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.
Why does the American military produce the most innovative and entrepreneurial leaders in the country, then waste that talent in a risk-averse bureaucracy? Military leaders know they face a paradox. A widely circulated 2010 report from the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College said: “Since the late 1980s … prospects for the Officer Corps’ future have been darkened by … plummeting company-grade officer retention rates. Significantly, this leakage includes a large share of high-performing officers.” Similar alarms have been sounded for decades, starting long before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made the exit rate of good officers an acute crisis. When General Peter Schoomaker served as Army chief of staff from 2003 to 2007, he emphasized a “culture of innovation” up and down the ranks to shift the Army away from its Cold War focus on big, conventional battles and toward new threats. In many respects (weapons, tactics, logistics, training), the Army did transform. But the talent crisis persisted for a simple reason: the problem isn’t cultural. The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy.