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The Worst Duty Assignments for Every Branch of the Military

worst military assignments

Every branch of the service has that place their soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines just dream of getting orders for.

That place could be anywhere that might appeal to an individual… maybe they love the cultural experience of being in Europe, or they enjoy the sun in Hawaii, or maybe they’re just away from their hometown.

These aren’t those places.

Army: Fort Polk, Louisiana

Ever hear of Leesville, Lousiana? No? Good for you. Living in a swamp is not something anyone grew up dreaming about. The nearest towns are at least an hour away, and the nearest fun is in New Orleans, a long drive away.

"Orders to Fort Polk" Meme: Will Smith, "pls help"

Sure, the PX is supposedly great thanks to a facelift, but it had better be: There’s nothing else to do. Fort Polk will supposedly ruin your car, ruin your marriage, and make you hate biting lizards.

Navy: NAS Lemoore

Hey, how does being cast out into one of the most polluted cities on the planet sound? Because NAS Lemoore is a great place to get asthma.

Naval Air Station Lemoore

To make matters worse,  the Navy thinks it’s just an image problem . Yes, the place routinely referred to by the residents as an “armpit” does have an image problem.

Air Force: Cannon AFB, New Mexico

Most people who haven’t been to Clovis will argue that I spelled “Minot” wrong. I argue that any place referred to as “Afcannonstan” is probably far worse.

New dorms open at Cannon Air Force Base (U.S. Air Force graphic/Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi)

Both places are pretty remote, and while Minot has a seemingly endless winter, the people of Clovis are annually subjected to a wave of giant insects. Also, the stink of cow dung doesn’t travel as far in the cold. Cannon’s airmen would tell you to be happy it’s so cold.

Marine Corps: Twentynine Palms, California

All of the duty stations on this list have one thing in common: They’re pretty far from real American life. Twentynine Palms is no different. These guys are smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Welcome to the City of Twentynine Palms (Photo: Glenn Francis/Pacific Pro Digital)

So, Marines can prep for sandstorms in the Middle East with sandstorms right here at home. And remember, when airmen complain about the smell of cow manure in the desert, Marines can complain about the lake of sewage.

Coast Guard: You tell me.

The Coast Guard talks about its districts like it’s in the world of  The Hunger Games.  Everyone seems to love district 13. In fact, as much flak as the Coast Guard gets for being the awkward child of the military, the Coast Guard doesn’t seem to have a “worst” station among them.

Coast Guard

I’m told the station at Venice, Louisiana can be pretty bad and that the CG will let you choose your follow on orders for doing a tour there. But no one ever seems to talk Twentynine Palms-level smack about any station.

Blake Stilwell is a traveler, writer, and adventurer with degrees in design, television & film, and international relations. He is a veteran US Air Force Combat Photojournalist who has worked for ABC News, NBC, and HBO. Blake is based in Hollywood, but often found elsewhere.


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These 5 Military Bases Are So Bad, They Should Count As A Deployment

By Brad Howard

Posted on Jun 5, 2018 7:48 PM EDT

3 minute read

Sometimes you end up drawing the short straw when it comes to military assignment locations. Perhaps you parked in the admin NCO’s parking spot. Maybe your quirky office prank on the executive officer went horribly wrong. But whatever the reason, you are going to be PCSing to one of these horrible hotspots, which are all so bad you’ll wish you were in Kuwait. 

The icy nuclear north

The U.S.’s northern fortress of military strategic solitude, Minot Air Force Base , has long been a prime destination for career-ending mishaps. From misplaced nuclear weapons to security forces losing grenades, this snowy wonderland has “suck” tattooed on its forehead.

worst military assignments

The 5th Civil Engineer Squadron removes snow from the flightline before a training sortie at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Jan. 14, 2016.U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class J.T. Armstrong

The military bayou blues

Lovely Fort Polk in blazing hot Louisiana is about as inviting as the mujahideen, unless you’re a tropical disease virus. The fort’s Southern gothic landscape matches its history as a prison. At one point it was home for German POWs during World War II . And just like those Germans learned, once you are in, there is no point in trying to escape.

Where the Corps gets crusty

Twentynine Palms, California , sounds like a nice place to take a cheap family vacation. In reality, it is where Marines go to learn to hate the Corps. From sweltering hot weather to a distinct lack of nightlife, it almost makes you forget that there are literal lakes of human waste in this godforsaken hellhole.

worst military assignments

U.S. Marines with Combined Anti-Armor Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division practice ground fighting techniques during a deployment for training exercise at Twentynine Palms, CA., Feb. 22, 2018U.S. Marine Crops photo by Cpl. Melanye Martinez

A chilly northern hellhole hated by all

Welcome to Fort Drum . You will learn to hate this slice of northeastern sensibility located in the mystical hills of Jefferson, New York. As cold as Minot, but without the nukes; perhaps this place could use a little radiation.

Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains

If you drive to the middle of nowhere, then keep driving a little farther, you’ll hit Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, considered by many airmen to be one of the least desired military bases in the nation’s vast expanse. Upon landing, assuming you dodged the tornado, you can find exactly one Applebee’s to toss your 51-dollar per diem at. Altus started out as a scrapyard for World War II aircraft. But now it’s just a scrapyard for your hopes and dreams of being stationed in California.

worst military assignments

U.S. Air Force contracting Airmen search for potential improvised explosive devices June 3, 2015. This is the second year Altus Air Force Base and Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, contracting offices have teamed up to participate in a deployment exercise.U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kirby Turbak

After much consideration, these are the five bases that should count as a deployment if they manage to survive the next round of base closures. But until that day of reckoning comes, feel free to bribe whoever is in charge of selecting assignments to avoid these locales — and avoid hating the duration of your contract.

worst military assignments

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WATCH: The 5 worst Army duty stations

By Jessica Evans

Updated on Jul 8, 2022 9:26 AM PDT

4 minute read

Experiences on Army bases can fluctuate. Not only does it depend on what kind of attitude you have going in, but we all know command climates can make or break a post. That said, there are some installations that are just the worst. And these five are often cited as just that. So, sorry if a PCS to one of these posts is on your horizon this summer, but hopefully, you’re a seasoned enough service member or spouse to know that blooming where you’re planted is half of the challenge of any military move.

This video walks you through the five worst installations that might be a part of your upcoming PCS.

Don’t have time to watch the video? Here are the highlights!

