Professionalism and the Officer Personnel Management System

By Donnelly, William M. | Military Review, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview

Professionalism and the Officer Personnel Management System


Donnelly, William M., Military Review


GENERAL WILLIAM C. Westmoreland served as chief of staffof the U.S. Army from July 1968 to June 1972, one of the most turbulent eras in the service's history. Safe passage through this era's Vietnam storm required the utmost in professionalism from the Army's officer corps, but the state of officer professionalism was suspect. Confronted in 1970 with powerful evidence of a dysfunctional organizational culture, the chief of staffdevoted considerable time and attention to this issue for the remainder of his tenure. Westmorland decided that the keystone to improving officer professionalism was a major revision of the career management system, a project soon known as the Officer Personnel Management System (OPMS). This article will examine the development of OPMS and its implementation to assess whether it fulfilled its intended role in cultivating officer professionalism.

In March 1970, the Peers Report on the My Lai massacre concluded that officers in the Americal Division, including its general officers, had not properly investigated whether war crimes had occurred, a finding that Westmoreland found almost as deplorable as the murders themselves.1 This failure was "a matter of grave concern" to the chief of staff. In April, he tasked the Army War College to conduct "an analysis of the moral and professional climate" in the service.2 The study reported there was a "significant, widely perceived, rarely disavowed difference between the idealized professional climate and the existing professional climate."3 Over the next two years this study-along with Westmoreland's own observations and the steady flow of bad news into his office-would prompt him to launch several initiatives to improve the quality of training and leadership. While all these initiatives included aspects of officer professionalism, none focused just on this issue.4

Better Professionalism through Better Career Management

By the autumn of 1970, Westmoreland had decided that officer professionalism required its own specific initiative. This made him the first chief of staffto acknowledge the unintended side effects of the career management system adopted after World War II and the resulting dysfunctional organizational culture described in the War College study.5 In October, after discussions with the deputy chief of stafffor personnel, Lieutenant General Walter T. Kerwin, Jr., Westmoreland made it clear that the way to improve officer professionalism was to improve officer career management by establishing the most effective methods for identifying, motivating, and utilizing three groups in the officer corps.

The first was a "select group" whose members were "groomed by experience for high command responsibilities." The second group was made up of "highly competent specialists" who "must be able to foresee promotion and necessary professional education on an equal basis with the potential commanders." The third was "that large segment . . . who are neither technicians nor solely troop leaders."

Westmoreland set several priorities for Kerwin. The first was "to identify our field grade officers best suited to command, to designate them explicitly as such, and to program them into stable command assignments and other positions of great responsibility." The second was the issue of specialization, both in branch immaterial highly technical fields and in certain specialties of the combat and combat support arms. The third was the need to "institute a vigorous 'selection out' process" for generalists "who have reached their ceilings" and specialists "who have ceased to produce." These officers undermined unit effectiveness and were "highly detrimental" to the motivation and retention of enlisted soldiers and junior officers. Finally, Westmoreland wanted an efficiency report "that will permit us to identify early in an officer's career his interest, motivation, aptitude, particular capability, and estimated capacity and potential."6

While the professionalism study had emphasized selecting commanders and culling substandard performers, it had not discussed specialization. …

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