January 12, 2023

The Million-Dollar Muzzle: A Follow-up to Yingling

In a 2007 article published in Armed Forces Journal entitled “A Failure in Generalship,” US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling wrote a compelling indictment of currently serving general officers and the impact their failures have had on America’s national security.  Yingling offered a solid understanding of the poor outcomes that the system, so defining of the Army officer corps, produces.  What Yingling does not do is provide explanations about “why” the system functions in this manner.  In our article, we suggest that the US Army’s institutionalized system of reward and promotion, which undergirds a long enduring culture of conformity, is specifically designed to produce the feckless generals that Yingling portrayed.[ii]

The US Army is a complex social system in which entrenched bureaucracies thwart even modest change.  This professional institution also possesses an insular culture that has always resisted change, especially any reformation of the officer corps.  Historically, strong evidence exists that persistent careerism has led to widespread, unacceptable behaviors among the Army’s officers.  Examples include General William Westmoreland’s commission of the Army War College’s 1970 “Study on Military Professionalism.”[iii]  Prompted by a note from Lieutenant General William Peers, the lead investigator into the My Lai atrocity, that “something had gone badly wrong within the Army’s officer corps,” the Army War College report confirmed Peers’ observations.[iv]  However, it is telling that upon receiving the report, Westmoreland restricted its access and directed that the report be classified.  Similarly, in the 1990s, the Army faced a serious exodus of company grade officers due largely to unbridled careerism among the field grade officer ranks.[v]  More recently, in a 2011 article entitled “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving,” author Tim Kane found from a survey of West Point graduates that eighty-two percent believed that the best officers in the Army were leaving.  Keane noted that “the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit.  Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk avoidance trickles down the chain of command.”[vi]   

Despite several highly publicized transformations since Vietnam, no changes and reforms have ever addressed or resolved the fundamental problems of careerism or the Army’s culture of conformity.  Consequently, the caliber of officers who advance in the Army’s promotion system is open to question.  Indeed, the career advancement system, from lieutenant to general, conforms to a rigid mold that begins at selection and ends in a lucrative retirement.  How many capable, highly intelligent officers have fallen by the wayside since Vietnam and the First Gulf War simply because they did not fit this mold?


“…the system has to permit more dissent without the sacrifice of careers as the price.”

                                                          — Brigadier General Douglas Kinnard, 1976[i]



Why the Culture of Conformity Persists

The Army’s officer promotion system is supposedly designed to objectively evaluate the performance of commissioned officers and to provide them with feedback on their potential.  However, it is a closed, top-down system that has been in place for decades with only limited changes and improvements.  Since the Vietnam War period, when careerism ran rampant throughout the Army officer corps, the Army has attempted to improve the Officer Evaluation Report (OER) largely to eliminate inflationary ratings. In 1969, for example, a study from the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (ODCSPER), noted that “there exists a serious lack of confidence by officers in the value and usefulness of the report form.”[vii]  The decade long (1972 to 1982) implementation of a new Officer Personnel Management System (OPMS) produced a system that failed to address careerism and an inflationary and subjective evaluation methodology.[viii]  Indeed, in the down-sized post-Cold War Army of the 1990s, junior officer attrition was severe and officers were “unhappy, more selfish, and competitive, and less committed and cooperative.  The Army’s leadership [was] slow to acknowledge and even slower to address these alarming trends.”[ix]  The trends yet continued into the 21st century.  A 2001 monograph from the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) noted the feelings of disenfranchisement:

Two major contributing factors caused discontent and possible attrition among junior officers. The first, the lack of formal counseling from senior officers, has a decidedly negative impact on how junior officers view the US Army. . . The second is the perception that senior raters pool all Captains in their organization in order to build their rating profile. The Captains’ perception is that pooling produces standardized OERs ranking all Captains as center of mass performers during the times that they hold non-branch qualifying jobs. Pooling tends to disregard aptitude and talent according to the results from the focus group survey. Only Captains serving as company commanders are eligible for top ratings and this practice is viewed as grossly unfair.[x]

Today, four decades after Vietnam, the current evaluation system and OER appear to offer few improvements over previous methods.  Similar to its predecessors, the current OER is a two-page document that reflects the assessments of the rated officer’s “rater” and “senior rater,” that is, the supervisor one and two levels up the chain of command.  Officers receive evaluations annually unless there is a “change of rater” within the one-year time frame.  Although the rater and senior rater provide both comparative and narrative feedback, the senior rater’s portion is the most important.  Here, the senior rater categorizes the evaluated officer in one of four levels or “blocks”: above center of mass, center of mass, below center of mass/retain, or below center of mass/ do not retain.  The senior rater is limited to placing no more than fifty percent of his or her rated officers in the above center of mass category.  Most senior raters consistently approach the fifty percent threshold and very few reports fall into either of the below center of mass categories.

The most recent and disconcerting change to the system is that only four of the ten officer grades - major through brigadier general - receive this definitive feedback.  The other six grades only receive narratives.  Consequently, the value of the report is subject to the writing ability of the rater and senior rater as well as the reader’s interpretation. At the same time, this evaluation system is the primary determinant of promotion, assignment, and retention in the Army officer corps.