1. Fort Bragg

If you love property crime and sketchy bars, you might love Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina ! Ft. Bragg is right in the middle of town, making it confusing to enter and exit. It is also not a fun area in terms of recreational activities or nightlife. Bragg has some interesting aspects to it. There’s a decent collection of museums like the 82 nd Airborne Museum and War Memorial . Fayetteville has a neat Airborne and Special Ops Museum too that’s worth the drive. But generally speaking, an assignment to Bragg is one of those chapters of a military life that’s best dealt with by grinning and bearing it.

2. Fort Bliss

Vehicle theft and ungodly heat make Fort Bliss in Texas a real treat! El Paso is known for high crime rates, partly thanks to the fact that it’s a border city with Mexico. Things like vehicle theft are all too common, so make sure you don’t leave any gear in your car.

There’s a decent zoo and a fun scenic drive. But those entertainment experiences probably won’t hold up to a two-year assignment. And not to scare you, but right across the border in Mexico is Juarez. You might know it as the the fifth-highest murder rate in the world per capita.

All in all, these factors don’t create a great vibe for Fort Bliss. Making it even less appealing, the sandstorms in the area make matters even worse. At least the installation tries to make up for it by having the largest Exchange in the Army right on post. Not sure if that’s much of a consolation but it’s at least something.

3. Fort Drum

Fort Drum in the state of New York has a bad reputation for freezing weather with a lot of snow. So, if you’re a fan of cold weather and you have a solid supply of cold-weather gear, you’re probably going to love being at Drum .

BLUF – winter temps can reach as low as -30F. No, that’s not a typo.

And, since it’s the land of snow and ice, it makes sense that Drum is the home of the 10 th Mountain Division. But if you’re like the rest of us, the idea of being cold is not at all appealing. Making it even more frustrating is there isn’t much to do on post, so you’ll have to head out to Canada or explore Niagara Falls for some R&R. The unfortunate thing is the heavy snow can easily get in the way of doing much of anything. Womp, womp!

4. Fort Irwin

If you like being in the middle of nowhere, then Fort Irwin is the place for you. Fort Irwin is in the middle of the Mohave Desert in California. Don’t expect much in terms of things to do around the installation. In fact, the nearest town is Barstow , which is 27 miles away. With even a little bit of traffic, it takes around 45 minutes just to get off post and do something fun. A lot of soldiers stationed at Fort Irwin don’t like it because one of their primary duties is supporting NTC rotations . And everyone knows that life at NTC is fun for about 10 seconds. Making it even grosser is the incessant desert heat and the elevation. Temps can reach over 100F and the elevation is nearly 750 meters, making this a difficult assignment all around.

5. Fort Polk

Like Fort Irwin, Fort Polk is in the middle of nowhere, Louisiana. It’s located in Vernon Parish about 10 miles east of Leesville. Don’t worry if you’re never heard of Leesville – most of the country hasn’t, either. This Joint Readiness Training Center offers a ton of JROTC training, so don’t be surprised if you see some youth roving around the installation. The location in humid Louisiana also means there are a lot of bugs and mosquitoes, so get your bug spray ready. Soldiers who have experienced Fort Polk first-hand have compared it to a prison. This makes sense because, during World War II, it was used as a POW camp. Polk is on the list of installations to be renamed in the coming years but even a name change isn’t going to change the experience.

Okay, so none of these installations are very exciting. But just like everywhere else that the military plants you, a lot of what a duty assignment is making the best of where you are. So don’t despair if you’re looking down a few years in the land of snow or ice or if you’re heading out to Irwin. Lean on your local community, find your friends and spouses, and you’ll make the most of it.

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Commanders of Chaos: The 5 Worst Generals in U.S. History

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These American commanders have lost the battle for history.

It would be nice if all American generals were great. How might Vietnam or Iraq have turned out if a George Washington, a Ulysses Grant or a George Patton had been in command?

Alas, call it the laws of probability or just cosmic karma, but every nation produces bad generals as well as good ones—and America is no exception.

What is a bad general? Defining that is like defining a bad meal. Some would say that failure on the battlefield warrants censure. Others would say that it is not victory, but success in fulfilling a mission that counts.

But for whatever reason, some American commanders have lost the battle for history. Here are five of America's worst generals:

Horatio Gates:

Great generals have great talents, and usually egos and ambitions to match. Yet backstabbing your commander-in-chief in the middle of a war is taking ambition a little too far. A former British officer, Gates rose to fame as Continental Army commander during the momentous American defeat of a British army at Saratoga in 1777 .

Many historians credit Benedict Arnold and others with being the real victors of Saratoga. Gates thought otherwise, and fancied himself a better commander than George Washington. It's not the first time that someone thought he was smarter than his boss. But Gates could have doomed the American Revolution.

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During the darkest days of the rebellion, when Washington's army had been kicked out of New York and King George's star seemed ascendant, the " Conway cabal " of disgruntled officers and politicians unsuccessfully schemed to out Washington and appoint Gates.

How well that would have worked can be seen when Gates was sent to command American troops in the South. His poor tactical decisions resulted in his army being routed by a smaller force of Redcoats and Loyalists at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780 .

Washington also suffered his share of defeats. But his persistence and inspiration kept the Continental Army in the field through the worst of times, which is why his face is on the one-dollar bill. If Gates had been in command, we might be paying for our groceries with shillings and pence.

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George McClellan:

The American Civil War was a factory for producing bad generals such as Braxton Bragg and Ambrose Burnside.

But the worst of all was McClellan , the so-called "Young Napoleon" from whom Lincoln and the Union expected great things. McClellan was a superb organizer, a West Point-trained engineer who did much to build the Union army almost from scratch.

But he was overly cautious by nature. Despite Lincoln's pleas for aggressive action, his Army of the Potomac moved hesitantly, its commander McClellan convinced himself that the Southern armies vastly outnumbered him when logic should have told him that it was the North that enjoyed an abundance of resources.

Men and material the Union could provide its armies. But there was something that not even the factories of New York and Chicago could produce, and that was time. As Lincoln well knew, the only way the Union could lose the war was if the North eventually grew tired and agreed to allow the South to secede. Haste risked casualties and defeats at the hands of a formidable opponent like Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The alternative was to split the United States asunder.

