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The 'U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament' or 'How America selects its generals'

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed

Americans assume that our generals, especially our top generals, are our best military leaders, proven in combat and selected based on their performance leading men in war.

Surely you jest.

Are the top officials in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare our best doctors? Our best teachers? Our best welfare doler-outers? OK. Maybe the last one, but that’s not much of an accomplishment.

The tournament

In fact, America’s active-duty military leaders, our top generals, are chosen via a marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament. Here’s how it works.

First, you get commissioned as a second lieutenant (ensign in the Navy—They have to be different about everything—some sort of stepchild, sibling-rivalry thing).

Then you attend some military schools for new officers. My first activity after graduating from West Point was to go to Army Ranger School.

Ranger School

At Ranger School, which is about two months long, somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the students flunk out—this in spite of the fact that they are highly selective about who gets in as an officer—like graduation from West Point as a criterion. Why would so many flunk out if they were only bringing in cream of the crop? Because Rangers want to brag about what a high percentage they flunked out to make the ones who passed artificially look better. See my article on Ranger School for more details on that.

My Ranger buddy thinks a smaller percentage flunked out—maybe 20% to 25%. My one- to two-thirds number is the one I remember the Ranger instructors bragging about incessantly when we were there. I do not know how to get the true percentage. Ranger School needs to publicize that, and even then, I do not know if I would trust their numbers. Wikipedia say the pre-1980 attrition percentage was 65%, which jibes with what I recall being told by the cadre. They sure seem dishonest about the number of Ranger students that they kill during the training.

Random flunk outs

Are the ones who flunk Ranger School the weakest Ranger students? Nope. Who flunks out is sort of random. Maybe if you piss off one of the instructors, you flunk. More likely, you emphasized A on your patrol and you were graded by an instructor who thinks B should be emphasized, where which to emphasize is nothing but a matter of personal taste. Like any other subjective rating situation on earth, the trick for the cynical is to read the likes and dislikes of the rater and tell them what they want to hear. I did not do that but still managed to pass Ranger School by luck.

Let’s say you are one of the unlucky 2nd lieutenants who flunks Ranger School. You’re done. (Since the early sixties at least. Officers who were commissioned in the Army before then apparently were not expected to go to Ranger School.) You are no longer “competitive” as far as your career is concerned. You will not make general. Why not? The number of 2nd lieutenants who pass Ranger School far exceeds the number who can ultimately be promoted to general. Why should they promote a guy to general who flunked Ranger School when they can promote another guy with an almost identical resume who passed? Answer: they won’t.

Top generals are rangers

Do you doubt me? Look up the recent top generals on the Internet. They almost always have their general photo taken with their left shoulder facing the camera. Why? That’s the shoulder where the yellow and black Ranger tab is displayed. Here are a couple I’ve pre-looked up for you.

Army Chief of Staff George Casey, Jr.
Former Centcom Commander John Abizaid
Army Iraq Commander David Petraeus
Former Army Chief of Staff Shinseki

Do you see any who are NOT wearing the Ranger tab?

The prosecution rests.

No tab = shame

Not having a Ranger tab on your left shoulder as an Army officer is sort of like the Scarlet Letter. It is a badge of shame, or the lack of the tab is a “badge” of shame. I was awarded the tab, but chose not to wear it in a sort of protest against the whole silly idea of decorating yourself with stuff like that. It reminded me of the cub scouts. When one of my West Point classmates and Ranger School Class 3-68 fellow graduates learned of my not wearing it, he adopted the same policy. It occasionally triggered some fun like a Ranger exaggerating how tough the school was (hard to do) or someone who knew you were a West Point graduate putting you down for flunking Ranger School on the assumption that anyone who passed would certainly wear the tab—on his pajamas and everything else.

Am I really saying that a young man who after spending four years busting his ass to get into, then graduate from West Point will have his career ended as far as making multi-star general is concerned, within a few months of graduating from West Point, solely because he randomly flunked some weird, two-month, roam-around-the-woods course?

That’s exactly what I’m saying.

