By Tim Kane
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
288 pp. $30
Tim Kane’s January 2011 article entitled “Why Our Best Officers are Leaving,” published in The Atlantic, gave the world a preview of his new book and was the focal point of conversation across the officer ranks of the U.S. military. In early 2011, American military officers were nodding in agreement with the results of Kane’s study regarding Army officers’ decisions to stay in or leave the military. His article and book focus specifically on a sample of West Point graduates and their experience, but the outcomes and conclusions of his survey resonated across the Services.
The highlights of Kane’s study are summed up in the answers to three questions:
Bleeding Talent makes a case based on this study, external data from the private sector, and anecdotes that the military is a major source of great leaders and vital entrepreneurial thought. Veterans are disproportionately represented at the highest levels of American business. Yet the military has historically had trouble retaining that talent and applying it internally to spur entrepreneurialism within the military.
Aside from the survey itself, it is through anecdotes that Kane’s depiction of mismanagement of high-performing field-grade officers will have real staying power with the reader. The most famous of these is the case of John Nagl—a prominent counterinsurgency specialist with substantial intellectual heft and educational pedigree—who left the Army as a lieutenant colonel after 18 years of service, just 2 years shy of a military pension and obvious qualification for promotion to colonel. Put simply, Nagl saw better opportunity on the outside for career advancement and to capitalize on his talents. A less-known and perhaps more telling anecdote is the story of Major Dick Hewitt, an Army officer who was hand selected for a prime command position in Korea that would have torn his family apart. Rather than sacrifice family for career, he left the Service in favor of eventual success as an entrepreneur in finance in central California. The ironic coda to this story is that Hewitt later met another of the command-selected officers who chose to stay in the Army despite being assigned to another duty station that did not work well for his family. After comparing circumstances, Hewitt discovered that the other officer had been assigned to a duty station that would have worked well for Hewitt’s family; the other officer’s wife was Korean, and she would have enjoyed being stationed in Korea. Had the manpower system allowed or enabled that conversation to happen earlier, both outstanding officers would have remained in the Service.
Kane uses this analysis to argue on behalf of a free market system that he calls the Total Volunteer Force (TVF) that would overhaul and revolutionize the military manpower system. He argues that a more flexible TVF would enable officers to move in and out of the military, and among billet assignments within the military, using human resource managers who are able to match talent, preference, and needs of the Service better than the military’s current system of pairing virtually any free qualified mover with any free billet.
Kane himself acknowledges what a long shot his proposal is. However, even if the reader is unwilling to go as far as the author in terms of the solution, Kane presents a real and serious problem and makes a convincing case that the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act needs reform. His appendix is perhaps the most useful part of the book. There, Kane provides detailed results of his survey, complete with useful analysis and guidance in its interpretation. For those officers with whom Kane’s original article resonated, the appendix provides the opportunity to dig deeply into academic analysis ofthe problem.
The military is rampant with griping about manpower assignments, distribution of special programs and incentives, and the general lack of meritocracy. While such complaints are bound to exist in any organization as a part of general human nature, this study starts to define a real problem and begins the process of forming potential solution sets. By surveying a broad range of West Point graduates and framing their responses in a thoughtful and accessible format, Bleeding Talentprovides a voice for those officers within the system who are clamoring to be heard.
The concern among officers about the manpower system is more pronounced because of current and pending fiscal austerity measures and therefore merits attention and consideration at the highest levels of Pentagon leadership. Commentators across the defense world have produced numerous articles in the past few months about how to cut costs and downsize without significantly degrading our national security capability. The easiest way to cut, however, and the approach taken thus far, has been across-the-board reductions. In manpower terms, this translates into encouraging attrition, regardless of who is leaving, in order to draw down as quickly as possible.
Kane’s book should be a cautionary tale. For each anecdote involving a successful, promising, entrepreneurial, and charismatic officer leaving the Service because it was unable to capitalize on his talent (unfortunately, there are no anecdotes about women), our leaders and policymakers should be considering manpower reform that would entice them to stay. We will face problems in the future that our leaders will have to solve with fewer resources and less manpower. We need our top entrepreneurs, most creative thinkers, and most talented leaders to ensure that we do not end up with a hollow force. Kane’s book has provided a useful resource with important insights that should be at the forefront of our concerns as we continue to reshape our force structure into the future. JFQ