What’s Changed In The Military, And What’s Next : NPR

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan. After the war in Vietnam, the U.S. military changed in profound ways. A conscript force became all volunteer. Congress changed the rules to force much more extensive use of the National Guard in any future conflict. Training and equipment emphasized fighting at night. And technology made blunt instruments like aerial bombing far more precise.

Scarred by the experience of a war lost in the jungles of Indochina, U.S. military focused on conventional combat. Then, many of the lessons of counterinsurgency had to be re-learned these past 11 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now two years after departure from Iraq and as the U.S. combat role diminishes in Afghanistan, what changes now?

We want to hear from those of you in uniform and from veterans, as well. Tell us what’s changed in your branch, 800-989-8255 is our phone number, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That’s at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us here in Studio 42 Are Major General Mike Davidson, retired, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard; and John Nagl, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the Minerva research fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy. Also with us from member station WOUT in Knoxville, Tennessee, is retired Captain Rosemary Mariner, former naval aviator, resident scholar at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. And welcome to you all. Good to see you all again.

JOHN NAGL: Good to be back.

ROSEMARY MARINER: Good to be back, Neal.

CONAN: General Mike, let me start with you. Do you see change now on the same scale as post-Vietnam?

MIKE DAVIDSON: Yes, mostly change for the better, I think, much higher-quality force. Let me back into that. Seventy-five percent of the 18- to 22-year-olds in America are not eligible to join the United States Army, 75 percent: obesity, lack of education, brushes with the law. The flip side of that is we’re recruiting from and getting soldiers from only the top 25 percent. It’s an expensive force, but it’s a very high-quality force.

CONAN: John Nagl, on that question of counterinsurgency, you were one of those instrumental in reviving that policy in Iraq. Is that going to be another lesson thrown away? Is the U.S. military going to say, well, we’re never going to do that again?

NAGL: Boy, we’ve paid such a high price in blood and treasure to re-learn the lessons of counterinsurgency that General Davidson’s generation learned in the jungles of Vietnam that it will be over my dead body that we forget those lessons again. And – but I do think that the budget pressures the military is under now with the sequester, downsizing force as always happens, correctly happens in the wake of wars, I think that there is enormous pressure to focus again on what the organization knows best and loves most dearly: conventional combat against mirror-image enemies, even if it’s pretty hard to find those in the world today.

CONAN: And Rosemary Mariner, I wonder what you foresee, Change on the level of post-Vietnam?

MARINER: Yes, I think so, although I think the size of the forces will get smaller. The size of the force during Vietnam was much larger than what has been the case in the last 10 years. It’s certainly a more diverse or shall we say representative force of American people. We have more women, more recently gays have been allowed to serve openly, and those parts of the American society bring these kinds of skills that General Davidson was talking about and certainly in terms of intellectual capacity and being able to deal with what is now the computerization of the armed forces.

CONAN: And Mike Davidson, that raises a question: Are the changes going to be primarily technological, tactical as we apply things like computerization, or are they going to be cultural, as Rosemary Mariner was suggesting we now have women in combat, we’re going to have gays in the military incorporated as part of the structure, and there’s going to be great emphasis, as we’ve been seeing in the past several months, on sexual assaults and on the problem of suicides?

DAVIDSON: Setting aside for the moment the last two issues, sexual assault and suicides, which are kind of a separate issue, I don’t think the change is going to be that difficult because we draw our military forces from our citizens. And as women or gays or any other group become more powerful, more mainstream, less ostracized, the army reflects our citizenry, which I think is a good thing.

CONAN: John Nagl?

NAGL: Neal, last year as part of my Naval Academy training and preparation, I got to go underway aboard the USS Mississippi, a Virginia-class attack submarine, a phenomenal product filled with extraordinary sailors. And the skipper told me that the Navy had announced three changes in the same weekend for the submarine force.

They were going to allow women aboard submarines, they were going to allow openly homosexual people to serve aboard submarines, and they were going to ban smoking.


NAGL: And he said one of those, one of those the crew had a real problem with, and it was smoking.

CONAN: That’s smoking. I was going to say – Rosemary Mariner, you were at the – one of the people at the cutting edge of these cultural changes that we’re talking about. What do you anticipate there?

MARINER: Well, I think this is actually a very important part of American military history. My role models were African-American men who had led the vanguard in integration in the armed forces and studied many of the lessons that they had to pass on. So I think it’s overall going to be not as controversial as many people seem to think.