But that’s not fair, you protest. It’s stupid.

The Army’s not fair

Ah, yes. But who said life is fair? And even if any sane person did say that, did they also say that the U.S. Army is fair? I doubt it. And have you not heard the acronym SNAFU? It stands for “Situation Normal All Fouled Up” and it has long been used to accurately describe the U.S. military.

Read the title of this article again. It’s a single-elimination tournament. If you lose at any time in the tournament, you’re finished. One strike and you’re out. It’s Old Testament because of the numbers. Many are lieutenants but few are chosen to be generals.

You typically go to more schools before your first assignment. I went to five. But you get the idea. Most of the other schools are more objective in their grading than Ranger School.

My Ranger buddy also points out that you can make one and maybe two-star general in the various support branches like JAG, Finance Corps, or Quartermaster Corps without a Ranger tab. I am talking here about the line commander, two-, three-, and four-star generals

First assignment

Then you go to your first assignment, typically platoon (about 40 people) leader in the Army and Marines—something similar in the Navy and Air Force. There, you will be rated by your superior and his superior. In the case of an entry-level lieutenant, that would typically be the company executive officer and company commander, who are generally captains.

Roughly speaking, they can say you’re the best lieutenant they’ve ever met or one of the top five best they’ve ever met or they can say you are less than that.

If they say you are less than that, you’re done, out of the generals tournament. It’s single elimination, remember?

“Surely you must be exaggerating,” you protest.

Nope. And don’t call me Shirley.

Think about it. There are not that many slots available for generals compared to slots for lieutenants. And there are far more 2nd lieutenants and ensigns than any other officer rank in the military. Furthermore, the generals are chosen from a multi-year group. In other words, today’s 2nd lieutenants and ensigns will be competing for generalships with not only their same year officers but also other officers who are now 1st lieutenants, captains, majors as well as service academy cadets and midshipmen, ROTC cadets, and future OCS and battlefield-commission officers who have not yet been commissioned.

Some of those lieutenants are going to be rated the best the raters ever saw. In fact, the number who will get that rating, while quite small, will far exceed the number of lieutenants who can ultimately become generals. So the military’s attitude is why should we waste any more time on an officer who couldn’t make an excellent impression on his or her superiors when we have too many officers who could?

Subsequent assignments

All subsequent assignments work the same way. You typically get rated about once or twice a year and you get new superiors about once a year either because you move or because your superiors do.

Each of your successive superiors will be a unique individual with a unique set of personal tastes; strengths; weaknesses; like; dislikes; integrity or more likely, lack thereof; philosophy; points of emphasis; and so forth. You will attend all of their parties, laugh at all of their jokes whether funny or not, agree with their opinions whether you do or not, wear the same civilian clothes and drive the same car (approximately) as they do, and so forth. In short, you must be a chameleon with regard to every aspect of their relations with you that might affect every superior’s impression of you and the report they write on you. To remain competitive, you must get the top or almost top rating from each and every one of them because some of your peers elsewhere in your military service will be doing just that.

One former officer questioned the need to wear the same civilian clothes and drive a similar car as your superiors. He was always single, did not frequent the officers clubs on post after hours, and lived off post—and was never a general. The officers who needed to be careful about their civilian clothes and cars were the married officers who lived on post, often across the street or around the corner from their bosses, and who frequented the officers club after hours—and who wanted stars.

Make every single superior love you

You will not like many of your superiors but you must make every single one of them love you. Plenty of your peers will do just that.

When I was in, they used percentile ratings. You needed to be 100 or 99 to become a top general. 98 was OK. 97 meant you were in trouble. The fact that 98% of the officers were rated in the 98th percentile was a comical bit of mathematical illiteracy and further evidence that military officers will sign all sorts of false documents if their superiors want them to.

I have heard that the Army subsequently went to some sort of forced-choice system or that they downgraded the ratings of superiors who had a tendency to exaggerate by keeping track of each rater’s ratings. At West Point, the cadets had to rate their peers and lower classes several times a year. This was a forced-choice system where you could only put 25% in the top 25% and you have to put 50% in the middle 50% and 25% in the bottom 25%. That’s better. It prevents the ridiculous inflation that occurred in the Army officer corps in the late 60s and early 70s.

