Gardening in a “Barren” Officer Corps


A recent opinion piece at The American Conservative had a number of military officers scratching their heads. In “An Officer Corps that Can’t Score,” William Lind purports to discuss how careerism in the military breeds “habits of defeat.”  He tells us that:

Defeat in Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers, men such as Col. John Boyd USAF, Col. Mike Wyly USMC, and Col. Huba Wass de Czege USA, each of whom led a major effort to reorient his service. Today, the landscape is barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change.

This is quite a claim, and rather damning of today’s officer corps with a very broad brushstroke. But is it true? Based on my personal and professional experiences in the U.S. Navy, I would say no. Lind errs on the side of being insulting to some of the dedicated men and women in uniform, but that does not really worry me. They have thick skin. More seriously, he leads his civilian readers astray, leaving them with an inaccurate depiction of a military completely unused to debate.

One needs only to start here at War on the Rocks to see that there is debate by active duty and reserve personnel about the present and future of our armed forces and the use of military means in the 21st century. True, one publication certainly does not indicate a healthy state of discourse. But one need only look around a bit to find one.

This past Wednesday, the U.S. Naval Institute held their annual meeting in Washington D.C. In an auditorium full of junior officers, mid-grades, and admirals, as well as civilians, academics, analysts and retirees, the past year’s writing in the institute’s flagship journal Proceedings was recognized. An award went to  Rear Admiral Robert Wray, who advocated an unpopular position: a tiered readiness and forward deployment system for our naval forces that would fundamentally change much about our Navy. The institute also recognized Lieutenant Ryan Hilger, who wrote a prize winning article on reform of the NATO alliance and adjustments to the relationships between the United States and our overseas partners. These are just two recent examples, but they are not outliers. And they run counter to Lind’s claim that “not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change.”

We could create a reading list for interested parties if we wanted. From War on the Rocks and Proceedings, to Small Wars Journal to CIMSEC to The Bridge. The list would go on, and on. We could list the debates of John Nagl and Gian Gentile, the writing of Paul Yingling and Jerry Hendrix and Michael Junge, or the inspired work of many rising junior officers.

However, we also shouldn’t entirely dismiss Lind’s critiques. The structural issues Mr. Lind raises are important and worth considering, from staff bloat to using an industrial age promotion system in the 21st century. He also raises the specter of careerism and the classical lament of military conservatism. The reality is there are plenty of officers who are too comfortable with the status quo. The majority avoids the difficult and messy work of reform, or even innovative thinking. The same was true in the days of Lind’s friends Boyd, Wyly and Wass de Czege, officers who struggled with this reality as they tried to reform their services in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The fact that these men are best remembered as colonels, and not as service leading general officers, helps illustrate the point. These are weighty issues. Yes, they are the kind of things that a number of officers are writing and thinking about. But is that enough?

The list of today’s creative thinkers and reformers tends toward the more junior ranks, at least in public. It is still a legitimate question to ask, “Are the flags and general officers listening?” Is there any sign that these efforts are valued institutionally? I’ve never seen anything that would appear to support critical thinking, innovation, reform or any other similar topics in the precepts of a promotion or selection board.

In response to CDR Guy “Bus” Snodgrass’s fantastic white paper on naval officer retention, VADM Moran, the head of Naval Personnel Command, told us that the Navy needs critical thinkers. He raised an important issue by pointing out that identifying problems is not enough, we must also develop the proper solutions. Those who follow Lind’s call for reform need to remember this, because solutions are the important part of the debate. Another important part of this discussion though, and something VADM Moran doesn’t tell us, is how the military and senior officers intend to encourage or support critical thinkers. That is also an issue searching for answers and solutions alongside the rhetoric.

William Lind is 100 percent correct when he points out that there is much about our military, which is desperately calling out for reform. He is also 100 percent wrong when he categorically states, “only our officers themselves can fix these deficiencies.” It takes reform-minded men and women in uniform, advocates and supporters in our nation’s political leadership, and an interested and informed American populace. We should take his article as an opportunity to demonstrate that have many been working hard to develop and advocate the reforms we need. We also must continue that work and expand our debates and solutions to include an ever-wider audience.


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer, PhD candidate in War Studies with King’s College, London, and a member of the Editorial Board at the U.S. Naval Institute. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author alone. They do not represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army