Friday, June 22, 2012

Hannibal or Marius?

It seems like every six months or so, another blog post or article is published decrying the US military’s broken personnel system. Here’s one. Here’s another. The most recent, and one of the most powerful, appeared this week over at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. While all of these articles focus on the Army, personnel policies are not drastically different across the Department of Defense. We should be paying attention too. Take it way, Carl:

They told me that they also wanted to keep soldiers like Andrew but that he was locked into his year group and blah blah institutional bulls*** blah blah nothing they could do about it blah blah blah just the way it is blah blah blah tell him to stick it out and suck it up and blah blah blah.Well, here’s the deal, Big Army.  You’re dooming yourself to decades of mediocrity and increasingly brainless, risk-averse and incompetent commanders because you’re losing your best captains and you have your own poisonous policies to blame for your slow, institutional seppuku.The Army today is a rank-obsessed throwback to Industrial Age practices. Your promotions aren’t competitive and some of your gifted captains are stuck on bloated staffs doing busywork that mocks their intelligence and drive, punishing them with PowerPoint purgatory when they should be out fighting wars your generals apparently aren’t smart enough or creative enough to win.
 Harsh. Although criticisms of our current personnel management system are plentiful, there is not a single defense of it. The closest thing to a defense of the status quo is the statement that the system cannot be changed. Other than that, seemingly every servicemember, defense analyst, DoD civilian employee, and business consultant agrees that the current system is not good enough. And yet, it never changes. There are not even signs that change is in the future. I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly how a modernized, improved personnel management system would look like and operate and there are plenty of suggestions out there. Some things I do know, though. The idea that the system cannot change is, of course, false. Any belief that the US military does not need to improve its policies is also false as there is always room for improvement. The question is: What needs to happen for the system to change? For an answer to that question, I’m going to go waaaaay back and look at two precedents.
In 210 BC, (yes, that far back) the ambitious city of Rome was on the ropes. The Republic had, in living memory, secured their first military success outside of Italy by defeating the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. Now, however, things were bleak. A Carthaginian General named Hannibal had led an invasion of Italy from Spain and left defeated Roman legion after defeated Roman legion after defeated Roman legion in his wake. Hannibal not only won every battle, he made it look easy. One problem that the Romans had was their personnel management system. There were no long-service, professional generals. The legions were led by two annually elected consuls or a dictator, elected in times of stress, who would rotate command every other day. Basically, they let the two most popular rich guys for any particular year command an army. When this system did end up producing a competent commander who understood how to beat Hannibal, a Roman by the name of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrocosus Cunctator (try fitting that name on a nametape), the system replaced him with a man who told Rome what it wanted to hear rather than what it needed to hear. That man, Gaius Terentius Varro, led between somewhere between fifty and seventy thousand Roman soldiers to their deaths at Cannae.
Then the Romans got lucky. They appointed a 25-year old quaestor named Publius Cornelius Scipio to lead the Roman war effort. Long story short, Scipio kicked the Carthaginians out of Spain, then Italy, then took the fight to Carthaginian home territory in North Africa without losing a single battle. This is the first way to fix a poor personnel system: Wait until all the bad leaders get killed until only the good ones are left alive.
The second precedent happened a little bit later in 107 BC when Rome was bogged down in a messy little conflict called the Jugurthine War. Roman leadership had become corrupt and they were stymied by the innovative tactics of the Numidians. Turns out, the legions were poorly organized and equipped to fight a desert war against irregular enemies. (Hmmm.) The continuing conflict prompted one Roman consul, Gaius Marius, to completely overhaul the Roman “force generation” system. It’s not necessary to detail the Marian Reforms here, but suffice it to say that not only did the reforms lead to victory in the Jugurthine War, but the reformed legions would allow Rome to dominate the Western world for centuries afterwards.
This is option number two: a comprehensive, top-down reformation. For a bureaucracy as large, hierarchical, and ossified as the Department of Defense, there is no other way to accomplish meaningful, leap-ahead change.
So is the Marius option feasible? It’s possible, of course. Fortunately our system of government does not concentrate as much power in any one man as the Romans did with Marius. A modern equivalent will most likely need to start with a Joint Chiefs of Staff effort to analyze the current system and make recommendations to the SECDEF and the President. Then, they would need to put their weight behind the reforms to gain Congressional buy-in.
Improbable, yes. But not impossible. The bottom line is that senior leadership, responsible as they are for the manning of the military services, should begin the process of collecting, analyzing, and presenting options to improve the personnel system DoD-wide. It cannot be done piecemeal. It will take a comprehensive, joint effort.
I’m not wholly convinced that the personnel management system is completely broken. But, I am convinced that it can be improved. It is undeniably old and worn. Improving it will pay far more dividends in future wars than any weapon system we could buy. When it comes to how this system can be changed, following Marius’ example is much preferable to playing Carthaginian Roulette. We like to say that the enemy gets a vote. If we allow the status quo to stagnate into a cesspool of legacy practices and good-enough-for-government procedures, the enemy won’t be voting. He will dictate. 


  1. Sir,

    Some quick thoughts.

    This is not merely an organizational problem, but a social and political one. I have heard many horror stories from the corporate world (which has its own recent history of strategic errors). Certainly the private sector does a better job in compensation, and a little money (or employment itself, in today's economy) goes a long way in stifling complaint.

    Meritocracy is a dream thousands of years old, but caste, rank, and corruption are an older reality. Power, and access to power, has for most of human history been inherited-- and not awarded to talent. The practical establishment of a meritocracy is a recent endeavor, and one that has been dubious it its success. It remains more myth than reality.

    The great advantages of wealth remain-- I will just say that I have often heard that buying the right trademark for one's resume does more than any display of intelligence or professional skill. What does our modern meritocracy boil down to, anyway? Standardized tests, school trademarks, and interviews? How much faith can we really have in these? Would Napoleon have done well on the SAT? Do we even have a metric for leadership? How would Scipio have fared with rifle scores and PFTs?

    A noble endeavor, meritocracy. Hannibal remains the reality. Otherwise, we accept that "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong...."

    My ony practical suggestion would be to increase compensation. You can only get so much mileage out of intangibles and patriotism. Even then-- we want shrewd, calculating leaders, not hopeless romantics, right? Seeking talent in a war only dubiously linked to national defense, tainted by imperialism, and lacking in a clearly attainable objective? Pay well.

  2. Voting is a nice issue, Hannibal was elected supreme commander by the Punic part of the army he was to lead, just like his father Hamilcar when in conflict with the rich guy Hanno. For the Macedonians of Phillip and Alexander, the assembled military was also the political body to vote and decide some matters (rather limited in a monarchy), but set a precedent for the other Hellenistic generals, like Hannibal.
    Similarly during Early Modern Wars, commanders like Wallenstein gave good units the capability to elect their commanders in return for outstanding services.
    American minutemen were another example of military democracy.
    Top-down organized enactment of bottom-up ideas might achieve a lot of improved performance if all kinds of sloth are seen as systemic enemies.