But the main problem was not inflation. It was the fact that only ratings by superiors are used. That makes sycophancy the dominant way to advance.

‘…better at charming their superiors’

On page 133 of the book Fool’s Gold, which is about the seminal role of J.P. Morgan in the subprime crisis, author Gillian Tett explains why the top executives of investment banks did not diagnose and remedy the excess risks being taken through the use of new financial instruments like derivatives and swaps.

…few managers sitting at the top of the investment banks had much idea what their traders were doing, let alone whether or not the [mathematical financial] models were accurate. The field was too young to have produced many high-level leaders, and many derivative experts were too cerebral to play the type of internal corporate political games needed to rise to the top at most banks. Bankers who had started their careers as corporate advisers or salesmen tended to be better at charming their superiors.

In other words, the basic suck-up problem is one of all large bureaucratic organizations, not just the military. But there can be little doubt that the military is by far the worst suck-up organization because of its monopoly on military careers, the extremely generous golden handcuffs in the form of lavish retirement benefits that discourage military officers from switching to another employer (the tenure trap), the lack of objective performance data like the financial reports in private business, and the unquestioned power given to each and every officer to end the career competitiveness of any of his subordinates with the flick of a pen on the officer’s efficiency report.

Early promotions

When I was in the Army, virtually everyone, got promoted to first lieutenant and captain on the same day. Major, however, was the same except that a small number of our classmates—maybe ten—were promoted early. This was the first time we knew which of our class the Army had identified as the top officers in our class. I was long out of the Army by then myself so I had no personal interest in the matter.

In most cases, our class was astonished and outraged by the names that were on, and not on, the early-promotion-to-major list.

Gotta get your combat ticket punched

We figured that those who did well in Vietnam would be on the list. Some guys volunteered for Vietnam in order to make the early promotions list. Some of those who did that died there.

A number of the sharpest guys in my class got out around the eight-year point. That’s rather late to get out—only 12 years from vesting of extremely generous retirement benefits. What was so special about the 8-year point? That is when they learned that they were not on the early major list and why.

Grad school

Also, some went to grad school. When we were cadets, the question “Are you going to stay in the Army” was frequently answered with the words,. “Yeah, I want to go to grad school.” I could never figure out what the two had to do with each other. True, the Army would pay to send selected graduates to graduate school for certain subjects, often that they were going back to West Point to teach immediately after grad school.

I wanted to go to grad school and did so at Harvard Business. I paid for it myself with a little help from the GI Bill. I did not want want to have the Army pay for it because they made you stay in the Army for two years for every year of grad school they paid for. They also would only send you to the programs they wanted at the schools they wanted. For a time, they would not let you go to Harvard or any other university that had eliminated ROTC. And they tended to favor subjects like engineering.

Anyway, many of my classmates and those of other classes of that era would attend grad school on the Army’s nickel and have to stay in for two or four more years than our original five-year commitment as a result. They also added commitments for attending the officer advance course which almost everyone did when they were a captain. Guys would go through the advance course because it was necessary for their career, acquire an additional commitment as a result, then find out they had been passed over for early major when it was too late to get out of the advance course.

Who needs combat?

Imagine our astonishment when our year’s early-major list was dominated by some of the relatively few of our classmates who never went to Vietnam! The rationale? They were in Germany. Because of the war, there was a shortage of officers in Germany. As a result, lieutenants in Germany often were put into positions normally occupied by captains. Primarily, lieutenants are normally platoon leaders. In Germany, they were often company commanders instead. Company commander is normally a captain’s job.

The thinking of the promotions committee at the time, or the highest ranking officer on that committee whose thinking was no doubt echoed by the lower ranking officers on that committee, was that doing a good job in a somnolent captain’s slot in peacetime Germany when you are a mere lieutenant is more indicative of your potential to be a general than successfully commanding men in Vietnam combat as a platoon leader and being decorated for bravery in the process.

