“Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.”
Going through an article sent to me by a coursemate (thanks Manuhar!) a couple of days back, I was particularly struck by the preceding paragraph. No, it’s not about the Indian Army, though one can be forgiven for making that mistaken assumption – the article refers to the US Army. And that is what struck me – the fact that we face identical issues despite the vast differences in our society, economy, systems and organizations. The article by Tim Kane in the Atlantic Magazine, with minor changes in the terminologies, could actually have been written about the Indian Army. The other thought that hit me was that many issues that the author talks about are not necessary restricted to present times or circumstances. Those who have read Norman Dixon’s classic ‘On the Psychology of Military Incompetence’ would bear me out that all the issues mentioned about the US Army, and sounding familiar about our own, have been faced by others earlier down centuries – for similar underlying reasons, both external and internal. Let me quote directly from the book –
“When a military spirit forsakes a people, the profession of arms immediately ceases to be held in honour, and military men fall to the lowest level of public servants; they are little esteemed and no longer understood… Hence arises a circle of cause and consequence from which it is difficult to escape – the best part of the nation shuns the military profession because that profession is not honoured, and the profession is not honoured because the best part of the nation has ceased to follow it. “
Since the book was written a while back, I guess this is a timeless phenomenon. The nation rallies behind its army at times of crisis, making much of them. We see this in all major wars fought within sniffing distance of its population centers. But in distant crises where their daily lives are not affected, the citizenry is happy allowing the soldiers to carry on doing whatever it is that soldiers do. Thus, when the armies are fighting far away from home – overseas, as in the case of America, or away from the focus of mainstream life as in the case of Counter Insurgency operations in far flung parts of India – they feel ignored and unappreciated. And it’s a fact of life that soldiers get along without the best of salaries but can’t reconcile to lack of appreciation from the very people whose battles they are fighting. Acts of extraordinary courage and heroism don’t even get noticed. To add insult to injury, even minor transgressions by them are promptly lapped up and highlighted by the media before receptive audiences of those very people.
Speaking of the internal issues next – the faceless bureaucracy controlling careers being blind to merit would find echo with me, but then I would not be a impartial commentator on this. Since armed forces are essentially non productive organizations, there are no ‘bottomlines’ to measure one’s output or efficiency. So how does the system ensure ‘meritocracy’ in the absence of tangible results when there are no hills to capture or enemies to slay? Add to that the extreme steepness of the pyramid, and we have the recipe for a HR nightmare. So why does anyone wonder when capable people leave?
The qualities (or skill sets as I have now learnt to call them in the corporate training environment) required of a good junior leader are vastly different from those required of a general in peacetime soldiering. Particularly in a democratic setup like ours and the US (Pakistan does not have the problem outlined in the article under question. In fact, there the Civil Services face this!) A good junior leader needs to take risks and innovate rather than being tied down by confines of rigid conventionality. But as you rise up the ranks, conformity and risk aversion become virtues. Good junior leaders therefore have to change their ways, or remain junior. Alternatively, as mentioned in the article, they step out and find their victories elsewhere. But paradoxically, in war the situation changes and the same qualities of risk taking and innovation are required even up the chain of command. The peacetime generals often find themselves in a cleft stick when faced with this, and very often fail to deliver in times of crisis. Norman Dixon’s book is full of examples of this. Thus we see in both the World Wars, most of the senior leadership in service at the outbreak was soon removed for one reason or the other, and people were rapidly promoted in their place. Field Marshal Slim, for example, was only a substantive Colonel even at the end of II WW.
Attrition of capable people is a huge challenge being faced by the corporate sector too. But the difference is that in business, such attrition affects bottomlines. Therefore they take active steps to prevent it, often going great lengths to do so. In the case of armed forces, since the impact is more intangible, and may become apparent only at times of extreme crisis, very little is done beyond lip service and knee jerk cosmetic changes. This is not a one off phenomenon, and hence the timelessness of the article and Norman Dixon’s work.