Military reform, now and then: democracy and merit

SUNDAY | Pop culture's face of military reform belongs to David Hackworth, who tends to appear on television news during military conflict; the networks use him as a counterpoint to the sameness of message delivered by other military analysts.

As a pundit in the pop arena, Hackworth's reform message suffers a great deal. In the little soundbites that TV news deals in, there is not enough canvas on which to paint a reform message.

Hackworth's instrument for reform is not TV but rather an organization called Soldiers for the Truth and there, one finds a credo about fighting "a decline in readiness." The articles and comments seem to back this up. For instance, one message from Iraq says,

[There were] not enough rifles to go around. We were forced to arm ourselves with weapons from enemy arms cache such as AKs, MP5s, Sterling submachine guns, and Muhkas and RPGs.

Readiness, however, is about half the story. The types of readiness stories appearing, together with certain consistent motifs in Hackworth's pieces tell us that the readiness issue is tied to a deeper analysis, a disconnect between officers and soldiers. Here is a note from Baghdad that is "on message":

[E]ach company received seven actual “up armored” Humvees, and the first people they went to were the CO [commanding officer] and PLs [platoon leaders]. It seems, at least to this young man’s eyes that the days of commanders taking care of their men first have long since disappeared...

Protecting the "brains" and "nerves" of the organization is professional but not ethical. And then again this message from Afghanistan:

The issuance of luxury vehicles to those in staff positions is ludicrous. The vehicles are used to transport the officer to the DFAC, the PX, or to the next staff briefing, all within a short walking distance. One officer was observed to drive from his tent to the showers, a distance of approximately 100 feet. I see no requirements for an officer to have a luxury SUV in a combat zone.

We're getting into ACW territory, in terms of rhetoric; I'm thinking of Stanton's slam against "champagne and oysters on the Potomac," for instance.

On the face of it, Hackworth's interests are about "shoddy," misfeasance and malfeasance and these are failures of professionalism, aren't they? And if professionals have held sway and there is a failure in professionalism, then what?

In Civil War terms, there are only two solutions available: more professionalism or less (less meaning more talented civilians in command positions).

Hackworth straddles these ACW arguments by redifining "professionalism" while calling for more of it. For Hackworth, professionalism starts with combat experience from which the truly talented are selected for advancement. (This was McClellan's argument against Lincoln assigning him corps commanders based on date of rank.) Furthermore, Hackworth has endorsed a revised personnel system, more on which tomorrow: in that revised system, every officer must serve in the ranks before being advanced.

Hackworth's solution to the Army's professionalism crisis is to "democratize" the military experience, advance careers based on combat merit, and maintain the combat unit at the center of military thinking and planning.

This is a fascinating blend of Civil War positions: pro-professional while being anti-West Point. Pro-democratic rank and file but anti ACW-type elections for officers.

I think Lincoln was at least partly motivated in mixing soldier and civilian officers on the battlefield by the issue of merit and a search for natural talent. He was not systematic, however, and in the end the professionals were able to prevail bureacratically against civilian talent.

We'll look at two or three other modern reformers this week, working our way up the complexity scale, seeing how they fit into the great personnel controversy resolved in 1865.