The Army’s Equal Treatment of Heroes and Cowards

On a sweltering hot day in Baghdad, I snapped to attention, my arms locked at my sides, rivulets of sweat pouring down my face.  I blinked through the salty drops and tried to focus on the scene playing out in front of me.  For a moment, I felt a wave of nausea.

Two first lieutenants were standing side by side.  One of them had been decorated for valor in battle, his men loved him, and he was a good and trusted friend.  He had led his men through multiple firefights, and, on one particularly awful day in Baghdad, he had sprinted back and forth tending to his wounded men and making sure all of them made it onto the casualty evacuation vehicle before he collapsed into my arms, severely concussed and suffering from c-spine injuries.

The other lieutenant had been relieved of duty after he curled into a ball and cried during a firefight.  His patrol had been hit by an IED and they had lost a soldier.  And, when his men needed him the most, he failed them.  He froze and it was only by grace that a follow-on attack did not inflict more casualties.  The battalion commander created an imaginary position for him on the battalion staff that did not technically exist, the assistant S-4, or the assistant battalion logistics officer.  He was useless as an Infantry officer, a disgrace to his chosen profession.

A senior officer approached the two lieutenants and, pausing before each, stripped off the rank of first lieutenant and replaced it with the rank of captain.  I blinked again, and then began to applaud with the other assembled soldiers, but I was really applauding for my friend, a true captain of Infantry, while trying to suppress my feelings of revulsion that yet more brave men would have to salute this other man, if he could be called that.

Both men receive the same paycheck.  Both men wear the same rank.  But the character of the two could not be more different.  And I think the problem is one of bureaucracy, a classic example of focusing on quantity and not quality.  It is absurd that a hero and a coward would be promoted at the same time because the Army needs to report to Congress that it has bodies filling positions.

The Army has a stated policy of masking all lieutenant’s officer evaluation reports (OERs) upon promotion to captain.  My Infantry Officer Basic Course company commander told me, “If you have a pulse and you don’t get arrested you’ll be promoted to captain at thirty-eight months.”  And my company commander and battalion commander, after giving me a glowing evaluation report that ranked me as the best platoon leader in the battalion, told me to “hang it on the fridge so your girlfriend can see it.  Because no one else will.”

Our star performers are leaving the Army because the Army is not recognizing and rewarding exceptional productivity with faster promotions and increased responsibility and pay.  General Petraeus is a star performer and he is proof of the outsized impact one leader can have on an organization.  But it is more by luck than design that Petraeus arrived at the right time in Iraq, for the system is designed to retain and keep the mediocre officers.

I am surrounded by brilliant officers at Harvard Business School.  They are all headed to some of the most prestigious firms in the country: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Co.  And many of them echo the same frustration: why does my voice matter so much more when I am here, when the Harvard brand gives me legitimacy, than it did when I was a servant of America?

Our frustration is not what bothers me.  What bothers me is the plight of the men and women who suffer under the poor leadership of these mediocre officers.  They have sworn an oath to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”  And, not all the time, but sometimes, those orders make men and women die needlessly.  One time is too many.

7 thoughts on “The Army’s Equal Treatment of Heroes and Cowards

  1. Tim Lawton says:

    I completely agree and understand your frustrations, as I’ve been in many similar situations. Though I would argue that the Army can’t operated like a private corporation, allowing internal market forces to determine staffing and pay scales. While I agree that some sort of incentive structure needs to be implemented to address some of the issues you mentioned….what are they? what would be feasible within the army bureaucracy?

  2. Bhall says:

    Tim, you’re right, money isn’t the complete answer, but I believe that it will make up part of the solution. In my own experience, a minority of officers did the majority of the work. Pay and authority should mimic their increased duties and responsibilities.

    To answer your question I believe that the default setting should be a longer period of time to promotion. Top performers could then be tapped for faster promotion as happens at the Major and above level and bottom performers could be slowed down or given the message that their skills are not wanted in the Army. I think it would encourage them to self-select out earlier if they saw their better peers moving up.

    The logic behind masking is to prevent early mistakes from dooming a career, but I believe it is founded on a class (misguided) assumption that the planners up top know better than the commanders rating the officer. Commanders know they are ruining a promising career if they include certain facts. I trust that they would withhold those comments if the officer had potential but include them if he was just dead weight. How come we trust commanders with the lives of men and women in combat but not to use their discretion when pondering whether or not to include negative comments in an OER?

    And, while there is a certain aspirational element to being a platoon leader, I wouldn’t mind seeing more gifted combat leaders given the opportunity to keep leading men in the field instead of transfers into functional staff roles. In other words, I don’t think that promotions should require officers to give up general manager type roles.

  3. Robert says:

    It depresses me to say, but we see the same symptoms of the same disease in our police force, school systems, the national and local media, politics, and just about any other major organization that is preoccupied with massaged “statistics”. Those involved care less about how these stats are fabricated and only about being able to deliver them to the person above them to say “see…see, what I did?” The people that love the job for the job (see those that care about kids, want to be great journalists, or in your article’s example, love their country and want to serve it with honor) are marginalized and either passed over or even worse held down for refusing to play these “stat” games.

    Ironically for me, while reading your piece I found myself asking questions about the “cowardly” soldier. Did you feel he carried himself in a manner that he deserved a promotion in spite of his performance? Did you ever get the sense he was ashamed of his promotion? I feel like it is nothing to be ashamed of to be afraid when your life is on the line, but to take credit for bravery undeserved, especially standing next to a man who has truly exhibited bravery, well, that is something to be ashamed of.

  4. JF says:

    Blake. Nice article, especially since I know who you’re talking about and agree in their cases. The only thing I would add though, is that the masking system is somewhat akin to protections for the accused in the justice system. These protections keep many of the falsely accused out of jail, at the expense of letting some criminals get through. The current promotion system protects officers with potential who make mistakes out of youthful inexperience, so there is a distinct benefit on the opposite side of the ledger. However, it does this in a systematic way, clearly at the expense of allowing many of the duds through the junior ranks. You’ll be happy to note the Vice is heading an open review of officer management that is looking at several aspects of how the Army does career management. In the example you cited, it’s important to note that the coward never led troops in combat again and has moved on to an innocuous career in the national guard, while the hero (if I have him right) is helping souls in Haiti at the moment and is in line for company command.

  5. GW says:

    Blake, well written and on point. Fully disagree with masking lieutenant OER’s, understand the intent, but it is failing to actually serve its purpose. Since I know both officers you speak of, its hard for me to objectify my response. However, I will agree with JF’s response and more openly align with his theme that in the end, the playing field levels out for those who can’t cut it.

  6. […] another related one from this excellent site on The Army’s Equal Treatment of Heroes and Cowards, with a jaw-dropping anecdote and a call for making the Army a real […]

  7. DH says:

    Blake, fantastic article. As some below have commented, this is, unfortunately, part of national trend that has swallowed a great deal of our best institutions. While still wearing the green, I could add so many anecdotes to this it isn't even funny. I hope we're not fighting a losing battle, and that we can grab a hold of some peacetime in the near future to “find ourselves” again. In the mean time, thanks for calling a spade a shovel.

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