­taining specialists at lower levels is made forcefully by pilots in the 141st Tactical Fighter Squadron of the New Jersey National Guard, stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, near Wrightstown. Captain Daryl Emerson is one of the many young pilots who turned down the prospect of one too many desk jobs in Washington, resigned his regular commission, and signed up with the Air National Guard.

“I wanted to fly,” explains Emerson, a 34-year-old pilot with ten years of ac­ tive duty under his belt. He is set for a spin in an F-4, the faithful fighter model designed in the 1950s and parceled out to the Guard when the active Air Force went on to newer, more sophisticated models like the F-16.

Though F-16 pilots have an advantage over the Guard’s older airplanes in ma­neuverability, the Guard–with pilots like Emerson who just “want to fly”–gives them a run for their money in competitive drills.

Guardsman Emerson’s story is not un­usual. Some military men worry that too many of the most experienced and prom­ising young officers are leaving the armed services, particularly those who are good at flying fighter planes, commanding in­fantry troops, and training them for bat­tle. Many Air Force pilots, frustrated with non-flying assignments and frequent duty rotation, leave the service for commer­cial-airline jobs. And though money for training flights flows more freely than it did in the 1970s, a lot of pilots have left the Air Force simply because they didn’t get enough flying time.

According to Marine Corps Lieuten­ant Colonel David Evans, even in the service generally conceded to have the best esprit de corps, “the best, most in­sightful, and most curious soldiers are not staying in the Marine Corps.”

Evans, who loves his desk detail in the Office of Manpower, Planning, and Analysis at the Department of Defense, says the services are wrong to stop the soldiers who prefer the fighting side of military life from pursuing combat ca­reers. “There are guys who love charg­ing troops up and down hills at Camp Pendleton, but when they get too good at it, they get pulled to staff assignments.”

“Up or out,” the saying goes. Offi­cers in all services are dismissed or re­tired if passed over for promotion three times. But the odds are tough–from colonel to general, only a small per­centage make it, only one in twelve in the Army. Colonel Harry Summers of the War College says, “We have institutionalized a system where the only re­ward, the only measure of success, is promotion, and that’s dumb, because we can’t promote everybody. We need to stress other rewards.”

Most military authorities acknowl­edge that different qualities and abilities are needed at different levels of leader­ship. Some lieutenant colonels make great battalion commanders but lack the skills and breadth of vision to be good division or regimental commanders, for example. Such people–too many of them, re­formers say–are dismissed in a rigid “up or out” system that overlooks the contributions career officers can make, even if they do not achieve higher rank.

Inside the Promotion System

In the heart of the Arlington Annex, a beige, four-story building that houses the Naval Personnel Command, is a small, dimly lit room known as “the tank.” Three rows of airline bucket seats face a small movie screen. Behind the seats are three slide projectors and a stack of Bibles. The thirteen men seated in the bucket seats already have been sworn to secrecy. Events in this tank may decide the fate of a naval officer’s entire career.

Last February, eleven Navy rear ad­mirals and two commodores met in this room for thirteen days to review the rec­ords of 925 commanders eligible for pro­motion to captain. Only 251 would suc­ceed. Initially, each of the members of the promotion board had reviewed and summarized the fitness reports of 30 to 40 candidates. The reports told them everything from the candidates’ dates of birth, education, and commands to summations of performance and personality traits.

The board member responsible for a candidate’s initial review uses a flashlight to point out on the screen the salient points of the candidate’s career. When he finishes the review, the voting begins. Hooked to the side of each seat is a small metal box with five buttons for voting. The buttons are under a metal hood, so that no member can see which button any other pushes. The buttons denote the ratings of “confidence” the member has for a particular candidate: 100, 75, 50, 25, or 0 percent. Sliding their right hands between the cushioned seats, the Navy officers push one of the buttons–a de­cision that will help determine each can­didate’s future in the Navy.

Similar promotion boards meet con­tinually within all the services. Most of­ficers, even those who don’t get pro­moted, say the system is the fairest they know to pick tomorrow’s leaders. The fitness reports on which promotion boards must rely, however, have come under attack as being so inflated as to be mean­ingless. Some participants estimate that about 85 percent of all officers are rated as “outstanding” in all categories.

How can promotion boards possibly choose the best people when grade in­flation makes it nearly impossible to dis­tinguish among candidates? Admiral Watkins, the chief of Naval Operations, says that promotion-board members know how to read between the lines of similar­-looking efficiency ratings, and that in­flated ratings help keep up the morale of officers who do a good job but don’t get promoted.

