Gardening in a “Barren” Officer Corps

April 21, 2014

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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

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12 thoughts on “Gardening in a “Barren” Officer Corps

  1. Personally, I think you are too kind. William S. Lind is a pompous ass living in a bubble of his own making. He hasn’t been relevant since maneuver warfare was the hot topic and AirLand battle was the watchword. In short, since we were staring at the Fulda gap. His entire construct of 4G warfare is nothing more than a gloss of new paint on an age old problem, and a desperate attempt to stay relevant in todays military world. Him saying our officer corps is rigid and moronic from the lofty view in his ivory tower has about as much relevance as a sportscaster describing the inner workings of a football team when he’s not once stepped on the field. One initially finds it credible because of the position and mouthpiece of the speaker, but when analyzed one sees it’s just shallow tripe. After seeing his blog post I can’t believe I ever read “Maneuver Warfare Handbook” as a lieutenant. Oh, wait. I forgot. Officers don’t read.

    1. I think Armstrong’s review of Lind pretty much nails it, not sure why you guys take so much offense. Not everyone has the same experience when they serve. Others have also commented on the good within the officer corps, but to invalidate another’s observations solely based on what was true within your sphere is like tarring yourself with that knee-jerk brush.

  2. In order to be a successful ‘gardener’ one must use a lot of cow manure. After reading Mr. Lind’s article it appears that he has dumped a lot of manure on the officer corps. Maybe if he left the barn he is mucking out he would get a clean breath of air and realize he missed the mark on this one.

  3. Lind appears to be correct about one thing: “… our officers live in a bubble. Even junior officers inhabit a world where they hear only endless, hyperbolic praise of “the world’s greatest military ever.” They feed this swill to each other and expect it from everyone else. If they don’t get it, they become angry.”
    Instead of knee jerk criticism of Lind why not pick through and find aspects to champion… but then as he says: “It is not difficult to see how these two structural failings in the officer corps morally emasculate our officers and all too often turn them, as they rise in rank and near the magic 20 years, into ass-kissing conformists.”
    The military can’t be reformed from within.

    1. @Marc – if you’re referring to my comment, please read what I wrote in comments to this blog, I have neither the time nor the patience to retype them, but rest assured I find almost all of Lind’s article to be BS – to include the quote you used. Yeah, I heard the “swill” of how great our military was right after Desert Storm as an LT – once again, when Lind was relevant and apparently where he’s stuck – and yes, everyone chanted it far and wide, but I’ll tell you, around 2003 when bodies were starting to drop in Iraq, I never heard it again. After multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan the mantra of “Best Ever” faded away, and Lind is an idiot to say that’s occurring now. I can’t speak for the Navy or Air Force, but I’ll tell you when the Army looks in the mirror, they don’t see “tattered plumage”, they see bloodstains and they’re actively working to prevent more. Lind has no idea what he’s talking about – and he IS just like a sportscaster throwing stones.

  4. I read this the other day. I thought there were some great insights that, though objectively true, go against the grain of what we are told day in and day out, so they will meet with blind resistence, with little thought given to the actual topic. Basically, there will be a lot of knee jerk reactions.

    Additionally, I don’t think it’s intellectually honest to single out Officers on this issue. These very same issues address NCO’s as well. Basically all senior leadership would do well to do an honest self assessment.

    I maintain that the lessons that come with honest self assessment and improvement are just as crucial for the NCO Corps. It does you no good to have a progressive, forward thinking Officer Corps if you don’t have an NCO Corps capable of understanding and implementing the initiatives and directives produced by those officers. One team, one fight. Education cares not for your rank.

  5. Lind’s article is a broad stroke of the U.S. military and does not portray with absolute accuracy, but there is a significant amount of truth to it. I’ve served as a Naval officer for over 24 years in a joint and operational environment, and can attest that careerism is rampant. Many senior officers have become more manager than leader. These officers base their decisions on career damage control as oppossed to doing what is right. Instead of fixing the problem, it is passed onto his relief and the process continues. Officers playing the political status-quo game get promoted, while a so called maverick is passed over. This is not indicative of all military officers, yet does apply to a large number I’ve observed.