Ulysses S. Grant, who replaced McClellan, understood this. He gritted his teeth and wore down the Confederacy with incessant attacks until the South could take no more. McClellan was a proto-Douglas MacArthur who bad-mouthed his president and commander-in-chief. Grant left politics to the politicians and did what had to be done.

Had Lincoln retained McClellan in command of the Union armies, many former Americans might still be whistling "Dixie."

Lloyd Fredendall:

When the Germans shattered his troops and his reputation at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in early 1943 , Fredendall was only a major general and a corps commander . If there was a saving grace for America, it was that he wasn't commanding an army.

Not that Fredendall didn't have real issues that would have tried any commander. Woefully inexperienced U.S. soldiers found themselves against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps veterans. The Americans lacked sufficient troops, supplies and air cover (when was the last time an American general had to fight a battle while being pounded by enemy bombers?)

Yet Fredendall's solution was to order an Army engineer company to build a giant bunker a hundred miles from the front lines. He also issued orders to his troops in a personal code that no one else understood, such as this gem of command clarity:

Move your command, i. e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker's outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker's outfit and the big fellows to M, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with J at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M.

The Kasserine disaster had repercussions. It was a humiliating baptism of fire for the U.S. Army in Europe, and more important, caused British commanders to dismiss their Yank allies as amateur soldiers for the rest of the war.

Douglas MacArthur:

Listing MacArthur as one of America's worst generals will be controversial . But then MacArthur thrived on controversy like bread thrives on yeast.

He was indeed a capable warrior, as shown by the South Pacific campaign and the Inchon landing in Korea. But he also displayed remarkably bad judgment, as when he was commander in the Philippines in 1941. Informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and were certain to attack the Philippines next, MacArthur failed to disperse his aircraft—the only force that could disrupt the Japanese offensive in the absence of the American fleet—and to attack Japanese airfields before the enemy wiped out his air force.

But his crowning achievement was bad generalship in Korea. Yes, the landing at Inchon unhinged the initial North Korean offensive. But the rash advance into North Korea was a blunder of strategic proportions. Advancing in dispersed columns across the northern half of the peninsula was an invitation to be destroyed piecemeal. Advancing to the North Korean border with China also was a red flag for Mao-Tse Tung, who feared that American troops on his border were a prelude to U.S. invasion.

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Perhaps Mao would have intervened anyway. But MacArthur's strategy certainly helped unleash 300,000 Chinese "volunteers" who inflicted significant casualties on United Nations forces . Instead of holding a natural defense line around Pyongyang, which would have given the United Nations control of most of the peninsula, the UN troops retreated all the way back into South Korea in a humiliating reverse for U.S. power after the crushing victory of World War II.

Finally, there was MacArthur's insubordination. He called for bombing China, as if liberating Korea was worth risking 550 million Chinese and possibly war with Russia as well. Whatever its military wisdom or lack thereof, it was a decision that should not have been made by generals under the American political system. When he made public his disagreements with President Truman, Truman rightfully fired him.

Tommy Franks:

The early days of the 2003 Iraq War were bound to be a graveyard for military and political reputations, given the misperceptions and misjudgments behind America's ill-fated adventure in regime change and nation-building. But Franks, who commanded the invasion, made a bad situation worse .

Critics say that Franks and senior officials, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, concocted an invasion plan that used too few troops . It wouldn't take a large force to slice through the ramshackle Iraqi army and topple Saddam Hussein, but securing a country the size of Iraq required a larger force.

And what then? There appeared to be little serious planning for what would happen the day after Saddam was gone. Like it or not, the U.S. military would become the governing authority. If it couldn't or wouldn't govern the country, who would? America, the Middle East and the rest of the world are still reaping the consequences of those omissions.

Finally, when it comes to bad generals, let us remember Truman's immortal words about firing MacArthur:

I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for War Is Boring . Follow him on Twitter: @Mipeck1 .

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The Uncertain Future of the U.S. Military’s All-Volunteer Force

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of United States’ all-volunteer military force. It also coincides with one of the worst recruiting years for the U.S. military since 1973. The army missed its 2022 recruiting goal by fifteen thousand soldiers, and the army, air force, and navy all expect to miss their goals in 2023. The shortage is blamed on a confluence of domestic issues: a competitive job market, lack of in-person recruiting during the pandemic, and a population of young adults who are less informed, less interested, and less qualified for military service. The lack of qualified recruits has received a lot of attention, but the fact that our young population does not see the value of military service should also ignite great concern.

Army of Some: Recruiting Trouble for the All-Volunteer Force

All current U.S. military personnel have one thing in common: they volunteered. But falling recruitment has raised questions of national security, military readiness, and the health of U.S. society. Can the all-volunteer force handle a changing international security landscape?

The Global War on Terror (GWOT) hurt the military’s brand and reputation, not just because some Americans did not support the wars, but because of the cost paid by service members who were repeatedly deployed to combat zones. The all-volunteer force has been called one of the United States’ greatest success stories, but it was not used as designed during GWOT, and today it is inadequate to meet current personnel needs. It is time to address the shortfalls of the all-volunteer force with a renewed Gates Commission , before the United States’ next long war.

Transition to an All-Volunteer Force

In 1973, the United States transitioned from a conscription-based military to an all-volunteer force after a comprehensive review by the presidentially directed  Gates Commission . While there were calls to abandon the Selective Service system (the federal agency charged with matters concerning the draft), the commission recommended keeping it in case of a major conflict that would require the reinstatement of the draft. The new military structure was built to support a long war by utilizing a draft so that the active-duty volunteers could spend two years at home for every year in a combat zone (a “1:2 dwell time”) and the National Guard and Reserves could be home six years for every year mobilized (a “1:6 dwell time”). The dwell goal for the Guard and Reserves has since changed to a 1:4 dwell time, but this system established the Guard and Reserve Components as a temporary stopgap to relieve active-duty forces until the president and Congress reinstate a draft.

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Despite the length of the wars and substantial number of troops deployed, the Selective Service system was never activated for the GWOT. In 2002, the active-duty army was able to deploy 105,000 soldiers at a 1:1 dwell time and 70,000 soldiers at 1:2 dwell time. The army deployed soldiers at higher rates than could be sustained and operated at close to a 1:1 dwell until 2009. Additionally, the reserve component , which was designed to be a stopgap, operated at just over a 1:2 dwell time. By 2010, more than two million service members had deployed, with 43 percent serving multiple deployments. The impact of repeated deployments on the health of service members is well documented.

