Attrition: Where Have All The Good Officers Gone


May 5, 2016: Since the United States eliminated conscription in the 1970s the military has paid close attention to the quality of troop allowed to enlist. The idea was to replace quantity with quality and it generally worked, especially for the lower ranking troops. The U.S. Army however did not pay as much attention to where it was getting its officers from. Officers comprise about 17 percent of the active duty military. Most (about two-thirds) of these officers come from college training (ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs. ROTC dates back to 1862, during the American Civil war. Since then conscription has been in effect about 24 percent of the time. Thus ROTC was mostly a volunteer operation. But during the post-World War II period the United States had peacetime conscription for the first time and ROTC became an attractive alternative to doing your military service as a clueless recruit. Thus ROTC usually worked quite well and produced adequate junior officers. Then near the end of the 20 th century problems developed.

ROTC has long depended on college grades as a major factor in determining which cadets would become officers. That seemed to work. But since 2001 it has become more obvious that the quality of ROTC officers was declining while those from the service academies (West Point and the like) and OCS (Officer Candidate School, mostly for enlisted troops) was not. On closer examination it was found that the problem was grade inflation in American colleges. The old standards for acceptable grades no longer applied thus using college grades to select qualified ROTC members to become competent officers had ceased to work. The service academies were much less affected by the grade inflation craze in part because they were run by the military and their students were basically studying technical subjects. The enlisted candidates for OCS were the result of the quality control program still enforced for new recruits since the 1970s.

A proposal to drop college grades as a major factor in evaluating ROTC cadet performance is encountering some resistance but is expected to succeed. The armed forces, particularly the army, is finding that decades of paying more attention to the quality of enlisted troops but not so much to officers had caused morale problems among many enlisted troops, who complained (often during their mandatory exit interview) that too many bad officers where the main reason for leaving. By 2003 you had a growing number of combat experienced officers making the same complaint.

There had long been pressure to apply some of the standards, techniques and success with selecting and developing enlisted troops to officers as well. After all as general educational levels rose in the United States you often had officers commanding a lot of troops who were better educated and quite capable. This is why you saw so many more “battlefield commissions” (promoting an outstanding NCO to officer while in a combat zone) during World War II and greater reliance on OCS. By the 1960s the army regularly monitored the performance of new recruits and encouraged those who were doing well to apply for OCS and finish their enlistment as an officer. The OCS training took 90 days and many enlisted troops, even draftees, accepted the opportunity. Many of these OCS grads stayed in and a growing number rose to senior rank. What officer quality problems kept coming back to was the fact that the military was more successful at improving the quality of enlisted troops than their commanders. Meanwhile most Americans assumed that officers were the “best and brightest” and enlisted troops were not.

The long held popular belief that American military personnel were below average in terms of education and intelligence and were disproportionately minorities was remarkably resistant to a very different reality. None of these misperceptions were ever the case, even during World War II, when conscription was used to bring in most of the recruits. Back then, and ever since, the military has had minimum standards for most jobs that prevented those with below average education, intelligence, and physical condition from serving. After World War II the standards rose because fewer of those eligible were needed. Naturally the military preferred the smarter, stronger, and generally more capable conscripts and those were the ones they accepted. When the U.S. military dropped conscription in the early 1970s, there were fears that recruit quality would decline. It did for a few years but by the 1980s it was higher than ever. The military had competitive (to civilian jobs) pay and there were still young men and women attracted to a few years of “adventure” in the military. It was also possible to learn valuable job skills and there were also GI Bill educational benefits.

There were always more applicants than the military needed and standards remained high even after September 11, 2001. Years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan led to some lowering of standards, but that turned around after the 2008 recession. But then a recession fueled boom in enlistments after 2009 allowed the army to raise its recruiting standards again. Before 2008 recruiting standards had been lowered and screening methods improved. Before the fighting in Iraq got bloody (2004-7), less than ten percent of army recruits had been high school dropouts. But during that period that has grown to 24 percent, with no noticeable decline in the quality of troops because of the better screening. Same thing with those receiving "moral waivers" (for having a police record). That has gone from 4.6 percent in 2004, to 6.2 percent in 2007. After 2008 all those standards are going back to the pre-2003 levels.