That is obvious total bullshit and sends a ridiculous message to ambitious officers: avoid combat; bravery and success in battle count for nothing.

Avoid winning the Medal of Honor

Wes Clark once said that if you want to have a successful career as an Army officer you need to avoid being a Rhodes Scholar, Heisman Trophy winner, or winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was West Point class of 1966 and a Rhodes Scholar. He was the head U.S. Commander in Bosnia, but appeared to get fired thereafter by Draft Dodger in Chief and fellow Arkansas Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton. In 2004, Clark ran unsuccessfully for president. (He and I sat at the same-10man table for a number of months when we were both cadets.) Lately he has been proving that old soldiers never die, they just appear on C-Span panels.

Why would being a Rhodes Scholar or CMH winner hurt your Army career? It makes those who lack such credentials jealous and eager to find fault with you.

Pete Dawkins, West Point class of ’59, won both the Heisman Trophy and a Rhodes Scholarship. He left the Army as a brigadier general after 24 years. I cannot say he did that because of jealousy towards him. But it is extremely noteworthy that a guy who would seemingly have it made in the Army more than anywhere else would just get out when things seemed to be going so perfectly for him. He worked on Wall Street and later ran unsuccessfully for U.S. senator from New Jersey.

Buddy Bucha, West Point class of ’65 won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam and got out of the Army as a captain seven years after graduation. Again, I cannot say he got out because of jealousy about the medal. But I can say that he apparently did not want to make a career of being an Army officer when he had won a medal which you would think would mean he had it made in the military. In an email to me, Bucha made this cryptic remark:

Often, I would suggest, medals may act as obstacles to particular career paths  or opportunities.  And in those case, the medals may in fact be burdens that prevent an individual from achieving more and rising to higher  success.

It is more than passing strange and noteworthy that the Army was unable to keep favorite sons/crown princes like Dawkins and Bucha in the Army.

Win over about 60 superiors

So to be a top general in the U.S. military, you must win the 30-year, marathon, single-elimination, suck-up tournament. To do that, you must read about 60 immediate superiors, figure out what they want you to say, do, and convey by body language, dress, and lifestyle, and feed back to each of them what they want so well that they each love you and rate you accordingly. As difficult as that sounds, I assure you that there are officers out there who are pulling it off and if you want to compete with them, you have to do the same.

If you make less than a super impression on even a single superior, your “competitiveness” for generalships is over.

See my article on military medals which includes a discussion of the total absence of bravery medals in recent top commanders in the Army and Marines in spite of the fact that thousands of officers have such medals.

I got out of the Army in 1972. I am told it changed in the interim. I am sure that is true. In my OVUM article, I noted that some of it changed when I was still in but I figured it was replaced by similar hassles. A number of younger graduates of West Point have told me it’s the same as when I was in only the details have changed in meaningless ways. About the only real change is that drinking alcohol excessively is now frowned upon.

The basic problems in the military are unchanged

As a result of this Web site, I am starting to become a clearing house of current complaints about the military from current or recent active duty personnel. I watch a bunch of the cable TV stuff and other media stories about the military. They tend to focus on equipment and ancient history, like World War II, but you can still get a substantial feel for the current military. I see some differences but more similarities to the 1970s than differences.

From the outside since the 1970s, the basics appear unchanged:

  • the military is still a federal government bureaucracy
  • we appear to be making no more progress in asymmetrical wars
  • guys with medals for bravery and Purple Hearts are being passed over and guys with nothing but bureaucrat recognition are being promoted to top general positions as happened back in the ’70s
  • West Point recently announced various incentives to agree to a longer commitment including free graduate schooling
  • the officer rating system is still entirely ratings of subordinates by superiors (See Ltc. Paul Yingling’s article where he complains about that)
  • many of the articles at my military web site were triggered by current events and media reports (like the falsification of the Osprey helicopter maintenance records) and cite those reports as well as other events that have been reported in the media since I got out of the Army in the 1970s

Here is a quote from Adam Galinsky, a Northwestern University business school professor who studies power and influence inside companies:

Once you’ve been in the water long enough you no longer perceive you’re in the water. Water is the norm. This is why newcomers are important. They can see the good and the bad of a culture for the first time.

