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Is The Military Losing Its Best?

A former Air Force officer says the U.S. military is bleeding talent and needs an overhaul. We’ll listen. Plus: the death of internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Cadets on campus at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. (AP)

Cadets on campus at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. (AP)

The US military is often seen as a model of leadership development.  But it’s a bust, says my guest today, when it comes promoting and hanging on to its very best officers.

Tim Kane was one bright young officer who left, frustrated.  There are a lot more, he says, who go because the path up is so slow.  Stodgy.  Blind to merit.  He’s calling for a revolution in the way we fill the top ranks.

This hour, On Point:  Bleeding talent in the US military.  And we’ll look at the shocking suicide of the young crusader for Internet and information freedom, Aaron Swartz.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Tim Kane, author of “Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution.”

Seth Moulton, served as an active-duty marine in Iraq. Now in the inactive reserves for the Marine Corps, currently working on a healthcare startup. (@sethmoulton)

PLUS: CLOSING SEGMENT — AARON SWARTZ

Aaron Swartz (AP/ThoughtWorks)

Aaron Swartz (AP/ThoughtWorks)

Computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, who helped develop RSS and co-founded Reddit, has been found dead weeks before he was to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scholarly articles in an attempt to make them freely available to the public.

Guest

Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and leadership and director of the Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He was a friend of Aaron Swartz and at one point served as his lawyer. (@lessig)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Atlantic Why does the American military produce the most innovative and entrepreneurial leaders in the country, then waste that talent in a risk-averse bureaucracy? Military leaders know they face a paradox. A widely circulated 2010 report from the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College said: ‘Since the late 1980s … prospects for the Officer Corps’ future have been darkened by … plummeting company-grade officer retention rates. Significantly, this leakage includes a large share of high-performing officers.’”

Foreign Policy ”In the late-90s, Tim Kane was an Air Force vet turned software entrepreneur, and he was surprised to find himself surrounded in the start-up business community of Southern California by fellow veterans who exchanged stories of their times in the service like secret handshakes. The more he thought about it, though, the more it made sense. The military, at its best, is a talent incubator designed to produce leaders — and a leader in the military has transferrable skills to be a leader in the private sector.”

Forbes “The root of the problem, he says, is a 1980 law called the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, which lays out exactly how leaders in all the services should be promoted. The law includes a progression track with strict rules and timetables. Compensation has nothing to do with merit, assignments have little to do with officers’ abilities and evaluations fail to give useful feedback or skills assessments.”

Excerpt from “Bleeding Talent”

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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    Lately, I’ve run into some “ex” service men that have tried to get back into the service, they’re not wanted, for one reason or another. They got out, to find out, that living on the outside “ain’t so good”, after all. “Kinda” makes you wonder what they were fighting to preserve doesn’t it ?

  • LinRP

    As anti-war as I am, I feel service to our country is one of the most honorable of choices a man or woman can make. But, if you take the long view, why would someone opt for the service? Look at how we care for our vets. Veterans living on the streets, Congressman like Paul Ryan seeking to cut al already underfunded VA, vets having trouble getting help for PTSD, and on and on.

    • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

       I suspect most military agree with you. Too bad so many armchair chicken-hawks so readily want to send the military to war while cutting their own taxes.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    aahh… dah. let’s tell the true story… how many congressional leaders send their own son to die for the freedom of this great nation? lol… ask Mitt Romney if he would send his sons to the military to fight for this nation after his war mongering speech. you see these people would talk cheaply, but would do less to sacrifice their own sons and their own kind to fight for our country.

    that is right. this is class warfare.

    people ain’t stupid…

    • DrewInGeorgia

             “B.Y.O.B.”
      ~System of a Down

      WHY DO THEY ALWAYS SEND THE POOR!
      Barbarisms by Barbaras
      With pointed heels.
      Victorious, victories kneel.
      For brand new spankin’ deals.
      Marching forward hypocritic
      And hypnotic computers.
      You depend on our protection,

      Yet you feed us lies from the table cloth.
      La la la la la la la la la,
      Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time.
      Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.

