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Fixing What’s Broken in the Army: Part One

In the wake of the slaying of 16 Afghan civilians by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, some soul-searching into what’s gone wrong with our Army is appropriate. Talking to officers that I have come to know over the course of the last five years in Afghanistan, several issues not well known to civilians emerge.

One is that the Army lowered its standards and took on youths too troubled to be molded into good soldiers, especially during the 2007–09 period. The good news here is that since most of them enlisted for two years, they are reaching the end of their term, and with our withdrawal from Iraq and drawdown in Afghanistan, the Army no longer needs to lower its standards to fill its ranks.

An example from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Bales served: this January, a 24-year-old former private first class named Benjamin Barnes murdered a female forest ranger at Mount Ranier National Park. (He fled and died of exposure in a wilderness area.) Officers at Lewis-McChord, where Bales served in the 4th Stryker Brigade, had tried to separate Barnes from the Army twice—he had come on post drunk with private weapons in his car—before he finally received a misconduct discharge. He never saw combat, though he deployed to Iraq, so the PTSD explanation doesn’t seem compelling. Instead, he was one of those, in the words of a lieutenant colonel I know, who are “too broken to fix.” The Army, he says, is no more a charity than a corporation is; there are people who cannot function in the Army, and it takes precious time away from a commander overseeing those who can to discipline the few who cannot. (This colonel says he discharged 20 from his battalion of 700.)

Luckily, with the Army reducing in size from 560,000 to 490,000 soldiers for budgetary reasons, the marginal or downright dangerous characters can now be removed. So this issue does not need a cure at the moment.

Another issue officers point to is a span of control problem at the shooter’s base: Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord has several times the number of brigades on post as most other large bases. It’s generally accepted wisdom in the business world that one individual can effectively manage only about five direct reports. That’s why, in the Army, battalions have no more than five companies and infantry divisions have four to six brigades; the lieutenant colonel who commands a brigade can effectively supervise his or her five company commanders, and the general commanding a division can do the same with four to six colonels. It is small wonder that problems surfaced at this base.

Furthermore, Lewis-McChord does not have a divisional headquarters to oversee the brigade commanders on a daily basis and to make sure that things run smoothly. In addition to the commanding two-star general and two one-star deputies, a divisional HQ has the hundreds of officers that deal with administrative issues. A significant number of brigade commanders have gotten themselves into trouble when they do not have mentors on hand. A military friend put it in more colorful terms, writing in an e-mail that, at Lewis-McChord, “brigades constantly fight with each other for land, ammo, training venues, etc and there is no DIV HQ to prioritize one over the other.” He added that a brigade commander “can rise unchecked, because he doesn’t have the 2 star in his shit daily.”

The Army’s relatively new Brigade Combat Team system—which allows for more rapid deployments—is the cause of the detachment of divisional headquarters from units deploying overseas. The BCT system began in 2003 and reached full swing in 2007 or so and not all brigades have made the transition, but in doing so divisional headquarters were severed from the smaller units that deployed.

The fix for this problem is something the Army needs to work out, to make sure that loose cannons, à la Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, don’t go off on their own. There are reasons why the Army is a rigidly hierarchical, strictly supervised organization. Men with guns need all the guidance they can get from those older and wiser. We have seen one of the results of when they don’t get it.

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