Sunday, August 26, 2007

Today's Generals

Some time ago I had an interesting discussion with my nephew, a career Army officer, about the differences between our two services. We seemed to arrive at the conclusion that there exists, or at least did when I served, a rather fundamental difference in the cultural relationship between officer and enlisted in the two services that is a result of the nature of the functionality of the service itself. Please do not jump to the conclusion that the following descriptions are intended to be in any way judgmental or that I think they are more than superficial.

In the Army the officer has a basic familiarity with the duties of the enlisted man, and in operation (combat) the difference between activities of the two ranks is a bit blurred. Both are running and firing weapons, for instance, albeit probably different weapons. Although the enlisted man may be more skilled at what he is doing due to more training and practice, he is for the most part not performing any activity that his officers cannot also perform.

In the Navy the situation is far different. The enlisted men are performing technical operations related to operation of the ship, while the officers stand physically idle and coordinate those activities. Officers have a basic comprehension of what their men are doing, but they could no more step in and do it themselves than they could walk on water. (Actually, the better officers could step in to at least some degree, and nuclear power engineering officers are a whole different breed of cat, but the principle remains valid in terms of it’s effect on culture.)

It seemed like in the Navy there is more distance between the ranks than in the Army. I often felt like the officers and I lived on different planets. Officers were always friendly enough to us, certainly never rude or discourteous even when dressing us down, but there was always a distance between us. I get the impression that that is not so much the case in the Army, and maybe it is not so much the case in today’s Navy.

But all of that is prelude to what came to mind when reading an article in the New York Times Magazine today, Challenging the Generals.

One of the things that really struck me was this,

Harvard’s merits aside, some junior officers agree that the promotion system discourages breadth. Capt. Kip Kowalski, an infantry officer in the Captains Career Course at Fort Knox, is a proud soldier in the can-do tradition. He is impatient with critiques of superiors; he prefers to stay focused on his job. “But I am worried,” he said, “that generals these days are forced to be narrow.” Kowalski would like to spend a few years in a different branch of the Army — say, as a foreign area officer — and then come back to combat operations. He says he thinks the switch would broaden his skills, give him new perspectives and make him a better officer. But the rules don’t allow switching back and forth among specialties.

That just shocked me. It seems to me that exactly the opposite should be true; that before being promoted to general an officer should have the broadest possible range of experience.

Distance or not, I had absolute confidence in my officers, and the higher their rank the more I trusted them. One of the reasons that I relied upon the Captain of my ship was that I knew he had served a tour of duty as Weapons Officer, a tour as Engineering Officer, a tour as Exec… To qualify for command at sea an officer had to serve in every officer’s function aboard the ship. My Captain might not be able to man the main electrical distribution panel, as I could, but he certainly could perform the duties of every officer aboard that ship, and could do it as well or better as the officers presently serving those duties.

It is simply amazing to me that we have generals in the Army today who have officers serving under their command whose duties they have never performed. How, precisely, do these generals evaluate those officers’ performance? How do these generals make decisions when they do not know if the advice and information they are receiving upon which to base those decisions is delivered by a valuable subordinate or an incompetent?

More importantly, how do these generals competently command functions and departments in which they have no direct experience? It seems to me they have to rely upon those departments then being run by subordinate officers whom they cannot evaluate, and trusting that the department is functioning successfully based on that officer's word alone. That strikes me as a recipe for disaster.

The equivalent would be placing an admiral in command of a submarine squadron who had never commanded a submarine or even served aboard one. I cannot imagine the Navy doing something like that, but apparently the Army has less compunction.

No wonder we find ourselves taking the Army into one quagmire after another. We don’t need a long war in Iraq to break our Army, the Army broke itself before we went in.

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