The Army is highly resistant to change because of this “water” problem. The Army only promotes from within thereby maximizing their “inability to perceive the water” problem. Newcomers would likely improve some of the above problems except that in the Army, newcomers are suppressed in the extreme by means of the well-known tear-you-down-then-build-you-up rituals in basic training, Beast Barracks at West Point, boot camp, Ranger School, and all that. Newcomers are also driven out of the military in great numbers, including the individuals who would be the most likely to change things for the better.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. In particular, I welcome up-dates on pertinent ways that the military has changed since I was in it. I assume it has gotten better in some ways, stayed the same in others, and gotten worse in others.

‘Profiles in sycophancy’

The 8/13/07 BusinessWeek has an article titled “Profiles in Sycophancy.” It reported on a study done of members of 300 boards of publicly-traded corporations. They wanted to find out which led to getting more board seats:

  • identifying with or flattering other board members
  • monitoring or controlling CEO behavior (the official responsibility of a board member)
  • giving advice or information to management when asked


The most frequent flatterers, it turned out, got the most seats on other boards—specifically at companies where their original board mates served as CEOs or on board nominating committees. ‘Ingration had the strongest effect,” says [professor James] Westphal, who added that he was “surprised” it outranked advice and counsel as an influence. ‘We hypothesized that ingratiation would have some effect,’ he says, ‘but didn’t think the magnitude would be as much as it was.’

Apparently Professor Westphal was never a military officer.

“Conform, flatter, and do favors” was the advice BusinessWeek used as the subhead in a call-out box in the article.

Sassaman’s predecessor battalion commander
In his 2008 book Warrior King, Army quarterback Nate Sassaman (West Point ’85), who was a battalion commander in Iraq, says on page 116,

Apparently, agreeing with [the brigade commander] on every decision, no matter how ill-informed, had been an endearing trait of my predecessor.

In other words, Sassaman is saying that the lieutenant colonel who held his Iraq job before him was a total suck up. [He names both his predecessor and the brigade commander in the book.] Of course he was. How else would he have gotten to be a battalion commander in a combat zone? That is a key ticket to get punched for careerist Army officers. Sassaman, who frequently disagreed with that brigade commander, was run out of the Army. I’ll bet his predecessor was later promoted to colonel and made the list to be a brigade commander.

The Organization Man’s code

Here are several pertinent paragraphs from the “Working for other people” chapter of my book Succeeding.

In 1988, Robert Jackall wrote a book called Moral Mazes published by
Oxford University Press. He said organizations today follow this code:

  1. You never go around your boss.
  2. You tell the boss what he wants to hear, even though your boss claims that he wants dissenting views.
  3. If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it.
  4. You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as boss.
  5. Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do what your job requires. You keep your mouth shut.

Most experienced employees know these rules. They figured them out for themselves. They even take pride in having figured them out and in following them. They regard themselves as shrewd. I cannot write for those people. I neither respect nor understand them.

Only one winner

Funny thing about single-elimination tournaments. I noticed this when I coached football. We would make the playoffs. Hooray! But then we figured out that the season of every team in the playoffs but one ends on the downer of a loss. Only one team in the playoffs ends it season on the up of a win. In the typical 16-team tournament, 15 teams lose their final game. Only one goes through the tournament undefeated including the final game.

The same is true of the U.S. military officer corps. But let me make sure you understand the implication by stating it starkly.

As the title of this article says, a military officer’s career subjects him or her to a single-elimination tournament. That means that all careers but one end on the downer of being forced out by the military’s “up or out policy.” In short, the “up or out” policy means that every time you come up for promotion, you must either get promoted or leave. That’s not a problem for 99% of officers below the rank of about lieutenant colonel because there are many slots available. But the chain of command is shaped like a pyramid. There is only one top job in the Army: Chief of Staff. Only one person can get it. Furthermore, that person typically holds the job for several years, thereby preventing three years or so of his peers from ending their careers with a “win.”

