Culture of Conformity

By lex, on August 9th, 2011

An interesting article on the Army’s “culture of conformity” submitted by occasional reader Red which may shed some light on what the authors believe is a long-running and systemic inability of the elder service’s officer corps to adapt to changing conditions:

The US Army is a complex social system in which entrenched bureaucracies thwart even modest change.  This professional institution also possesses an insular culture that has always resisted change, especially any reformation of the officer corps.  Historically, strong evidence exists that persistent careerism has led to widespread, unacceptable behaviors among the Army’s officers.  Examples include General William Westmoreland’s commission of the Army War College’s 1970 “Study on Military Professionalism.”[iii]  Prompted by a note from Lieutenant General William Peers, the lead investigator into the My Lai atrocity, that “something had gone badly wrong within the Army’s officer corps,” the Army War College report confirmed Peers’ observations.[iv]  However, it is telling that upon receiving the report, Westmoreland restricted its access and directed that the report be classified.  Similarly, in the 1990s, the Army faced a serious exodus of company grade officers due largely to unbridled careerism among the field grade officer ranks.[v]  More recently, in a 2011 article entitled “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving,” author Tim Kane found from a survey of West Point graduates that eighty-two percent believed that the best officers in the Army were leaving.  Keane noted that “the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit.  Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk avoidance trickles down the chain of command.”[vi]   

Our correspondent wonders whether one might easily do a word search and replace “Navy” with “Army” throughout the text, but in  honesty I can not completely agree. A certain degree of non-conformal “color” is I believe more appreciated within the sea services than otherwise, and you could argue that acquiescence to a degree of individuality that shades by degrees from acceptable behavior into actionable excess is behind the rash of commanding officer firings the Navy is once again embarked upon. A trend, by the way, that I have not seen repeated in the O-5 and O-6 commanding officer corps of the Army, which sources the general officer ranks.

Perhaps this is because Navy embraces “transformational” technologies with all their associated wrenching cultural changes more readily than the Army does, or perhaps it is because of the traditional independence of thought and action commanders at sea are expected to display, so long as they don’t run into anything or break the china.

On the other hand, it’s quite possible that I have my naval aviation blinkers on. But there was little in the essay I could read, and say that, yes:  Navy has exactly the same problem. Even as there was little within it that I could readily disagree with, given my admittedly shallow experience working with Army officers.

Apart from this:

Despite claims to the contrary, the All Volunteer Army has not succeeded in fielding a quality Army that is representative of the society it serves.  In fact, the majority of our soldiers today come from the third and fourth socioeconomic quintiles of our citizens, while the first socioeconomic quintile is virtually absent–some may say AWOL.[xxv]  The result is that the best and brightest of our nation never experience military service and are therefore never in the pool of candidates to aspire to or achieve general officer rank.

Here the authors stray into the dual and anti-republican traps of elitism and credentialism: Intelligence is only loosely correlated with socioeconomic attainment.  And unrewarded genius, as Calvin Coolidge noted, is almost a proverb. In any case IQ is not a birthright; even among the brightest parents there is a tendency for their descendants’ intelligence to revert towards the mean. Sure, Muffy and Biff may get accepted into all the better prep schools and get preferential admission to the Ivies based upon parental largesse, but this is no guarantee of future success. The stories of scions and heirs who have squandered their parents fortunes upon inheritance are so manifest as to be almost unremarkable. The halls of Congress are full of highly credentialed graduates from Harvard, Yale and Columbia.

And look where that has got us.

After all, who would you rather have leading your forces in combat? David Petraeus, whose mother was a librarian and father a sea captain? Or Paris Hilton?

 

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Filed under Army, Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Neptunus Lex, Politics and Culture

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