Hurtling Towards Mediocrity: The Army “Garrison” Initiative and the Death of Innovation

I will be perfectly honest (unlike a certain Senator): the inspiration for this post was spawned by a Washington Post opinion column by retired Army Lieut. Gen. David Barno. The opinion piece can be found here and I highly recommend it. Barno makes a series of excellent points concerning the so-called “end” of the thirteen years of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and the return of the peacetime Army. To briefly and inadequately recap his piece, Barno states that the peacetime, or garrison, Army does not value innovation and adaptability. These two tenets have been the core fundamentals for combat leaders over the past thirteen years. Instead, Barno argues, the garrison Army “values bureaucratic process and compliance above all else.”

Boy is that the truth. On my recent deployment to Afghanistan as a “shiny assed staff officer” (not my words, but that of one of General Dunford’s staff), we spent nearly half our time conducting online surveys, online training, and building PowerPoint slides to explain how we were training the force. In Afghanistan. It seemed that the focus from higher headquarters was not on the progress of our mission or the welfare of our troops but on ensuring that our troops were busy all the time, that they were receiving their quarterly required briefings, and that they were being safe. Risk aversion was the norm, with multiple layers of bureaucracy built in to ensure that any attempt to be adaptive was delayed until oversight could be brought to bear. 

When we were deployed, we heard the stories from Big Army back home: courtesy patrols, new uniform standards, and the like. Peacetime, what we ostensibly all hope for, was looking to be filled with mundane exercises, briefings on leadership from those who could not lead (based on the theorem of those who can’t do, teach), and asinine uniform requirements that merely served to raise the blood pressure. The future was not looking bright, so as not to require our unauthorized shades. The message being sent, through new regulations, briefings, and innumerable PowerPoints was: don’t commit sexual harassment, don’t wear unauthorized sunglasses or boots, DO wear reflective belts, and don’t rattle the collective cage with outside the box thinking. Do all this, and your career will be long and prosperous. Napoleon, somewhere, is laughing his ass off.

Barno concludes his article with a grave warning for Army leaders: good Soldiers thrive in a climate where they are able to make their own decisions and own them. If the Army is going to embrace a more bureaucratic approach to leadership, then many good young leaders are going to opt for the door. And that’s exactly what I saw. For many of us younger officers it was our first or second deployment. I watched as morale dropped as leaders struggled to balance their priorities of accomplishing the mission and taking care of Soldiers with the red tape requirements and endless meetings with no clear purpose. We all wondered if this was what the future was to be like. Now that we have returned, results are mixed. Several officers are getting out. Some are transferring units or branches. Many are staying in, if merely to be the ones who are a thorn in the side to the bureaucrats. 

As a student of history, I know the military works in cycles: it ramps up for conflicts and then draws down in times of peace. This is a phase. However, the phase can be made less painful by reducing the drastic shift. There are troops in combat every day, and yet many in the military act as though there is “peace in our time.” The world is certainly not a peaceful place, and the U.S. military is a powerful bargaining chip. Not only is there the “Pacific Pivot,” but there also seems to be the ever-familiar “Middle East Muddle,” “Caucasus Can-Can,” “Balkan Boondoggle,” and even the “Muscovite Mamba.” Perhaps, just perhaps, the move towards a garrison lifestyle is too soon. 

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