I think I wrote a couple days ago about Matt Gallagher’s great Iraq war memoir, Kaboom. My schedule only permitted me to read it in fits and starts, and so one of my pleasures on vacation was to go back and read the whole thing, giving a funny, moving and insightful book the attention it deserved. You’ll be doing yourself a favor by reading it. I want to focus on one aspect of it.

A major theme of the book is how field-grade officers are more often than not an obstacle to innovative and effective warfare. It’s something anyone who’s spent time with platoon leaders and company commanders over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan has heard very often: generals can get it or not get it; young officers can get it or not get it; majors and lieutenant colonels, particularly the staff officers… they’re just not going to get it. (Colonels are the wild card.) The oppressive and inescapable weight of Army bureaucracy is going to, as Robert Komer put it so well so long ago, do its thing, and that thing is to impose regularity — often for understandable reasons, if not always good or sensible ones — and lock into place the way Things Have Been Done. (It’s easy to overstate this, and to his credit, Gallagher, a thoughtful and self-critical writer, doesn’t.)

Ultimately Gallagher decides not to make the Army his career. But before he leaves, he offers this observation on page 272:

An unprecedented number of junior officers were leaving the army, despite all kinds of bonuses and perks being tossed our way, not to mention the tanking economy back home. It had a lot to do with the prospect of multiple deployments, certainly, but at least in my case, that wasn’t a deal breaker. The prospect of becoming a field-grade bureaucrat spouting thoughtless drivel to a new generation of junior officers was. I believed that many of the men at the top of the totem pole truly wanted the army to become a learning institution, but in my experience, the giant clog in the middle wouldn’t allow for it. An institution as large as the army didn’t change overnight, and the “that’s the way it was for me, so that’s the way it’ll be for them” mentality persisted.

Lots of caveats here: eventually all men become what they hate, and the next generation of junior officers stuck in horrific wars that don’t look like the ones we’ve fought will curse the counterinsurgent field-grade officers Who Want It Done Like It Was Done In Iraq and Afghanistan. And no one who’s ever spent time immersed in an institution is naive enough to think a true meritocracy will ever exist on Planet Earth. And I’ve met lots of field-grade officers at places like Ft. Leavenworth who eagerly embrace Gallagher’s critique — often because a couple years ago they were Gallagher. (Not that it’s relevant, but I have to link to this after writing that sentence.)

But too often the discussion of what it means to lose lieutenants and colonels under the weight of the wars is limited to a crimped and misleading discussion about signposts on the way to a “broken” Army, when a richer discussion would concern what it means to lose people who had to wage war often in spite of the Army — to lose innovators and realists and people who had to see a very big picture in a very limited area of operations. That’s why it was a good thing early in the Obama administration to see the Gates Pentagon turn company commanders into senior civilian officials. (Of course, Phil Carter is gone and Craig Mullaney ended up not being the DASD for Central Asia after all, but still.) Every field-grade officer was once a junior one, so obviously there’s no unique genius about company or platoon leadership, but this emerging deficit of experience, however understandable, is occurring when it’s most regrettable.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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