We’ve been doing this for a long time. I – we’re talking my generation some 40 years ago. So this, in the case of the Navy, is getting – bringing women into the last remaining components of the service. But there are other areas here that I think are important, and one of them has to do with issues similar to the end of the Vietnam War, and that has to do with the breakdown of good order, morale and discipline, which is I think where the sexual assault and other criminal activities really properly fall under and going back to this strict idea of vertical accountability of senior officers in all things under their command.

CONAN: Post-Vietnam, the problem much more was drug use. That was relatively simply addressed with testing and universal testing, and if you use, you’re out, or you have a serious problem. John Nagl, it’s going to be a much more serious issue to address the cultural issues of sexual assault.

NAGL: I think that’s exactly right, and this is a deplorable feature of the greatest armed forces in the world. It’s something we absolutely have to fix. And I agree with Rosemary: This is something that the chain of command has to be held accountable for. And if you hold those senior general officers accountable, if we first some of them, if we don’t promote some of them, this problem – the news will get down the lines real quick.

And I just want to say in follow on to Rosemary’s leadership of gender integration of the military, is that the all-volunteer force that was instituted in the wake of Vietnam absolutely could not have made it through this decade of war without women in uniform. They are about 15 percent of the force; they are some of the best people in the force. And without them, we would have to return to some degree or selective service over this last decade of war.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in uniform, and from veterans, too. Tell us what’s changed in your branch, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let’s start with Tim(ph), and Tim’s with us from Hillsboro in New Jersey.

TIM: Hi, good afternoon. I’m a Naval Academy graduate, retired Navy captain, did eight years of active duty and been in the reserve 22 years. One of the things that makes this military that we have today much different than in previous generations is that we go to war today with many, many more contractors than we have ever in our history.

For example when – I’ve been in Afghanistan twice and Iraq once, and the first time I was in Afghanistan was in 2006. At that time there were only about 30,000 troops there. But we also had 30,000 contractors. The reason why I know that is that I’m a retired supply corps officer, and I was responsible for making sure everybody has enough to eat.

So that’s one of the things that makes this military much different than in previous generations.

CONAN: And that reliance on contractors, John Nagl, has caused again profound differences, changes.

NAGL: Absolutely. I just said a moment ago that we couldn’t have made it through this decade of war without women in uniform. We also couldn’t have made it without the contractors. And at times in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we were one for one, one contractor for one person in uniform.

The system I think has not adapted particularly well to that. We had accountability problems with the contractors. We had some training problems with some of the contractors. But overall…

CONAN: So did the NSA, but that’s…


NAGL: And that’s a good illustration of some of the kind of problems we faced. But just as with the women in uniform, without the contractors we simply couldn’t have made it through without reverting to a draft again, which brings huge problems with it.

CONAN: General Davidson, is this cost-efficient? Does this save money?

DAVIDSON: Enormously cost-efficient. It makes no sense to recruit, train and equip an infantry soldier and then have him build a latrine in Bosnia. And Brown & Root started building latrines for us. They do it extremely well. Most of those contractors are local, indigenous folks that are getting paid on the local wage scale.

CONAN: It’s not Halliburton people at great expense?

DAVIDSON: There are a few Halliburtons, but most of the people that do the work are locals.

MARINER: I like to be something of a contrarian here because I think we need to know that one of the things that is different is that these are armed contractors. We’ve always had combat support contractors in issues of war profiteering. But this time around, we’re talking about armed forces that can look like mercenaries. And without that accountability or the fact that they are getting paid a lot more than their military counterparts, we’ve had some very serious morale and discipline issues.

CONAN: And this came up, John Nagl, especially in Iraq.

NAGL: That’s right. Rosemary is absolutely correct. Actually, I did a study on this at CNAS. The armed contractors are a very small percentage of the total. And I think there are real questions about whether they are doing inherently governmental work that should really be the purview of uniformed government personnel. So I agree with Rosemary. I have some questions about arming contractors, but I think that for the vast majority, the logistical support roles, like the ones that General Davidson talked about, they are a very cost-effective answer, and they’ve done a phenomenal job. We were better supplied in Iraq and Afghanistan than any soldiers have ever been in the history of combat.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the phone call.

TIM: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: As we look ahead, there tends to be focus on big-ticket items. Right now, it’s the F-35, the multiservice fighter. Rosemary Mariner, as a former naval aviator, this approach was tied once before, and the F-4 was a success in some roles and not in others. The F-35 is costing a whole lot of money. Is it an appropriate kind of adaptation to the situation we face now?

