Home > Current Events, Leadership, Organization, Personnel System, Policy > Do You Like Leftovers?: Army Officer Attrition

Do You Like Leftovers?: Army Officer Attrition


The debate over officer attrition, particularly in the US Army, continues.  An article by Tim Kane recently appeared in The Atlantic which made the case that the Army, and to a lesser extent perhaps the rest of the military, was hemorrhaging its best officers due to a lumbering, industrial age promotion system.

Kane’s article has now been rebutted by four senior officers currently serving as fellows at the Atlantic Council.  It’s become quite the subject of debate on Tom Ricks’ blog, and Starbuck has an entry at Wings Over Iraq as well.  I originally posted my thoughts on Ricks’ site, and below is the text”

It’s interesting to consider exactly what dog these officers have in this hunt.

As Fellows at the The Atlantic Council they have no doubt had great success in navigating their way to the top end of the promotions ladder. This should mean they are smart guys – and maybe they are. But if Tim Kane is right, it means that the really bright guys may have bailed already and these guys are leftovers. That would be a serious blow to the old ego.

Though Kane’s article had some flaws, I find this article to be equally flawed. They criticize Kane’s method for being unscientific, yet Kane never meant his informal survey to be scientific. In the same breath, these officers cherry pick examples of good officers who have stayed in the service – never mind that this is not only less “scientific” than Kane’s method, but it presupposes that the superstar officers mentioned made it where they are because of the system rather than in spite of it.

A closer look would reveal that H.R. McMaster was very nearly stuck at Colonel for life. Likewise, David Petraeus was sidelined as the Commander of the Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth before the Bush administration came to him hat in hand and asked him to save Iraq with some COIN.U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commande...

Though they try to present their article as a serious, matter-of-fact reply, their piece is littered with clues to the contempt in which they hold Kane for challenging the status quo. Using statements like,
“promoting a boy genius Harvard MBA graduate to colonel at age 32” and “Turning over the keys to a bunch of really smart captains is a recipe for strategic and policy disaster,” the authors deliberately exaggerate Kane’s argument to promote more on merit and less on time in service.

My favorite is the use of the word yarn, “Kane chooses a simpler narrative that fits his yarn”, implying that Kane’s article is not a serious argument, but more an entertaining fiction.

Are there problems with Kane’s methodology and “free market” solution? Absolutely. But, these officers seem to have their collective heads in the sand in defending the status quo. My guess is that they can’t bear the thought that the system, which has anointed them the chosen ones, may suck after all.

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  1. Anonymous
    September 23, 2011 at 12:07 am

    The current promotion system advances “yes men” who are savy and PR driven rather than on true mertis of leadership.

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