      Kneeling roses disappearing,
      Into Moses’ dry mouth,
      Breaking into Fort Knox,
      Stealing our intentions,
      Hangars sitting dripped in oil,
      Crying FREEDOM!

      Handed to obsoletion,
      Still you feed us lies from the table cloth.
      La la la la la la la la la,
      Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time.
      Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.
      Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time.
      Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.

      Blast off, it’s party time,
      And we don’t live in a fascist nation,
      Blast off, it’s party time,
      And where the !@#$ are you?
      Where the !@#$ are you?
      Where the !@#$ are you?

      Why don’t presidents fight the war?
      Why do they always send the poor?
      Why don’t presidents fight the war?
      Why do they always send the poor?

      Kneeling roses disappearing,
      Into Moses’ dry mouth,
      Breaking into Fort Knox,
      Stealing our intentions,
      Hangars sitting dripped in oil,
      Crying FREEDOM!

      Handed to obsoletion,
      Still you feed us lies from the tablecloth.
      La la la la la la la la la,
      Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time.
      Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.
      Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time.
      Dancing in the desert blowing up the sun

      Where the !@#$ are you!
      Where the !@#$ are you!

      Why don’t presidents fight the war?
      Why do they always send the poor?
      Why don’t presidents fight the war?
      Why do they always send the poor?
      Why, do, they always send the poor
      They only send the poor

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-V-Walsh/774632298 John V. Walsh

    The entire premise of this program has a backward context.
    The military is almost exclusively a military designed to “project power” for the sake of US Empire.  Little of it is devoted to “defense.”  We have an Empire of Bases in the phrase of the late great Chalmers Johnson.

    WHY THEN WOULD WE WANT THE TALENTED AND CAPABLE TO FUEL THIS MACHINE OF DOMINATION AND KILLING.  (This is not the NPR narrative, but it is how much (most?) of the world views us.)
     
    As Ron Paul has said, let us liquidate the military Empire and stick to peaceful, economic and non-interventionist interactions with the world.

  • sickofthechit

    Robert H. Heinlein had the right idea when he said something along the lines of – bring back the draft, and any decision whether to go to war would be up to those who are subject to the draft.  We would fight very few wars, and instead would be forced to negotiate. charles a. bowsher 

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Awfully prescient stuff from Heinlein. I wish it weren’t so damned predictive sometimes. Even the idea of “serving” has been dumbed down for our uberclass: Used to be “Daddy got you in the Champagne Unit”, like Dan Quayle or George W. Bush. But now for every Pat Tillman, leaving his (I guess) 7 figure NFL salary on the table, are really only 5 Romney boys “serving” by helping out in a campaign?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/YMV2HJ2TBKMCN2QRAVI3I2OOGM Jim Jim

    I think the problem with today’s military is that no one wants to end the war. 

    • Pointpanic

      Right. And why should anyone want to join the military when they’re most likely to end up in drawn out wars that have no bearing on national security. You know ,it will happen again and nPR and the rest of the media commuity will line up and march in lockstep to the Pentagon beat.

  • RevMajB

    As the Captain knows, until esply the Air Force de-ideologizes itself (i.e., culturally changes from favoring religiously conservative Christians to being genuinely pluralist) as it was during the first half of my military career (79-06) the best, brightest and most rationally committed will continue to flee.

  • ToyYoda

    Perhaps rotating commanders has a benefit in that we have a group of people who have experience.  If there is no rotation then cronyism can fester and what happens if the 20+ year commander retires or is killed by a blast at head quarters?  The next one to fill his shoes won’t have any experience.  

    Seems like there are tradeoffs.  Anyways, just wondering…

  • J__o__h__n

    WBUR, why not wait until the press conference starts before switching from On Point? 

    • J__o__h__n

      16 minutes of blather.

  • sickofthechit

    How do we know Aaron’s death was an actual suicide?

    • Tyranipocrit

       isnt it convenient the way anyone who challenges the corporate-aristocracy ends up dead–by accident?

      he seems like to much of a confident guy to just kill himself. 

      The powers that be are truly dark.  it is crazy to think otherwise.  And to call me crazy is utter nonsense.