MARINER: Let me fly one and I’ll give you a better opinion.


MARINER: I don’t know the particulars on this airplane. I just know that back in the day when I was on the joint staff this was a very controversial aircraft then. And there was those who said that it would be the last manned or womanned aircraft flown. So big-ticket items like this are going to be faced with more scrutiny, plus we have the other controversy here with the drones and other robotic kinds of surrogate forces that supposedly would cost less but don’t have that human judgment and conscience integrated into them as well.

CONAN: John Nagl, we just saw an unmanned aircraft take off and land on an aircraft carrier for the first time out in the Pacific. A message sent definitely to the Chinese.

NAGL: A message sent to the whole world, I think. I think Rosemary is right. The rise of remotely piloted vehicles, it’s important to note that they’re not really unmanned or unwomanned. There’s a crew behind them that currently still makes the shoot-no shoot decision. The interesting legal, moral, ethical questions, international relations questions are the next phase of these systems when the decisions are going to have to be made autonomously by the system, and it’s going to have to be programmed to have kill-no-kill authority on its own, or simply not those unmanned systems simply aren’t going to be able to survive in conflict against manned fighter aircraft. We’ve been flying them over Iraq and Afghanistan where there’s been no air-to-air threat. That’s probably going to change in the next war.

CONAN: Well, let’s see – we go next to Michael(ph). Michael with us from Gum Springs in Arkansas.

MICHAEL: Yes, Sir.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Thank you for taking the call. I’m a retired reservist. I’ve noticed that the increased use of National Guard and Army reserve units is greatly increased since I retired out of the reserves back ’93. Our unit that I was in at that time was supposed to be called up and from what I understand some politics got in and another unit was in. But the – I don’t – during my tenure in the reserves, I didn’t feel like the reserves and the National Guard units were utilized as much as they could have been. And now, I think they’re being overutilized.

CONAN: General Mike?

DAVIDSON: Interesting comment, Michael, on the politics. You may or may not know that for Vietnam, the Guard and reserve were not used at all, less than 10,000 soldiers out of two and a half million for politics. Lyndon Johnson could not face the political cost of calling up Guard and reserve units. It’s one thing to call up an 18-year-old and draft him. It’s a whole different thing to take the leadership of a small town, which you have in a Guard or reserve unit and sent them off to war. Now, the politics that you’re talking about are units and soldiers politicking to get to the war, and I think that’s a testament to the soldiers that we have in the Army, both active Guard and reserve.

CONAN: We’re talking about looking ahead to the future of the U.S. military. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me reintroduce our guests. You just heard retired Major General Mike Davidson. Retired naval Captain Rosemary Mariner is also with us. And retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl – I didn’t give you your rank before – also with us in the studio here in Washington, D.C. And as we – General Davidson, you were talking about the uses of the Guard and the reserves. We talked about a military that now draws from a tiny fraction of the American public. Because it is an all-volunteer force, there is a homogenization there that did not exist with a conscript force. It had other weaknesses but not that.

DAVIDSON: The isolation is a very disturbing trend. Less than 1 percent of Americans have any connection with the military, not just they’re not in it, they’re not married to someone in the military, their children are not in the military. That’s a disturbing trend, and I think the way to fix it is to engender some form of national service, it doesn’t have to be full-time military, that takes that other 75 percent of the Americans that can’t get in America’s army gives them a civilian conservation corps-type opportunity to serve in and something approaching a military setting.

CONAN: John Nagl, the people you teach at the Naval Academy, do they see themselves as people apart?

NAGL: They see themselves – it is a such a joy to teach these young people at the U.S. Naval Academy who, unlike my generation – I signed up in 1984, in a time of peace – these young people have signed up in a time of war, fully expecting that they will be called upon to serve their nation under fire. And it is inspiring to see the patriotism, the dedication, the hard work that they exhibit on a daily basis. They are comforted, I think, by the fact that although very few members of the American population today serve or related to someone who serves, as General Davidson noted, the American people support this generation of soldiers, sailors and airmen and Marine in a way that the Vietnam veterans deserved but didn’t get. And it is a tribute to the American public the support that they’ve given to their sons and their daughters who go in harm’s way on their behalf.

CONAN: But do they see themselves as apart from the American public?

NAGL: They are still so closely connected to their high school experiences, to their local communities, not yet. It’s really at the lieutenant colonel, colonel level where you’ve been in the military for longer than you’ve been out of it. You live on military communities that you do see some of the separation coming.