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The workforce shortage drove the services, particularly the army, to extreme measures. The army implemented a stop-loss policy from 2001 until 2010. This policy was involuntary servitude and prevented troops from leaving the service despite having completed their voluntary commitment and often having completed at least one combat tour.  The army also recalled thousands of separated soldiers back to active duty. It implemented internal personnel management policies shifting soldiers from units that returned from deployment to units preparing to leave, substituting a desired specialty for one that could or could not fit the unit mission, and pulling soldiers from training or force generation capabilities. Soldiers stationed in Korea and Europe were moved to units in the United States as those units prepared for combat tours. The army grew its end strength—the number of troops authorized by Congress—by more than 70,000 to a total of 561,979 soldiers, and increased deployment lengths to fifteen months. The Department of Defense surged contractors and civilians into war zones at unprecedented numbers in roles previously requiring legal combatants status, and shared traditional army missions, such as convoy operations and base defense, across the air force and navy. Despite the many manpower challenges and the toll of multiple deployments, moving back to a draft was never on the table.

The Draft Under Consideration

On December 31, 2002, a year after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the opinion page of the New York Times read, “Bring Back the Draft.” Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), who voted against the Iraq War, warned that an all-volunteer force would lead to adventurism and thought a renewed draft would help citizens appreciate the cost of war. By 2004, despite sending 130,000 soldiers into Iraq during the invasion, any debate about enacting a draft was over. The House of Representatives held a vote to implement the draft, primarily to draw criticism to the Iraq War during an election year. The bill was summarily rejected by a vote of 402 to 2. Also, despite the large manpower shortages, the Defense Department wanted no part of a draft, preferring to grow its end strength and create more professional soldiers rather than train, deploy, and motivate draftees. The result was a small percentage of American citizens who sacrificed more than their fair share, an increase in the civil-military divide, and a future in which the activation of a draft is extremely unlikely.

A New Gates Commission

Congress has grappled with the future of the draft for years. In 2020, a national commission studied the Selective Service system and recommended keeping the draft and highlighted the need for “institutionalized exercises of national mobilization processes” and more public engagement to ensure awareness of the system. But a public awareness campaign is a tiny step to solve the growing civil-military divide, the unfair policies used to retain manpower during the GWOT, and general apathy that most Americans hold toward serving their country in the military. Moreover, the National Guard and Reserves, which were designed as a stopgap, have evolved into operational forces with missions critical to any war mobilization effort and day-to-day homeland defense. A future long war will not have the manpower available to relieve the all-volunteer active duty. Instead, the active and reserves will go to war together.

The United States needs innovative ideas and new forums to encourage young men and women to fill their obligations to public service, but it also needs a redesigned military to ensure timely access to the manpower needed to defend the nation and to increase the equity and fairness for the cost of war across our society. It is time for a new Gates Commission—a comprehensive review of the structure of our military and the development of specific guidelines on when and how conscription will be used in future conflict.

The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force or The Air University.

This post was written for the Council on Foreign Relations’  Renewing America  initiative—an effort established on the premise that for the United States to succeed, it must fortify the political, economic, and societal foundations fundamental to its national security and international influence. Renewing America evaluates nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world. For more Renewing America resources, visit  https://www.cfr.org/programs/renewing-america  and follow the initiative on Twitter  @RenewingAmerica .

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Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving

Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.

J ohn 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.

After interviewing veterans who work at some of the most dynamic and innovative companies in the country, I’m convinced that the military has failed to learn the most fundamental lessons of the knowledge economy. And that to hold on to its best officers, to retain future leaders like John Nagl, it will need to undergo some truly radical reforms—not just in its policies and culture, but in the way it thinks about its officers.

It would be easy to dismiss Nagl’s story, except you hear it almost every time you talk to a vet. In a recent survey I conducted of 250 West Point graduates (sent to the classes of 1989, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004), an astonishing 93 percent believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.” By design, I left the definitions of best and early up to the respondents. I conducted the survey from late August to mid-September, reaching graduates through their class scribes (who manage e-mail lists for periodic newsletters). This ensured that the sample included veterans as well as active-duty officers. Among active- duty respondents, 82 percent believed that half or more of the best are leaving. Only 30 percent of the full panel agreed that the military personnel system “does a good job promoting the right officers to General,” and a mere 7 percent agreed that it “does a good job retaining the best leaders.”

Is this so terrible? One can argue that every system has flaws and that the military should be judged on its ultimate mission: maintaining national security and winning wars. But that’s exactly the point: 65 percent of the graduates agreed that the exit rate of the best officers leads to a less competent general-officer corps. Seventy-eight percent agreed that it harms national security.

The shame of this loss of talent is that the U.S. military does such a good job attracting and training great leaders. The men and women who volunteer as military officers learn to remain calm and think quickly under intense pressure. They are comfortable making command decisions, working in teams, and motivating people. Such skills translate powerfully to the private sector, particularly business: male military officers are almost three times as likely as other American men to become CEOs, according to a 2006 Korn/Ferry International study. Examples abound of senior executives who attribute their leadership skills to their time in uniform: Ross Perot, Bill Coleman, Fred Smith, and Bob McDonald, the new CEO of Procter & Gamble, to name a few. The business guru Warren Bennis reflected in his recent memoirs, “I never heard anything at MIT or Harvard that topped the best lectures I heard at [Fort] Benning.”

Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more- lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day— regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.

The Pentagon’s response to such complaints has traditionally been to throw money at the problem, in the form of millions of dollars in talent-blind retention bonuses. More often than not, such bonuses go to any officer in the “critical” career fields of the moment, regardless of performance evaluations. This only ensures that the services retain the most risk-averse, and leads to long-term mediocrity.

When I asked veterans for the reasons they left the military, the top response was “frustration with military bureaucracy”—cited by 82 percent of respondents (with 50 percent agreeing strongly). In contrast, the conventional explanation for talent bleed—the high frequency of deployments—was cited by only 63 percent of respondents, and was the fifth-most-common reason. According to 9 out of 10 respondents, many of the best officers would stay if the military was more of a meritocracy.

