Beltway politicians and commentators swooned last year when President Bush tapped “warrior-scholar” General David Petraeus to rethink the military’s Iraq strategy (or lack thereof). The thinking was that with a Ph.D. in counterinsurgency, Petraeus might finally play foil to Bush’s reality-challenged war planners. One swift guy at the top can’t do it alone, though. And the sharp young officers the Army needs to implement a more innovative strategy on the ground, where wars are won or lost, are migrating en masse to safer, more lucrative careers.
While it’s true that triple tours have worn soldiers down, so has a culture that rewards mum compliance, writes military reporter Andrew Tilghman in the Washington Monthly (Dec. 2007). As West Point grads have seen their ideas—building trust among village leaders, for instance—dismissed in favor of brute force, many have concluded that making a lasting difference is no longer possible. Attrition rates among junior officers have jumped, reports Tilghman, from 8 percent in 2003 to 13 percent in 2006. And in 2005, Army officials warned that within the ranks of the exodus were “disproportionate losses of high-potential, high-performance junior leaders.”
To address the leadership deficit, the Army has raised salaries and lowered the promotion bar. Tilghman suggests a different approach: Pull officers out of rotation to participate in advanced training programs, let them intern at outside agencies to learn about economic development and civil administration, and then give them opportunities to put their ideas to work. The next generation’s generals are somewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan, but if the military’s brain drain isn’t addressed soon, Tilghman writes, “we could wind up—to put it bluntly—with a senior leadership of dimwits.”