Leadership: Rotten At The Top

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February 9, 2010:  The U.S. Army recently released a report on a battle that took place four months ago in eastern Afghanistan. Unnamed senior commanders were criticized for allowing the battle to take place at all. In that action, 300 Taliban attacked about a hundred U.S. and Afghan troops in a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan troops were killed, wounded or captured. Of the sixty U.S. troops, eight were killed and 22 wounded (three seriously, the others returned to duty shortly after the battle). The enemy lost over a hundred dead, from American small arms fire and, eventually, missiles and smart bombs from warplanes and helicopters (which took about 45 minutes to get there.) The base, COP (Combat Outpost) Keating, was supposed to have been closed, but this was delayed because the UAVs and helicopters needed to assure a safe withdrawal, were needed to help another base that was threatened with attack. The army report recommended that senior commanders (battalion and brigade level) be reprimanded (given a letter of reprimand, which would later hurt their chances of promotion). This, of course, raises other questions. If the senior commanders are not up to the job, why weren't they replaced right after the battle. That's how it was done in past wars. Well, not exactly. In past wars, this battle would have been considered a victory. The troops at COP Keating defeated a larger enemy force, and had not been moved because limited air power was not available to cover their withdrawal because another unit needed the air support more. That sounds like a reasonable decision, but the media declared the COP Keating battle a U.S. defeat, and politicians began seeking people to blame. But everyone missed a more basic problem here.

Recent surveys have indicated that junior officers in the U.S. Army (and Marine Corps) still feel a lot of dissatisfaction with the quality of senior leadership. This disconnect between junior officers, and their commanders, has been around for more than a decade. It's gotten worse with a war on, because, unlike past wars, there has not been widespread removal of battalion and brigade commanders who did not perform well.

Alas, that is not new either. Even in Vietnam, there was a similar situation. This, despite the fact that, in some divisions, the commander did remove battalion and brigade commanders who were not doing a good job. In World War II and Korea, it was much more common for commanders who did not deliver, to get replaced. With a war going on now, and junior officers facing life and death situations because their commanders were not being aggressive, or innovative, enough, have been leaving the service.

Five years ago, the army was alarmed at the fact that it was losing its lieutenants and captains at the rate of 8.7 percent a year. All indications were that this rate would increase. There were several reasons for the losses. One was the prospect of constant overseas assignments, without their families, for the duration of the war on terror. Then there was the pull of better job prospects in a robust economy. The prospect of losing over ten percent of your junior officers a year was compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of these were those with the most combat experience.

A third factor in the exodus was the dislike of the army’s “force protection” fixation. The army put a lot of emphasis on keeping casualties down. But a lot of the combat commanders interpreted this as doing as little as possible. This, despite the fact that those commanders who get outside their camps the most, tend to reduce enemy activity in the area, and overall American casualties. But these aggressive tactics come with some risk, and many battalion and brigade commanders (lieutenant colonels and colonels) are more risk averse than the captains and lieutenants (company and platoon commanders). Once you hit lieutenant colonel, you are making the army a career, and are less inclined to take chances. But captains and lieutenants can afford to take chances, and are put off when their bosses are not. Thus many of these young officers, once they have completed their five year obligation, leave out of frustration with the poor performance of their superiors. This report, which is critical of those senior officers, talks about the problem but really doesn't really do anything about it. This is what the younger officers are complaining about, and just giving it some publicity is not a solution.

 


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