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12 Stupid Mistakes The U.S. Military Is Making

The Army needs a major restructuring, but let's start by printing fewer handouts.

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The U.S. military is a lumbering $1 trillion-a-year operation. Prescriptions about how to fix it are equally bloated and grand. It’s not that the ideas aren’t good. There’s a smart plan to restructure the Army into combat and occupation forces, for example. But when veterans like me read about them, we tend to roll our eyes.

We know that in our fighting institutions, tradition is king. Defense contractors are lobbying hard for their jobs. As long as there’s no major war and plenty of cash, most people would rather go with the placid flow than consider, let alone implement, the complicated and painful changes such a transformation would require.

But the main reason vets scoff at philosophical, abstract criticism of the military is that there’s so little scrutiny of the mundane details: personnel, weapons, health care, training, and technology. And the public would be shocked by the ineptitude therein.

I was shocked during my four and a half years as an active duty officer. I spent three of them in the 82nd Airborne Division, and I deployed to Afghanistan during that time. The remainder was spent as a commander of a medical logistics company detachment. I came away with these 12 (and many more) concrete, relatively painless improvements that could be made to the military. My experience is limited — these ideas mostly apply to to the battalion level on down. But I have no doubt that larger units could find other simple fixes — honest, levelheaded, practical. Let’s start there.

End fiscal year spending deadlines.

Right now, Army units go on a spending spree each September because companies are told that if they don’t spend everything they have, they’ll get less the following year: The military will assume we don’t need as much. So we spent the money on items like glossy oak tables and leather chairs for conference rooms, multiple flatscreen televisions, cable TV, and humongous barbecue grills. Shouldn’t units be rewarded for meeting their budget by letting the funds roll over instead? There should be a cap on how much a unit can have on hand, but the rollover fund would prevent the weeks-long funding gap in October, where we’re so broke we can’t buy printer ink because we’ve maxed out our year’s budget but haven’t yet gotten next year’s.

Turn Off Fox News and MSNBC.

Many men and women in combat uniforms receive their news solely from partisan cable news, and in particular Fox News, which plays on TVs across Fort Bragg, including the gyms, dining facilities, and work areas. Do impressionable 18-year-olds need to be fed heavily slanted accounts — if not outright lies — about global and domestic events, not to mention their commander in chief? If the Army thinks a TV is necessary in a building, they should aim to play nonpartisan sources, such as CNN, ESPN, C-SPAN, etc.

Update the workouts.

The military places way too much emphasis on muscular endurance. The Army Physical Fitness Test tests for push-ups and sit-ups, how many we can correctly perform within two minutes. How, exactly, does that translate to our combat mission? Do I want a guy beside me who can do 80 push-ups in two minutes, or a guy who can drag me out of an overturned vehicle with relative ease? At my post, the gyms were overcrowded, and most soldiers were too tired or busy from the unnecessary aerobic training to build enough strength to bench their own body weight in their free time. The same principle goes for the two-mile fitness test. It may be a decent measure of our health, but it translates poorly in combat. I want soldiers who can sprint with equipment if they come under fire. Guys and gals who can jump over low walls. I was always in the top three for fitness test scores in every unit I’ve been in, but when I came under fire in Afghanistan and had to sprint from boulder to boulder for cover, I struggled to catch my breath.

Stop pretending good PR will win wars.

In Afghanistan one day, my medical platoon treated 11 Afghans who, from what I remember, were in a bus that collided with another nonmilitary vehicle. Their injuries were gruesome: legs bent at awkward angles, blood everywhere, extremities hanging by tendons, etc. My physician and medics did the best they could, and coordinated with the nearby national police for them to take the injured people to the nearest Afghan hospital. Then my commander told us to stand back and out of the way while people took pictures of the police loading the bodies on the back of their vehicle.

The idea was to publish a good news story about how the local police were taking care of people so the population would trust them. But that’s stupid. The police were incapable of even the most basic first aid. They were underfunded and undertrained, and by spreading a lie we set both the Afghan government and ourselves up for failure. The pictures said the Afghans were self-sufficient, which implies they no longer need American help, which encourages their leaders to ask for our removal, and our leaders to happily agree and claim victory. Lying about the situation so the commander would have something to beam about at the next meeting was shortsighted and wrong.

Hold Congress accountable for the military budget.

How much of what Congress buys us did we actually request? In the Army, the clearest example is the Ohio-made Abrams tank. Over the past few years, Ohio lawmakers devoted hundreds of millions dollars of the defense budget to build more of them. But since 2012, the chief of staff has said repeatedly he does not want or need more tanks. For the fiscal year 2015 budget, there is another $120 million earmarked for tanks. I was responsible for 48 pieces of rolling stock (hummers, medium tactical vehicles, generators). We never used more than five in any given week, which is probably why the military gives armored vehicles away. I know the lawmakers are looking out for their constituents’ jobs, but they’re propping up an artificial job economy that will hurt their state in the long run. That’s $120 million not spent on mental health care for Ohio’s veterans, for example.

Put someone in charge of our energy consumption.

The military assigns noncommissioned officers to attend to a number of noncombat tasks: protecting soldiers’ hearing, measuring their height and weight, enforcing equal opportunity and preventing sexual assault and harassment. But there’s nobody keeping tabs on energy conservation at the battalion level. This person could enforce the basics, like make sure screen monitors are turned off at the end of each day (something I never saw anyone do), and get a handle on our temperature control. I commanded one of the largest buildings run by a company-level unit at Fort Bragg — a massive warehouse. And in the summer it was cooled below 60 degrees. Everybody used heaters in their offices and opened all the windows to let in the North Carolina heat. Perks should be awarded for the battalions and brigades that save the most money, but energy efficiency is about more than bills. Downrange, conserving water or electricity means fewer convoys across dangerous terrain for supplies.

