Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Military Democracy

StrategyPage describes the tensions related to body armor. Soldiers want protection of course, but for reasons of comfort, expediency and local presentation, would sometimes prefer to do without the inconvenient body armor. More convenient models have been designed and promised, but are not currently being supplied. Officers have a tendency to feel that soldiers cannot be trusted with the decision, so the officers make blanket orders. But here's the annoying thing to me. Higher officers don't even want the local officers to make the call. The reason? It would be too embarrassing to them if someone got killed while not wearing body armor. Reporters would wonder whether armor was being provided in sufficient quantities and whether the officers even cared about the welfare of the troops. Well, such publicly aired speculation would not be particularly welcome when the officer was up for promotion.

Many of the troops are willing to take the risk, because they believe, for example, that taking down a sniper when you have the chance, is worth it. If you don't catch the guy, he will be back in action the next day, kill[ing] American troops. All this is another example of the fact that "victory" is defined differently, depending on what your rank is.

My father and his fellow draftees of WWII hated the lifers who filled the peacetime ranks. Those people were rigid, unambitious, ineffective, turf-protecting, self-interested, unsympathetic, actually unpatriotic – simply obstructing what the draftees wanted to do: win the war and go home. I imagine he was exaggerating, but I recognize that there had to be some truth to it. The differential selection processes of the two groups guaranteed different priorities. Unfortunately, that is also true of the filters that always separate good officers from those who move up the ladder. The priorities being fed down are not compatible with those that are rising up from the ranks.

For that reason, I have always been an advocate of more democracy in bureaucracies. It's hard to see how that can happen, but another of my father's stories appealed to me in this regard. Officer trainees were required as part of their training to nominate officers from within their own group. The trainees were then evaluated for their choices. If a large number of trainees chose the same person, that person would be, in most cases, promoted. If a trainee nominated someone that no one else nominated, there could be two outcomes. Were the instructors to agree with the assessment, both the nominee and the nominator could be promoted. If they disagreed, then the nominee would be suspected of having poor judgment and treated appropriately. Good judgment was considered a very important attribute. I'm not sure that is always the case today.

So, in light of my double pyramid model, I propose that soldiers (and worker bees in other organizations) should select some representatives from among their numbers, who would meet and select higher levels of representatives, who could then make personnel decisions regarding the lower level officers. They might not involve themselves in operational decisions, but they would act to clarify goals both up and down and to reduce the likelihood of bad officers moving up. Higher level officers would then do the same thing to influence the selection of their own superiors.

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