CONAN: More with John Nagl, Rosemary Mariner and Mike Davidson after a short break. We want to hear from those of you currently serving in the military and from veterans as well. What’s changed in your branch? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I’m Neal Conan. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now, we’re talking with retired General Mike Davidson, retired Captain Rosemary Mariner and retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl in the next of our Looking Ahead conversations, this about the future of the U.S. military. If you’re currently serving, if you’re now a veteran, call, tell us what’s changed in your branch over the past 10 years. 800-989-8255. Send us an email: talk@npr.org. You can also leave your observations on our website. That’s at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let’s go to – I don’t know if I can push the button properly. Kevin(ph) is with us from Norfolk in Virginia.

KEVIN: Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KEVIN: My question is regarding maintaining capability, and it’s directed more towards Colonel Nagl. I’m one of those phase zero stability operation guys, and I was a junior officer in Iraq in 2004, suffering through the lack of planning and experience of our senior officers who were trained…

NAGL: You and me both, Kevin.

KEVIN: And you’re a hero of us and the troops in the trenches. But after, you know, we swore that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes. And we trained our cadre and got through it and got our people home alive. Now that we’re turning away from COIN and stability operations, as we did after Vietnam, how are we going to maintain that core competency now that we’ve removed COIN and stability operations from our doctrine, and we’re losing funding, and I’m losing units, I’m losing my senior NCOs? As a senior officer now, how do I maintain that capability when this comes back again and we don’t, you know, we prevent repeating the errors of post-Vietnam?

CONAN: Forty-one minutes in before we get our first acronym, COIN, counterinsurgency, John Nagl.

NAGL: Kevin, it’s a great question. As you may know, I’ve been a longtime advocate of building specialized advice and assist units inside the U.S. Army. I think the Army story of adaptation to the demands of counterinsurgency having burned the books after Vietnam, it had to relearn those lessons. Our friends paid for those lessons in blood, and now, we’ve got to hold on to them somehow. I believe we should build specialized advise-and-assist units that will be enormously useful for situations like the one we’re seeing in Syria now that are repositories of cultural knowledge, of training and advising expertise that I think are going to be the most often used forces in the U.S. Army. In a commendable example of battlefield innovation over the last decade, the one thing, I think, the Army has failed at is building that kind of unit to hold that hard-purchased knowledge.

KEVIN: And I agree, and I think your efforts and General Petraeus’ efforts have been heroic. And I know you guys and in particular in your doctoral studies you had to, you know, reach out and find those books again and develop those libraries. And we haven’t lost those. If you’re new, the Army’s doctrine, I appreciate all that, but it doesn’t change the fact that our core competencies have to be embedded in our senior NCOs for our people to stay alive in combat.

NAGL: Absolutely right.

CONAN: Kevin, thank you very much for the phone call.

KEVIN: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Rosemary Mariner, earlier you mentioned the shift to unmanned aircraft, to drones. Another shift that has occurred very much over the past several years has been the increase use of Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is that going to continue, or are we going to go back to the more usual units?

MARINER: I think it will increase. But there’s one important difference was Special Operations Forces is that under the Special Operations Command as a unified combatant commander, they have their own budget lines, which the other combatant commands don’t, so you have to watch that in terms of oversight of the military. Another point I’d like to make about the citizen army side of this, an earlier question, is that there have been almost 500,000 Army and Air National Guard troops that have rotated through Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years. That is our citizen army. That’s the traditional citizen army of state-raised forces, and they represent the American people in a way that the regular armed forces historically have not done.

If you look at how the Army and the Navy were viewed in the 19th century, they were very much apart from the mainstream. People looked at their volunteer service especially during civil war as what was civic virtue in military obligation. And I would disagree with General Davidson that national service, which is another way of saying conscripted labor is part of citizenship. That’s not an American tradition whatsoever.

DAVIDSON: Rosemary, let me jump to my own defense here. This (unintelligible) on my mind and I didn’t go through it all. In World War II, you probably know, we went from 160,000 soldiers to eight and a third million soldiers in the Army and the Army Air Corps. We did that very quickly in just two or three years. The way we did it doesn’t get a lot of attention. Three million destitute young men served in the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1932 to 1940, three million. It’s tough to find a number, but you can see estimates as high as 90 percent of those CCC graduates who joined or were drafted into the Army.

So they gave us a jumpstart that we really needed. So I don’t think of it quite like indentured servitude. I think it more as an opportunity. And my experience has been we have just as many destitute young men and women in poverty now as we did during the 1930s.

