Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Army generation gap causing increasing officer tensions

{ Podcast this essay } In a recent NY times article, there was an extended treatment about how elite junior officers in the U.S. Army are starting to challenge the Army generals on Iraq strategy and policy. This tension is interesting to me; because, in my experience, there is seemingly a significant change in the outlook of college-age people about every seven years or so. And many of these junior officers are of approximately the same age group.

My speculation is that Junior High school-age young people track what Senior High school-age young people are doing, but after about six-years (two years J.H. + four years S.H.) there is a cultural turn-over. In a similar window of cultural change, we are now approximately seven years into the Iraq conflict as we now know it (and even longer if you count the Kuwait pre-cursor activities to it all). And as I mentioned, junior grade officers are very close to college age, typically representing the age group of graduate students. So where arises the tension?

Since those in senior strategic military command positions (i.e. Generals) have been culturally (or actively) formed by combat experiences from the late 1960s, or by cold war maneuverings from the 1970s and 1980s, they appear from the perspectives of junior grade officers (lieutenants, captains, majors) to be improperly understanding, or to be unwilling to change, the circumstances of the military's engagement in Iraq. In the NY times article, Fred Kaplin comments on the differences between the two groups:
Today’s generals rose through the officer corps of the peacetime Army. Many of them fought in the last years of Vietnam, and some fought in the gulf war. But to the extent they have combat experience, it has been mainly tactical, not strategic. They know how to secure an objective on a battlefield, how to coordinate firepower and maneuver. But they don’t necessarily know how to deal with an enemy that’s flexible, with a scenario that has not been rehearsed.
This disagreement about how Iraq is going which is voiced by many of the best junior grade officers who have actually done tours in Iraq, who have formed opinions drawn from their own intense exposure to that theater, is probably fueled in part by differences in how the younger generation evaluates "success" in military action. The senior grade officers have not been explicitly trained to deal with the odd circumstances wherein the U.S. finds itself, and the junior grade officers are noting the implications of their senior officer's confusion on the matter -- i.e., at the combat and operations level. Eventually, it seems even the generals themselves admit the problems, but this just exasperates the junior officers further. Another quote from Kaplin:
[In April of 2006] six retired Army and Marine generals publicly criticized Rumsfeld, who was still the secretary of defense, for sending too few troops to Iraq. Many junior and field-grade officers reacted with puzzlement or disgust. Their common question: Where were these generals when they still wore the uniform? Why didn’t they speak up when their words might have counted?
One can easily summarize the junior officers' attitude about such admissions: too little, too late.

That the younger generation is reassessing the U.S.'s military role can also be seen elsewhere. Trends of attendees at West Point are showing a clear trend of change in attitude. Potential officer recruits are exiting at a much higher rate:
West Point cadets are obligated to stay in the Army for five years after graduating. In a typical year, about a quarter to a third of them decide not to sign on for another term. In 2003, when the class of 1998 faced that decision, only 18 percent quit the force: memories of 9/11 were still vivid; the war in Afghanistan seemed a success; and war in Iraq was under way. Duty called, and it seemed a good time to be an Army officer. But last year, when the 905 officers from the class of 2001 had to make their choice to stay or leave, 44 percent quit the Army. It was the service’s highest loss rate in three decades.
That 44 percent decided it was not in their interest or ultimate values to support American military policy in Iraq, or in the greater world more generally, is a telling statistic. Again, this is all occurring at West Point, where young people enter that premiere institution already friendly to the idea of being a military officer, already probably primed to pursue that track, but their academic and social experiences eventually move 44 percent to outright change their mind. I would also suspect that a significant fraction of the remaining 56 percent who went on to active duty were not exactly enamored with their future career possibilities.

In the end, I note two more quotes from the NY Times article, ones which are so representative of ambiguities in U.S. military history that one is left wondering if the awareness of history, even in excruciating detail can make any difference at all to American political policy. First, there is the role that senior officers should play (or should not play) in a constitutional republic where civilians decide military policy:
The very discussion of these issues discomforts many senior officers because they take very seriously the principle of civilian control. They believe it is not their place to challenge the president or his duly appointed secretary of defense, certainly not in public, especially not in wartime. The ethical codes are ambiguous on how firmly an officer can press an argument without crossing the line. So, many generals prefer to keep a substantial distance from that line — to keep the prospect of a constitutional crisis from even remotely arising.

Second, this upper-echelon cultural hesitancy of pressing arguments against risky (or even stupid) use of military policy can create situations that eventually take on a life of their own, situations that have no option of solution, but only of cessation. In 1982, Wass de Czege was ordered to rewrite the Army’s field manual on combat operations, and in doing so incorporated many of the lessons of classic treatises on war, from both Eastern and Western sources, and from his own experiences from Vietnam. A quote from him leaves one wondering if the U.S. simply has the same problem, but with a different geography:
In an essay for the July issue of Army magazine, Wass de Czege wrote that today’s junior officers “feel they have much relevant experience [that] those senior to them lack,” yet the senior officers “have not listened to them.” These junior officers, he added, remind him of his own generation of captains, who held the same view during and just after Vietnam
Once Rumsfeld said that the Iraq situation was not like Vietnam. "Different Place. Different time." He stridently said to the press. He was right, but I think history will add a third phrase: "Same mistake."


Fred Kaplin, "Challenging the Generals" NY Times (Accessed 8/27/2007)


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At 12:51 AM, Blogger w0lph said...


While it maybe true that current commanding officers are of a generation that has passed (in some sense), it is not rational for Junior officers to exit after having been trained at West Point. Undoubtedly, they are exiting, but they are doing so not based on strategic methodologies, but over mass opinion and patterns in group mentality. I believe this to be called "engineering consent": those who control the analysis of information control those who consume this (as a product).

What I find interesting about your article is the evasion of the specific disagreement between the senior and junior officers on Iraq. What exact policies are they contending over, furthermore, why are there only forty-four percent exiting West Point, and what will those forty-four do as a career?

I believe furthermore, that the U.S. has made a fundamental change in its policy since the beginning of the first world war. During that war, The united states operated as an isolationist state: we did not focus our resources on trade, and it was our intention to stay out of the European theater altogether. After we did engage, and we had defeated Germany, we left Germany in rubble through economic containment: we did not allow trade, nor did we help them rebuild their infrastructure. However, World War two saw the change in policy that has affected (in my opinion) Iraq: Nation Re-Building. instead of adopting a "scorched earth" policy of complete destruction, we now engage in war with the intention of converting the enemy via economic means (which may explain our failure in the Islamist world, since they do not view the world solely on economics, but ideology). Therefore, junior officers cannot rationally exit the armed forces without convincing themselves that our policy of open trade and nation rebuilding does not make good sense.


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