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.