Leadership: Fatal Distractions


July 27, 2021: American politicians have been increasingly divided over the impact of imposing political training on members of the armed forces. Many members of Congress and the military leadership consider this mandatory ideological training a major contributor to reduced capabilities in the military, especially the navy. Some members of Congress recently had two retired senior officers; marine general Robert Schmidle and navy admiral Mark Montgomery, both of them outspoken critics of the decline of military capabilities, interview active and retired naval officers about the impact of the latest proposals on the military. There were 77 officers who agreed to talk about their experience but wished to remain anonymous.

The interviews were about growing complaints within the navy that essential military training was being reduced by mandatory training on subjects like sexual and racial diversity that are much less of a problem in the military than in civilian life. As one African-American naval officer pointed out, on a ship everyone bleeds red and sailors place a higher value on learning how to win and survive combat than being told who is racist, sexist or not politically correct. Many minority members of the military joined because the military was known as a place where your abilities were what counted, not your racial or ethnic background or sexual preferences.

These ideological imperatives came on top of earlier problems with the declining effectiveness of senior officers, who had become more concerned with political imperatives than in taking care of the sailors and junior officers who had to do the fighting and dying in wartime. It got so bad in 2014 that the navy conducted a large-scale opinion survey which confirmed that morale was low and getting worse, with a growing number of experienced sailors eager to get out of the navy. The most common gripe was the length of time spent at sea and the belief that those long voyages to distant waters were going to get longer. There was also growing disillusionment with navy leadership. Sailors saw senior officers more concerned with political correctness and “zero tolerance” than with legitimate needs of sailors and junior officers. Some 42 percent of seven-year-old survey respondents said their last deployment, aboard a ship and away from home, was seven months or longer. Nearly half the sailors expect their next deployment to be even longer. Not surprisingly, only 21 percent of sailors were satisfied with the amount of time they spent at sea. When asked about morale only 42 percent felt it was good or better. A major reason for low morale is the growing talk in Congress for reducing pay and benefits. In particular many sailors feared the long-standing custom of retirement (at half pay) after twenty years’ service was in danger. Most (63 percent) were certain they could get a good job if they left the navy. Worse, nearly half the respondents did not want to get promoted because of the growing amount of paperwork and petty rules that had to be enforced even if it disrupted essential training. Over half the respondents had a low opinion of senior leadership, believing the admirals did not pay attention to the problems of those they commanded and were not themselves held accountable for bad decisions.

The 2014 crisis was nothing new and followed earlier surveys to determine why so many highly trained and difficult- to-recruit or replace nuclear sub crew were leaving the navy and why air force pilots and combat experience junior army officers were leaving, The common denominator here was complaints of poor senior leadership, an increasing prevalence of “zero tolerance” regulations, and mandatory training on how to deal with problems that didn’t exist except in the minds of the media, opportunistic politicians and senior officers whose promotions must be approved by Congress. This divergence in priorities because of political mandates was seen for what it was by the junior officers and the men and women they commanded. Getting out, or not joining at all, was seen as the rational decision because in combat the demands of diversity training got people killed.

What is going on now is not unique in human history, actually it is quite normal. The basic pattern is that peacetime defense spending has, for millennia, been subject to misuse. With no war to provide a reality check to spending decisions, all manner of misappropriation mischief takes place. The oldest government records from antiquity mention misuse, often outright theft, of military budgets in peacetime, usually in the context of the problems that causes when there is a war.

Some modern era leaders realized this was not a new problem and sought to warn America of what confronted them as the United States demobilized after World War II but retained large defense budgets and conscription. This was unprecedented in American history, where the norm with the peacetime military was volunteers and miniscule budgets. All that changed after 1945 and one American president had personal experience with how this works.

U.S. Army five-star general Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander for European Allied Forces from 1944 until the end of the war 20 months later. Not all these post-war changes with defense spending and conscription were welcome and that was one reason Eisenhower got elected president in 1952, an office he was reluctant to seek. By 1961, at the end of his eight years as president, Eisenhower warned of the "military-industrial" complex. At the time, no one paid much attention. Eisenhower's admonition proved prophetic, and right on target. Eisenhower’s farewell speech was made to Congress, so he did not have to add the full name of the complex, which was very much a Military- Industrial-Congressional problem.

Less than half a century later, the United States was demobilizing from another war. In mid-2009 the major fighting in Iraq was over and the U.S. was trying to reduce weapons purchases by 20 percent in the next year and even more after that. The initial cuts meant $33 billion less sales for American manufacturers. That translated into some painful cuts for the five U.S. manufacturers that accounted for most of those defense cuts. These five corporations, led by Boeing, then with about $30 billion in annual sales, unleashed their lobbyists to try and reverse some of these cuts. The lobbyists had some powerful allies. Politicians from the states, and congressional districts where the equipment is made, are sensitive to any job loss from reduced government spending. The threatened politicians often work together to keep these jobs, and they are a formidable coalition. The politicians had lots of practice because this sort of thing was already becoming the norm when Eisenhower gave his 1961 warning.

Since the 1950s it’s gotten a lot worse, as politicians now seek to transform the military into something that suits their political goals rather than just a cash cow for politicians and military suppliers or anything approaching its original purpose, to defend the nation. Active-duty military people will tell anyone who will listen that this latest tinkering is not what they signed up for.


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