During World War II, German generals often complained that U.S. forces were unpredictable: they didn’t follow their own doctrine. Colonel Jeff Peterson, a member of the faculty at West Point, likes to illustrate this point using a parable about hedgerows. After the Normandy invasion in 1944, American troops found that their movements were constrained by the thick hedgerows that lined the countryside of northern France. The hedges frequently channeled American units into German ambushes, and they were too thick to cut or drive through. In response, “Army soldiers invented a mechanism on the fly that they welded onto the front of a tank to cut through hedgerows,” Peterson told me.

American troops are famous for this kind of individual initiative. It’s a point of pride among officers that the American way of war emphasizes independent judgment in the fog and friction of battle, rather than obedience and rules. Lieutenants, even corporals and privates, are trained to be entrepreneurial in combat. This emphasis doesn’t just attract inspirational leaders and efficient managers—it produces revolutionary innovators. From the naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose insights on sea power transformed warfare at the beginning of the 20th century, to General Billy Mitchell, the godfather of the Air Force, to General Petraeus, who’s now implementing his counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has a long and proud tradition of innovative thought.

Creativity of this sort is increasingly celebrated by economists who study growth, many of whom now believe that innovation is essentially the only factor that drives long-term increases in per capita income. Since innovation relies entirely on people—what economists call human capital— academics are showing more appreciation than ever for Joseph Schumpeter and his pioneering focus on entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs, Schumpeter noted, take risks, experiment with new technologies and ideas, and bring about the “creative destruction” that enables capitalism to flourish. Likewise, martial progress relies on innovative officers, especially those who question doctrine and strategy.

But the Pentagon doesn’t always reward its innovators. Usually, rebels in uniform suffer at the expense of their ideas. General Mitchell was court-martialed for insubordination in 1925; and who can forget the hostile treatment afforded General Eric Shinseki in 2003 after he testified that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would probably be required to stabilize post-invasion Iraq?

In a 2007 essay in the Armed Forces Journal , Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling offered a compelling explanation for this risk-averse tendency. A veteran of three tours in Iraq, Yingling articulated a common frustration among the troops: that a failure of generalship was losing the war. His critique focused not on failures of strategy but on the failures of the general-officer corps making the strategy, and of the anti-entrepreneurial career ladder that produced them: “It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”

Despite the turnaround in Iraq since engineered by General Petraeus and his allies, it is hard to escape the impression that the military has indeed become less hospitable to entrepreneurs at the strategic level in the past few decades. Schumpeter predicted that as capitalist economies evolved, innovation would become routinized in large organizations, obviating the need for individual entrepreneurs. Until the 1980s, this idea was widely accepted in corporate America, and certainly in the defense industry. But Schumpeter’s prediction was upended definitively when the knowledge economy evolved out of the industrial economy, and symbolically when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer in a California garage. In America today, capitalism is entrepreneurial: our economy is defined by individuals failing or succeeding on the strength of their ideas. Crucially, the military has not recognized this shift. And the Army, in particular, has not changed from its “inefficient industrial era practices,” as a report by the Strategic Studies Institute put it last year. It still treats each employee as an interchangeable commodity rather than as a unique individual with skills that can be optimized.

The most blatantly anti-entrepreneurial aspect of the Army is the strict time-in-service requirement for various ranks. Consider the mandatory delay for becoming a general. Active-duty officers can retire after 20 years of service. But to be considered for promotion to general requires at least 22 years of service, and that applies to even the most talented and inspiring military officer in the nation.

John Nagl might have been that officer. His 2002 book, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife , anticipated the kind of insurgency warfare America was likely to face in the new century, and it proved a prescient warning as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on. After serving in Iraq, Nagl helped General Petraeus write the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine in 2005 and 2006. Conventional wisdom holds that the “surge” broke Iraq’s insurgency the following year. But the surge was more than just the 30,000 or so additional soldiers and marines who were deployed. The key was instead a new emphasis on stability and development, inspired in large part by ideas laid out in Nagl’s book.

In 2008, Nagl hit the 20-year mark, and what happened? He retired. Since he was not yet a full colonel, let alone a general, it was clear that he could be more influential as a civilian. He is now the head of the Center for a New American Security, known in Washington as President Obama’s favorite think tank. Had he stayed in the Army, odds are he would have been a career colonel, or a professor at the Army War College. Now his work at CNAS regularly reaches the White House and the National Security Council. While I assumed the loss of Nagl would be seen as an outrage within the military, most officers I spoke to shrugged it off as typical.

The more experts I talked with, the more I realized that targeting one inefficient policy, like the time-in-service requirement, wasn’t going to work. I asked the survey respondents to grade different aspects of the military in terms of fostering entrepreneurial leadership, using a standard Athrough-F scale. The “recruitment of raw talent” received 12 percent A’s and 43 percent B’s. Formal training programs and military doctrine also got good marks. What emerged as the weakest area was personnel. The evaluation system received 51 percent D’s and F’s. Job assignments got 55 percent failing grades. The promotion system got 61 percent. And lastly, the compensation system received 79 percent D’s and F’s.

Simply put, if the Army hopes to stanch the talent bleed, it needs to embrace an entrepreneurial structure , not just culture . That doesn’t mean more officers who invent new weapons, but rather a new web of incentives rewarding creative leadership. The military has reinvented itself in this manner before. West Point’s Jeff Peterson recounted the standard story line of the Army’s soul-searching after Vietnam. After eight years of committing hundreds of thousands of soldiers to a war that was lost on many levels, the Army returned to a strategic comfort zone, with its leadership thinking about conventional wars instead of the messy counterinsurgency it had just muddled through. While this story isn’t wrong on the whole, Peterson argues that it ignores the radical transformations that took place in the 1970s. He pulled James Kitfield’s book Prodigal Soldiers from his bookshelf and encouraged me to read it.

Kitfield chronicles a revolution in that era in how the Army treated, organized, and trained its soldiers. No change was bigger than the adoption of an all-volunteer force in 1973. It was a radical idea at the time, so controversial that many in the Army expected it to fail, or even to destroy the military. Instead, the all-volunteer force served as the beginning of a renaissance in the ranks, across all the services, and paved the way for a newly professional military. Instead of staying in for just two years, enlistees now commonly stayed for five years, or 10, or a career. The Army started paying better and, more important, making investments in its human capital. But make no mistake, moving to a volunteer force was not an incremental reform. It was radical. This connection may explain why almost 60 percent of the West Point respondents favored “radical reform” of the personnel system.

