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Military Reform Begins With Personnel Reform

Brad Carson, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness

Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson (center) meets with Army leadership (Photo: U.S. Pacific Command / Flickr)

Brad Carson, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, is in the final stages of unrolling a plan to change the way the military manages its talent. He has rightly described the current system as “antiquated” and “a Polaroid in an age of digital cameras.”

Carson is mistaken in one aspect, however, in stating the current system has worked well for 75 years. It has never worked well, but has in fact been wrong from its very inception.

Major Don Vandergriff (U.S. Army, ret.) has been on the front lines fighting for meaningful personnel reform for more than 15 years. He has written a new, brilliant treatise detailing the industrial-age origins of the system designed by early 20th-century lawyers and business leaders to apply then-fashionable corporate practices to the military and the unintended consequences that resulted. Past practices have created the problems we face now, in which many of the military’s best leaders decide to leave after their initial service obligation. They are leaving for a host of reasons: frustrations with assignments that don’t match their talents, dealing with toxic leaders more concerned with their own careers than mission accomplishment, and a promotion system based more on checking blocks on a checklist rather than merit.

Personnel reform is the single most important military reform issue. The current system punishes officers who speak the truth when the truth hurts their boss’s climb to the top (or his pursuit of a lucrative post-retirement job in the defense industry). The type of officers Vandergriff-styled personnel reforms seek to cultivate will make better decisions when they eventually make it into the upper ranks and have a better understanding of the art of war, as well as the freedom to practice it in peacetime, in addition to war. This will go a long way in preventing the type of costly and prolonged conflicts that characterize the “American Way of War.” The right kind of officers will produce sharp, decisive victories like Desert Storm, if not preventing some conflicts from happening in the first place. Careerist functionaries will only continue to produce indecisive slogs like Iraqi Freedom.

Vandergriff’s work offers several common-sense proposals that will not only change the way the military retains and promotes people, but will also lead to cultural changes within the ranks. The cultural change he seeks to affect is the real purpose behind this effort. It is the change that needs to take place before any lasting military reform can occur.

The Center for Defense Information at POGO is cautiously optimistic and stands ready to provide support to any reforms that will lead to a more effective military, both in cost and readiness. The idea that changing the way the military promotes officers will lead to improvements in every other area may seem far-fetched to some. With very few exceptions, the current system forces officers to become party-line-toting yes-men in order to progress in their “careers.” Without personnel reform to flip the system and put the “yes-men” on the outside looking in, no real changes in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex will ever take place.

Read more on Vandergriff’s personnel reforms on the Center for Defense Information website. 

By: Dan Grazier
Jack Shanahan Fellow, POGO

Photo of Dan Grazier Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight

Topics: Government Accountability, National Security

Related Content: Straus Military Reform Project

Authors: Dan Grazier

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