Leadership: No One Wants To Sing Backup

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June 11,2008: The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have an interesting personnel problem. It comes down to this. There is no shortage of troops for combat units. Plenty of recruits. Officers and career NCOs are particularly keen to be with combat units. Officers want to command a unit in combat, and will often volunteer to return to the combat zone if a command is to be had. That's what a career in the military is all about. But in the last sixty years, most officers have gone through their careers without ever commanding in combat. Career NCOs also want to be in charge during wartime.

It's a different story in the non-combat units. Here it's been harder to recruit, and more difficult to keep people in. Although the support people are trained as soldiers, and train for work in a combat zone, many just see actually being on a battlefield as dirty, dangerous and something to be avoided. Over 80 percent of the army is support people, and for decades the recruiting pitch to these people was, "join the army and learn a useful civilian skill." Most do, but getting shot at or blown up is seen as interfering with that.

To a certain extent, many of the support troops have been replaced by civilians, often non-U.S. civilians. This is nothing new in warfare. Actually, for most of human history, the "support" functions were largely performed by civilians, often foreigners. It was a 20th century innovation to have most of those support jobs done by uniformed personnel. That was largely because of the widespread use of conscription. Conscripts weren't paid much, but since the 1970s the U.S. has been using highly paid volunteers. And in wartime, it takes some even more highly paid civilians to do the support jobs willingly and well.

 


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