December 21, 2007

The Exodus of the Captains

Abu Muqawama returned home to Tennessee for the holidays yesterday and apologizes for not blogging yesterday. Today, though, he's been watching Reading Rainbow with his niece and reading Andrew Tilghman's article in the Washington Monthly on the exodus of the brightest young officers from the ranks of the U.S. Army. Man, what a fantastic article. All Americans who care about national security in the least should read this article. Abu Muqawama is often asked for the reason why he left the Army, and he responds that trying to reduce the reasons why he left the Army down to one thing is like trying to reduce the reasons we went to war in Iraq to one thing. It was a lot of things, most of which Tilghman mentions in this article. (Abu Muqawama also has a few screws holding his knee together, which he suspects is not something all Army captains experience.)

Tilghman notes two things driving the most talented Army officers out of the Army that aren't usually noted. (Once again, people often try to reduce the reasons for the exodus of talented junior officers down to the high op-tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a big reason, but it's not the only one.) One is geographical.

A military career has always involved a rural lifestyle, since sparsely populated places provide more room to test artillery and simulate warfare. These locations appealed to baby boomers, who came of age when many American urban centers were in decay, and Army garrison towns like Fayetteville, North Carolina, evoked the feeling of the small towns in which many officers had grown up. Today, numerous coastal American cities have been revitalized, and they attract the most educated and ambitious young men and women, many of whom grew up in suburbs. Meanwhile, Army towns like Killeen, Texas, or Watertown, New York, have devolved into impoverished, isolated outposts economically dependent on their military installations and notable mostly for a seedy proliferation of chain restaurants, pawnshops, and strip clubs.

When Abu Muqawama graduated from his fancy-pants Ivy League university, the majority of his classmates went off to live in the big urban centers -- Boston, New York, Washington, San Francisco -- that attract young and talented professionals. Abu Muqawama moved to ... Watertown. Let him tell you, he spent a lot of time reading and going for long bike rides -- not to mention visiting friends in New York and Boston. Guns and pick-up trucks are fine and all (He who is from East Tennessee shall not cast stones), but for a single young officer, these outposts can be pretty lonely. And if you're married? Well...

Perhaps the most powerful new element affecting officers' willingness to stay in the Army is the shifting dynamic of marriage and the roles of men and women in the family. Even in the rather traditional realm of Army culture, fathers now expect to be more actively involved in raising their children, and women tend to be less deferential to their husband's career. Among baby boomers, officers' wives were usually homemakers. Today, however, many officers' wives are doctors or lawyers or have degrees in international affairs, and there are few opportunities for them in places like Kentucky or West Texas.

Yeah, good luck meeting a nice girl who went to Stanford or Williams and has dreams of her own and then trying to convince her to follow you around the world to places where there is no way in hell she is ever getting a job more intellectually challenging than being the manager of the local Borders. Abu Muqawama's ex-girlfriend loved visiting him when he was stationed in Savannah (what a great town that is), but she's an international photojournalist. How the hell was she ever going to move there?

Finally, here's something that didn't affect Abu Muqawama's own decision but might have had he stayed in the Army long enough to see this take place from the inside:

Like many young officers I met, Kapinos and Morin were particularly disturbed by the experience of a colonel named H. R. McMaster. McMaster earned a Sliver Star in Operation Desert Storm. In 2005, he commanded a brigade of several thousand men in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar. He was lauded as the first upper-level commander to introduce progressive counterinsurgency strategies, rather than the traditional security-based mission that most other commanders were pursuing. He sought support from the entire population of Tal Afar. When his men released detainees, they asked them how they felt they had been treated (this was dubbed the "Ask the Customer Program"). The results were impressive. As the rest of Iraq deteriorated in 2006, Tal Afar was relatively calm, and President Bush touted it as a success. Despite these achievements, McMaster has been passed over twice for promotion to brigadier general. Kapinos concluded, "The junior officers see a guy who they worship—he's smart and successful—and they see him get the short end of the stick. If he doesn't make one star, if he doesn't go on to great things, if the cream stops rising at some point—then the good guys are going to say, 'What's the point?'"

Indeed. There is so much that is absolutely %$#@ed in the way the U.S. Army is handling its young officers that it might take decades to fix this. On the bright side, Reading Rainbow is still the greatest show on television, even after all these years.

Update: Instapundit has some extended commentary from readers--two emails from Army retirees and one from an active duty major. Great perpsective.

Update II: Nir wrote in from Iraq to say that out of 18 first lieutenants of the unit in which he is embedded, 17 do not plan on re-enlisting. Iraq deployments are cited as the major factor.