There are some other trends at work. In the last few decades there has been a growing divide in the United States when it comes to how many recruits different regions provide. A disproportionate number of recruits come from the southern and the Rocky Mountain states. The northeast, upper Midwest, and west coast are much more difficult to recruit from and the recruits are not as good (less education, overweight, bad attitudes).

Recruiters have the hardest time in urban areas. Back in 2005, the Department of Defense concluded that urban high schools were the source of most problems. Not because of leftist teachers in some of those schools trying to keep recruiters out, but because so many potential recruits had to be turned down because of the poor education they had received in those schools. While only a fifth of Americans live outside cities and suburbs, nearly half of the qualified recruits come from these rural areas. What's strange about all this is that the rural areas spend much less, per pupil, on education but get much better results than urban schools. Part of this can be attributed to differences in cost of living, but a lot of it has to do with simply getting more done with less. Per capita, young people in rural areas are over 20 percent more likely to join the army, than those of the same age in urban areas.

The rural recruits are also a lot easier to train and generally make better soldiers. The urban recruits often have a bad attitude, as well as a difficult time getting along with others and following instructions. The urban schools deserve some of the blame for this, while rural schools tend to be far more orderly and put more emphasis on civic responsibility. Many of the urban recruits are aware of these problems and joined the service to learn useful (for getting a job) social skills. Those skills are more often found among rural recruits because out in the boondocks, people are more involved with local government and more involved in general. This has been noted in urban neighborhoods and for decades many urban parents have sought to send their kids to live with kin in the country to get the child away from the bad influences of urban life. Over the last decade there's been a movement by parents back to the rural areas. Urban areas may be more exciting, and offer more employment opportunities, but they are a tough place to raise kids or find suitable recruits for the military.

But as the army raised the bar for new recruits, and existing troops to stay in, they again encountered an ancient problem, whether to hang on to combat proven veterans who are troublesome in peacetime. It's long been known that some soldiers, who appear to have attitude and discipline problems in peacetime, turn out to be exceptional performers in combat. Commanders can take the easy way out and discharge these guys at the first sign of trouble. Or, mindful of how valuable these wild men are in combat, go the extra mile to hang on to them. The army and marines don't like to even admit people like this exist. But combat veterans, especially those who make a career of the military, know the problem, or opportunity, is real.

And then there was another oddity. During 2004-7, the army has had the most problems recruiting troops for non-combat jobs. Patriotism, low casualties, and a sense of adventure brought in plenty of recruits for the infantry. But with support jobs, the army was competing with the civilian economy. And this is where cash bonuses had to be used. As the military added more technology faster, there was a need for more skilled people to maintain, and even operate (as in large computer networks), the stuff. If the military didn't pay market rate, it did not get the people it needed to win on the battlefield.

The U.S. military adopted a new bonus system for scarce medical and other technical specialists. The new program enabled the military to pay market rates for specialties like brain surgery and Internet security. In the past the bonus program was not directly linked to the market salaries for needed specialists, who would not join and work for existing pay levels linked to rank and time in the service. In many cases, where specialists were needed for a short time, qualified civilians were hired at much greater cost. This specialist shortage has been a growing problem, including for purely military specialists. By 2010, the military was spending about half a billion dollars a year for bonuses, although during the height of the Iraq war that more than doubled.

In wartime, with an all-volunteer force, bonuses were paid just to get recruits for all sorts of jobs. But after 2008 the army (which paid most of these bonuses) sharply cut back on its enlistment, and re-enlistment bonus program, mainly because the economic recession reduced the competition recruiters get from civilian employers and the war in Iraq had quite obviously been won. The bonuses quickly slid back to their pre-Iraq levels.


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