Radical reform may not sound like much of a blueprint, but the all-volunteer force must be understood in terms of a philosophical shift: the military rejected centrally planned accessions in exchange for a market mechanism . Faced with having to attract and retain volunteers, the military filled its requirements for labor with the right price : better pay, better housing, better treatment, and ultimately a better career opportunity than it had ever offered.

Today’s Army requires a similar philosophical shift if it is to generate more-entrepreneurial leadership and start retaining its most talented officers. When presented with 10 proposed policy changes, the panel of West Point grads was strongly in favor of five, marginally in favor of three, split on one, and strongly against the last. Dead last was reauthorizing the draft instead of the all-volunteer force, a proposal that drew support from only 14 percent of respondents. So what did they think would help?

The Army should start by breaking down its rigid promotion ladder. The most strongly recommended policy, which 90 percent agreed with, is to allow greater specialization. Under the current system, company and platoon commanders are often “promoted” to staff jobs—that is, transferred from commanding troops in battle to working behind a desk on a general’s staff—even if they’d prefer to specialize in a lower-ranking position they enjoy. Rather than take an advancement they don’t want, many quit the Army altogether. Expanding early-promotion opportunities for top performers and eliminating year-group promotions also have strong support (87 and 78 percent, respectively). All of this might be hard to do while maintaining centralized management of rank and job assignments, but three-quarters of the panel favored ditching that system entirely in favor of an internal job market.

Indeed, an internal job market might be the key to revolutionizing military personnel. In today’s military, individuals are given “orders” to report to a new assignment every two to four years. When an Army unit in Korea rotates out its executive officer, the commander of that unit is assigned a new executive officer. Even if the commander wants to hire Captain Smart, and Captain Smart wants to work in Korea, the decision is out of their hands—and another captain, who would have preferred a job in Europe, might be assigned there instead. The Air Force conducts three assignment episodes each year, coordinated entirely by the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, in Texas. Across the globe, officers send in their job requests. Units with open slots send their requirements for officers. The hundreds of officers assigned full-time to the personnel center strive to match open requirements with available officers (each within strictly defined career fields, like infantry, intelligence, or personnel itself), balancing individual requests with the needs of the service, while also trying to develop careers and project future trends, all with constantly changing technological tools. It’s an impossible job, but the alternative is chaos.

In fact, a better alternative is chaos. Chaos, to economists, is known as the free market, where the invisible hand matches supply with demand. The Strategic Studies Institute report makes this very point. “Giving officers greater voice in their assignments increases both employment longevity and productivity,” it concludes. “The Army’s failure to do so, however, in large part accounts for declining retention among officers commissioned since 1983.”

Here is how a market alternative would work. Each commander would have sole hiring authority over the people in his unit. Officers would be free to apply for any job opening. If a major applied for an opening above his pay grade, the commander at that unit could hire him (and bear the consequences). Coordination could be done through existing online tools such as monster.com or careerbuilder.com (presumably those companies would be interested in offering rebranded versions for the military). If an officer chose to stay in a job longer than “normal” (“I just want to fly fighter jets, sir”), that would be solely between him and his commander.

Each of the four military branches is free to design its own personnel system, with minimal Pentagon interference. Yet each uses a similar centralized-planning department. It would take only one branch to lead the way by adopting the best practices of corporate America—where firms manage vast workforces by emphasizing flexibility, respect for individual talent, and executive responsibility. During my study, I surveyed ex-military officers at Citi, Dell, Amazon, Procter & Gamble, TMobile, Amgen, Intuit, and countless venture-capital firms. At every company, the veterans were shocked to look back at how “archaic and arbitrary” talent management was in the armed forces. Unlike industrial-era firms, and unlike the military, successful companies in the knowledge economy understand that nearly all value is embedded in their human capital.

I traveled to Silicon Valley to learn about the organizational design of firms there, and also to learn about the talent ecosystem. Nowhere is there a military-style 20-year retirement framework that distorts career decisions, and no one offers the security of lifetime employment. Instead, Silicon Valley attracts talent because it knows the importance of flexibility. Companies, unlike military units, are born and die out constantly, and the massive flow of labor across and within companies is highly turbulent. Not only can ambitious visionaries become top executives in half a decade, but employees can do the one thing they love for decades without worrying about getting “promoted” to management positions they don’t want. In the glassy buildings of Menlo Park, “being all you can be”—whether it’s coding C++, designing Web campaigns, or excelling in some other niche—isn’t just a slogan.

One Silicon Valley executive I spoke with, whom I’ll call Captain Smith, contrasted his time as a Marine company commander with his current job leading hundreds of employees, from software engineers to sales managers. Like other veterans in corporate America, he credits his military training with sharpening his leadership skills. But the analytical mind he uses to devise business models is just as sharp in assessing the military’s inept talent management. What’s the impact of merit on promotions in the Marines? “Virtually none,” says Smith. “On average, the best officers got out; the worst officers got out.” There are notable exceptions, he said. “But the larger trend I observed drives any organization toward mediocrity.”

When I asked him about Silicon Valley’s lessons for the military, he mentioned his firm’s internal market for matching engineers and projects, where the bottom line is that engineers rule. Team leaders have to advertise their projects and try to attract engineers, and it’s uncommon for an engineer to be told what he or she will do. Happier workers mean higher productivity. “I don’t want to oversimplify,” he says. “But this is about incentives and control.”

In contrast, only one in five of the West Point graduates thinks the Army today does a good job matching talents with jobs. And nearly two-thirds agree that using an evaluation system that singled out the best and worst members of a given unit—for advancement or release—would yield a more entrepreneurial leadership. Such a system, popularized by Jack Welch of General Electric, would give commanders better information, and also make personnel ratings a lot more useful than the politically correct write-ups in abundance now. It would also recast the personnel officers as headhunters, focused on giving advice, rather than orders, to job-seekers and to hiring commanders.

I asked Smith—a supremely tech-savvy, gung-ho leader—whether he would consider rejoining if the Marines recruited him to serve as a general officer, perhaps to command their cyber-security efforts. I anticipated that his resolute willingness to serve would offer a vivid contrast to the military’s closed-mindedness. But he surprised me. He thought quietly for a minute. Then, shaking his head, he said something much more damning: “I can’t see it,” the Silicon Valley marine said. “Even if they made that offer … I have no confidence that I could pierce the bureaucracy.”

