A Downsized, Down and Out Army

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

By , a former Army officer, and a PhD candidate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.

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.

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

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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.

Research on downsizing in industry indicates that low morale, unhealthy competitiveness, and reduced initiative are common during and after downsizing, often resulting in diminished organizational effectiveness or productivity. This possibility is particularly unsettling for a military organization, where ''effectiveness'' means the difference between victory and defeat and life or death. Experience also reveals that the effects of these attitudes can be mitigated through strong leadership in several areas.

No end of cutting in sight

First, leaders must communicate well the downsizing plan and develop innovative, compassionate ways for easing the departure of their least-critical employees. The Army, chiefly under the direction of senior officers, has succeeded at these tasks. But to minimize the impact of downsizing, leaders also must project a credible end to the uncertainty and expediently steer their institution toward that goal. Here our civilian leaders have fallen short.

Despite only marginal changes in the strategic environment in the past several years, the Army's projected size has steadily been chipped away as the political and budgetary landscapes have grown increasingly treacherous. After it had already cut by 30 percent, the Army's ''final'' target was changed - just since 1993 - from 535,000 to 520,000 to 495,000 (ironically at a time when the demand for the Army's participation in nontraditional missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and elsewhere has grown). Last April, Defense Secretary William Perry unexpectedly directed the Army to prepare to cut further to 475,000, the smallest it has been since 1939. Not surprisingly, few soldiers trust this newest target will be the last.

Given the fluidity of world affairs, the Army's size and mission continue to merit thoughtful and earnest debate. The courage to make difficult trade-offs is sorely needed. But as civilian decisionmakers have haggled over divisions, modernization dollars, and readiness, they have overlooked the bonds of trust, sacrifice, and respect that atrophy as those in uniform look around and wonder who will be next. These bonds, important in any organization, are essential for an effective fighting force. By prolonging the uncertainty, policymakers have weakened soldiers' confidence that successful, productive careers are possible.

Post-cold-war consensus

The transition from war (in this case a cold war) to peace has always been difficult for democratic armies. During such periods, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, ''The career of arms immediately ceases to be respected and military men drop down to the lowest rank among public officials. They are neither greatly esteemed nor greatly understood.'' Over time, he suggested, this poses a ''danger for the country as well as for the army.''

This observation holds more than a kernel of truth, but falls short of explaining the Army's present problems. The failure of civilian leaders to chart a steady course by coming to a credible consensus on the size, role, and required resources for the post-cold-war Army has exacerbated the ill-effects of downsizing and threatened the Army's health in ways not fully appreciated.

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