The military retirement system is an all or nothing system in that no vesting occurs after a reasonable period of service as in most civilian retirement plans.  Therefore, if an officer chooses to leave or is forced to leave prior to completing twenty years of service, he or she receives no retirement benefits, immediate or deferred.  Assuming that an officer retires after twenty years of service, lives to age seventy-two, and receives a pension of $3000 per month, at stake are $1,080,000 in addition to medical and other benefits as a military retiree.  For most officers who come from middle or lower middle class socioeconomic backgrounds, financial security is an economic reality that is impossible to ignore.  Consciously or unconsciously, commitments to a twenty-year career and the benefits that await affect behaviors and thought processes.  The “up or out” promotion system creates tremendous competition and anxiety, especially among mid-grade officers.  The institution’s culture of conformity shapes officers into molds that resemble the traits preferred by the raters and senior raters.  Consequently, espoused and practiced values often diverge.  Espoused values such as candor, courage, and integrity as practiced are stressed under these immense pressures.  These three subsystems - the initial selection process, the officer evaluation and promotion system, and the ‘all or nothing’ retirement system - give structure to Yingling’s observation that “it is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends twenty-five years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”[xi]

The barriers to the creation and development of the kind of generalship that Yingling advocates are very real.  Any expression of substantive disagreement with superiors who seek affirmation rather than information from a subordinate could be career ending.  Instances of disagreement or providing disconfirming data often result in the subordinate being labeled a negative thinker who is disloyal to the boss or is a non-team player ‘who just doesn’t get it.’  The path of least resistance is to go along, affirmed by the commander and the institution, and assure a million dollar payday.  In essence, officers pursuing a military career don a “million-dollar muzzle” in order to pass through the promotion gates that will take them to twenty years of service.  Certainly, there is no conscious or malicious intent behind the thought processes that create this behavior.  On the contrary, grounded in a real desire to serve the nation, it simply becomes a rational exercise of enlightened self-interest and institutional affirmation.  Sadly, few organizations, least of all an authoritarian one such as the military, hold their internal provocateurs dear.

Conformity is a powerful force.  In the case of the Army officer corps, it presents an obstacle to significant change.  Yet change is a permanent condition that occurs at speeds unanticipated in years past.  In the 21st century, the rate of change is so frequent that the effective application of military force is often determined by how quickly the Army can adapt to shifting contexts, fluid situations, and most certainly complex problems that have no easy technical solutions.  Indeed, “adaptation” has become a popular buzz word in the Army’s current vernacular.  But do Army senior leaders truly understand what adaptive challenges mean?

Finding solutions to adaptive challenges requires decision-making processes that are antithetical to the traditional authoritarian role of “the Commander.”  Ronald Heifetz has stated that adaptive work is required when the problem is not easily defined and the solutions are not readily discernable.[xii]  In such circumstances, successful adaptive work requires authority figures, in our case senior Army officers, to ask or solicit the right questions rather than offering preconceived solutions.  Adaptive leaders resist pressures to orient people too quickly and they allow norms to be challenged.  In our view, authoritative practices, such as the “commander’s intent,” may be quite appropriate for technical problems but could serve to derail successful responses to adaptive challenges.  Unfortunately, the Army’s culture of conformity impedes units from becoming learning organizations (critical to problem definition and solution implementation), and creates a climate where the “devil’s advocate,” regardless of rank, is ostracized.  The unforeseen requirements of the Army’s global mission into the 21st century will demand officers who challenge the prevailing conventional wisdom at all levels.  “Yes men” who mimic the behaviors of their bosses and predecessors should not be welcomed.

By citing Michael Howard that “in structuring and preparing an army for war…. the important thing is not to be too far wrong, so that you can put it right quickly,” Yingling stressed the criticality of visionary generals.  However, “putting it right quickly” requires senior officers who possess the capability and capacity for adaptive thinking.  Unfortunately, the Army officer education system, which plays a critical role in an officer’s advancement into the senior ranks, does not promote reflection and adaptive thinking.  For example, in her 2002 book on the Army War College, Judith Stiehm found that although the Army War College curriculum explored “change,” it was not provocative.  Guest speakers, on average two per week throughout the year, were all conservative and “one doubts that students were ‘provoked’ by any of the speakers.” [xiii]  Stiehm observed the heavy influence of the Army Chief of Staff and noted that the Chief selects the Army War College Commandant, whose “views are likely to be experienced as directives.”  Among the students in her cohort, all but one shared the same Meyers-Briggs personality type indicator (judging and reasoning over feeling and seeing possibilities).[xiv]  Overall, Stiehm described the Army’s preparatory school for colonels and generals as a “culminating experience” rather than a launching experience.  In our view, reflection and adaptive thinking are missing; not surprising when one considers that all of the students and faculty have successfully worn the million-dollar muzzle.

The Army officer corps is actually a conglomeration of subsystems organized as occupational specialties (e.g. infantry, cavalry, etc.) which exhibit fraternal loyalties that overtly and covertly enforce conformity.  Compounded by historically rich unit heritages, “mission first” pressures have become institutionalized and are taken for granted among all officers as a given.  To cite a popular colloquium: Failure is not an option.  For officers looking to win the approval of their senior commanders, means versus ends can become a very real dilemma.  In such an environment, dissension is viewed as a virus of sorts.  Even in retirement, former general officers are expected to wear a muzzle.  For example, the 2006 so-called “revolt of the generals” - the public call by six retirees for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation - sparked a very vocal reaction from serving general officers who believed that retired generals should never voice such dissent.[xv]   This mentality of rewarding conformity and reinforcing the status quo also goes a long way toward explaining the Army Senior Mentor Program.  The program is “careerism on steroids,” where retired three- and four-star officers earn $440 an hour and up to $179,000 a year as Pentagon “consultants” while also receiving full pensions and employment as defense contractors.

The million-dollar muzzle is explained by nothing more sophisticated than informed self-interest in response to a social structure.  This self-interest is further explained by several more broadly applied and academically informed social theories.  Three theories are particularly relevant: the normalization of deviance, outlining how organizations develop cultures to unconsciously justify errant or amoral behavior; the immunity to change, which explains the real reason why change is so difficult and temporary; and the “undiscussability” of the “undiscussable.”

