West Point graduates: Why our best officers are leaving early

The U.S. military claims to support independent thinking and entrepreneurship among officers, but a survey of 250 West Point graduates suggests that conformity, not merit, is rewarded.

Mike Groll / AP / File
Cadet Karyn Powell stands with male classmates during a midday formation at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in this 2007 file photo. An exclusive survey of West Point graduates by researcher (and fellow West Point alum) Tim Kane found surprising views on promotion and retention of the officer corps.

Today, the Atlantic magazine's January/February issue was published, which features an essay Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving by yours truly. I'll share a snippet of the essay here, then follow with some comments about putting together the research and writing behind the 5-page article.

Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving

Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.

By Tim Kane

John Nagl still hesitates when he talks about his decision to leave the Army. A former Rhodes Scholar and tank-battalion operations officer in Iraq, Nagl helped General David Petraeus write the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, which is credited with bringing Iraq’s insurgency under control. But despite the considerable influence Nagl had in the Army, and despite his reputation as a skilled leader, he retired in 2008 having not yet reached the rank of full colonel. Today, Nagl still has the same short haircut he had 24 years ago when we met as cadets—me an Air Force Academy doolie (or freshman), him a visiting West Pointer—but now he presides over a Washington think tank. The funny thing is, even as a civilian, he can’t stop talking about the Army—“our Army”—as if he never left. He won’t say it outright, but it’s clear to me, and to many of his former colleagues, that the Army fumbled badly in letting him go. His sudden resignation has been haunting me, and it punctuates an exodus that has been publicly ignored for too long.

... It would be easy to dismiss Nagl’s story, except you hear it almost every time you talk to a vet. In a recent survey I conducted of 250 West Point graduates (sent to the classes of 1989, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004), an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.” By design, I left the definitions of best and early up to the respondents. I conducted the survey from late August to mid-September, reaching graduates through their class scribes (who manage e-mail lists for periodic newsletters). This ensured that the sample included veterans as well as active-duty officers. Among active- duty respondents, 82 percent believed that half or more of the best are leaving. Only 30 percent of the full panel agreed that the military personnel system “does a good job promoting the right officers to General,” and a mere 7 percent agreed that it “does a good job retaining the best leaders.”

The Research

Back in the spring of 2010, I started questioning the capacity of the Army to conduct expeditionary economics and/or counterinsurgency. While I am an advocate of both missions (strategies), and also an advocate of the amazing talent in the U.S. military, I couldn't shake the suspicion that the military bureaucracy would frustrate such efforts. Put simply, how does an anti-entrepreneurial organization reconcile entrepreneurial leaders and an entrepreneurial mission? Not well. Of course, the military isn't a failure by any stretch, but the hierarchical structure can be problematic, and over the years, I have seen too many good leaders leave in frustration to feel confident.

I remain thankful for the supportive climate at the Kauffman Foundation which gives us the freedom to ask deep, complex questions and champion entrepreneurship, wherever it may be (or may be repressed).

I began putting together a set of questions that I posed to friends and contacts in the national security space. That quickly became an informal survey that was generating powerful, and shocking, responses from veteran friends. By mid-summer, I knew this needed to be formalized in an unbiased way. That is, I needed to find a way to survey officers that were representative of military opinion. If the Army's officers themselves could be shown to have lost faith in the Army's personnel system, that was explosive. It meant that any mission or strategy risked failure, any war risked being lost. It doesn't take much to connect the dots from good Human Resources to good execution.

The challenge was how to get at the population of officers, active and retired/discharged. I initially tried to get the survey in front of active duty troops, but that was a challenge on multiple levels. It was somehow fitting that I couldn't pierce the bureaucracy to get the survey approved. Then I had an insight, inspired by a friend of mine named James Sanchez. James was a classmate from the Air Force Academy class of 1990 (Mighty 90 he would say) who was our class scribe. He kept us in touch over the last 20 years, but passed away suddenly in late 2009. I suddenly realized that James would have loved this idea, and he would have gladly passed along a note to recruit our classmates to participate in a survey. So, I reached out to a dozen West Point class scribes, and six of them offered to help send out a blind survey recruitment email.

The result is a 250-respondent voluntary survey of West Point graduates, which I posted early this morning in the form of a working paper on SSRN. Even now, the results shock me. I just hope they shock enough people in the National Security establishment to generate action. Ending the central planning of HR in 2011 isn't as sexy as ending the draft in 1973, but I am convinved that both are essential if we want our military to be innovative, to win wars, and to win the peace that follows.

It would be wrong to close this without acknowlding the hundred or more people who advised me as I worked on this project. I can't name them all, but Jeff Peterson, Mike Meese, and John Nagl stand out. These men allowed me to interview them without knowing the final product. Maybe that's natural in the world of journalism, but not in my experience as an officer. I made sure I quoted them accurately, but the final product they saw today along with the rest of the world. Likewise, the team at Kauffman has been extraordinary, from Carl Schramm down to my research assistants, especially Alyse Freilich. No words can thank Ben Wildavsky enough, as he surgically critiqued an early draft, leading to the revised draft that was ultimately seen and accepted by the editors at The Atlantic. On that score, thanks to the editors and fact-checkers there, who made the piece stronger (and I'm not sure what protocol is here, but will leave them nameless for now). The errors that remain, surely there are a few, are entirely mine.

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