The Army is emerging from 13 years of war, battle-tested but weary. It is under pressure from budget cuts, the return of nearly the entire force to domestic bases and a nation wary of deploying land power after two long conflicts. Yet perhaps the most important challenge facing the Army is not about finances, logistics or public opinion, but about culture — its own.
A conflict looms between the Army’s wartime ethos of individual initiative and the bureaucratic malaise that peacetime brings. The Army is about to make an abrupt shift: from a sizable, well-resourced, forward-deployed, combat-focused force to a much smaller, austerely funded, home-stationed service. Training and preparation for war will take the place of actually waging it. The Army is moving from 13 straight years of playing in the Super Bowl to an indefinite number of seasons scrimmaging with itself.
While few in the service would prefer unending wartime deployments over some semblance of peace, the end of full-scale conflict brings unique challenges to those in uniform — especially to those millennials in active service who, since 2001, have experienced nothing but the adrenaline rush of an Army at war. This transition could weaken the Army’s warfighting capabilities and drive talented, combat-experienced young leaders from the force.
The Army faced a similar situation after Vietnam. Home after a decade in Southeast Asia, its senior officers confronted demands to shrink the Army rapidly and return it to a peacetime footing. With inadequate funds, poor discipline, worn equipment and outdated warfighting doctrines all competing for attention, Army leaders aggressively attacked these problems — but were also far-sighted enough to realize that leadership of a peacetime force would be a critical challenge.
The Army’s senior leaders of the 1970s had endured the trials of Vietnam as mid-grade combat commanders, and they understood that the traits required for battlefield success — bold decision-making and individual leadership — would be quickly stamped out in a peacetime, rule-focused force. So they took action.
In 1979, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Edward “Shy” Meyer, advanced the controversial idea of “selective disobedience” as a way to empower junior leaders in the face of stultifying Army bureaucracy. His comments sparked a furious debate in the force, but as a young infantry company commander at the time, I knew exactly what he meant. He did not mean that we should ignore laws or violate ethical standards. But in a peacetime Army, the demands of burgeoning policies, regulations and requirements vastly exceeded the time available to comply, so leaders were empowered to set priorities and make choices. We could say no — we were even expected to say no. As I recall Gen. Robert Shoemaker telling us in a 1980 speech to leaders of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii: You will impress me, he said, if I come to your training site and you tell me what parts of my guidance you have chosen not to follow. You will really impress me if you have already told my staff and explained why.
Similarly, Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer led an Army-wide campaign, beginning in the early 1980s, that he christened “power down,” designed to wrest authority out of the hands of petty Army bureaucrats and drive it down to the lowest possible level. The signature of an officer was his or her bond, and Army regulations and local policies were scrubbed to ensure that the authority inherent in that signature was treated seriously. For instance, mid-grade noncommissioned officers were given the authority to be “officers-in-charge” of live fire ranges, a sea change in a culture that previously pushed more and more responsibility into the hands of its officers and undercut its sergeants.
Today’s Army officially embraces a leadership concept called Mission Command, and it resonates with the initiatives launched after Vietnam. At its simplest, Mission Command dictates that senior leaders provide guidance and intent — the what and the why – and that subordinate leaders have maximum latitude to design the how. It embodies deep trust between senior and subordinate.
Mission Command is how the Army fights its wars. It has been the default setting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where small units led by junior leaders have been scattered across the battlefield. Many of these young captains, lieutenants and sergeants saw their immediate supervisors infrequently, but all strived to operate within the intent of those higher commanders every day.
Regardless of the strategic outcomes of these recent wars, decentralized Mission Command has succeeded, empowering junior leaders to act boldly within their commanders’ broad intent. For example, when the raid into Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden went awry with a helicopter crash, the assault force immediately pressed on to accomplish the overall mission — without receiving detailed new orders from commanders thousands of miles away.
But Mission Command is now on a collision course with the peacetime Army, which values bureaucratic process and compliance above all else. Completing surveys and online training on time, mastering PowerPoint briefings, and grasping the intricacies of training management and readiness reporting all dominate the life of leaders in garrison. In combat, risk of death or failure is a daily hazard. In peacetime, risk-taking is systematically extinguished by layers of rules, restrictions and micromanagement aimed at avoiding any possible shortcomings. Peacetime procedures tend to crush the very attributes required for successful unit combat leaders. If not corrected, this conflict will drive out many of the Army’s best young wartime leaders and demoralize the rest.
It is not at all clear that today’s Army leadership even recognizes the problem — much less is doing anything about it. Early this year, a gruff Army one-star general addressed a room full of new company commanders and first sergeants at a large combat installation. His topic was “garrison leadership” — the transition from war to a home-station military. He, like every other serving general, grew up in the Army of the 1990s and long ago mastered the maze of peacetime training and bureaucracy. (By the era, efforts to push back against creeping bureaucracy had already waned.) According to attendees I spoke with, his message to a room packed with combat veterans boiled down to this: Suck it up. We are going back to the Army before the war. It was good enough for me; it will be good enough for you.
His audience — captains and senior noncommissioned officers with multiple combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — represented a generation of young leaders who have grown up in the Army since Sept. 11, 2001. In today’s force, every lieutenant and captain, and many young majors, came into the Army in the years after 9/11, and most mid-grade and many senior sergeants did the same. Their Army has known nothing but war.
Now their Army and their lives will be dominated by policies, regulations — and email. Of course, modern communications technology has enabled remarkable connectivity on the battlefield during the past decade’s wars, but its unintended and corrosive effects in peacetime will rapidly wear down the initiative required by Mission Command.
Far from facing peril on the battlefield, company commanders in the new home-station Army are becoming prisoners of their inboxes — just one example of a bureaucratic, micromanaged culture reemerging as the wars end. Nearly all carry government-issued smartphones and check them constantly. It may seem like a minor matter in today’s hyper-connected world, but within the military, the effects are pernicious.
During wartime, military bureaucracy plays on in the background, muted. But now, officials scattered across the vast defense establishment — from battalion and brigade headquarters staffs to installation safety offices to the Department of the Army staff in the Pentagon — regularly dictate instructions, briefings, surveys and policies to far-flung company commanders. Even though such officials nearly always reside outside the unit chain of command, their influence is strong. Commanders must respond promptly to this barrage from every imaginable interest group inside the Army. This compliance culture erodes wartime chain-of-command precepts and compromises this accountability and authority vested in unit commanders. It represents the extreme opposite of what small unit commanders are expected to do at war.
In many ways, the Army is in denial of this looming problem. Its senior officers need to take on this challenge directly. They must embrace and protect a leadership philosophy anchored in trust — one that imbues the Army’s peacetime operations with the wartime precepts of Mission Command. And most of all, these senior leaders need to listen to their young combat leaders of the past 10 years, the individuals who will eventually lead this Army. They must empower their young leaders to say no to the bureaucracy, or they risk creating a generation of compliant officers unprepared for the fast-moving, “think on your feet” nature of modern war.
After Vietnam, then-Col. Wayne Downing, who later commanded all U.S. Special Operations forces, challenged his Rangers to avoid becoming “milicrats” — bureaucrats in khaki focused on process and rules at the expense of bold thinking and battlefield results. Fortunately, senior Army leaders of that era underwrote a decentralized culture. They gave cover to their young officers to make tough choices and backed them up.
A failure to do the same today would exact high costs. As a young captain with multiple combat deployments recently told me: “They won’t have to shrink the force; lots of great people will leave because they are going to make it too painful for them to stay.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno is a senior fellow and co-director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. From 2003 to 2005, he served as overall commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Special to The Washington Post