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A Downsized, Down and Out Army

Quick cuts make it hard for soldiers to trust in leaders, career hopes

By David H. McCormick. David H. McCormick is a West Point graduatea former Army officer, and a PhD candidate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. / March 26, 1996

IN an admirable display of leadership and candor, the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Dennis Reimer, is tackling some of the more alarming, but less known, effects of deep personnel cuts in that institution.

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In recent months, General Reimer has conceded publicly that micromanagement, careerism, and a zero-defects mindset are among the unfortunate side effects of the turmoil created by the downsizing of the Army. This message demands broad public attention, for it has grave implications for the long-term health and effectiveness of America's Army. Similar attitudes and behaviors existed in the Army with disastrous consequences during the Vietnam era. They were moderated over a decade but have now reemerged as a result of downsizing.

The morale factor

My own discussions with scores of soldiers - from privates to four-star generals - suggest that Reimer knows his Army well. The active-duty Army was reduced from some 800,000 at the height of the Gulf war to roughly 500,000 by the end of 1995, with additional cuts to come. This sharp reduction has taken its toll not only on those who left the Army, but also on soldiers of every rank who have remained.

Officers, in particular, acknowledge a substantial decline in morale and organizational commitment. Many believe that diminishing opportunities within the Army, combined with an increasingly qualified officer corps, have spawned the aforementioned careerist outlook and zero-defects environment. The net result: Many officers appear more committed to promotion (or job security) than to the Army itself and are unwilling to display initiative for fear that honest mistakes will be ''career-busters.''

Clearly, not only the size, but also the character of today's Army differs from the one that trounced Iraqi forces in 100 short hours. The jury is still out on whether the Army of today could so convincingly defeat a similar foe. But make no mistake - high morale, unit cohesion, and bold, decisive leadership (all difficult to measure) were instrumental to the Army's smashing success in the Gulf. These crucial intangibles are being undermined by downsizing. And combat readiness, broadly defined, may be disappearing as quickly as are people in uniform. These trends also threaten retention, recruitment, and, conceivably, the viability of the all-volunteer force.

At the heart of this problem lie the respective responsibilities of military and civilian leaders for the nation's armed forces. In the American political system, Congress and the administration decide the appropriate size, budget, and strategic role for the military. Senior military officers lead and manage the armed forces based on this guidance. In the case of downsizing, senior officers have done the dirty work - deciding who departs, when, and how. Congress and the administration have had the less-personal task of determining the magnitude of and time-frame for personnel cuts. With this relationship in mind, the source of and solution for the Army's problems become clear.