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How airmen are assigned jobs gets a fresh look from new Air Force panel

worst military assignments

A new Air Force panel will rethink how the service assigns airmen to new jobs, including for troops in complicated situations like dual-military relationships, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said Monday.

“We’re about to have an assignment working group,” she said in a livestreamed question-and-answer session with Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown. “What do we expect assignments to look like as we look into the future of our Air Force? What should assignments look like in 2030? We’re kind of backward planning.”

While Bass did not elaborate on the issues the group will tackle, she stressed the Air Force wants to make the assignment process more flexible and transparent. She pointed to her own experiences hashing out military assignments with her husband, Rahn Bass, a retired Army first sergeant.

“I felt like the [Air Force Personnel Center] was very transparent,” Bass said. “They will do everything that they can to ensure that families can stay together, to include sister services.”

That effort will go hand-in-hand with a new enlisted force development plan due out this summer to better shape the careers of those airmen. Career policy discussions come as the Air Force considers how to meet its combat and peacetime needs while improving quality of life for servicemembers and their families.

Service leaders anticipate a future without much growth in the total workforce. Some career fields are stretched thin by low staffing, high turnover, and a hectic operations schedule, while the Air Force faces record-high retention at the same time.

To balance out the force, the service has suggested allowing airmen to retrain into jobs that are hurting for people, as well as offering early separation and transfers into the Air Force Reserve.

worst military assignments

Air Force retention spiked amid COVID. Now, retention bonuses might be cut

The air force stresses that no involuntary measures are being considered in fiscal 2021..

The service is also trying to adjust to the changing needs of military families, seeing more instances of troops marrying each other, couples where women are the military member, and families where both partners want to work.

Leaders have already begun tweaking some aspects of the assignment process, like growing its searchable online database of job opportunities, and better connecting airmen with bases where they most want to serve.

Earlier this year, the Air Force lengthened the amount of time airmen and Space Force guardians without dependents spend at certain bases overseas from 24 to 36 months. Stretching out those tours of duty at 21 locations is meant to bolster training and better integrate troops into the local community, the service said.

Brown likened the considerations to other personnel management changes the Air Force has rolled out, including a recent overhaul of the promotion system.

worst military assignments

The Air Force details its plan to overhaul the way officers are promoted

These six new categories would replace the current line of the air force category, which encompasses about 87 percent of the service’s officers..

“There’s going to be some folks that’ll get a little upset … but the key part is, what are we doing to ensure we are helping our airmen?” he said.

The service is also taking a fresh look at professional military education, Bass said, hoping to create good supervisors as well as good followers. Brown suggested there’s an opportunity for leaders to learn how to give their subordinates helpful feedback for better professional development.

Perhaps there are certain tasks the Air Force can move off of its plate because they aren’t unique to the service, Bass added.

“I think our manpower standards and how we look at managing manpowe need a relook as well,” she said. “Every unit can do that at their level.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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Do military families really need to move so much?

A new report from a leading advocacy group argues it’s time to give the pace of military moves, known as permanent changes of station, a fresh look..

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Military needs better recipe for feeding troops, auditors say

A new government watchdog report argues the pentagon can do more to steer troops toward nutritious options at military-run dining halls..

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Army imposes stricter rules for addressing extremism among troops

The rules require continued extremism training for troops and offer more precise guidance for how commanders should address extremism in their units..

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As troops struggle to find child care, 24-hour centers offer help

Around-the-clock child care centers offer peace of mind for troops who work odd hours or are deployed. but the military says it has no plans to add more..

The All-Time 10 Worst Military Contracting Boondoggles

Adam Weinstein

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<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/glass_window/371450249/sizes/l/in/photostream/">scott*eric/Flickr</a>

After three years, the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting completed its business this week. In its final report to Congress (PDF), it estimates that the federal government has lost between $31 and $60 billion to contractor fraud and waste since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started. “The government was not prepared to go into Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003 using large numbers of contractors, and is still unable to provide effective management and oversight of contract spending,” said commission co-chairman Michael Thibault.

Beyond its bureaucratic title (“Inattention to contingency contracting leads to massive waste, fraud, and abuse”), the most interesting chapter of the commission’s 248-page report reads like a greatest-hits list of expensive bloopers that make that famous $600 Pentagon toilet seat look like a bargain. In ascending order of egregiousness, here are the top 10 war-contractor boondoggles detailed in the report:

10. Welfare for warlords : When the Pentagon hired Afghan big-rig drivers to transport supplies as part of its Host Nation Trucking program, it forgot to guarantee the truckers’ safety. So the truckers spent as much as 20 percent of their contract money paying off local bad guys for protection. A 2010 congressional report titled Warlord, Inc . (PDF) concluded that “The HNT contract fuels warlordism, extortion, and corruption, and it may be a significant source of funding for insurgents.”

9. The world’s most expensive road: In 2007, US planners decided to pave a 64-mile mountain road between the Afghan towns of Khost and Gardez. They figured it would take $69 million to complete, but the cost swelled to $176 million. Much of that was spent on security, including a lot that went to a local big-swinger known as “Arafat,” who’s now believed to have been working for the insurgents. In May, the New York Times reported that “a stretch of the highway completed just six months ago is already falling apart and remains treacherous.”

8. This old base : In the fall of 2007, the Air Force gave $18 million to contractor CH2M HILL for construction work at Camp Phoenix, an Army installation in Afghanistan. The firm hired a shady subcontractor who didn’t pay his workers and fled the country with $2 million, which he used to build himself some villas abroad. The unpaid workers walked off with a bunch of generators and other materials. The delays left hundreds of NATO troops without suitable housing for a year and a half. When the contracting commission’s Thibault visited the soldiers in their temporary digs, they alerted him (PDF) to the shoddy electrical work: “I just walked in the room and I’m talking to some of the people living there and they say, ‘Sometimes when you put the plugs in, if you don’t have the right extension, it’s just like a sparkler.'”

7. Rent-a-ripoff :  Coalition bases in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to be big and rugged, so many units rent locally owned four-wheel-drives for troops to get around the installations. A 2010 survey of US forces in Afghanistan found (PDF) that the Army was spending $119 million annually to lease about 3,000 cars—roughly $40,000 a year per car. Last year, the General Services Administration found that the military “could lease and maintain 1,000 vehicles for about $19 million per year,” or 16 percent of what it had been paying. Nevertheless, the Army still considers paying a premium for rental cars to be strategically necessary; it’s even listed as “civic support” in a manual titled “ Money as a Weapon System ” (PDF).

