Leadership: November 22, 2000

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Quality and Quantity; For thousands of years, armed forces have tended to lose their effectiveness through years of peace. This process came to be called, "peacetime rot." Naturally, it's still with us. The rot takes many forms. One of the more common is the use of variable standards. You can get away with this in peace time because there's no war to show where you are cutting corners by lowering standards. Playing with standards is not, in itself, always dangerous. Sometimes you have to. Even in war time. 

During World War II, the demand for pilots was not constant. If we, or the enemy, changed tactics, or if there were a few stunning victories, the number of pilots lost could go way down, or up. But the pilot training facilities could not be quickly expanded and the air force did not want to have too many unemployed pilots sitting around. So it became common practice to move the "passing grade" for new pilots. When demand was high, just about every trainee who didn't get themselves killed or injured was passed. When demand was not so high, the word came back to only pass a certain percentage, and this might be, at times, less than fifty percent. The front line units were aware of this, and were careful with what they got when "new pilots were being rushed to the front." No one really complained. When you had empty cockpits, you could take what you got and train them to your standards. And once things start going your way, you get better rookie pilots. This explained, for example, the seemingly sudden superiority of American pilots in the Pacific and Europe during 1944. Even though this system worked, it was never official policy, as no one wanted to admit that less than qualified pilots were being sent into combat. 

In peacetime, you often find the same quality and quantity drill, but for somewhat different reasons. For example, after the shortage of recruits was noted in 1999, efforts were made to reduce the number of recruits who didn't make it through their training. Thus in 2000 it was announced that the percentage of recruits who flunked their basic training had dropped. For the army, it dropped from 13 percent in 1998 to 8.7 percent. For the Navy it went down from 17.1 percent to 15.2 percent. The Air Force rate hardly changed (8.9 to 8.3 percent), while the Marine Corps rate went from 20 to 10 percent. 

The Army, mindful that it has had well documented problems with cooking the books in the past, stressed that it had improved it's training methods in order to get questionable recruits through training. Of course, anyone who's been in the military knows that miracles can more easily be achieved on paper in peacetime. Really troublesome troops can be tolerated, at the expense of exasperated NCOs and officers. But an unfortunate side effect of this is that many good NCOs and officers express their opinions about these policies by getting out themselves. The overall quality of NCOs and officers had declined steadily during the 1990s, in part because of this. In repose, the military maintains the required number of leaders by promoting people who would not have been moved up in the past, or would have had to wait longer for advancement. The decline in quality is not easy to spot as you might think. The brass know that this decline in quality can produce more courts martial and embarrassing incidents as we enter the 21st century. The usual solution is to let it be know that there should be fewer courts martial and other official recognition of troublesome troops. This is rough on the commanders down the line. They cannot get rid of bad soldiers with courts martial, but must either get along with these louts, or offer them an honorable discharge. Sometimes you can nail them with a bad conduct or general discharge, but these show up in the statistics and if the media makes a stink about it, the brass demand that these statistics not happen. Nothing illegal, not technically, anyway. The military have their own legal system (the UCMJ; Uniform Code of Military Justice) that gives commanders much latitude in how they deal with unruly troops. Even crimes like assault or theft can be papered over. Officers can offer the victims a favor in return for not pressing charges. Sometimes this later blows up, but military organizations are accustomed to dealing with things right now and playing down the future. In combat, the present is far more important than the future, because there often is no tomorrow. This attitude carries over into peacetime.

The U.S. military has, in the 1990s, adopted a "Zero Tolerance" attitude. This means that mistakes are not tolerated. Of course, you learn by making mistakes, but this is less tolerable than not meeting goals for recruiting, readiness and disciplinary actions. So the temptation to play with the standards becomes irresistible. And the rot sets in. The rot is here, and we won't have it rubbed in our faces until the next war comes along.

 


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