Academic journal article Parameters

Military Leadership into the 21st Century: Another "Bridge Too Far?"

Academic journal article Parameters

Military Leadership into the 21st Century: Another "Bridge Too Far?"

Article excerpt

On 15 September 1997, after a 19-hour flight from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 620 members of the 82d Airborne Division parachuted into Shymkent, Kazakhstan. Genghis Khan would have been impressed. En route to the drop zone the C-17s might have passed over American soldiers on the ground in Senegal or Uganda or Bosnia or Macedonia. While this military exercise involving armies of the former Soviet Union received some notice in the press, there was little expressed amazement. The American people took it for granted that our armed forces were up to the task.

Fighting forest fires in Colorado, operating medical clinics in Latin America, retrieving Soviet nuclear weapons, policing Haiti or Bosnia, keeping the North Koreans at bay--all seem equally unremarkable. Effectiveness with Hurricane Andrew recovery, with flood relief in Bangladesh, and with the Saudi National Guard was not unexpected. Even in the midst of headlines in 1997 describing appalling behavior on the part of cadre at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, opinion polls continued to show strong support for the American military. Perhaps most remarkably, heroic actions of soldiers from Panama to the Gulf to Mogadishu confirmed that the tradition of courage under fire has not been lost.

Adventures in peacekeeping, warfighting training, drug interdiction, Olympic Games protection, and technological adaptation took place amid a force reduction of monumental proportions. In a drawdown of more than one-third strength in five years, with massive personnel turbulence, a notoriously high pace of activities, and an austere operating budget, admirable pride prevailed. In 1996, Army operational deployments averaged 35,000 soldiers per day among 70 countries. Many soldiers stationed in the United States spent more than 130 days away from home station that year. Much of the warrior spirit has somehow survived the influx from a supposedly self-centered generation. West Point cadets still compete for assignments in the combat arms. (1) "Exciting but demanding times," some soldiers have said. Our most robust corporations might--just might--have withstood the trauma to which the Army has responded so well in the 1990s. Performance of assigned, tangible missions in the last decade represents one of the finest examples of institutional stamina, commitment, and versatility in military history.

The Army also has been working diligently, in conjunction with the other military services, to anticipate and prepare for the future. The new series of war games at the Army War College, for example, seeks the insights needed to identify force structure and materiel changes that might take place in the second decade of the 21st century. Much is written and discussed about changing technology, especially in communications and automation. Through it all, we continue to profess that the Army is first and foremost the people who serve in it. Still, there appears to be a growing unease among informed observers regarding the capacity of the US armed forces to sustain operational excellence in the decades ahead.

Erosion Amid Success

In an August 1997 press conference, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged that there were "cracks" in unit readiness. Strong anecdotal evidence to the same point has been emerging for several years. Some service members indicate they no longer recommend that their children enter the armed forces. Talented young officers appear to be leaving in disproportionately high numbers, although documentation for this is absent. The exodus of Army helicopter pilots has been described as a "hemorrhage." (2) Consider:

* A 1997 survey of several thousand soldiers conducted as part of the investigation of abuse of authority at Aberdeen Proving Ground and elsewhere reported that less than half the respondents replied positively to questions of confidence in their leaders.

* A survey sponsored by the Army Command and General Staff College in 1995 found some concerns about leadership and the command climate strikingly similar to those reported in the 1970 Army War College Study on Military Professionalism> (3)

* Articles in military journals increasingly include comments to the effect that innovation is being crowded out by fear of failure ("Fear of Mistakes Throttles Initiative in the Ranks," says one headline. …

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