Enough with the formations.

You know in Army movies when the camera pans away from the general giving a speech over the thousands of soldiers lined up listening to him? Those still happen, but the bodies aren’t CGI renderings. Take All-American Week at Fort Bragg. The festivities include football, softball, and what’s called a formation. Every available paratrooper, lined up in a neat block, affixing bayonets we never use, standing in a line for four to six hours to listen to a few speeches (plus four to six hours in the two days prior, to rehearse standing in a line), in the heat of May in North Carolina. Dozens faint from dehydration or locked knees; the rest complain. Similar formations are held on a smaller scale when a battalion commander changes command. The tradition harkens back to the days when commanders stood in front of their units to see the men and let the men see the commanders, but in practice nobody from the third row back can see anything. That’s thousands of man-hours squandered on a speech that’s neither seen nor heard by 90 percent of people.

Make alcohol more expensive.

Consumer goods are sold tax-free on base, which makes a big difference when it comes to alcohol. It’s everywhere, and it’s cheaper than going to bars. The National Institutes of Health cite the availability of alcohol as one of the reasons the rate of heavy drinking among men in the Department of Defense is almost twice that of civilian men of the same age. Every week the primary concern of every commander, including me, was drunk driving. The 82nd Airborne actually incentivizes not dying: 82 days without a death equals a day off.

The Army’s heavy drinking culture plays into one of its greatest failures: its sexual assault epidemic. In addition to the problems caused by chain-of-command reporting (wherein victims' bosses are involved in their sexual assault investigations), military men and women have pointed to alcohol’s role in incapacitating victims and fueling sexual aggression.

Making alcohol more expensive would cut down on DUIs and drinking-related accidents and injuries. Encouraging soldiers to drink off base would have the added benefit of keeping their drinking in public, where bartenders and bystanders can intervene on overdrinking and assault.

Stop telling us to read A Message to Garcia.

The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the highest-ranking military officer in the country) offers a recommended reading list that includes several excellent, informative, insightful pieces of literature. A Message to Garcia, by Elbert Hubbard, isn’t one of them. According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the 1899 essay, based on the true story of Lt. Andrew Rowan, “provides commonsense advice on the importance of personal responsibility, loyalty, hard work, and enterprise.” It’s so popular, some officers require junior officers to write an essay about its virtues as punishment.

The story goes like this: The president needed to get a letter to a Cuban general. The letter was given to Lt. Rowan, who, without asking any questions whatsoever, dutifully went to Cuba and delivered the letter within three weeks’ time. Rowan is supposed to be the ideal worker. Asking questions, the author explains, is a display of the “incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of will.”

The essay is antithetical to everything every leader I’ve met actually wants in their soldiers. I strongly prefer those soldiers who are engaged enough to ask questions, making their task more efficient. Soldiers who know better than to reinvent the wheel with every order. You can bet that if the soldier does earnestly attempt a given task without asking questions and does a poor job of meeting the vague intent of the person who issued the order, they will be chastised.

Go digital.

Working in the Army sometimes feels like going back in time. Take counselings. These one-on-one meetings are a major part of military life, and our primary means of evaluating behavior — physical performance, command presence, punctuality. And we’re still doing these meetings the same way we have for decades: The leader types up the summary of what the soldier did well, as well as areas where the soldier may need to improve, and prints it. They go over the counseling with the subordinate, side-by-side, and then they both sign it. The counseling goes into the soldier’s folder. The folder goes in the leader’s desk. There’s no easy way to track who has and has not been counseled. To access their files, soldiers have to request a physical folder from their supervisor. Paperwork goes missing when new leaders take over.

And nothing is searchable. This is particularly irritating when it comes to CONOPS, or the PowerPoint outlines of missions and training plans that officers and staff are routinely required to create from scratch, print out, and put in a folder — even though dozens of other officers have made these plans before them. A searchable repository of previously approved plans would save thousands of hours spent reinventing the wheel each year.

On a related note: Stop printing handouts.

It’s hard to convey the scale of the waste of paper I saw in the Army. We print all 70 PowerPoint slides for every meeting, in color, though only a handful of them apply to our sections/companies. We print one slide per page. I know many people refuse to review documents or slides digitally. I’d conservatively estimate a company runs through two reams, or 1,000 sheets a week. There are four companies per battalion, plus HQ. My back-of-the-envelope math says each battalion uses well over 200,000 sheets a year, or more than 250 pages per soldier. There are about a half a million active duty soldiers. It’s not a C-130, but it’s maddeningly absurd and it falls under falls under fraud, waste, and abuse of government resources.

Lay off our mustaches.

This probably seems like a silly point to civilians reading this, but bear with me. By Army regulation, soldiers are technically allowed to grow mustaches. In practice, though, it’s frowned upon, and many units make soldiers shave it off. Why? Tradition. It has no bearing on war-fighting capability, or discipline, or health. For many, this isn’t a major point of contention. But during No Shave November, allow the guys to sprout some facial hair above their upper lip. It may sound weird, but few things raise morale, esprit de corps, and camaraderie like growing a ridiculous, hideous mustache with your buddies. I can’t speak for women and people of color. But if I can’t even grow a mustache, I can hardly imagine the arbitrary and demoralizing grooming restrictions they face.

David is from Odessa, MO. He graduated from Truman State University, and then served 4.5 years on active duty as an officer at Fort Bragg, NC. He will be attending Harvard's Graduate School of Education this fall.

Contact David Atkinson at daa780@gmail.com.

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