A culture of conformity can have disastrous consequences and outcomes.  At the very least, conforming behaviors create a type of “groupthink” that may send decision-making processes down the wrong paths and block adaptive thinking.  When this happens we see the “normalization of deviance.”[xvi]  Diane Vaughan, a sociologist specializing in organizational failures, coined this term in her exploration of the 1986 Challenger launch disaster.  Vaughan found that a culture of conformity was the fundamental root cause of the accident.  Such a comparison is fair because NASA and the US Army share many similarities.  Both are large technological, bureaucratic government organizations.  They each have elite and distinct cultures whose members view themselves as belonging to a profession and to professional institutions.  Both have enjoyed high levels of public trust.  With the Army’s strong emphasis on force protection, it has shared prominence with NASA as an exemplar of risk assessment and operational safety.

Vaughan found that NASA decision-makers proceeded with their work as if nothing was wrong even when they were repeatedly faced with evidence that something was indeed wrong.  She attributes the leadership failures to the institution’s values and culture.  NASA officials witnessed a myriad of small infractions that, over time, added up to something big-and never recognized that the small infractions were serious or that they themselves were not making sound decisions.[xvii]

Similarly, Army senior leaders, as fully vested members of an insular organizational culture, appear to promote an ever-entrenched state of groupthink.  Despite formal decision-making processes that outwardly appear inclusive, members of the command routinely and often unknowingly acquiesce to the views of their senior commanders.  Senior commanders then play out their expected roles as all-knowing, strong decision-making leaders by seeking affirmation rather than information or honest subordinate input.  Consequently, poor decisions and other consequential outcomes, such as infractions of core values, are far too easily rationalized and explained away.  Self justifications abound as the followers-the lower and middle-level leaders-“spin” the incidents to put the institution in the best light or to protect “the old man” and the unit or command.  Even when official investigations of crimes find officers guilty or culpable, seldom are those involved in the leadership chains of command held accountable to the same degree and proportions as those below them.  Recent examples include the war crimes committed at Abu Ghraib.  As the incident came to light, the Army was quick to point out that the perpetrators were enlisted reservists, and no soldier higher than staff sergeant faced convictions, despite culpability reaching into the general officer ranks, both active duty and reserve.[xviii]  Similarly in Afghanistan, the death of eight soldiers in the Battle of Wanat two years ago were attributed in Army official reports as platoon-level mistakes rather than the alleged neglect and poor planning and support at battalion, brigade, and division levels of command.  Finally, the heavily reported cover-up of the death of Pat Tillman reached well into the general officer ranks.  In the Tillman investigation, the two-star general implicated later obtained four-star level command in Afghanistan.

In their book entitled “Immunity to Change,” Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey argue that our individual beliefs combined with collective mindsets in organizations create a powerful immunity to change.[xix]  First, they suggest three levels of leader development: the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind, and the self-transforming mind.  Yingling’s idealized general would exhibit the self-transforming mind that “can stand back from its own filter and look at it, not just through it,” and a mind that “both values and is wary about any one stance, analysis, or agenda.”[xx]  Unfortunately, both of these capabilities are discouraged, if not destroyed, by the system that produces the Army’s generals.  Second, Kegan and Lahey argue that the barrier to change is often the untested, usually unspoken “collective big assumption.”[xxi]  For the million-dollar muzzle, that assumption is that officers will not complete a twenty-year career if they do not adapt to the authoritarian, top-down, compliant behavior of the Army culture.

A third well-established set of social theory that helps explain the “million-dollar muzzle,” comes from the work of Chris Argyris.  Argyris enriches this discussion with his construct of “dialogues” that is bounded by “undiscussables”: the catalog of issues, topics, view points, and questions that cannot be raised in organizations without adverse consequences being visited upon those who dare to raise them.  Argyris writes:

In order to achieve organizational excellence, learning, competence, and justice are a much more realistic foundation than are morale, satisfaction, and loyalty.  The first foundation, learning, pinpoints how errors are detected and corrected, especially errors that are complex and potentially embarrassing and threatening.  Competence means solving problems in such a way that they remain solved problems and increase the organization’s capacity for future problem solving.  Justice is based on a set of values and rules–in this case about organizational health–that apply equally to all employees, no matter what their organizational position.[xxii]

We would argue that the million-dollar muzzle serves to thwart learning, competence, and justice as described by Argyris and hurts morale and trust.  Officers who don the muzzle simply become slaves to loyalty.



As Stephen R. Covey, the internationally respected author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” noted, “systems will overwhelm rhetoric or good intentions ‘at the end of the day.’”[xxiii]  The systems that we have described here collectively drive accessions, evaluations, assignments, schooling, and promotions.  Together, they form an insular culture protected by a handful of institutional stewards who are deeply entrenched and unlikely to change without fundamental reforms of these systems and structures.  Yingling made several recommendations to address “A Failure in Generalship” but predominantly saw hope for improvement in the actions of Congress.  We strongly disagree.  True reformation of systems and structures will require the removal of persistent organizational barriers to change and a radical new approach to senior leader development.

In our view, Congress experiences similar forms of bureaucratic inertia that obstruct effective change.  In fact, it has a vested interest in the status quo.  Consequently, the Army can expect little change initiation from that direction.  However, a truly adaptive and transformational leader appointed as Secretary of the Army could initiate and direct a fresh review of Army officer professionalism.  As with many professional institutions, cultures are difficult to change.  Since Vietnam, the Army’s conservative culture has been impervious to effective change despite well intentioned efforts to push the Army through several transformations.  It is telling that the most significant findings found in the Army War College Study on Professionalism in 1970, specifically poor leadership, risk aversion, and unbridled careerism, remain true today.  After four decades, we hold little hope that Congress or the officer corps can sufficiently reform itself.  To expect that it can is like asking turkeys to arrange a traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner.

However, a progressive Secretary of the Army, one with little obligation or allegiance to politicians and the institutional Army, could initiate a deep, introspective review that would lead to meaningful reforms.  First, reform the officer evaluation system to include a viable 360-degree review of evaluated officers.  The current evaluation system gives total control over the evaluation of the officer to the rater and senior rater, resulting in only a one-dimensional perspective of the rated officer.  The 360-degree evaluation system integrates the officer’s peers and, most importantly, his or her subordinates.  How can an officer’s leadership abilities be evaluated without the input of the followers?  The 360-degree evaluation distributes power, broadens perspective, and democratizes an autocratic process.  Additionally, the OER system should offer definitive (e.g. blocked rankings) of all 10 officer grades rather than the four discussed previously.