Yet, as if to confirm the relative use­lessness of inflated efficiency reports, the Air Force allows secret handwritten, hand-delivered reports to be submitted to promotion boards selecting lieutenant colonels and colonels.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General John S. Pustay, former head of the Na­tional Defense University, acknowl­edges the pervasiveness of grade infla­tion. “I’ve asked myself many times how we got ourselves in this position, but now that we’re here, it’s very difficult to get ourselves out,” he says.

Grade inflation is regarded by some reformers as symptomatic of current fail­ings in military leadership. Senior offi­cers inflate grades because of worry that if they give low marks to their subordinates, their own work and units will be judged inferior at promotion time.

Retired Navy Captain Stuart Landers­man explains: “By marking them all ‘A’ you make life easier for the board. They don’t have to wrestle with a mixed eval­uation. If you don’t say your guys are perfect and the other commanders do, yours lose out.”

In his book On Watch, Admiral Zum­walt recounts the message that was mis­understood when one of his young pro­teges was passed over for promotion to commander. The young man’s boss, Secretary of the Navy Fred Korth, evi­dently did not know the code in which fitness reports were written. “He had described Dick as an ‘excellent officer,’ meaning that he was an excellent offi­cer,” says Zumwalt. “However, to con­vey the idea an officer is excellent in fitness-report dialect you must say he is ‘outstanding.’ To say he is ‘excellent’ merely means he is adequate. In short, ‘excellent’ is the kind of word that makes a selection board think, ‘Uh-oh, that guy must have fouled up somewhere.’ “

Zumwalt’s story touches on another leadership problem, the so-called “zero defect” syndrome , a standard of pro­motion that says that you can’t have a single flaw on your record. Leadership­ reform advocates say this “zero defect” system inhibits the innovation and risk­ taking that mark great leaders.

Generals disagree about how much “risk-taking” is encouraged in today’s Army. “We need a climate that allows new ideas to flourish and we must un­derstand that people are not perfect,” says retired Army Lieutenant General Ju­lius Becton Jr. “Unfortunately, across the board, the system does not support risk-takers.” Major General Vincent E. Falter, commanding general of the Ar­my’s Military Personnel Center, disa­grees: “The Army is now trying to de­velop officers who are innovative and resourceful and have the freedom to fail. We’re willing to underwrite that failure. We should give them the opportunity to make a mistake without having their careers destroyed in the process.”

Army Lieutenant General Jack Mer­ritt, joint staff director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls the zero-defect syndrome “ridiculous and abhorrent.” He says, “People should not confuse failure re­sulting from innovation with failure re­sulting from stupidity. The Army needs to look at the whole system of promo­tions. We’ve got to figure out some way to get out of [over-inflated efficiency re­ports]. And I don’t know how.”

The Procurement Game

At 2 AM the admiral strolls into the bake shop of the 4,950-man aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, on maneuvers in the Ionian Sea. Just for a doughnut, he says, looking worn; the message traffic has been heavy and he needs a break. “The kids” are awed upon his entrance, but his easy manner draws them out, and soon he’s hearing what he really came for–their opinions and their latest news from home. A kid from Nebraska him­self once, Robert F. Schoultz was a long time in the Navy before he ever saw an admiral, and when he’s aboard ship he wants his men to know him.

“Schoultz makes an investment in you; he entices you to follow him,” says Navy Captain Judson H. Springer. “I can’t explain it, but the way he leads people makes them want to stay in the Navy.” Schoultz is now a vice admiral, the dep­uty chief of Naval Operations for air war­fare, and Springer serves under him in the Pentagon. And Admiral Schoultz is a concerned man–a leader pressed from several directions to sacrifice his honest military judgment to the needs of politics and pork barrel.

Schoultz is the kind of man who re­ceives visitors in his shirtsleeves, in a building full of men who button their jackets to answer the phone. Aides offer coffee Navy-style, in china cups and sau­cers from a silver coffee service while Schoultz, weathered and kinetic at 59, sprawls easily in a conference chair, wraps a lean hand around a stoneware mug marked “Dutch,” and starts to talk about money.

“I’m on the Hill defending the ’85 budget. You go over and give them a little pitch, and then you sit back and grit your teeth and wait for the questions to come,” he says.

“Some [congressman is] building cameras in his district. He wants to know why you [the Navy] bought that German camera, that Zeiss-Ikon, instead of the one from his constituent. And then he says, ‘I think you ought to buy a lot more of these airplanes, because didn’t you say they’re doing a good job?’ Yes. ‘Well, don’t you think you ought to buy more? Why are you only buying six?’ Well, you know right away that those airplanes are built in his district. And that’s what they’re there for, to represent their dis­trict, so they have their own little pet projects.”

