Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving The Military


Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.

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Kane accurately describes the situation. It is not just the West Point leaders that are leaving. The senior NOCs and graduates of other institutions of higher learning are also leaving. We use to have to make them retire or leave the service. Now, we cannot keep them.

I recently surveyed field grade officers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. My goal was to determine the type of leadership the general officers who commanded in Iraq used. Common themes of responses were that officers were promoted to the star level based upon their having had their ticket punched rather than their suitability for the job.

Now, with military cutbacks, the most experienced will leave the military, because it cost too much to retain them. It is cheaper to keep “no time in grade” officers and NCOs than to keep the very experienced leaders.

There are many reasons why good leaders are leaving the military. When an officer can only award 1/2 of those he senior rates with a top block rating, the system fails to reward performance. Good leaders attract and build excellent leaders. Why should a good leader have to purposely choose which junior leaders will not get top ratings when more deserve it? On the other hand, a Pi** poor leader attracts A** kissers of which 1/2 can be rated top block.

While “Heart Break Ridge” was only a movie it described this issue. In the movie, the general officer encouraged the A** Kissing Major to return to logistics. Today, he would likely get top block and a promotion because he had his ticket punched. You can see this where a division commander in Iraq allowed a whole battalion to go rogue under a substandard leader. The Major General got two more stars!
Many of us had been rooting for COL H. R. McMaster to get his star after so many years. Every thing HR did was the right thing to do at the right time. He made the mistake of writing “Dereliction of Duty” early in his career. (A good read about why we lost in Viet Nam. He named names!) Despite continuing to display high levels of leadership to go with his PHD education, he was not considered for a star. He successfully turned around Tel Afar, Iraq within one year with innovative thinking and effective action. His soldiers reenlisted in a mass formation back at FT Carson as a tribute to McMaster’s leadership ability. He still would not likely have a star if General Petraeus had not forced higher powers to consider him.

If you study the history of the military in the US, you will see that this is a cyclic process. Good warrior leaders are placed into storage after the action that required their unique talents has passed. This happened after WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and now OIF and OEF. The civilian processes have taken over and the contributions of the warrior leaders are no longer needed until the civilians bungle it again. These leaders will not be available or heeded in the future when expertise is needed to avoid a conflict or war. When that happens, our country will pay for losing these leaders through the loss of our young men and women. I think that Congress Women Patricia Schroeder (now retired, thankfully)described this process as the ” Military Dividend” ! The military dividend is now on display most days at Arlington National Cemetery.

Thank you, Curt & Randy, for a most informative session. This isn’t something on the radar of the regular pundits (and I include conservative “stars” like Limbaugh, Beck & Co. in that group). If nothing else, stories such as these demonstrate the enormous value of the private pundits of the Internet. Once aware of an issue, Americans can use their voices, as I shall as a result of this. Thanks again!

I had the extreme pleasure to work with COl McMaster in 2006-2007. He displays the leadership and professionalism that is sadly missing in our military. You are correct is stating that the ‘ticket punchers’ get promoted because they play the political game. What the leadership doesn’t realize is that the ‘Warrior’ also has the political savvy and the warrior mentality to go along with it. General Magum, former commander of the 160th SOAR, is another of those professional warriors that I would follow anywhere. My personally autographed copy of General McMasters’ book is one of my most cherished possessions.

I agree with Randy on the point that Kane’s article is deficient on the subject of those leaving from the NCO ranks and also with regard to our officers from other commissioning sources. I too am glad that the issue is being given consideration here though I also wish this were getting more attention as we get closer to the point in time where cuts will have to be made in the defense budget.

What I would like to know is why we still have so many flag officers and senior field grade officers. The numbers in those ranks do not correspond efficiently with the numbers of enlisted personnel. We’ll do a better job of getting the focus back on retaining the very best when we stop warehousing flag officers in made up jobs that rarely match them with the level of responsibility commensurate with their ranks. How many one and two star jobs could not be done by the very best colonels? The same question should be passed down the line. Does it make sense that we have more flag officers now than when we had more than 15 million men under arms during WWII?

Military Intelligence is a prime example of using officers in positions that have no leadership, ie, troop leading, requirements. Only the Infantry Branch has more officers than Military Intelligence but very few MI officers have troop leading time or command opportunities. This is an ideal situation for the use of Warrant Officers, subject matter experts that don’t necessarily have to have troop leading skills on the level expected of a commissioned officer. I know WOs tend to be cranky and can be difficult at times but you really do benefit from keeping people in their field of expertise, a practice rarely in play for commissioned officers that bounce from one staff job to another.

I could go on and on – I watched this from the inside for more than twenty years – but I retired and have grown sick of rehashing this old battle. There was a time in the Seventies when officers – primarily company grades and majors – were handed pink slips. We’ve had “selective early retirement” for O5s before. Now it’s time to cull the bloated ranks of our flag officers. They’ve served and it’s time to move on and with them shall go expensive staffs, their salaries, and the various accoutrements associated with such rank. Many of those jobs can be eliminated and those that must be retained can be filled with less senior officers.

We need fewer staffs and more seasoned and gifted leaders on the line with the troops. That saves lives and money and best of all it allows us to perform the mission that much better.