Second, restructure the retirement system to vest officers at the ten- or twelve-year point.  This change in the retirement system would be a large step in loosening the million-dollar muzzle.  Midgrade officers could speak up with integrity and courage without placing everything on the line.  The costs associated with this change could be mitigated by restricting this benefit only to officers who were in the top block (as a result of the 360-degree evaluation process), those high performers most likely to have dissenting views and great potential.

Third, overhaul the curriculum and the educational goals of the Army War College.  Instill a culture of reflection that results from a system of academic rigor.  The Army War College is currently structured as an institution that perpetuates “the good” at the expense of “the great.”[xxiv]  We believe that the Army War College experience should be a final test rather than a ticket punch.  Today, the Army War College is essentially a culminating experience for senior officers who have successfully worn the million-dollar muzzle.  At issue here is an apparent confusion between training and learning.  To date, the social and behavioral sciences have produced numerous studies to show that true transformational and adaptive leaders head up and promote learning organizations.  Training results in the successful performance of technical tasks.  Learning has occurred when new adaptive behaviors lead to sustainable change.  To this latter point, explore the military history of other nations, past and present, to seek out exemplars of successful general staff schools that adopted similar measures.  The German General Staff system of the inter-war period is one example that comes to mind.

A successful revamp of the Army War College educational system would begin at the top.  Specify that the commandant assignment is a terminal position in order to free him or her from the pressures of perpetuating expected institutional viewpoints and have the commandant report directly to the Secretary of the Army.  Additionally, the Army War College should have a deputy hired from academia with a PhD in the humanities to strengthen the curriculum, to act as a provocateur, and to oversee the academic evaluation system.  The deputy commandant would also strengthen the faculty, inject more rigor into the curriculum, and revamp the extensive guest speaker program to ensure participation by a wide range of professionals who are critics of the existing Army culture and perspectives.  Students should be forced out of their comfort zones by speakers such as Noam Chomsky, Andrew Bacevich, Chris Argyris, Ronald Heifetz, and David Walker, for example.  Historically, the speakers have been predominately status quo advocates who generally patronize the institution and the students.

Finally, the most meaningful role that Congress could play would be to emplace a program of mandatory national service.  One option of the program would include service in the Army.  Despite claims to the contrary, the All Volunteer Army has not succeeded in fielding a quality Army that is representative of the society it serves.  In fact, the majority of our soldiers today come from the third and fourth socioeconomic quintiles of our citizens, while the first socioeconomic quintile is virtually absent-some may say AWOL.[xxv]  The result is that the best and brightest of our nation never experience military service and are therefore never in the pool of candidates to aspire to or achieve general officer rank.  Even if they leave after the initial enlistment they would bring a heightened level of curiosity, morality, introspection, and creative thinking while serving out their contracts.  This new voice from the bottom, combined with a bold, progressive Secretary of the Army at the top, would essentially squeeze the existing culture from both ends to affect true reform and transformation.  Engaging this first socioeconomic quintile also produces a more informed citizenry, democratizes the decisions regarding military issues, and creates a pool of civilian leaders capable of making better decisions around military and national defense issues (in the 112th Congress only 20.9% of the members are veterans).[xxvi]  We have devolved from a nation where” all gave some, some gave all” into one where “some gave all, most give nothing.”  At the very least, a serious debate on mandatory national service would question the fundamental assumptions that drove the 1973 decision to launch the All Volunteer Army and would bring to light the realities of a 2011 world.  These realities were reflected in Yingling’s 2007 concern for “the long war.”  He warned then that “the quantity and quality of manpower required may call into question the viability of the all volunteer military.”  We could not agree more.

A final paradox in the “failure of generalship” may be manifested in the question why, in recent memory, no general officer has resigned in protest or has been dismissed for incompetence.  Can it be that the system is so effective and insightful that the senior leaders of our Army are not subject to the same moral, intellectual leadership and performance dynamics as their peers in other industries and sectors of our society?  Or is it more likely that we have created a system where the million-dollar muzzle molds a culture of conformity to produce the generals that Yingling so aptly described?

[i] Douglas Kinnard, “The Vietnam War in Retrospect: The Army Generals’ Views,” in Journal of Political and Military Sociology, 1976, Vol. 4, (Spring): 17-28, 28.

[ii] Paul Yingling, “A Failure in Generalship,” in Armed Forces Journal, May 2007.

[iii] Department of the Army, Study on Military Professionalism, Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, 30 June 1970.

[iv] Brian M. Linn, The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, 43.

[v] David McCormick, The Downsized Warrior, New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998, 136.

[vi] Tim Kane, “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving,” The Atlantic, January/February 2011, 81. Interestingly, a zero defects mentality is noted in every decade since Vietnam.

[vii] As reported in The Officer Personnel Management System–OPMS. Department of the Army, 1972, E-2.

[viii] David McCormick, The Downsized Warrior, New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998, 104.  Revisions in 1972 and 1975 failed to address the inflation problem.

[ix] Ibid., 118.

[x] Marvin W. Williams, The Relationship of the Officer Evaluation Report to Captain Attrition, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2001, 2.

[xi] Yingling

[xii] Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.

[xiii] Judith Hicks Stiehm, The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy, Philadelphia, PA: Temple Univ. Press, 2002. 141-144

[xiv] Ibid., 148. These findings are consistent with a similar Air Force study of the same period that found a majority of leaders who prefer logical thinking and structure (TJ).  See Dianna Lea Williams, “Frequencies of Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Among Military Leaders” in The Journal of Leadership Studies, 1998, vol. 5, number 3.  While one could argue that military service attracts such personalities, the glaring absence of the other 14 types suggest that STJs are most likely to conform to the prevailing culture.

