The Army is emerging from 13 years of war, battle-tested but weary. It is under pressure from budget cuts, the return of nearly the entire force to domestic bases, and a nation wary of deploying land power after two long conflicts. Yet perhaps the most important challenge facing the Army is not about finances, logistics or public opinion, but about culture – its own.
A conflict looms between the Army’s wartime ethos of individual initiative and the bureaucratic malaise that peacetime brings. The Army is about to make an abrupt shift: from a sizable, well-resourced, forward-deployed, combat-focused force to a much smaller, austerely funded, home-stationed service. Training and preparation for war will take the place of actually waging it. The Army is moving from 13 straight years of playing in the Super Bowl to an indefinite number of seasons scrimmaging with itself.
While few in the service would prefer unending wartime deployments over some semblance of peace, the end of full-scale conflict brings unique challenges to those in uniform – especially to those millennials in active service who, since 2001, have experienced nothing but the adrenaline rush of an Army at war. This transition could weaken the Army’s warfighting capabilities and drive talented, combat-experienced young leaders from the force.
The Army faced a similar situation after Vietnam. Home after a decade in Southeast Asia, its senior officers confronted demands to shrink the Army rapidly and return it to a peacetime footing.
The Army’s senior leaders of the 1970s had endured the trials of Vietnam as mid-grade combat commanders, and they understood that the traits required for battlefield success – bold decision-making and individual leadership – would be quickly stamped out in a peacetime, rule-focused force. So they took action.
In 1979, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Edward “Shy” Meyer, advanced the controversial idea of “selective disobedience” as a way to empower junior leaders in the face of stultifying Army bureaucracy. His comments sparked a furious debate in the force, but as a young infantry company commander at the time, I knew exactly what he meant. He did not mean that we should ignore laws or violate ethical standards. But in a peacetime Army, the demands of burgeoning policies, regulations and requirements vastly exceeded the time available to comply, so leaders were empowered to set priorities and make choices. We could say no – we were even expected to say no.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer led an Army-wide campaign he called “power down,” designed to wrest authority out of the hands of petty Army bureaucrats and drive it down to the lowest possible level.
Today’s Army officially embraces a leadership concept called Mission Command, and it resonates with the initiatives launched after Vietnam. It has been the default setting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where small units led by junior leaders have been scattered across the battlefield. Many of these young captains, lieutenants and sergeants saw their immediate supervisors infrequently, but all strived to operate within the intent of those higher commanders every day.
Regardless of the strategic outcomes of these recent wars, decentralized Mission Command has succeeded, empowering junior leaders to act boldly within their commanders’ broad intent. For example, when the raid into Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden went awry with a helicopter crash, the assault force immediately pressed on to accomplish the overall mission – without receiving detailed new orders from commanders thousands of miles away.
But Mission Command is now on a collision course with the peacetime Army, which values bureaucratic process and compliance above all else. Completing surveys and online training on time, mastering PowerPoint briefings, and grasping the intricacies of training management and readiness reporting all dominate the life of leaders in garrison. In combat, risk of death or failure is a daily hazard. In peacetime, risk-taking is systematically extinguished by layers of rules, restrictions and micromanagement aimed at avoiding any possible shortcomings.
In many ways, the Army is in denial of this looming problem. Its senior officers need to take on this challenge directly. They must embrace and protect a leadership philosophy anchored in trust – one that imbues the Army’s peacetime operations with the wartime precepts of Mission Command. And most of all, these senior leaders need to listen to their young combat leaders of the past 10 years, the individuals who will eventually lead this Army. They must empower their young leaders to say no to the bureaucracy, or they risk creating a generation of compliant officers unprepared for the fast-moving, “think on your feet” nature of modern war.
– The Washington Post