Are our officers “Centurions?” Tactically proficient but strategically inept?

Roman Pic 14

Over the holiday break, I read two articles anchored to the Roman era to explain current issues with the modern military.

At Small Wars Journal, John Bolton writes in the Price of Professionalism that our All-Volunteer Force dangers the American republic through separating the soldier and the citizen.

Bolton writes:

“The AVF, by disconnecting the military from society, enabled a generation of American militarism, highlighted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since the AVF, American foreign policy has become overly militarized and simultaneously devoid of public consideration. These two factors are cancerous to the functioning of the American Republic. The AVF created a military unimaginable by the Founders and unfamiliar to its people.”

In the Autumn 2015 issue of Parameters, Jason Warren compares the (successful) modern Army officer to the Roman Centurion – a tactically proficient leader of a roughly company-sized group of soldiers. That is, our officer career path selects and promotes those officers who demonstrate tactical proficiency at the company level, without ever really developing or selecting those who show promise for strategic thinking.

The “centurion” model is one that is very easy to see inside of a Brigade-sized element, but once outside of the Brigade, it is precisely those officers who performed well at the tactical level who move on to strategic positions, often without the advanced education one would expect would be necessary to perform in those roles.

Warren writes:

Army promotion soon became linked to the command of standing units, the vast majority of which operated below the strategic level. This linkage contributes to the development of an astrategic officer corps, in which some officers may disbelieve military leaders have a role in formulating military strategy. 

And…

The tactical dominion eventually became king of the realm for post-Korean War promotion, which the training revolution elevated to the throne. Summer 2004 in Iraq found Casey upon a tide of sinking strategy and he believed the war was lost before Petraeus temporarily righted the ship. Petraeus’ surge of forces was but a current of success upon an ocean of failure. Petraeus’ preference for well-educated subordinates and officer broadening soon receded with his departure to the CIA, in an Army culture hostile to non-tactical endeavors.

Both articles are worth reading in their entirety. Bolton’s article tackles a much larger issue and weaves around, while Warren’s article is much more focused on the promotion of “centurion”-like Army officers.

As an aside, I still find it odd and a little off-putting that we still lionize all things antiquity. Given our unhealthy obsession with Spartans which I think is now giving way to the Vikings, I would bet many officers nod approvingly at being associated with centurions, even though the purpose of the article was to point out how ultimately limiting that is.

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