war on the rocks

We Don’t Know the Root of the Problem

February 19, 2014

Last week, the good people at The Bridge published a post by Jorg Muth that purports to show the roots of the military’s current problems as a function of a command climate failure. Muth, a well-known disciple of Auftragstaktik, believes that if only the U.S. Army would truly understand and embrace this sort of delegated command that the ethics issues the service is facing would all disappear. However, Muth fails to correctly identify the problem, fails to explain how the U.S. Army’s command culture is the problem, and fails to show how Auftragstaktik would solve it.

Muth’s problems begin almost immediately when he discusses hazing at West Point—a phenomenon he claims still exists there. While I am reticent to say that hazing has been eradicated from my alma mater, if it does still happen, it is in the shadows and in violation of the ethics and regulations of the Corps of Cadets. Hazing has no place in developing professional officers and West Point’s leadership has upheld that view for some time now, with hazing abatement efforts dating to at least 1900. Muth also suggests that promoting talented underclassmen ahead of less-talented upperclassmen, coupled with ending hazing practices, would “cut down the cases of sexual harassment in the US Armed Forces by at least half in several years.” Indeed, removing a blight that does not exist (i.e., hazing) and introducing a promotion scheme that does not exist in the operational Army would surely lead to a 50% reduction in sexual harassment cases in the U.S. military in several years. Or, rather, that is a preposterous statement.

The inanity does not end there. Muth avers with absolutely no supporting data that “armies with an officer corps that is greater in number than 10% of the enlisted will produce considerable command problems.” He notes that last year the U.S. Army had a ratio of 15.6%. I hope he’s prepared for more disappointment on this subject because it’s only going to get worse:

The Army has experienced officer requirement growth that is driven by Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department’s Guidance for the Development of the Force (GDF), National Security Strategy, modularization of units, joint headquarters growth (e.g. AFRICOM) and growth in areas such as special operation forces, contracting, civil affairs and psychological operations. The force structure reflects the adaptation of modular units as part of the Army’s transformation. While many requirements are set, the Army’s ability to fill the spaces generated by the requirements will take many years (it requires approximately nine years to grow a Major). The requirements are driving a slow increase in the ratio of officer to enlisted personnel, the primary driver of Military Personnel budget requests. This ratio change is reflected as an increase in officer strength and a decline in enlisted strength.

Heaven forfend that we base our ratio of officer to enlisted on needs and strategic guidance rather than on what appears to be an imaginary (or possibly historical, or even ahistorical) benchmark. Even after wading through all of this nonsense, Muth shows his ignorance of the state of the U.S. Army officer corps by insinuating that officers are promoted more for staff work than troop time:

Officers [on staff] would lose contact with the enlisted, would lose their empathy for them and their daily problems and instead focus on pleasing their superiors while dealing with paper and not with soldiers. The results can be seen today. An army is in deep trouble when an officer is not promoted because of “too much troop time”, as has happened in the US Army.

While the use of “has” is not lost on me, he says that we can see results today. Unfortunately for Muth, but fortunately for the U.S. Army, troop time is likely the greatest factor in officer promotions to and within the general officer corps (for major commands at least). Every single four-star general in the U.S. Army has spent significant parts of their careers in commands, and all but four of them served as brigade and/or division commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan (Cone and Jacoby commanded Corps there; Alexander and Via grew up in and commanded lower-density activities). A cursory examination of the rising crop of two- and three-star generals is more of the same.

There are other problems with his article, but I won’t belabor the point. It is quite apparent that Muth provides inadequate and inaccurate analysis. But, it is important to draw attention to his shoddy arguments, simply because Muth is considered an expert on this topic—his book is on the Army Chief of Staff’s reading list. I can’t speak to the quality of the book (an historical look at officership in the United and States and Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century), but the quality of this article speaks for itself. Undoubtedly there is a lesson here in extrapolating historical data to contemporary phenomena, but I am more concerned with an expert who fails spectacularly to identify a problem or its symptoms and yet purports to have a solution. I am even more concerned because I hear smart people (mostly in private) in positions of responsibility agreeing with Muth.

Muth does not seem to understand that volunteer militaries, at least in western states, are a reflection of their societies. Huntington introduced his book by discussing the crux of civil-military relations: it is a competition between the military’s functional imperative, that it exists to protect the state, and its societal imperative, that the military must be connected socially to the society it protects. However, this reflection is a double-edged sword: military culture draws such ideals as civilian leadership and the value of human life from its parent society that buck against a pure functional imperative, while societal input also includes the darker elements of the population. The belief that leaving officers to engage their better natures through Auftragstaktik will negate this reflection, good and bad, is delusional.

However, things may not be as bad as they seem. While the recent spike in sexual assaults is real, trends across all crimes have been decreasing in both the civilian and military worlds over the past decade. Further, Crispin Burke noted that maybe things have always been this way and we just notice it more readily today (which isn’t to excuse crime and ethics lapses in the military). Individual commanders may be having localized negative and positive effects on the behavior of their forces, but probabilistically it seems that bad behavior will never go away. The Navy has been naming and shaming commanders who have been relieved and yet naval officers keep acting in the same bad ways. The other branches have been less reticent to fire officers for all but gross misconduct (at least publically) and yet that also seems to have the same results as the Navy’s approach.

Muth suggests that U.S. military leaders empower their subordinates so that their “opinion is valued and [they] do not have to fear repercussions if they voice criticism against their superiors.” While the military has an issue with reporting (67% of incidents of unwanted sexual contact are not reported in the military as compared with 71% of rapes and sexual assaults in the civilian world), reporting isn’t the problem. The problem is the existence of the crimes and ethical lapses themselves and likely no amount of subordinate empowerment will solve this. The solution lies somewhere else entirely.

I do agree with Muth’s final point: a command climate assessment is needed. The vast majority of service members, enlisted and officers, are truly professional and do not engage or condone what this pernicious minority is doing to the service. We should expect that these people will make it through initial entry training or commissioning sources still reflecting the society from whence they came, but we need to understand how they make it past their first service obligation and how they rise through the ranks. What conditions exist that allow this to happen? We simply do not know; we do not understand to what extent military personnel are merely exhibiting societal influences and we do not understand how to inoculate the force against these negative influences. Jumping to the conclusion that improper application of Auftragstaktik is the culprit and attempting to fix things by properly applying it would only waste valuable time in getting to the bottom of the problem. A massive survey of ethics and professionalism across all levels of command and military departments, specifically designed to suggest how and why people might act the way they do, is the only logical next step for the Department of Defense to take at this juncture. Otherwise we’re in for many years of snake oil fixes and pet issue-cum-solutions while behavior and ethics issues continue to fester. We owe it to the force to prevent that from happening.


Jason Fritz is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: West Point – The U.S. Military Academy