[xv] See Perry Bacon, Jr., “The Revolt of the Generals,” Time Magazine, April 16, 2006.

[xvi] Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 266-272.

[xvii] Ibid, see especially Chapter 9: “Conformity and Tragedy.”

[xviii] We distinguish here between criminal convictions and non-judicial punishment.  It is true that BG Karpenski was demoted to one rank lower (Colonel) but was permitted to retire with full benefits.

[xix] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

[xx] Ibid., 19-20.

[xxi] Ibid., 58.

[xxii] Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1990, xi.

[xxiii] Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

[xxiv] See Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001. “Good is the enemy of the great,” 1.

[xxv] Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes From Military Service – and How It Hurts Our Country, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2007.



U.S. Military Needs a Stronger Sexual Assault Policy

In June 2006, in order to conform to the mandate of the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act, the Office of the Secretary of Defense issued an instruction to the Pentagon’s Inspector General to develop a policy to oversee sexual assault investigations in the military. In a report issued last month, five years after this official instruction, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the DOD IG “has not performed these responsibilities.”

The GAO reports that the DOD IG “believes it has other, higher priorities.” Yet ensuring that our troops are able to serve in a safe environment must be a primary goal of our military leadership. Therefore, it is the height of irresponsibility for DOD not to have a strong policy to combat sexual assault in the military.

Sexual assault in the military disproportionately affects servicewomen. One in three women who serve in the military is a victim of sexual assault during her service. Sexual assault in the military is not a new problem now, nor was it a new problem in 2006. But as women join the military in greater numbers and take on increasingly central roles in U.S. operations, the issue has become more and more pressing.

In the five years since the Office of the Secretary of Defense ordered that the Pentagon develop a policy on sexual assault investigations, almost 15,000 active-duty servicemembers have reported being the victims of a sexual assault. The Department of Defense estimates that 80% of sexual assaults in the military go unreported, so the true number may be as high as 75,000. The problem has been compounded by the military justice system. In the past five years, only 8% of the reported cases have been prosecuted—meaning only 1.6% of the more likely number of cases that have actually occurred have led to a prosecution.

The Department of Defense has done little to address the problem of sexual assault within the ranks, enhance the safety of the women and men who serve, or bring the perpetrators to justice. In addition to reporting mechanisms and legal services, sexual assault survivors need access to support services and treatment. While DOD created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) after the passage of the 2005 NDAA, Anuradha Bhagwati, Executive Director of the Servicewomen’s Action Network (SWAN), has criticized the military for understaffing and ignoring this “tiny” department, which, she notes, “is not even headed by a military officer.”

The GAO report also cites a number of more specific problems in the way the Department of Defense deals with the crime of sexual assault. As mandated in the 2005 NDAA, the DOD IG has two major responsibilities on this issue: developing a military-wide policy for investigating sexual assaults and monitoring the investigations undertaken by the services. According to the GAO report, the DOD IG has failed to perform either of these tasks.

Among the problems that result from this inaction at the level of the Secretary of Defense and his staff are the inconsistencies within and among services in the investigations of assaults. The GAO found that the Army, Navy, and Air Force had different policies and procedures in six out of nine areas related to sexual assault investigation, making it impossible to hold commanders to a clear, universal standard. The report further found “no evidence” that the DOD IG conducted oversight of any of the 2,594 investigations of alleged sexual assault reported in 2010. By not conducting oversight on these investigations, the Department of Defense has no way of knowing if the services are performing them well.

And reports of individual victims show that the services are not performing these investigations well. The low prosecution figures—8% compared to 40% in the civilian world—tell only part of the story. Ignoring survivors’ accounts, laughing them off, or even reporting them for lying or adultery can have devastating effects on servicemembers’ health and careers. Issuing “non-judicial punishments” (or no punishments at all) to perpetrators often forces survivors to continue working in the same office as their attackers, causing further psychological harm and opening the door to repeated assaults.

Representative Niki Tsongas (D-MA) has introduced legislation that would enhance the legal rights and protections of servicemembers who have been victims of sexual assault. This legislation, known as the STRONG Act, would provide sexual assault survivors with access to a lawyer, ensure confidentiality with victim advocates, and grant base transfer requests. It would further require the creation of high-level positions at DOD and in all of the services to coordinate and oversee sexual assault investigations. As the recent GAO report demonstrates, there is an urgent need for the Department of Defense to live up to its obligations under existing legislation. Passage of the STRONG Act would underscore this need and would demonstrate that the country will not accept the continued mistreatment of our men and women in uniform.

West Point’s class of 2011 included 225 women, the highest number of female cadets in a single class since women were first allowed to attend the U.S. Military Academy in 1976. Current statistics suggest that 75 of these servicewomen will likely be victims of sexual assault during their time in the military. Those numbers are unacceptable, and the Secretary of Defense must do everything he can to protect those who serve from betrayal, assault, and abuse. He has no more important responsibility.


What’s Wrong and What’s Right With the War Colleges

A cascade of withering criticism has recently been leveled at the war colleges- those venerable institutions that represent the pinnacle of the hierarchy of professional military education. Each service maintains a war college or equivalent designed to prepare lieutenant colonels and colonels for the highest levels of responsibility, and while they have different cultures in many respects they also share some common attributes and challenges. It seems that there is some “piling on” in progress or perhaps there is some emerging consensus about what’s wrong with the war colleges, even if there isn’t that much agreement as to what should be done about it.

The most widely read and vitriolic criticism came from a series of Foreign Policy.com blogs by former Washington Post writer Thomas Ricks. Ricks actually called for closure of the war colleges calling them both expensive and second-rate. Some within the system tended to ignore Ricks because of his bombastic style or the fact that he had little actual experience with the institutions he was lambasting. Others suspected the articles were payback for when the Army War College allegedly blackballed him during the Bush administration as too controversial due to his opposition of the Iraq War.  Hyperbole aside, Ricks made some good points that we are likely to see again as defense spending decreases and tough decisions are made about where to get most bang out of a much smaller budget.