MARINER: Well, the difference is coercion. I live in a town that was built by the CCC Corps, so I’m familiar with that. But they were volunteers. And it’s not until we have to raise a very large army rapidly that you – we turned to selective service. So there is a difference here. Now, there are volunteer opportunities for national service, and I strongly encourage folks to get in to those positions if they can qualify.

CONAN: And here’s an email we have from Alan(ph): As a seven-year army veteran -2006-2013 – with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has changed for the better. It is a higher quality, more independent and critically thinking force. Junior soldiers have a voice and strategy, and small unit tactics are encouraged. Hopefully the changes stay and do not revert to a bureaucratic and hierarchy-focused organization.

And that’s – when you’re dealing with situations and small units out in – left on their own to a great degree in places like Afghanistan, John Nagl, that is (unintelligible) kind a small unit independent.

NAGL: And the individual leadership skills that those young leaders have developed. I agree completely with Allan on that. And there’s a real concern among those veterans who I talked to as they look at returning to Fort Hood, Texas where I spent some time myself where the big questions are going to be whether the tanks are parked in straight lines, particularly as – which is hard to do with a 70-ton toy, particularly as sequester eliminates training funds.

And it’s really important. I really want to take this opportunity to let the American people know that if their armed forces are called upon right now, they will be less ready than they should be.

They will lose more of America’s sons and daughters than they need to because we have grounded fighter squadrons and we have turned off National Training Center rotations for our Army because of the sequester. And this is a crime against the armed forces of the United States of America. And I’m here in Washington. We’re on North Capital. We’re right next door to Capitol Hill where those decisions were made. Those need to be overturned. We are wasting our military capabilities at a very dangerous time in our military’s history.

CONAN: I want to return to something we mentioned earlier in the broadcast, and that was – we spoke, to some degree, about the difficult problem of sexual assault in the military. Mike Davidson, suicide, unprecedented rates in the military.

DAVIDSON: It’s a huge challenge. Let me jump to the Army’s defense, which I don’t normally do. The coin of the realm in the Navy is carrier battle groups. I think we may have 10 of them now. The coin of the realm in the Air Force are fighter wing equivalents. The coin of the realm in the Army is active-component divisions. How many divisions do we have? Well, our Army has dedicated one division’s worth of faces and spaces. Those are people and resources to the suicide issue. We’ve been doing it for three or four years. The situation is awful, but it would be worse if we hadn’t started on that early.

CONAN: John Nagl.

NAGL: I agree with General Davidson that we are starting to work on this problem. We have devoted resources to this problem of suicide, which is one of the costs of this all-volunteer forces. We’ve sent people back for four and five and six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the combat stress is cumulative. But a lot of those people we’ve assigned to work this problem are civilians.

They’re being furloughed as a result of the sequester. And a number of them, people I know, have lost their jobs as counselors to soldiers because of the sequester. And I’m going to say again, American citizens – Americans veterans are going to die because of the sequester, people who served their country in combat. Some survived physical wounds. Some survived emotional wounds. They are all real wounds. But they are – the resources required to keep them alive are being taken away by decisions made here in Washington.

CONAN: Rosemary Mariner, let me ask you. Sometimes civilians have the impression that leaders of the military give lip service to addressing issues like sexual assault, like suicide, but don’t actually do much about it.

MARINER: Well, I think they’re doing what they can right now without addressing what is perhaps the elephant in the living room, and that’s what people have done at these anti-guerrilla wars. Coin is the term we use today with counterinsurgency-type things. There is a new book out by a man named Sean Harissa(ph) that talks about what people have experienced in terms of post-traumatic stress and, of course, suicide.

Well, the title of the book is “We Weren’t Like This Before.” So I think we have to do a lot of introspection about what kinds of things people did overseas that led to some of these problems and perhaps more soul searching than anti-psychotic medications are called for.

CONAN: Retired Captain Rosemary Mariner, who’s with us member station WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s a lecturer in the history department at the University of Tennessee, scholar-in-residence, Center for the Study of War and Society. Retired General Mike Davidson is with us here in Studio 42, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard and John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel is with us also in Studio 42, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, currently teaching, at least for a little bit more, at the United States Naval Academy. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Katherine’s(ph) on the line calling us from Sacramento.


CONAN: Hi. You’re on the air. Go ahead, please.

KATHERINE: I just wanted to comment. When I joined – I’m a retired Marine – I joined in ’77 and retired in ’97, and in boot camp women Marines were not allowed to carry weapons. But when I went through boot camp in December of ’77, I was in the second (unintelligible) and was allowed to train with M16s and qualify. And from then on, they implemented them throughout the Marine Corps. Another thing people probably don’t know is that women Marines wear different uniforms than the male Marines. And now, it’s more uniform.

