Monday, May 14, 2012

The "Dear Boss" Saga

The Air Force has a storied tradition called the "Dear Boss" letter. While there may have been previous iterations, and certainly the feeling was out there before, the "Dear Boss" letter as it is known started with a letter penned by then-Captain Ron Keys in 1973 to General Wilbur Creech, Tactical Air Command commander. The below is just a snippet of the opening of his missive.

"Dear Boss,
Well, I quit. I’ve finally run out of drive or devotion or rationalizations or whatever it was that kept me in the Air Force this long. I used to believe in, “Why not the best,” but I can’t keep the faith any longer. I used to fervently maintain that this was “My Air Force,” as much or more than any senior officer’s…but I can’t believe any more; the light at the end of my tunnel went out. “Why?” you ask. Why leave flying fighters and a promising career? Funny you should ask— mainly I’m resigning because I’m tired. Ten years and 2,000 hours in a great fighter, and all the time I’ve been doing more with less—and I’m tired of it. CBPO [Central Base Personnel Office] doesn’t do more with less; they cut hours. ...

"I’m too tired, not of the job, just the Air Force. Tired of the extremely poor leadership and motivational ability of our senior staffers and commanders. (All those Masters and PMEs [professional military educators] and not a leadership trait in sight!) Once you get past your squadron CO [Commanding Officer], people can’t even pronounce esprit de corps.

The rest of the letter can be found here. The letter could have been written today, judging from recent discussion. As a matter of fact, the letter has come back, purposefully copied numerous times including in 1997 and 2009. And if you delete the Air Force-specific references, the same has been cited in all of the services.

The themes are the same. Young officers aren't chafing against high operational tempo or demanding tactical requirements. They are chafing against a bureaucracy that misplaces its incentives, fails to penalize underperformers, rewards overperformers only with more work (but not removing the incompetents from the ranks around and above them), fails to prioritize the institutions' efforts and expenditures (empty MWR facilities, embarassing swing bands, etc), fails to properly care for its people (this is not a money problem - most officers are vastly overcompensated today - but a personnel management problem), and focuses on inane superficialities rather than combat excellence, just to name a few.

Many readers will be falling all over themselves to point out that Captain Ron Keys did not actually quit - he in fact stayed in and became Gen Ron Keys. This will add a drumbeat to the chorus of those who would label frustrated dissidents as quitters. "See - Ron Keys didn't quit - he stayed in and made a difference."

The fact that these observations keep coming up, however, makes one wonder if those who stay around truly do make a difference. Broadly termed, of course those who keep plugging away will make a difference. They can do good in the organizations they staff and command, they can influence and care for those around them, and they can find personal and professional fulfillment. Really, this is all one can ask for. If making a difference, however, means changing the system then good luck. It reminds me of those politicians who say they would change Washington. It never happens. Likewise, reform of the military's most flawed systems - the personnel and procurement systems - seemingly never happen. Placing these two examples - Washington and the military - side by side invites the obvious observation that the military doesn't change because the personnel and procurement systems are controlled by the politicians in the form of law and Congressional appropriations, approvals, and appointments. While this is very true, this does not completely absolve senior military officers of their culpability in the shortcomings of the system. There is room for reform within the authorities given them by Congress.

There is a more important reason why these two examples line up. Just as Washington changes those who would seek to change it, so too does the bureaucracy of the military. Quite simply, any bureaucracy - military, political, or otherwise - has its own set of incentives and disincentives that socialize those who would climb its ranks. This socialization generally tends to promote the status quo and the survival of the system as it is. As accretions grow around the system (i.e., special interests), it begins to bog down and distort from its true form. This will go on as long as the socialized guardians of the institution and the surrounding environment do not see these distortions as a true threat. The problem is, just as in Washington, the insiders' view can often be myopic, fixed on the incentive structure, until it is too late.

It is interesting to note that these Dear Boss letters have tended to percolate up when the institution is facing a post-conflict reset: post-Vietnam, post-Cold War, and post(ish)-OEF/OIF. These are times when visions of the future are clashing and when the interests of the system-as-bureaucracy begin to reassert themselves over the interests of the system-as-warfighting-organization. It is in these times that clarity of vision and communication up and down the ranks are most important. Visions of the future threat and the future force are surely anything but clear today. The services are struggling to define themselves against an uncertain world and too many are falling back on the trite mantra of back to the (garrison) basics and the sanctuary of service parochialities. These are an anathema to the mind of many mid-level and junior officers and staff non-commissioned officers who have spent nearly a decade trying to hone a combat mindset.

Many more Dear Boss letters will be forthcoming. Despite the sluggish economy, there are many motivated and talented officers who after years of combat operations need the dynamism of fluid environments, meaningful challenges, and new and different responsibilities to keep them going. If the military cannot articulate that it will give them these challenges, these meat-eaters will keep moving forward to find new careers - and the economy will absorb the best of them. The leaf-eaters will contine to graze safe pastures, rest assured. The coming drawdown will expose a growing crisis of vision, communication, and trust between the ranks. It is therefore critical that the institutional leadership begins to enter a dialogue with its younger officers. Institutional leaders must lay out their vision, set meaningful priorities, seek to create buy-in from their officers, and address the growing and consistent chorus of concern that the U.S. military culture is increasingly irrational and risk averse. If these steps are not taken, the U.S. military will become, once again, and army at dawn, losing its edge and its knowledge until a new adversary bloodily forces the reforms that so many are crying out for today.

An Air Force officer raises this issue once again today on Small Wars Journal.  "Dear Boss..."  Many will tones that resonate.  Many will also find much to criticise.  The critical thing is not to agree or disagree point by point, but to understand that there is a growing crisis of trust that the institutional leadership must address, or fail to do so at its peril. Read the letter here.

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