Daniel Hughes published a chapter, “Professors in the Colonels’ World” in a 2010 book entitled Military Culture and Education edited by Douglas Higbee that examined the divide between military and academic cultures. His depiction of the Air War College pointed out a nasty strain of anti-intellectualism, ultra conservativism, Christian nationalism and a largely disinterested student body. While some might reject the observations of an outsider like Ricks, Hughes served for eighteen years at the Air War College providing an insider view, albeit from the perspective of an underappreciated academic imbedded in military culture.  Some might be inclined to dismiss him as a disgruntled former employee.

Then comes “Teach Tough, Think Tough: Why Military Education Must Change” an AOL Defense contribution by Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College and lecturer at Harvard who also taught at the Air War College as a contemporary of Hughes. She agreed with much of his criticisms and expanded on the military officer/academic divide. She disagreed with Ricks about closing the War Colleges, calling instead for actions to mend the system driven by senior leaders that truly value graduate education.

Much less widely circulated, but particularly insightful from a systemic perspective, was an article published in Proceedings Magazine by Robert Scales, retired two-star general and former commandant of the Army War College. He did not address the war colleges specifically, except for noting that the average age of attendees has increased from 41 to 45 making an expensive educational experience more of a preparation for retirement than a platform for leadership at higher levels. He lamented the possibility that the military is becoming “too busy to learn.” He decried the wane of experienced officers as instructors in the system of professional military education and suggested that a bias for action over learning and organizational malaise in the schools have made them an “intellectual backwater.” His solution is to change the military’s reward system to elevate soldier scholars rather than denigrate them. He advocates a return to the day when uniformed officers rather than civilian instructors and contractors are assigned to the schoolhouse to teach, not because their careers are dead-ended, but as career enhancing assignments on the way to even higher levels of responsibility.

Finally, from the Small Wars Journal, Army War College faculty member and retired Colonel Charles Allen contributed “Redress of Professional Military Education: The Clarion Call.” He identified several issues that support some of the themes that arose in Scales’ article, specifically the possibility that officers are serving in key positions without sufficient educational preparation. He also observed some troubling shifts in the demographics of those attending the Army War College.  An increasing number of officers are deferring attendance. Allen points out that over the last five years 50 percent of those initially selected will choose to defer attendance leading him to assert that it is becoming more important to be selected for senior level schooling than to actually attend. Combat arms officers are apparently going elsewhere, perhaps to fellowship programs or joint service colleges that are viewed as more career enhancing.

I’d like to think that I have a perspective that contributes to this discussion. I attended the Army War College as a student, and stepped off of a promising career track as a military police officer to complete a doctoral degree and then return as a faculty member where I served the last six years of a twenty-seven year career. I was a faculty member and course director with one foot in the academic world and another deeply implanted in the military warrior culture. I eventually left the military and the Army War College to pursue an academic career, and that is where I happily remain as a tenured faculty member at a respected doctoral degree granting institution where I will soon assume duties as Associate Dean. Having observed both sides of the street, I’d like to register some observations.

My time as a student at the Army War College resulted in an intellectual awakening. Before attending I was so busy doing things like commanding a battalion that I had little time to reflect on larger issues affecting my profession. Reflection is the essential bridge between experience and learning. The Army War College gave me opportunities to delve deeply into national security issues and other aspects of my profession that I never would have had in a civilian academic institution. Comparing war colleges to traditional civilian graduate institutions is an “apples to oranges” exercise. The very best graduate program at a top tier university would, in many respects, be a poor substitute for what should happen at the war colleges. The model for the War Colleges is much more akin to that of a professional school (e.g., law or medicine) where sophisticated craft knowledge is blended to a lesser degree with disciplinary forays more common to where I now teach. I loved my time at the Army War College both as a student and a teacher. The adult learning model, seminar method, use of case studies contextually appropriate to a unique group of experienced practitioners, and the many opportunities to engage in no holds barred professional discussions with a parade of flag officers and civilian officials are bright spots that should not be underestimated for their positive impact on future senior military leaders. It is important to have a place where military officers can delve deeply into the nuances of their profession, and most importantly plumb the tensions, intricacies, and limitations of operating a large standing military in a democracy. If done properly that very process can serve as an important protection of the republic. Uninformed and undereducated officers who control vast amounts of military power can fall, or be led, to serious mischief.

Most of my colleagues at the Army War College were completely dedicated to their students and focused on teaching in a way that is not often seen in civilian institutions. Having established my credentials as a fan of the war colleges, and certainly as one who benefited from my association with them, I must point out some weaknesses as well. You can put me in the camp of those who suggest that modification rather shuttering is the answer.

There is indeed friction in the dual civilian and military nature of the faculty and staff at the war colleges. Hughes and Johnson-Freese have made that case better than I could. Both groups and the hybrid military officer/academic that I represent bring something valuable to the table. By far and away the best instructor that I had as a student was a civilian faculty member. He was a scholar with deep pedagogical expertise in the humanities who never served a day in uniform. He might have started with little credibility with the military members of our seminar, but he earned it quickly because he was an outstanding thinker and teacher. I’ll also point out that he did not stay at the Army War College. Attracting and retaining that kind of professor can be difficult in a system where there is no tenure and where the pay scale fails to take into account variation across disciplines. The pay scale might be generous for a history professor, but that is not so much the case for other fields like management or information technology. Having served in both systems I also have to say that professors in the system of professional military education just aren’t treated that well in comparison to those in the civil sphere. In terms of pay and benefits, discretionary time, developmental opportunities, support for research, the ability to consult, and the license to pursue one’s own agenda, civilian academe wins over the war college hands down.  I’m sure that varies by individual experience; I will only speak for my own.