CONAN: And those – that might sound superficial, but it isn’t. It’s really important.

KATHERINE: It is. And if the United States want to save a lot of money, we’d all be in the same uniform, wouldn’t we?

CONAN: Well, then you get into purple suits. So that’s another issue. I’m not sure we’re seeing the change go that far.

KATHERINE: Right. I’m glad to see it in the media about sexual harassment in the military. That was rampant throughout my 20 years, and I’m glad to see that it’s being investigated and prosecuted and maybe go away.

CONAN: Rosemary Mariner, you have to have had some of those similar experiences.

MARINER: We could be here all day telling sea stories. But, no. This is – the Marine Corps is going to be probably the service we have to watch closely in the terms of integration into the infantry because it’s a very small service, less than 200,000 on the active side and just under 7 percent women. So this will be the biggest change for them. That being said, the Marines have a success – good – young, good success in other areas.

But we’re not talking harassment here that in the recent news stories. We’re talking criminal assaults. And that is really serious, criminal activity that falls along the same lines of other command accountability in issues such as criminal actions, atrocities, torture, drug abuse, those kinds of things that also came up during the Vietnam era. So I think a lot of civilian oversight both on the executive as well as the congressional side is called for here.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Katherine(ph).

KATHERINE: You bet. Thank you.

CONAN: Let’s see if we go next to – this Robert, and Robert on the line with us from Fort Bragg.

ROBERT: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

ROBERT: Army civil affairs, captain stationed down at Fort Bragg and I want to say thanks to retired Lieutenant Colonel Nagl. Read all his stuff growing up in Army. I’ve been in for about nine years now.

NAGL: I’d heard somebody read it. So thanks.


ROBERT: And I kind of wanted to – kind of wanted to highlight one of the articles that you had written in Atlantic Monthly a couple of years ago regarding promotion systems for officers. And I kind of see the relevance of that article certainly now as we go into sequestration, particularly for captains, the promotion rate and for lieutenants as well. The promotion rate is so low, lower than it’s been in, I believe, a decade that we’re starting to see a lot of people passed over for their promotions to captain or to major.

And one of the particular frustrations in the Army is combat arms officers, which you all know is infantry, field artillery, armor, civil affairs, PSYOPS and Special Forces because of the promotions, they’re all blocked together. So a captain, regardless of the branch in the Army, is promoted at the same level as infantry. So across the board, we’re seeing sequestration. It doesn’t matter what specialty you’re in in the military, within the Army, in particular. I kind of wanted to hear your points on that.

CONAN: And in the past, if you were past over, it’s opt or out.

NAGL: That’s exactly right. And, Robert, the book you’re talking about, it was actually – the first article in the book was written by Tim Kane, a friend of mine, Air Force Academy graduate. He published a trendy article into a book titled “Bleeding Talent,” which is just the problem you’re talking about.

CONAN: And we had them on this program to talk about it.

NAGL: And so the military recruits the best young people in America, the young men and women I’m teaching at the Naval Academy. It inspires them. It educates them with enormous resources from the American public. And then all too many of them leave the service dispirited by bureaucratic promotion systems by an inability to exercise their natural creativity and leadership. And we’ve got to do a better a job of keeping more of them in uniform.

James Kitfield wrote a wonderful book about the generation – General Davidson’s generation that stayed in after Vietnam and rebuilds the military that I’m proud to have been a part of a few years ago. That book is called “Prodigal Soldiers,” and we’re looking for some prodigal soldiers now. Tim Kane’s initial Atlantic Monthly article is title “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving.” I think our best officers are staying, and they’ve got their work cut out for them in this environment with all the problems we’re talking about, all the changes that Neal has talked about. But we need the best of America to remain in uniform to continue to keep the American military the best in the world.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the phone call.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: I’m afraid we’re going to leave it there. We could go on and talk all day. But that’s all the time we have. Captain Mariner, thank you very much.

MARINER: Thank you, and fair winds and following seas, Neal.

CONAN: Thank you very much. Rosemary Mariner, with us from Tennessee. Our thanks to John Nagl. Good luck at the – at Haverford. And he joined us here in Studio 42. Mike Davidson, as always, it’s been a lot times over the years. Thank you very much for joining us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you for all you’ve done for the country for our Army over the last 12 or 13 years, Neal.


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