Six Ways to Fix the Army’s Culture


On September 21, the Atlantic Council will publish our major report, The Future of the Army: Today, Tomorrow, and the Day After Tomorrow. It includes 50 recommendations to help the U.S. Army prepare for the long-term future while still dominating a broad range of current and near-term conflicts. Our most important recommendations are not about fielding advanced weaponry, improving urban training, or even retaining the best talent (though those are all necessary). Instead, we believe the most critical prescriptions involve changing parts of the Army’s culture — those elements of the Army’s self-identity that are problematic, outdated, or both. Those cultural changes must happen if the U.S. Army is to remain the best in the world over the next decades and beyond. And these moves need to begin now, because they will undoubtedly make today’s Army stronger as well.

Without question, there are many positive aspects of the Army culture that should be maintained, including the Army Values, the Warrior Ethos, and an enduring outlook of “mission first, troops always, get it done.” However, other elements of its culture are becoming substantial liabilities as the Army faces an increasingly dynamic and challenging operating environment. Cultural standards that value process over substance, muffle the ideas of junior personnel, and disparage education and critical thinking must be eradicated and replaced with new norms that reward willingness to think creatively, innovate, and change. As a preview for “Strategic Outpost” readers, we offer the six most important recommendations for changing Army culture that will appear in our report:

1. Accept More Risk

Warfare is inherently dangerous, and especially so on land. Armies at war kill people and destroy things, and their leaders must master that chaotic and risky business in peacetime. Yet the Army’s overweening approach to safety has created a widespread culture of near-total risk aversion when troops are not in combat. Leaders at all levels are held to impossible standards in a misguided, centralized attempt to limit every imaginable accident or error, whether on duty or off. One need only to review the recent Army messages cautioning soldiers on the dangers of crossing streets while playing Pokémon Go or plow through the safety paperwork required for a weekend pass to see how the Army has lost its moorings on the appropriate balance between risk tolerance and safety.

The inability to manage risk prudently and underwrite smart risk-taking by subordinate leaders deeply corrodes the trust that enables mission command — the Army’s warfighting philosophy built around decentralized command and control. Left unchecked, the Army’s camouflaged version of helicopter parenting will inexorably destroy the initiative and judgment of its junior leaders and ultimately debilitate the way the Army fights. Senior leaders need to seek feedback from their subordinates to help identify the worst of these practices and enact common sense approaches that treat soldiers like the professionals that they are.

2. Reinstitute “Power Down”

The initiative of junior leaders is also being threatened by technology that increasingly enables senior leaders to micromanage even small unit actions, from peacetime gunnery qualifications to combat assaults on enemy compounds. Micromanagement in garrison is also rampant, undermining the very principles of mission command that the Army then expects its soldiers to practice when fighting. A 2014 Army study, for example, found that 41 percent of junior NCOs did not believe that they were empowered to make decisions, and only 59 percent were satisfied with the amount of freedom they had to perform their jobs. Yet on the future battlefield, where communications networks are likely to be degraded, even Army junior leaders will have to be comfortable operating with unparalleled autonomy, guided only by their understanding of mission and intent.

To right this balance, the Army should reenergize the concept of “power down,” pioneered by Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer in the 1980s. This involved decentralized leadership based upon trust in subordinates and greater autonomy of junior leaders in garrison as well as combat. Virtually none of today’s garrison procedures — from auto safety checklists to high level-directed wear of reflective belts (beautifully mocked in the Duffel Blog) — are consistent with this philosophy. Expecting audacity among junior leaders in combat while micromanaging them in peacetime garrisons is a recipe for battlefield failure. The Army must restore its commitment to decentralized leadership and frontline leaders’ authority and practice what it preaches in garrison as well during operations.

3. Decrease Tolerance of Bureaucracy

As we’ve argued at War on the Rocks before, the Army is inundated with more regulations and bureaucratic processes than any other military service. Its dense and ever-growing thickets of regulations, rules, and processes cripple innovative ideas, retard creative thought, and slow decision-making to a snail-like pace, especially within the institutional Army. In both today’s and tomorrow’s world, however, effective organizations must make decisions almost instantaneously in response to data that flows at the speed of light. The Army simply cannot continue to tolerate such excessive levels of bureaucracy and cumbersome industrial-age processes at the same time it trumpets agility and adaptability as essential attributes necessary to the warfighting force. Senior Army leaders should continue to reduce non-warfighting headquarters and staffs, and demand streamlined and truly automated processes to realize the promise of information technology. For these efforts to succeed, they must be led from the top while also engaging junior soldiers and leaders to identify roadblocks to reform and generate solutions.