  6. I think Linn has an ax to grind and I agree with almost nothing he says. I think the take away is that the military isn’t very good at non-military things. Should that be a surprise to anyone? Did we really lose two wars?? Guess it all depends on how you define victory and defeat. I know that in a matter of days Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein were out of power and militarily defeated. I would say we won the wars and lost the occupations because we couldn’t harness all the elements of national power and forge a coherent strategy to win the peace.
    So we leave Iraq at a critical point because the president based much of his political platform on getting us out of Iraq at any cost. We walk out with Al Qaeda on the verge of defeat with no strategic basing agreement or formalized partnership with the Iraqi military and the extremists are now back in force. So that is on us, huh?
    But, I guess if I had listened more closely to Mike Wyly none of this would have happened. I can’t tell you how much of his bullshit I had to sit through in the various levels of PME. So the Marine Corps he fixed after his experiences in Vietnam really wasn’t fixed at all because according to Linn, we just lost two wars.
    The real foot stomp is that unless you have a multi-generational commitment to the cause, a big pile of cash to burn, and a willingness to accept a trickle of casualties for decades, leave this type fight alone.
    While the talking heads, think tank experts, and politicians who got us into this move on to the next shiny object unscathed, and unremembered by the American people for their culpability, the man willing to plant his feet and fight will shoulder the blame.
    What a load of shit.

  7. Mr. Lind exemplifies the
    “armchair quarterback”. It is extremely easy to critique but much, much harder to execute. Nothing in Mr. Lind’s background would indicate that he has the experience to provide informed, constructive criticism. Instead, he has watched from his position in the beltway dealing with the upper echelons of the defense establishment. An environment steeped in hyper-partisanship where budget, bluster and rice bowl protection trump the tangible. He is right up there with Mr. Gingrich – who captivated a military audience in the 80s with visions of “reform”. Unfortunately all the talk, seminars and power-points in the world did not effect change like being embarrassed at the National Training Center could or watching an operation implode as in Desert One or participating in a conflict that did not turn out so good i.e. Vietnam in which a generation of young officers and NCOs determined that the errors of that particular conflict would not be repeated. I would submit that critical introspection of service performance since Gulf 2 is occurring even as Mr. Lind is castigating service leadership – he may not be privy to this internal debate, but it is occurring.
    By the way, his comments about an officer corps that hears nothing but “hyperbolic praise” is nothing but blatant BULLSHIT. Have been on both the giving and receiving end of some epic ass-chewings I find his comments reflective of someone who is clearly not, to quote Teddy Roosevelt, “…the man who is actually in the area….” but is among “…those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

  8. This is an important response. While some of us bluster at Lind’s incendiary problems with a fictional officer corps, BJ concentrates on the problems and potentials as they really are. This is constructive, not reactionary. Excellent!

  9. Lind serves one useful purpose….he stirs debate.

    In Vietnam we ruined our Army and destroyed both the NCO and Officer Corps. “Zero Defects” was the Motto then….scripted War Games, unrealistic training, a complete loss of Backbone by the Senior Leadership of the Military.

    That is what provoked the backlash Lind identified.

    We geared up for the next War in Europe….and found our selves fighting an altogether different War in the Desert. At least we had the Armor and Transport system, and the luxury of time to build up our Forces before the Campaign kicked off.

    We showed up in Iraq with unarmored Humvees and paid a horrible price in Lives for that short coming…..despite being given a very good lesson in Mogadishu.

    We find ourselves today confronted with a National Command Authority that does not have the faintest idea on how to confront the current threat.

    Worse yet, we have a Senior Military Leadership that is unable to convey and convince that Authority of the abject failure we are experiencing due to that incompetence.

    When you put on those Four Stars… also take on the responsibility to do everything possible to see that we fight the right wars, use the right strategy, field the right equipment, and provide the Troops the best support and training possible.

    How long did the Military delay the fielding of the MRAP and other Mine/IED resistant Vehicles and how many Lives were lost due to that?

    How many Billions of Dollars have we seen wasted on Procurement Programs that need never have existed?

    Do you hear an outcry from the Officer Corps…..or do you see Generals that just Salute and Carry On waiting for that next Promotion? Do you see Colonels demanding Decision Making being pushed down to as low in the Chain of Command as possible?

    Do you see Political Correctness destroying Unit Cohesiveness and driving up Personnel Costs?

    The Nation’s Military is about War Fighting….Killing People and destroying their Ability and Will to fight. That has to be the Focus.

    We saw our Troop’s Sacrifice in Iraq wasted just as we did in Vietnam. If we do not do the right thing then we can add Afghanistan to that list.

    We have seen our National Command Authority stand by while Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen come under control of Islamic Terrorists and/or Iran. Where have we seen our Senior Military Leadership stand up and insist upon being heard?

    As a Vietnam Veteran….I understand what Lind is talking about even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says.

    Don’t tell me the Army OER System is any better than it used to be….one bad Report Card still ruins a Career. One Alcohol related event also kills a Career. Decisions are still made from too high up the Chain….it used to be done in a Huey Command and Control Helicopter overflying the Battlefield with a Battalion Commander dictating to the Troops on the Ground and now it is at Command Level by Teleconference via SatLinks.

    Be honest with yourself and you will agree with Lind’s sentiments otherwise I would suggest you are part of the problem. Think not….next time your CO makes an absolutely stupid decision….tell him/her about it in detail and watch your Report Card Results.