Everyone else gets fired

All but a tiny fraction of one percent of West Point grads and other officers who make a career of the military (at least 20 years) end that career by getting fired. By that I mean that they fail to get the next promotion and are therefore forced out by the “up or out” policy. Some retirees may say that they “chose” to get out, implying that they would have gotten promoted had they stayed in. But the fact remains that they would have been forced out had they not made the next promotion. Most likely, most who retire short of four stars either were explicitly told to retire or saw the handwriting on the wall, handicapped their chances as too low, and quit before they got forced out. It is theoretically possible that a guy who would have made Chief of Staff retired before that, but I expect it has never happened.

If you think it has, name him. My best candidate would be Lieutenant General Jim Gavin who retired unhappily in protest at age 51. But I cannot say for sure. Another possible candidate would be Brigadier General Pete Dawkins, a Heisman Trophy and Rhodes Scholarship winner who retired at age 45. Again, we cannot know the quiet stuff that took place leading to the retirement.

Some who made it all the way to Chief of Staff, were actually fired as well, like Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki (West Point class of 1965), who made the mistake of answering a Congressional question about troops needed to occupy Iraq honestly. He said 300,000 (based on our experience in Bosnia). He was fired for speaking that truth.

The main liar in the Pat Tillman cover-up General Stanley A. McChrystal got promoted to the top of the U.S. Army

I chronicled McChrystal’s misbehavior in two articles about the cover-up of the friendly fire death in Afghanistan of Army ranger and former NFL player Pat Tillman:

Lessons to be learned from Pat Tillman’s death
The Army tries to get away with yet another whitewash of Pat Tillman’s death

Basically, McChrystal was the main liar in the Pat Tillman case. It was he who signed the Silver Star citation saying falsely that Tillman was brave “in the line of devastating enemy fire.” In fact, Tillman was shot in the forehead by his own fellow Army Rangers when he relaxed and stood up thinking they had finally figured out that they were firing at an American.

It was also he who wrote the infamous cable to General Abizaid urging him to warn President Bush not to praise Tillman’s heroism because it might later come out that it was friendly fire.

Both of those are described in more detail at the above two articles of mine. But the greater issue is how the United States Army responded to McChrystal’s dishonesty in the Tillman case.

McChrystal, after being promoted in spite of lying, was fired for telling the truth about his feelings about his superiors.

The whole Army is the problem, not just McChrystal

Not so in this case. The point I make here is that the problem is the whole Army. The Army simply does not tolerate honest officers. On the contrary, they demand that officers comply with what I call O.P.U.M. That means Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory. I wrote about it in my “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” article.

In the Tillman case, officers were expected to cover up and put a positive spin on Tillman’s death. That violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not to mention morality, the Cadet Honor Code, the Cadet Prayer, the Boy Scout Oath, and any other code that addresses integrity. In other words, officially, what McChrystal did in the Tillman case is prohibited. But I say that it’s really mandatory. To see if I am right, look at subsequent events.

There were five separate inquiries into the Tillman cover-up. None could get to the truth. All the officers including McChrystal stonewalled. They could not recall. General Kensinger retired and literally hid from Federal Marshals trying to serve a Congressional subpoena on him.

Recommended he be disciplined; he was promoted instead

One of the inquiries recommended that eight officers be disciplined, including McChrystal. Not only was he not disciplined at all, on 5/11/09, he was promoted to the highest rank in the U.S. military—four-star general—and to the current most sought-after post in the entire U.S. military: Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), that is, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan.

To any who say I unfairly tar the whole U.S. Army because of the dishonesty of a few “bad apples,” I have two words:

McChrystal’s promotion

You want to be a four-star general? Imitate McChrystal. How he has conducted himself is precisely what the Army wants.

Here is an email I got in 6/09 from a young West Point lieutenant:

You are 100% correct that the ass-kissers get promoted, sir. I am only sorry I didn’t realize all of this until I read your articles. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of you before.
It’s strange because many of my friends are very smart, rational people, and yet they all seem to want to make the military a career. I guess because we spent so long at West Point.