It is much easier to attract to the war colleges a form of second tier-academic; the kind that teaches well but fails the tenure review because they lack a record of meaningful scholarship. After all, the War Colleges aren’t much interested in research or scholarship either. They often have a department such as the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute loaded with authors that crank out insightful opinion pieces and geo-political essays, but few teaching faculty members are supported, encouraged, or rewarded for engaging in the kind of scholarly work that would be expected as terms of employment at most colleges and universities. Before my former colleagues take me off of their Christmas card list I want to be clear that I am not saying that all civilian professors at the war colleges are second-tier. Many are first rate in their own right. I’m just saying that in a competitive market for academic talent, the war colleges don’t have that much to compete with. Neither are the War Colleges places for the kind of young, bright, but inexperienced academics that would be valued at any of the high-prestige research universities.  Despite their brilliance and methodological skills, they have significant hurdles connecting with and earning the respect of the seasoned leaders they find in their classrooms. It is the rare twenty-something assistant professor that will prosper at a war college, but the same can be said for executive development programs at other institutions of higher learning.

I must disagree with General Scales on the desirability of repopulating the system of professional military education with uniformed officers at the senior service college level unless they have both a credible professional and academic background, and that means more than a single tour on the faculty at an undergraduate service academy. I too would like to see the services value teaching in the system of professional military education as he suggests, but military officers who comprise much of the faculty, at least at the Air and Army War Colleges, simply do not have enough time on station to really get good at teaching. We used to quip that you merely survive the first year as a faculty member, begin to become competent at the second, and when you are finally comfortable in the seminar room it is time to move. The experience of military faculty members is respected, and they have instant credibility with the students, but experience and good teaching do not always go hand in hand.

A central problem with staffing the war colleges stems from the fact that the colleges have little control of who the services assign there as military faculty members. The personnel system seems to believe that any old colonel can do it, but examples to the contrary abound. Assignments are made for a host of reasons that do not relate to one’s ability or even interest in teaching. I remember one particularly egregious case where the Air Force sent an officer to teach at the Army War College who suffered from a noticeable speech impediment.

Retired officers are a mixed bag. They are often completely dedicated to the institution and bring a lifetime of experience, but without a deep underlying reservoir of disciplinary knowledge and a strong desire to stay connected and contribute to it, they can get a bit stale. They rarely leave voluntarily and the administration rewards their loyalty, if not their contributions, by renewing their contracts. Their experiences have a shelf life that begins to expire on the date of retirement.  They can usually be counted on to run a good seminar, but few contribute much in terms of scholarship as measured by the usual indicators of research and publication.  It would be interesting to know how many in this category have ever attended an academic conference outside of those hosted by the Department of Defense, something that is apparently acceptable to the administration. They can be powerfully resistant to change as they wait out the “temporary help,” a reference to military personnel on three-year assignments that includes the most senior administrators of the institution.

I have spent a significant part of this essay focusing on the faculty of the war colleges because as any administrator in higher educations knows, it is the faculty that makes the institution. Despite the inordinate amount of time and effort spent on the curriculum including tedious lists of competencies stemming from Joint Professional Military Education accreditation requirements, the quality of the war colleges rests squarely on the faculty. Great faculty members can overcome a mediocre curriculum but a mediocre faculty will surely fail to implement even a great curriculum. If the services spent as much time on recruiting and retaining the best and brightest faculty members as they do tinkering with the curriculum we would have a much better system of professional military education. I will reserve my final comments for students and administrators of the war colleges.

The war colleges may be the only institutions of higher learning that have such paltry control over who attends them. Boards comprised of officers from the field select attendees who have not necessarily expressed any interest at all in attending. No writing samples are required and there’s no graduate record exam or any other testing considered for admission. The criteria for selection are largely based on manner of performance in key positions. Selected officers then have the option of declining or deferring attendance, and many do as Allen’s research attests. Some attend merely because they see it as an opportunity to reconnect with their families or get in shape. As a faculty member we used to quip about students who were obviously there under “an athletic scholarship.“ Yes, there are a number of students attending the war colleges who should not be there, and who really do not want to be there.  They want the block checked for their next assignment and promotion. They can skate through, meeting minimal requirements, contributing to a form of ignorance on fire by waxing philosophical in seminar dialogue without conducting assigned reading, and enjoy the myriad social experiences that take place beyond the classroom. There is very little in place to prevent such freeloading. I will also say, however, that everything necessary for a truly mind expanding experience is there for the taking.  What the students get out of the program is directly commensurate with what they put in.

Because I focus on leadership in my teaching and scholarship, it will not surprise any that I believe leadership to be an important variable in the quality of professional military education. The services have made both inspired and miserable choices in selecting those who serve as chief executives of their war colleges. Selection for two stars or more is not sufficient qualification on its own to serve as a college president, even a war college. Neither should it be a consolation prize for those who are not selected for combat command. As a positive and rare exemplar consider Major General Gregg Martin, who served as both a student and faculty member at the Army War College before assuming duties as commandant. I will say the same about other lesser administrative roles as well. Successful completion of brigade, ship, or squadron command does not inherently qualify a person to be a deputy commandant, chief of staff, provost, dean, or department chair. Such key positions of influence require an understanding of the kind of tensions that Hughes and Johnson-Freese identify and demonstrated ability in academic settings. They should be deeply attuned and dedicated to the primary purpose of the institutions they lead.

The war colleges really should be, and indeed could be, intellectual centers of excellence with a mix of the best and brightest military and civilian faculty members. They have the potential to serve as incubators of big and even disruptive ideas fueled by cutting edge research on important and relevant questions and dedicated to preparing high potential senior military officers for the great challenges of our age. In return for the investment of national treasure that goes into operating the war colleges, the American people and indeed the service members who will serve under their graduates deserve far better than mediocre.