  • http://calliopesounds.blogspot.com/ Andrew Gilmartin

    Rick’s _The Generals: American Military Command_ gives a deep historical explanation for the current state of military leadership. In short, it is lack of accountability. During the early General Marshall period “relief” was swift. Cooperation over independence was preferred. As this preference became doctrine leadership became weaker and weaker. You also have less relief and so less opportunity for younger officers to rise and rise swiftly.

  • William

    Active duty personnel see the hand writing on the wall with up coming cuts to their medical insurance (TRICARE) after they retire. Senator McCain recently said “retired military personnel have been unaffordable” and is leading the charge to cut TRICARE medical insurance for retired military personnel. So, they are getting out in their peak earning years rather than wait till their mid-40′s and try to start a new career. Take away the TRICARE insurance for retired military personnel and retention will go down.

  • http://twitter.com/BelmontPatch Franklin Tucker

    I can see this bleeding talent with my son who is still six months from commissioning as a Lt. in the Air Force after four-years as an ROTC cadet. He declined an appointment to the Air Force academy to concentrate on International Affairs geared towards intelligence work as a career. Despite a top rating as a cadet and grades, he was given his third choice as an assignment in aircraft maintenance. It is leadership but not what he’s been aiming towards. If he was in the “real” world, a corporation would provide him a job in what he is trained to do. A potential waste of talent.

  • Scott B

    Where’s Gen. George Marshall when you need him?  McChrystal’s gone, and he was the one demanding, and getting, change.

    There seems to be jealousy and greed, where the brass wants to get there combat medals and promotions.

    The 3 best generals they had actually getting results in Iraq ended up pushing desks in the Pentagon and Europe. The same thing happened in New Orleans after Katrina, where the (I believe) Colonel in charge was getting things cleaned up, and in a semblance of order, and then he was put somewhere else, near as anyone can figure, because he was making the rest look bad. 

    Short stints mean no headway, no relationships. On one episode of “Frontline” there was an enlisted man assigned as a liaison to some Iraqi office, and he asked questions and wanted to know what they needed from us/him that would best serve all parties. I think he lasted a few weeks. The Iraqi representative said that he was going to miss him because he was the **only** liaison that he liked, specifically because he listened , not just dictated, and worked with him.

    The years since 9/11 are rife with these stories. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1076093827 Paul Van Slett

    I am also one of those older vets with critical talents (Tech Control & Satellite Communication) who tried to get re-enter the service after a few years away. I got married and got out in 2002 as an E-6 at nearly 37 years old with an Honorable Discharge after 7 years in the Navy. I was a hot shot on an advancement fast track. When I looked at getting back in a couple years later, I was told I’m too old re-enter. I continued to support the military as a contractor but I couldn’t re-enter as active duty military. I was really disappointed and would’ve been an ideal re-entry candidate. The irony is they loved me and tried to retain me I was a 37 year old E6, but they couldn’t even consider me as a 39 yo with a Bachelors degree. It was ridiculous.

  • Davesix6

    “We have a prosecutorial system that doesn’t win points by being reasonable” -
    Absolutely true Mr. Lessig.
    And unfortunately it seems we have a prosecutorial system that doesn’t win points for discovering the truth, they only win points for winning.

  • 2Gary2

    we have a defacto draft of the poor as that is the only way many of them can go to college.  I want to vomit when I hear d-bags like mittens talk about war but would never send his sons.  Mittens was in France converting people to Mormans when he could have been in the service.  Bush?  he wacked off in the states.

    If our leaders think war is the answer than they can be the first ones in leading.

  • Pointpanic

    I want to know why Tom’s reading lists includes only elite conservative sources. “public” radio is not giving us the whole story.

  • Mike_Card

    Yawn.  Yet one more malcontent–who got a great, free education–with a book to sell.  It must be such a disappointment to discover that you’re not the only genius on the page.  Maybe he should pay back the cost of his gold-plated education!  What an entitled jerk.

