I’ve written before here1 about some of the problems in the United States armed forces that make the idea of reform – and we badly need reform! – problematic; indeed it is problematic to the point of preposterous. I’m going to talk now about one of the phenomena that goes into that: the excess of officers. Mostly, I will center on the Army, but the problem cuts across the services and cross-fertilizes from one to the other.
Note: I am pretty dispassionate and objective about this sort of thing. If it offends anyone, tough. Most of you knew that, right?
Excess? The German Army of WW II somehow managed to fight off for six years – that, or beat the ever loving crap out of – nearly the whole world with under three percent commissioned officers.2 Roman legions, perhaps the most formidable fighting machines of human history, got by with six to eight. Six to eight percent? Not on your life; six to eight, period, six military tribunes, a legate, and – arguably – the praefectus castrorum, who was more in the line of a late entry officer, as per the British system.3 Think about that one, one officer per every eight hundred men. And it was plenty.
What have we got? As of 2013 we had over eleven percent commissioned in the Marine Corps, seventeen percent in the Navy, almost nineteen percent in the Army, and nearly twenty percent of strength being commissioned officers in the Air Force.4
The problems with having this many officers are multifold. I can only cover some of the more important ones.
This high a percentage of officers almost certainly means that there are people running around with bars and leaves and even eagles and perhaps stars who probably should have been non-coms. They may have the education and intelligence to be officers, but as a matter of attitude, outlooks, values, and approaches to things, they’d have been happier if they’d been wearing multiple stripes. I used to see a lot of this among lieutenants who decided to go Special Forces. In almost every case I have seen, these were guys who really wanted to be squad leaders which, in SF, they could be. The effect of commissioning so high a percentage of people has tended to be having an NCO corps weaker than it should have been and weaker than it needs to be. This tends to exacerbate another problem, officers will tend to micromanage if they’re allowed to. They will be allowed to, if there is a common perception that the NCO corps needs to be micromanaged, which, because some numbers actually do need to be micromanaged, casts them all in a questionable light in some circles. There’s another reason, one having little or nothing whatsoever to do with NCOs, for that kind of micro-management.
Secondly, officers demand coddling. And they’re sneaky.5 They need an unhealthily large slice of personnel managers and more senior officers to supervise the personnel managers. They demand better treatment in everything, unless in the field. We’ve long since chopped the number of official servants (yes, uniformed and on the strength) for generals quite a bit, but the numbers remain non-trivial. And more officers means more generals who demand more servants. Moreover, when the flag officers’ enlisted aide staffs are cut, generals will often loot the ranks for services and time.6
Thirdly, the costs in salaries and other perks is much higher for many officers doing the jobs they’re doing, than it would be for some smart Spec-Fours to do the same jobs. I’ve held at least one of those jobs, myself, for about fifteen months, in San Antonio, at 5th Recruiting Brigade. Sure, about twenty percent of my duty time was actually spent doing something an officer should do, mostly manipulating the system to get kids jobs they were qualified for and wanted, and inspecting subordinate units. The other eighty percent? I’m not sure a bright Spec-Four wouldn’t have been overqualified. I’m not entirely sure an intelligent and tractable chimpanzee wouldn’t have been up to it. There were three captains and a major in that office; surely three of the four weren’t needed.
Now one might say it would all be worth it, if only all or most of those hundreds of thousands off officers pulled their weight, and had the brains and other talent to do so. Sadly…
No. Just no. It would make no difference if they were Napoleons to nearly a man (and woman). Why not? It has to do with duration in command, and the relative values, military but also moral, between building for the long term and putting on a show for personal aggrandizement.
The way one tells who should command at higher levels is by having them command at lower. However, there are two possible kinds of command. If one can command a company (or battery or troop), say, for three or four years, and everyone else is doing the same, then the criterion of success is success in building for the long term. Moreover, it is not only possible to do so, it is impossible to do anything else and succeed, because nobody in our Army – Nobody! – can maintain a show for three or four years. The truth will start creeping out through the seams, the core systems of the unit will begin to fray and fall apart if someone were to try. And the troops will, rightly, rat you out.
Conversely, with many, many, oh, too goddamned many, officers, command tours must be short, a year and a half or even just a year. Anyone, well, nearly anyone, can put on a show for a year or a year and a half. And, again, if everyone is doing that because no one has any choice to do anything better and more lasting, then that’s all anyone will be able to do. And you must – at least it will seem you must – micromanage your non-coms to a sickening degree, because if you don’t they – Heaven forbid – might actually not be all that interested in putting on a show to support your OER. And that, that micro-management, is what really does to death your NCO corps, far more than the occasional over-promotion of someone who’s really a sergeant at heart, mentioned above.
Again, note well, this would still be true of an officer corps mostly composed of more or less Napoleons. Within that mass of short but terribly ambitious Corsican geniuses there would still be some better at the show and others best at the long term. The system would advance the former and drive out the latter. That system is driven by excessively large officer corps, which size dictates short command tours.7
How to fix it? The services will never fix themselves; indeed, they have to have large officer corps and bloated numbers of flag officers to compete amongst themselves and each other. The service that tried to change this would be murdered in the bureaucracy stakes. Could congress simply say, “Have as many officers as you like of whatever grade you like. We’re only going to pay for 3%.” That might help some, in the long term, but I will virtually guarantee that the ones retained will be the ones who had previously shown themselves best at putting on a show. That’s not the way to reform things.
Frankly, I think the only way to do it would be to set up a parallel Department of Defense, “DoD 2.0,” we might say, and build it right from the start, while gradually closing out and putting to pasture those who prospered under DoD 1.0. And I don’t really know if that’s possible short of a dictatorship that was finely and remarkably attuned to military needs.
2 2.87%, IIRC. The figure can be found in Gabriel and Savage’s Crisis in Command, my copy of which is apparently stowed in a box somewhere.
3 No one can really say definitively – and yes, I have discussed the matter at length with Roman Army expert, historian Adrian Goldsworthy – how many centurions were by direct appointment, which is not uncommon for officers, and how many came up through the ranks, which is normal for non-coms. Here’s what I think is true; I think centurions for the legions mostly came up through the ranks, because they were simply too tough to have been directly appointed off of Daddy’s latifundium, while most centurions of the auxiliary cohorts were directly appointed, because it was important to maintain political control of these foreign, non-citizen formations. I _think_.
4 https://www.bls.gov/ooh/military/military-careers.htm Do the math yourself. Note, the Marines are not as good and the Navy not as bad as would appear, since a certain number of naval officers go directly to support the Marines. Some of that Navy percentage, in other words, should in justice be attributed to the Corps.
5 Guilty, at least of the latter charge.
6 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/11/gen-martin-dempsey-pensions/20220539/ third paragraph from the bottom. General officer staffs used to be officially huge, on the order of 21 or 24 enlisted gophers for a four star. Yes, as a matter of fact this does offend my puritan soul. Yes, I do think using forced troop labor for personal services is unutterably corrupt, hanging levels of corrupt. Yes, I’ve met Huntoon at Carlisle, several times, and, as far as it went, liked him well enough, but it’s still hanging levels of corruption.
7 I would say it’s impossible, overall, but it is possible – at what we might call the tactical – level for an officer to still build for the long term, even if his presumptive command tour is short. If you try though, expect to be at least threatened with relief for not putting on the show your higher commander’s next OER from his boss demands. If I hear enough demand from serving soldiers, or those still closely involved in the military community, I’ll do a column on that someday.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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