Best Sycophant competition

The Military Channel had a regular program where they film the Army’s Best Ranger competition.

The race for top general jobs is a Best Sycophant competition. Our military should not be led by the best sycophants. It should be led by the best military leaders in terms of their ability to recruit, train, and retain the best personnel and eliminate the unacceptable personnel. They should also be the smartest at figuring out what tactics, training, strategies, and equipment the military needs for its current and future missions and at making those things happen. That is not who is currently leading the military.

Here is a powerful comment on people who live their lives that way. It is from “Francisco’s” speech on money in Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.

The verdict you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life. If the source is corrupt, you have damned your own existence. Did you get your money by fraud? By pandering to men's vices or men's stupidity? By catering to fools, in the hope of getting more than your ability deserves? By lowering your standards? By doing work you despise for purchasers you scorn? If so, then your money will not give you a moment's or a penny's worth of joy. Then all the things you buy will become, not a tribute to you, but a reproach; not an achievement, but a reminder of shame. Then you'll scream that money is evil. Evil, because it would not pinch-hit for your self-respect? Evil, because it would not let you enjoy your depravity?

Here is an email I got from a retired lieutenant colonel:

Hi Jack:

By way of introduction...ah, what the hell; this is me: <> .
We share a number of bits of background, though - notably - I am not West Point.
In any case, I've been reading some of your articles.  I found them to be "good stuff," in general.  But speaking of generals, there was one trick you missed.  Rather, you laid out all the elements but neglected a reasonable - and, I believe, true - inference from them.  It's certainly possible you might know it and just decided not to mention it or phrase it in quite this way.  
This is that, not only will you be rated or senior rated by about 100 people, in 30 years in the Army, but you can never have pissed one of them off.  (That part you got.)  These men, however, will range from the bright to the ignorant, the moral to the immoral, and will have vastly diverging experiences which will drive their judgment.  And you cannot disagree with them if you want stars.  It would be one thing if they were all the same and you learned to echo just one theme.  But when they are all different, and you still agree with every trivial thought they ever had, it can only be because you lack any center of your own, any moral compass whatsoever, since everything in the military has a moral aspect to it.  In other words - with only very rare exceptions; I thought well of Foss, LeMoyne, and Petraeus, for example - the man who rises to stars usually has nothing, no values of worth, inside him.
Which is worse than contemptible; it's absolutely pathetic, given how
useless it is to become a general.
True story: Some people thought there were stars in my future.  There came a day, early 1988, I was on my second company command, of three, and I was shooting the crap with the brigade commander in his office.  I'd been ambivalent about stars for some time by then, but it was a very amorphous thing.  I couldn't have told you why.  Eventually, I realized that my brigade commander (Annapolis, oddly enough) was trying to mentor me into stars.  "You need to do this, Tom, then you need to do that.  Then you need to...."
And it all came clear, an epiphany, a blinding flash of the obvious, and I said, "Sir, I don't want to be a general."
So I stood up, walked across the office to his LCE tree, and took his helmet in hands.
"Sir, do you remember General Meyer?"
"Shy Meyer?  Chief of Staff?"
"Yes, sir, him."
"Sir, Meyer was a reformer.  He had a bag full of good ideas for improving the Army.  I counted thirty-seven once, about half and half trivial and important.  I may have missed some."
"Yes, so?"
Then I turned the helmet around to point at him the two silly bits of glow in the dark tape on the camouflage band around the helmet.  "Sir, of all that, this is all that's left of Meyer.  Everything else is gone.  In a matter of a few years it's as if he never existed.  So what, sir, would be the point of becoming a general, if, even if I rose to be Chief of Staff of the Army, I could not possibly have a good and lasting effect?"
Which is, in any case, why I turned to writing.  My brigade commander didn't get it; he still tried to stick me as the incoming CG's Aide, but I wanted nothing to do with that.
Tom Kratman

Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military.

And here is an item sent to me by a reader. It is a passage from the sci fi book Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card. It sounds like it was written about West Point graduates and their Army careers.

