Removing the Barnacles

Several weeks ago I graduated from infantry school and at it a Sergeant (actually a Sergeant First Class or SFC) Black mentioned an ancient quote:

“Of ever hundred men ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are doughty fighters and we’re lucky to have them for they make the battle, but one is the warrior who brings the others home.”

Not the first time I’d heard the quote, but it’s one of my favorites, and something which really impressed me about the school was that it did not fall into a trap I see all the time especially in the Army. All too often great efforts go into retaining and propping up marginal performers while actually punishing the talented or hard working to try to extract yet more productivity. This infantry school had nicknamed itself the ‘Catch and Release program’ because of a high rate of failures, and I see that as a good thing since outside of initial processing the Army does far too little to weed out people who will never be of any use. It’s funny how often when I explain military problems like this people see instant parallels with normal workplaces which the military is 90% of the time, even in a line unit.

From the standpoint of pure bean counting this makes sense since tens of thousands of dollars get spent on recruits even before they finish basic training (let alone the training needed for their jobs and all the on the job mentoring needed in their permanent units after they arrive), but trying to keep everyone (at the cost of standards official and unofficial) has two strongly negative consequences:

  • first it saddles the final units with useless people as distractions and potential liabilities, and unfortunately (especially in the case of the US Army) no real distinction is made between people regardless of their relative productiveness. The task given is to retain as many people as possible.
  • Second it reduces moral since if anyone can pass training then it is no accomplishment (pretty much the same applies for educational achievements which lose more of their luster every year) or mark of distinction. People feel justifiable pride in rising to the occasion, but more and more I’ve seen training softened to accommodate people unable to keep up or replaces entirely with endless pointless briefings (which take precedence over everything else) mainly on staying politically correct.

Back at the turn of our current century when Eric Shinseki spearheaded giving berets to all soldiers (where before they marked elite units) he specifically sighted the higher moral and (tellingly) retention rates for units which had them claiming the whole army would catch up if given the special piece of uniform. The move was as shortsighted and pointless as any grade-school’s everyone gets a trophy day.

A funny thing about that quote is how after WWII the British did a study on their soldiers and found that only about 25% who fired their weapons actually fired at the enemy (with a whopping 75% just sort of playing along while discharging their weapons and wasting almost all the ammo they fired) and only about 2% shot to kill. Half those men were psychopaths free of normal constraints, but the other half were the truly heroic types. The one out of every hundred seems to have stayed constant, but maybe firearms increased the ability of people to really contribute to the action below that level (or any number of other possible explanations). Below is a video with more details and analysis on the figures:

Post Script: I don’t really believe the figure of 95% those numbers probably got skewed somehow, but I can speak from experience that reflex fire does a lot of good and the US military even does most distance shooting at man-shaped silhouette with the added stress of only getting a few seconds to engage.

I firmly believe that actually making training something to take pride in would help retention, and the vast majority of people (read the people worth keeping) respond positively to challenges, and even small increases to sign up bonuses would bring in more than enough potentially talented people to make up for the dead weight the military needs to shed. There is an extra piece of danger from trying to hold onto every single person, that a great many extremists simply get overlooked by the military even after discovery. There should be no hesitation in tossing out people who show sectarian views, but ambivalence to hard work goes hand in hand with moral relativism.