A House committee “beat his socks off” last year for giving the Naval Re­serves priority over regular forces on new airplanes, he says. This year, with a new member, the same committee roasted him for not putting enough planes into the reserves.

Schoultz is a direct man, and the pol­itics of procurement–on either side­–doesn’t sit easily with him.

“We defend the budget, even though I don’t believe in some of it,” he says. “I put in for one type of plane. I thought we needed five. And it went down to the Secretary of Defense’s office and they thought I needed nine, so they put nine in it. So now it goes over to the Hill, and I have to go over and tell why I need nine airplanes. And sometimes I have trouble with that, because I don’t really know why I need nine airplanes. I only needed five of that kind. But now it’s the President’s budget and I have to de­fend it.”

The difference between Schoultz’s original request for five P-3C Orions and the Defense Department’s add-on was $214.8 million.

What Admiral Schoultz so candidly describes is the inner workings of the military-industrial-political complex–the process by which the nation spent $94 billion on military procurement in fiscal 1984. This process is fueled by enor­mous political pressures: At stake are the profits of large companies, thousands of jobs, and sometimes the careers of pol­iticians–not to mention the nation’s se­curity and, yes, perhaps the fate of the world.

At best, the decisions are difficult. Should the nation spend $30 billion to patch up 30-year-old B-52s that are being used now? Or should it invest the same amount of money in new B-1s equipped with today’s technology, but which won’t be operational until 1987-1989, or in Stealth bombers, which can’t be de­ployed until the mid-1990s?

Given these important choices, it is disheartening to many officers that the process is charged with so much politics and inter-service rivalry. Members of Congress, weapons manufacturers, and rival services too often form their own combat lines–with less lofty motives than the most effective military mission–in bloody battles to win contracts and power.

Military officers, operating in this Machiavellian quicksand, are hard pressed not to sacrifice idealism, candor, and good judgment for more pragmatic behavior, and often are rewarded for doing so. Those who refuse to go along are often elbowed out. In this atmosphere, Congress and the administration often are ready to spend money for procurement of new weapons but unwilling to fund training, weapons testing, more Guard and Reserve units, better maintenance, and other vital com­ponents of today’s military readiness. The implicit assumption is that we don’t have to fight tomorrow but at some unknown time in the future–unlike Bob Dilger’s maxim that the military must be ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

Leaders like Admiral Schoultz are un­der pressure not only to support inflated procurement budgets, but to keep large projects rolling, irrespective of cost overruns or considerations such as whether the weapon really will work effectively.

One victim of the rush to buy was Thomas Amlie, who used to be the tech­nical-systems director of the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, Cali­fornia–until he warned his superiors that the Harpoon anti-ship missile they were studying would be costly and unreliable. Years later, Amlie ran into the admiral who had been his boss, and learned that the system was plagued with the very problems he had predicted. The admiral, in retrospect, wished Amlie had been more insistent about dropping the system at the time. “I was,” Amlie replied. “You kicked my ass out.”

Retired Navy Captain James Quinn, a former fighter pilot and test pilot who became project manager for the Sparrow missile system, says military officers often face a political “Catch 22” in procure­ment that compromises honest judg­ments about weapons development. When officers protest that a proposed weapon will not work or will cost too much, Quinn says they are told, “Don’t criti­cize it yet–they’ll cut off our money.” When complaints are made later that a project still isn’t working, they are again quashed with the rejoinder, “It’s too late. We’re already committed to it.”

Similarly, the procurement system al­most guarantees both dishonest cost es­timates by military officers and eventual cost overruns. Quinn says: “If anyone tried to put the weapons in at real cost, very little would ever get done.”

Another problem in the procurement process is the “revolving door” syn­drome, whereby retired military offi­cers go to work for defense-contract­ing firms. The fear is that officers forced “up or out” by the promotion system may try to curry favor with the contrac­tors–prospective employers–by approv­ing weapons systems even when they are too costly or still have kinks. Another concern is that, once inside defense­ contracting firms, the retired officers can use their contacts inside the mili­tary to swing weapons contracts to their new employers.

Military officers concede that the “up and out” policy puts them in a tight spot. “We relieve people when they still have lots of capability,” says General Robert T. Marsh, who heads the Air Force Sys­tems Command. “My specialty is ac­quisitions. When I get out, my pension will not be such that I can continue to maintain the standard of living to which I am accustomed.”

For officers in the procurement field, jobs with defense contractors are the logical place for them to apply their expe­rience. But Thomas Amlie, now a ci­vilian analyst with the Air Force, says the availability of a civilian job with a defense contractor depends on an offi­cer’s not rocking the boat while in the service–about test results, contract compliance, or costs.

Air Force Major General Robert D. Beckel fiercely defends the integrity of officers working in procurement. “Many officers won’t even answer the phone if a defense contractor approaches them,” he says. “They want to ensure that while they are wearing the blue shirt, they are dedicated to this country and to doing the job right.” In contrast, retired Army General Bruce Clark notes that officers nearing retirement flock to the Pentagon. “That is why nobody wants to go to command in their final years,” he says. “In the Pentagon, they get to know people. They get to know the contractors; they get to know the think-thank people.”

Take the case of retired Air Force General Alton Slay, former head of Systems Command, the procurement arm of the Air Force. Slay approved $4 billion in spare-parts purchases before he retired–$1.5 billion of which was awarded to Pratt & Whitney, where he now works as a consultant.

Another criticism of procurement practices is that the “ticket-punching” syndrome of short tours seldom leaves an officer on any one weapons assignment long enough to develop real technical competence. If people knew they were in charge for the duration, until the weapon was finally produced, they would not only care more about quality but would hurry things along a bit, contends retired Army Colonel Lewis “Bob” Sorley, a prominent critic of short duty tours.

Others say the services should do what they are expert in: setting the specifications, telling the civilian developers what they need to win with, and, finally, testing the products. Let the developers and producers take it from there, they say. That way, our military leaders would be less poisoned by the politics of procurement; they could focus more on the military issues: Does it work? Will it help us in battle–or in deterrence?


In 1975, Marine Corps Lieutenant General Albert Gray conducted the evacuation of Saigon as North Vietnamese forces were moving in. “The operational plan put out by the Air Force was on stacks of computer paper about two and a half feet high,” he recalls. “When you made a change in the plan, you got a whole new printout. Every night at about 7:30 or 8, one of my men would bring in this plan on a little wheelbarrow…and every night he and I would go out and dump it. And we conducted the evacuation of Saigon–we pulled out over 8,000 people–on a fragmentary order that was half a page long, double-spaced.”

Increasing involvement of the President, Secretary of Defense, and high-ranking military officers in the detailed actions of subordinate military commanders in the field–so-called “micro-management”–troubles some military men and women because it violates important precepts of leadership. Senior officers should establish goals and entrust officers down the chain of command to use initiative and innovation to carry them out, giving them the kind of freedom and support Lee gave to his generals.

In contrast to the order General George C. Marshall gave to General Eisenhower in World War II (“Cross the Channel, enter the heartland of Germany, and free the continent of Europe”), for example, are the myriad details sent in 1966 by General Earl Wheeler to General Westmoreland in Vietnam (“Increase the population in secure areas to 60 percent; increase the destruction of VC/PAVN base areas to 40 to 50 percent,” and so on).

There are explanations for the change from macro- to micro-leadership. Communications technology has exploded in the last two decades, making it possible for a President or chief of staff to talk instantly to US forces anywhere in the world.

Another–and more serious–reason for higher-level control of military actions is the threat of nuclear war. Fearing that any conflict could escalate to a nuclear confrontation, top leaders, civilian and military, want to fine-tune even limited engagements. But increasingly since World War II, the tendency for the civilian branch of government to dominate military operations has led to the overruling of military judgments in the field.

President Reagan gave unusual freedom to military commanders in the Grenada mission, but by most accounts the situation was far different in Beirut. Lieutenant Colonel Wayman R. Bishop III, an authority on the Middle East at the Marine Command and Staff College, says the highest levels of government officials were making the decisions to fire on Syrian positions.

Without questioning the President’s authority as commander-in-chief, it has been suggested that military leaders sometimes should offer to resign rather than carry out orders that they believe violate fundamental precepts of warfare or personal conduct. But such resignations rarely occur. Admiral Swarztrauber notes that in Vietnam, “Not once did the military really stand up to be counted. Nobody had the guts to tell the president he was wrong. They gave him advice, but nobody put his foot down.”

Old Values for New Realities

Under the cover of darkness, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 30 Army paratroopers climb into helicopters and steal away into the damp southern night. Their mission: to locate a wooden bridge several hundred miles away in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, destroy it, and return to their base before daylight.

That mission is one of the many war games devised by commanders of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, headquartered at Bragg, in an effort to build leadership and battle-readiness. Lieutenant Colonel Larry Izzo, who devised the bridge-burning exercise, says, “The first time we go on an exercise, we make lots of mistakes; the second time, fewer. That’s what training is all about.” Izzo says his men aren’t penalized for mistakes made in training, unless they don’t learn from them.

