Pentagon takes a hard look at ability of officer corps to lead troops in combat. Critics worry that up-or-out promotions stifle innovation

It was called ``getting your ticket punched,'' and its effects may still haunt the United States military. In Vietnam, it was common for mid-level US officers to command troops for only six or seven months before being replaced. Thus as many as possible received the field experience that helps their chances for promotion. They got their tickets punched, in military parlance.

To some critics, this practice fostered a narrow, my-career-comes-first attitude among young officers that damaged crucial unit cohesion. Does that attitude persist today?

Says retired Gen. Eugene C. Meyer, Army chief of staff from 1979 to 1983: ``When I [led the Army,] I was concerned whether selflessness was going to permeate the service. I still worry about that.''

Ten years after Vietnam, the nature of US military leadership has become a topic of wide discussion within the armed services and among outside experts.

On one level, this debate focuses on personal leadership, the qualities junior officers need to meld US units into an effective fighting force.

On a second level, it centers on institutional leadership, on the responsibilities of the country's four-star generals and fleet admirals.

Though present in the Navy and the Air Force, this leadership debate is a matter of particular concern within the Army.

``The Army is the intellectual place to be in the services,'' notes Dr. Jeffrey Record, a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

It was the Army, after all, in which the trust between leader and led degraded the most during the late 1960s and early '70s. The turbulence caused by ticket-punching, says General Meyer, was one main reason.

This quick turnover of field commanders meant they never had time fully to understand the men under them and the nature of the war. Soldiers often found themselves in the hands of inexperienced leaders -- a situation that did very little for morale. It was difficult for many US units to develop the loyalties that bind all ranks together in crack fighting teams.

``The World War II units which did well were the ones with cohesion,'' General Meyer points out.

The Army in recent years has tried to turn this problem around. In 1981, Meyer ordered that command tours be at least two years long. He launched an experimental program named COHORT, in which soldiers and junior officers move from basic training to first assignment as a unit. By the end of this year almost 10 percent of the Army's force will have gone through COHORT.

``They've trained together, they know each other, they know their officers,'' says Maj. Robert Gesell, a Pentagon personnel officer. ``The Germans did this in World War II, to great effect.''

But questions about US military leaders involve more than length of service with particular units. Critics ask: Do the armed services produce the sort of officers they really need? Do today's layered military bureaucracies breed too many bland budgeteers?

One hundred years ago, critics say, US forces were led by men different from today's commanders. Though golden-haired, strutting Gen. George Custer was an extreme example, officers as a whole were relatively daring and outspoken, say some. ``In the 19th century, virtually every officer worth his salt had been court-martialed at least once,'' claims retired Army Lt. Col. Theodore Crackel. But over the last century the pressures in the US military for officers to conform have become stronger and stronger, according to critics inside and outside the services. Bold officers inevitably make mistakes. And in today's up-or-out military promotion system, even one mistake may be fatal to a career.

``In America, we pride ourselves on being individualistic. In the military, we have bred most of that out of ourselves,'' says one midlevel officer serving a Pentagon tour of duty.

In an internal Army survey disclosed in May's ``Armed Forces Journal,'' 49 percent of a sample of officers ranked lieutenant through colonel agreed that ``the bold, original, creative officer cannot survive in today's Army.'' Sixty-eight percent of this group agreed that ``the officer corps is focused on personal gain rather than selflessness.''

The US military may also have too many managers, and not enough swordsmen.

Armies through the ages have recognized the need for a balanced supply of those who can run supply depots, and those who can charge enemy lines.

Today in the US, the supply depot types may be ascendant. Weapons systems have become so complicated and expensive that much of the Pentagon's energy is sucked into purchasing, and marketing to Congress. The Army War College has taught a course in how to give congressional testimony.

``We have become so obsessed with selling budgets that other things don't get the attention they deserve,'' says Gen. David C. Jones, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ``There ought to be more [emphasis] on strategy and warfighting doctrine.''

In defense of today's officer corps, General Jones points out that the quality of individual officers -- their education level, their commitment -- is as high as it has been in 40 years.

Others say that whether individualism is bred out of officers all depends on what you think is individual. ``There are people I think are renegades that are four-star generals,'' says General Meyer.

In peacetime, say military officers, it's natural that procurers will rise in armed service bureaucracies. You don't really know who the swordsmen are, say military sources, until the fighting starts. The swordsman-manager distinction is somewhat artificial, they say -- especially in today's world of expensive, high-tech conventional weapons.

And there are signs in the services of a new effort to remind officers that they are more than systems analysts who get to wear uniforms to work.

In the Air Force, an education program called ``Project Warrior'' encourages officers to study war history, and the lives of such renowned commanders as Lt. Gen. James Doolittle. In the Army, a War College instructor, Col. Harry Summers, is leading a boom in the study of such philosophers of war as the 19th-century Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz.

Especially in the Army, this resurgence of the study of warfighting involves more than the duty of individual officers. It also covers the responsibilities of top military commanders to the nation -- and whether those responsibilities were shouldered during Vietnam.

Colonel Summers' book-length study of the Vietnam war, ``On Strategy,'' concludes that ``on the battlefield, the Army was unbeatable.'' Defeat was caused by large strategic mistakes, one of the largest being ``failure to invoke the national will.''

In other words, the war was to be escalated without arousing the American people. There was to be no declaration of war; no mobilization of the reserves.

Civilian policymakers were the prime architects of this decision, but the military went along unthinkingly, writes Summers. In general, he says, military leaders allowed civilians to dominate the setting of all strategy for the war, and failed in their responsibility to present alternative courses of action. The Joint Chiefs, in Vietnam, did not insist that their civilian overlords set tangible political goals, according to Summers.

Retired Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr., an Army corps commander in Vietnam and another widely published analyst of the war's conduct, says that senior military leaders should have told their commander in chief his strategy was not working.

``In hindsight, a strong case can be made for the resignation of one, several, or all the Chiefs [of Staff],'' he writes.

General Palmer and Colonel Summers believe the US military should be much less a machine that goes to war at the President's bidding, and more of a questioning body that comments on policy in times of conflict.

The debate among US soldiers as to whether they should say, ``Why are we doing this?'', instead of ``Can do,'' to civilian orders, has been going on a long time, military experts note.

Not all of them believe that US armed forces would actually balk at controversial actions -- or that public discussion as to whether they should is a good thing.

``America now has a noticeably cautious Pentagon,'' notes Paul M. Kennedy, Dilworth Professor of History at Yale University. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, he points out, gives speeches saying the US won't fight without assurance of support from Congress and the US people. Such public announcements, says Kennedy, make it more difficult for the US to manage its global interests.

Others go further. The experience of Vietnam has led to a general reluctance in the US to use power, say conservative analysts. This has led to world disequilibrium, as the Soviet Union has continued efforts to export its influence. Many conservatives consider Central America a paradigm, a place where Americans waffle and the Soviets have will.

For a military force, leadership can affect performance as much as, or more than, weapons quality, or strength of numbers.

As it strives to offset Warsaw Pact tanks and missiles, the West should thus make sure that its military leaders are at least as good as the Soviet Union's, say US officers. The stereotype of the Soviet commander -- a mere cog who will simply stand around if not given detailed orders -- may not be true. Says one midlevel US officer: ``The Russians aren't the world's best chess players for nothing.''

Last of three articles. The first two ran May 20 and 21.

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