  • MintDragon

    Interesting story. I think there’s a balance here, though. Yes, the military would be a lot better if promotions were based more on merit and less on a check-the-block automatic system. I can’t argue with that fact. We can stand to improve there. However, the system also can’t be completely individualistic. The military is not about the success or failure of individuals. It is about the success or failure of entire units. The teamwork ethos in the military, the ability for the whole group to work together seamlessly, and the discipline and cameraderie that requires, really differentiates the military world from the civilian world. Because of this, it is inevitable that mil personnel aren’t always going to be placed where they prefer. For one thing there aren’t enough of the sought after slots. Someone has to manage aircraft maintenance. Do the best you can where you are slotted.

    I had a somewhat similar experience – an Arabic linguist who spent a fair amount of time doing basic maintenance in the motor pool. But I came to realize that supporting a “line unit” – a traditional Infantry division – requires that everyone pitch in to all the work it takes to keep the unit running. That means keeping the trucks moving, keeping the bullets counted, etc. I came around and used the unrelated duties as a chance to learn how the trucks work or to gain mentorship from great NCOs. There was plenty of time for Arabic during deployments to Iraq. Overall, I really enjoyed my time in the Army, especially the culture of true teamwork (as opposed to the odious “team building” exercises of corporate America.) (I basically left for family reasons – I couldn’t square deploying to a warzone for 12 months every other year with my hopes of becoming a mother.)

  • http://twitter.com/evil66gurl evelyn

    interesting.  maybe they should do the regular officers like they do the warrants….they specialize in their field.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TOGXHILJGUGCEJQVSGICYW3UTQ Surfer Girl

    The Military squelches its Best into its Average. You choose.

    It doesn’t teach problem-solving anymore. Guys learn the “solutions” to the same ol’ problem that’s used in Basic from their Pappies, Gran’pappies, & Great Gran’pappies, e.g., how do your get your platoon across a raging river when you only have 2 planks, yadda yadda.  Well, what if your 2 planks won’t bridge between 2 rocks? What if your platoon is moving a kit that will snap the 2 planks even if you double them up? Maybe one guy comes up with a plan, the others follow.

    It doesn’t create leaders.  Leaders inspire others to have a passion to innovate. Lack of problem-solving skills causes defective leadership.  Career Military conform.

  • Carlton Wade Hasle

         After listening to Kane’s argument and reading some of his articles I believe that he misses the overall concept of personnel management within the military.  Could it be better?  Absolutely!  Then again, most every organization on the face of the Earth could manage their employees better.  Kane cherry picks examples of Servicemembers whose desires were not met, over and over again, as if those individuals were the only real choice.  Case in point, the example of the Air Force Officer with an engineering degree who wanted to instruct at the Air Force Academy probably was not the only officer who wanted that job.  Just because he was not chosen does not mean that the Air Force has a talent management problem.  Instead, it is most likely because there was another officer who had similar qualifications and better met the requirements of the Service.  That is the way that every Service manages their personnel; individual choices are taken into account only after the need of the Service is met.  This why being a member of the military is called “serving”.  Is it always fair?  No!  But for every cherry picked example that Kane presents I could give ten other examples that were better for the individual AND the Service.
         Another indirect point, that is probably unintended but is prevalent throughout his works, is that only those who leave the Service are worthy and those who stay in are less worthy.  I cannot disagree more with Kane on this theme.  Overall, the most professional and courageous people I have met have been in the military or are veterans.  To think that those who are left in the military are the unqualified leftovers is preposterous.
         Kane offers an old, worn-out argument that has been polished with contemporary examples.  His works are not the first and they will not be the last.  In the meantime, the Services will keep chugging along dealing with reality the best they can, making adjustments along the way with some that will work and some that wont; just like every other organization…

  • ExcellentNews

    At first, the guest position sounds like a great idea – let the best and brightest float up. At second thought, let’s not forget that this philosophy brought us MCI, Enron, and the Wall Street meltdown (which curiously left not a single banker poorer than before…). Why? Because, it is the most ambitious – not necessary the best – who rise up. Would you trust Enron or Lehman Brothers with the bombs?  I would not – and I would gladly put up with some inefficiency for the sake of having a military which puts their MISSION FIRST and personal ambitions second.

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