In the course of investigating the state of military leadership today, we visited soldiers in the field at Fort Bragg, Marines training at Quantico, Virginia, and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, reserve fighter pilots in New Jersey, and Navy fighter pilots, destroyermen, and submariners in Norfolk, Virginia. We talked with leadership instructors at the Naval Academy, the Army War College, and the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. At each of these installations, the military insists that it is paying increased attention to developing leadership abilities in its commissioned and noncommissioned officers.

In past years, leadership training received short shrift at the service academies and war colleges. The subject has undergone constant evolution–at one time featuring “blood and guts” role models from history, at others leaning heavily on sociological and psychological theory. The service academies and advanced schools now provide more courses on leadership, military history, and strategy. Army reformers are encouraged because Colonel Howard Prince, an officer they consider a “true believer,” now heads the expanded leadership-training program at West Point. But everyone acknowledges that leadership is a difficult subject to teach–involving as it does fundamental values that are as much a part of religion and family as of military or other institutions.

The best training, everyone agrees, is by personal example, and by plans and exercises that encourage attributes of leadership–initiative, creativity, risk-taking, care for one’s soldiers, competence at one’s job. The Army believes that it is fostering a return to old leadership values with AirLand Battle 2000, a plan developed in 1982 under Chief of Staff Meyer for fighting major land wars. The plan places decision-making responsibility at lower levels on the theory that combat would be very fluid and less suited to execution through a rigid command structure.

With 40,000 troops at Fort Hood, Texas, under commanding General Walter F. Ulmer Jr., the Army is conducting a program to encourage officers to be innovative, to take risks, and to challenge bureaucratic and managerial rules that don’t make sense. “Power down” is the slogan for soldiers to make decisions at the lowest practical levels of command. “Leadership on the battlefield will grow naturally if we clear away the [bureaucratic] clutter,” says Ulmer, who constantly challenges his staff to make sense out of all orders and personally responds to calls on his complaint hot line.

In the Pentagon itself, officials like Lieutenant General Robert Elton, deputy Army chief of staff for personnel, are pushing for leadership initiative. Pointing to a photograph of a strange, dune-buggy-like machine, Elton explains that this experimental fast-attack vehicle is being developed because the Army listened to and encouraged the lieutenant colonel who came up with the idea.

Still, such leadership experiments, like those at Fort Hood, are embryonic, and no one believes they can be spread throughout the service by edict alone.

Military reformers constantly refer back to the recommendations made almost fifteen years ago in the Military Professionalism Study: the need for longer tours of duty for officers; the need for more candid fitness reports assessing the potential of officers and the readiness of their troops; the need for less emphasis on promotion as the only criterion of success. Others stress the need for greater specialization to increase competence on the battlefield and in tactical and strategic planning. Political pressures in the procurement process could be eased either by giving officers greater responsibility and accountability through longer tours of duty on procurement programs, or by getting the military out of the development process–permitting them to specify what they need and then to test rigorously to make sure that it works.

There are other military problems that are beyond the reach of the military alone. Civilian leadership must settle the confused disputes over which military missions are in our national interest. Strong civilian leadership must force rival military services into coming up with coherent, sensible plans for the national defense, rather than unworkable compromises in which each service must be given a piece of the action.

Admiral James D. Watkins, the chief of Naval Operations, says, “We may be part of the problem, but we’re not all of the problem. You’ve got to ask, ‘What does the nation need to do to raise its leadership standards as a whole?’ We have to get this whole sense of personal responsibility extended beyond the military, into all aspects of government and society, in the Congress, in the White House, in Defense, in industry, in American business. The Congress has to feel it. When we say, ‘Let’s shut down an air station,’ can they stand up and say, ‘That’s in my district, but I agree, we’ve got to do what’s right for the country’? It’s got to be part of a national resolve to do all these things.”

Solving the military’s leadership problems will not solve all the problems of the military, but it will make the military better able to defend the security of the United States, and to do it without bankrupting the nation’s economy.

There is reason to be optimistic, despite the difficulties entailed: Good military officers, and there are many, have a great deal at stake in this objective. “Probably the largest peace lobby you have in this country wears military uniforms,” says Rear Admiral William A. Walsh, director of the Navy’s Surface Warfare Division. “They’ve seen war; they’ve had a whole lot of friends killed; they never want to see it again. And so we do all we can to try to see that there never is a war. That’s our main goal in life.”