4. Reduce Excessive Deference to Rank and Position

Encouraging new and diverse ideas or soliciting controversial opinions from junior people is a significant challenge for a hierarchical organization with clearly displayed rank and authority. Open disagreement and divergent views tend to be deeply discouraged within the Army, ranging all the way from its smallest units to the highest levels of the Army staff. This culture grows out of the understandable need to limit disagreements in tactical units. No one wants privates or lieutenants to argue with their commanders about how to carry out a night attack or to debate orders during a firefight. But such constraints outside combat can prevent Army leaders at all levels from hearing different points of view and being able to consider the widest range of options, which they need in order to innovate, adapt, and make good decisions in a fast-changing environment. Army leaders must find more protected ways to encourage open debate and legitimate (if tactful) disagreement, such as designating a “devil’s advocate” for all discussions. Seeking out conflicting ideas and encouraging genuine dialogue must be seen as prized components of good leadership, instilled in doctrine and evaluated in fitness reports when assessing leaders’ future potential.

5. Reject Army Anti-Intellectualism

Anti-intellectualism in the Army is not new, but it has grown as an unintended consequence of the recent wars. Since 2001, deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan have effectively become the only valued duty assignment for rising leaders. Spending time earning a civilian graduate degree, teaching at West Point, or serving in a broadening assignment away from troops was quietly denigrated as “taking a knee” and often harmed the career prospects of those who had done so. Such sentiments may be understandable during wartime, though they inevitably have harmful long-term consequences. Now, however, Army senior leaders must actively reverse this trend. They need to mentor the service’s rising stars to invest in and value educational and broadening pursuits — and, even more importantly, ensure that promotion boards recognize, incentivize, and reward these choices as vital contributions to the future of the service. They should increase the opportunities for officers to attend civilian graduate school, which enable students to develop deeper critical thinking skills and to learn from a diverse set of faculty and classmates in ways than can never occur in a purely military degree program. (Extra bonus: The Army wouldn’t need to pay for many of these opportunities, thanks to the generous educational benefits provided by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.)

The Army should also reinstate the requirement for every career officer to develop skills in two specialties, rather than to focus narrowly on one. This would produce officers with a much broader range of talents, who would be educated and then employed effectively across more than one skill to support the Army’s disparate needs. These measures would help rising Army leaders think more creatively about the wide range of challenges facing the Army and contribute more effectively at the strategic level within the Department of Defense or the wider interagency arena.

6. Strengthen Ethics and Integrity

The cornerstone of the Army as a profession rests upon the uncompromising ethical standards and integrity of its members. Yet an explosion of bureaucratic requirements means that Army leaders at all levels are often forced to compromise their integrity in order to meet an ever-growing list of recurrent demands. In a previous column, we wrote about a report called Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession, authored by two professors at the U.S. Army War College. It found that it was “literally impossible” for Army officers to meet all the requirements imposed on them by higher headquarters, yet also found that failing to meet those same requirements was professionally unacceptable. The result is a pattern of pervasive dishonesty, false reporting, and widespread rationalization of cheating across the service. The Army, which imposes most of these requirements, is thus profoundly violating some of its own core values — especially honor and integrity.

If unquestioned integrity is to remain a cornerstone of the Army profession, senior leaders must aggressively correct this very serious problem. They should seek input from their subordinates to better understand the demands that promote unethical reporting and decision-making across the force. They must then systematically review all existing requirements to pare them down to only those that are essential, realistic, and achievable. Finally, they must put tough new systems in place to vet any newly proposed requirements to ensure that these three standards are always met.

If you’re interested in learning more about the report, it will be available on the website of the Atlantic Council on September 21. We are also holding a public launch event at the Atlantic Council that morning at 9:30 AM, which you can attend by registering here or watch as it is livestreamed. We hope the report will stimulate lots of discussion, creative thinking, and new ideas to help ensure that the U.S. Army remains the preeminent fighting force in the world in the years and decades to come.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Mozilla/5.0 AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko; compatible; bingbot/2.0; + Chrome/116.0.1938.76 Safari/537.36