Dr. George E. Reed served for 27 years as an Army officer, including six years as the Director of Command and Leadership Studies at the United States Army War College.


The Search for a Cohesive U.S. Policy in the Arab World

The United States looses its credibility among global citizens when it carves out vastly different policies to guide its reactions to remarkably similar situations in the various nation-states of the Middle East. While the goal of “winning hearts and minds” is at the forefront of U.S. military and diplomatic strategy these days, there is a dangerous disconnect between that strategic goal and the tactics actually employed in dealing with the various governments of in the Middle Eastern region. And those differences in tactics combine to constitute a serious strategic error for U.S. interest in the region and around the globe.

While the events in Tunisia and Egypt happened so fast that it was honestly rather impractical for the U.S. to even consider intervening one way or another, by the time the crisis in Libya came around the Obama administration publicly adopted a policy of intervention in the domestic conflict based on the stated rationale that the people of Libya, largely peaceful protesters and demonstrators, needed protection from their own ruthless, fratricidal government. Yet when largely peaceful protests and demonstrations in Bahrain resulted in an equally vicious response from the Bahraini government, the “policy” of intervening in a domestic Arab conflict when the government turned violent against its own citizen demonstrators was quickly abandoned.

Likewise in Syria, when the Syrian people began boldly standing up to the brutal regime of Bashar al-Asad, the Syrian government began a systematic campaign of violence against the largely peaceful Syrian protesters and demonstrators. While American-backed military action against Libya rages on, under the stated policy rationale of protecting peaceful protesters and demonstrators from their fratricidal government, not one ounce of military might has even been threatened against the Bahraini or Syrian governments as a result of their similar domestic slaughters. Those governments continue to be given carte blanche by the Obama administration to violently subdue peaceful calls for democracy while Libya is being pummeled for the exact same offense.

I am not a fan of restraint when it comes to stopping the slaughter of peaceful demonstrators, and I believe that if we were going to intervene in Libya then it should have been much more decisive and, by now, conclusive. But I am also not a fan of a weak and inconsistent foreign policy in the Arab world and, frankly, an application of foreign policy that weakens our standing among Arabs in the long term. I am not arguing here in favor of intervention or non-intervention, but rather a consistent intervention policy that serves U.S. interests and yields long-term global goodwill toward the U.S. and the American people.

What good will it be to the U.S. in the end to finally help rid the Middle Eastern region of brutal and repressive regimes, only to still be resented by the people of those nations we helped because of our reluctance to do so in the beginning when it counted?


Military Sexual Assault Not an “After School Special” Issue

Servicemember-on-servicemember sexual assault is becoming an increasingly public problem for the Department of Defense, and as more light is shed onto this once-taboo topic, the inadequacies of military leaders’ responses to this visceral problem are coming into sharper focus.

Every year I try to make it to the Army Soldier Show. Surprisingly, many people who have served in the Army have not even heard of this great touring event, and there really is not a comparable institution in the other service branches. But for those who know the Soldier Show, you know it’s a great experience with some of the Army’s finest talent singing chart-topping hits from the past year - often better than the original artists.

The production value of the Soldier Show seems to improve every year, and in 2010 it even included the broadcast of high-quality, mid-show commercials from the show’s inter-Army sponsor on gigantic screens on either side the stage. But in contrast to the show, the commercials left much to be desired. The production value and creative talent on display in these commercials were impressive, but like so many public relations campaigns these commercials left me shaking my head and wondering who on Earth thought this campaign would be a good fit for the audience being targeted.

Back then, I simply thought, “Pick your battles, right?” Now, however, I’m compelled to speak up. Why the change? The courtesy reinforcement of a bad idea indicates a more fundamental problem!

This afternoon, Susan Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice, delivered prepared remarks to the Army’s annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) Summit. Though the remarks contained platitudes that we’ve all heard and would expect, one thing stuck out for me.

About halfway through her speech, Carbon said, “I was so pleased to learn about the Army’s I. A.M STRONG campaign (Intervene.Act.Motivate) – this effort can go a long way to educate soldiers on the crime of sexual assault and how to intervene responsibly to help prevent sexual assaults from occurring.”

Then a little jingle popped into my head, prompted by her words -  “Intervene, Act, Moooootivate… Intervene, Act, Moooootivate.” The jingle was the same one from that commercial I had seen the previous year several times during the Army Soldiers Show.

But just as few would agree that all publicity is good publicity, my vivid memories of this commercial are by no means a credit to its creators or those who approved its use. Despite the seriousness of the topic, and my unquestionable sensitivity to this issue, the commercial elicited automatic mental mocking and eye-rolls due to its absurdity.

As I said earlier, the issue is not with the production value, which was high, or with the artist involved, as he was certainly talented. The real problem was that an entire team somewhere high up in the Army’s hierarchy must have signed off on this “campaign,” but the campaign looked and felt more like a clip from an After School Special than a serious message for the men and women of America’s armed forces.

This sort of campaign - a catchy pop-rap song with edgy graphics - would be perfect for a modern middle school audience, or perhaps even high school freshmen and sophomores, but it’s wholly inappropriate and ineffective for adults, many of whom have seen and experienced the carnage of war. The campaign concept is simply a joke for the intended target audience, and this type of mistake tends to do more harm than good because it elicits widespread mocking of the message.

Sometimes those involved in the creative process get invested in an idea or get stuck on a certain track, and they fail to see that the track is headed in the wrong direction. That’s not a reflection of the quality of the final product or of how hard those involved have worked. But working hard and having a fantastic final product simply aren’t good enough. You have to work smart too, and the final product has to be the right product for the target audience.

This is a message and an issue that needs all the help it can get right now. The problem is growing worse and many are still in denial about the true extent of the problem. The men and women of the armed forces don’t need out-of-touch bureaucrats (both civilian and active duty) creating and reinforcing not only unhelpful campaigns, but ones that actually worsen the problem by unintentionally making a mockery of it.

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