Wasn't this whole school set up in order to find and train the best possible commanders? The Earthside testing did pretty well – there were no dolts among the students. But…how were the teachers chosen?
They were career military, all of them. Proven officers with real ability. But in the military you don't get trusted positions just because of your ability. You also have to attract the notice of superior officers. You have to be liked. You have to fit in with the system. You have to look like what the officers above you think you should look like. You have to think in ways that they are comfortable with.
The result was that you ended up with a command structure that was top-heavy with guys who looked good in uniform and talked right and did well enough not to embarrass themselves, while the really good ones quietly did all the serious work and bailed out their superiors and got blamed for errors they had advised against until they eventually got out.

That’s a very accurate description of America’s service academies and their graduates in the military as career officers. My reader who sent me this says Card was never in the military and "is not a flaming liberal." Well, then I am suspecting his father was in the military or he has a close friend who graduated from a service academy and got out of the military ASAP. Mr. Card knows far too much abo the way it really is to have gotten this from his muse.

One of my readers sent me a link to a speech made to freshmen at West Point in 2009. He said it reminded him of my writings on military “leadership.” I read it and commend it to you, my readers:

John T. Reed

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  • From what I’ve read, this largely applies to the astronaut corps, too. “Riding Rockets”, by Mike Mullane about the early shuttle era, covers some of the “sucking up” at NASA among a group of astronauts (mostly career military) who were too many to cover all the available slots. This led to a lot of weeding-out and frustration. The better the senior astronauts liked them (or happened to have been in the same service — Navy in most cases, and civilians often got the short stick), the more they were likely to fly in space. Two of the 1966 class did not fly until 1984 and 1985 (and only one flight apiece) while several of their “classmates” flew multiple flights before them and commanded missions, as did several members of the classes after them. “All-American Boys,” by Walter Cunningham, is another interesting account — he flew only one flight (Apollo 7), because the other two crew members essentially rebelled against Mission Control, and because one of them was his commander he felt he had to go along. Especially in the sixties, likeability and being photogenic made a difference. Other than perhaps Neil Armstrong, pretty much everyone was extroverted and gung-ho; they felt they had to be — and most importantly they had to impress the senior astronauts who were now in charge of the office.

    Jennifer on
  • The “solitude and leadership” article was interesting, but I really soured as soon as the author began to hallow David Petraeus as any type of proper leadership example. Petraeus’ moral/ethical conduct in no way classifies him as a “leader” in my book.

    I was both amazed and impressed with the number and detail of “leadership” classes we were given at West Point. I was DOUBLY amazed that, despite these many hours of training, almost NONE of my fellow cadets took this indoctrination to heart. I was even more amazed when that percentage DECREASED amongst all concerned when I entered the Army. Adding insult to injury, whenever I would mention some of the principles I had learned at USMA, the grand (and vocal) majority of Officers and NCOs alike would roll their eyes, guffaw at my “idiocy,” and continue on with “business as usual.”

    People often ask, “can leadership be taught, or do you have to be born with it?” I believe it can be taught – but for the training to take effect, the person in question must put their ego in check. Unfortunately, however, the leadership of the US Army (particularly its Generals) is grossly populated by narcissists who care only for themselves and the advancement of their careers. They will not listen to those below them, and they will only (and sycophantically) obey the individuals appointed over them for as long as it takes for them to earn a “1” block on their OERs and advance to the next pay grade. Individuals may “succeed” in terms of making rank, but, as we have seen (as Jack points out) since the 1940’s (and, some would argue, hundreds of years prior), they don’t succeed in winning our wars. Which kind of begs the question of how one could be rated as the “best in field” and promoted to General Officer when they absolutely SUCK at their job.

    Also makes you wonder why we need to spend money on Federal Service Academies and train thousands of kids each year on leadership and ethical responsibility, when advocating and employing these teachings leads only to failure in the Army. Might just be better to recruit outright moral scumbags and let them learn/practice their sycophancy through OJT. Cheaper for the American taxpayer, anyway.

    Jeff on

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