6. The Kabul bank bust :  This thing’s so screwed-up, we wrote a whole explainer about it . Since 2003, the US Agency for International Development has paid $92 million to the accounting giant Deloitte to train executives of the Afghanistan Central Bank. The Central Bank oversaw Kabul Bank, Afghanistan’s largest private bank, which had an estimated $900 million in assets loaded with worthless loans. Unsurprisingly, the bank collapsed in 2010, taking the nascent Afghan financial system down with it. (Kabul Bank’s founder and CEO explained : “What I’m doing is not proper, not exactly what I should do. But this is Afghanistan.”) In effect, USAID paid a Wall Street firm beaucoup bucks to fiddle while the Afghan market burned. “USAID staff learned of serious bank problems from reading about them in the Washington Post . Deloitte never notified the agency,” the contracting commission reported.

5. Never leave a mandarin behind: In 2005, the Defense Logistics Agency awarded Swiss-based Supreme Foodservice a fat contract to ship “ vitally needed ” food to bases in Afghanistan. By the early 2011, the company had billed the government $4.2 billion, but Pentagon investigators found that sum had been padded with hundreds of millions in possible overcharges for things like providing “premium airlift” of fresh fruits and vegetables from the United Arab Emirates. Nevertheless, the company got a two-year extension on its contract, perhaps because the Army general who used to supervise Supreme’s DLA contract is now president of the company’s US division.

4. Soldiers of misfortune :  To keep their profit margins fat, military contractors tend to subcontract on cheap labor from poor nations, a practice that’s led to “forced labor, slavery, and sexual exploitation,” the commission says. In a trip to Iraq in 2009, commissioners learned about the mostly African and South American guards hired by companies like Triple Canopy, SABRE, and EODT to provide security on big US bases. Among their discoveries: Guards were often ill-equipped, worked unusually long tours with 12-hour shifts, were denied their one-month vacations, and weren’t paid until their contracts were finished, essentially forcing them to endure their assignments to the end. The government paid SABRE $1,700 per guard; in turn, SABRE paid its Ugandan recruits $700 a month and pocketed the difference.

3, 2, 1. KBR, KBR, KBR: According to the contracting commission, megacontractor KBR (a.k.a. the contractor formerly known as Halliburton) was paid at least $36.3 billion to provide base support in Iraq for the past eight years. That’s slightly less than the government bailouts for Bank of America and Citigroup. But then, the banks eventually returned the money. The commission report details numerous examples of waste by KBR. Where to begin?

There’s the kickback from the subcontractors who were awarded a $700 million dining deal in Iraq. (The Department of Justice has filed a claim against KBR for that.) Then there’s the $5 million spent on 144 KBR mechanics who worked as little as 43 minutes a month , on average. Inspectors have found that KBR can’t account for $100 million worth of its government-furnished property in Iraq. Despite collecting $204 million for electrical work on Iraq bases, KBR’s shoddy wiring has been blamed in as many as 12 soldiers’ electrocution deaths , including a Special Forces commando who died after he was shocked in a shower stall . The company has also billed Uncle Sam a half-billion dollars to hire Blackwater to provide personal security in Iraq, a big contractor no-no.

Perhaps most troubling is the company’s links to purported human trafficking. In late 2008, reporters discovered a windowless warehouse on the Camp Victory complex outside Baghdad, where about 1,000 men from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka were being held in prisonlike conditions. The men had been hired by a KBR subcontractor. Around the same time, another KBR subcontractor was sued for allegedly spiriting Asian workers into Iraq with false promises of high-paying jobs.

And the waste continues. When the troop drawdown in Iraq started, writes the commission, “KBR accounted for about half of contractor personnel in Iraq. When bases closed and its personnel left those bases, KBR merely transferred some of them to other bases and continued to bill for their support.” In all, KBR has cost the government at least $193 million in pay for unnecessary personnel, and maybe as much as $300 million. However, the Pentagon is in no hurry to give KBR the boot. “We basically said that KBR is too big to fail,” commission co-chair and former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) complained last year, “so we are still going to fund them.”

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Your U.S. History Book Is Crying: 5 Worst U.S. Military Defeats Ever

worst military assignments

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow

worst military assignments

Key Takeaways

Defeat can be an integral instrument of victory. War is a competition between thinking, scheming, determined adversaries.

Sometimes this critical competitive edge comes from losing battles—when the loss sparks the actions that lead to winning.

Never underestimate the importance of learning from losing for the task of turning defeat into victory.

Defeat can be an integral instrument of victory.

War is a competition between thinking, scheming, determined adversaries. Gaining a decisive advantage over the enemy is the ultimate high-ground. Sometimes this critical competitive edge comes from losing battles—when the loss sparks the actions that lead to winning.

For much of the 19th and 20th century, the Western way of war was battle-centric. Blame Waterloo (1815), the climatic one-shot campaign that ended Napoleon's run as the military master of Europe. Clausewitz and Jomini, the two-top commentators on Napoleonic warfare, went through a lot of ink describing the role of battle in diminishing the enemy's capacity to wage war. Meanwhile, Cressy's book on decisive battles of the Western World propelled combat into the center of Victorian pop culture.

An addictive attention to battle endured well into the next century, even with the advent of "push-button" nuclear warfare and the resurgence of messy, shadowy insurgencies like Vietnam. The rise of Hollywood over the course of the 20th century helped secure battle’s place high on the pedestal of pop culture. Battles have a strong narrative content—focused in time, place, and action. For cinema, they made the best kind of war stories. The Longest Day, an epic retelling of the Normandy invasion, proved a predictable hit with audiences.

Combat was not just for movies. Battle remained serious business for modern warriors. After Vietnam, the Pentagon talked about winning America's next "First Battle."  That was supplanted by "Airland Battle." John Keegan's book  The Face of Battle  proved extremely influential with the U.S. military as the armed forces worked their way out of the funk of the post-Vietnam era.

U.S. military training focused like a laser on fighting battles. Army brigades sparred in the desert at the National Training Center. The Air Force had Red Flag. The Marines had 29 Palms. The Navy had its wargames.

That was then.

Today, battles seem to have lost their luster. Places like Fallujah are just exotic sounding names that strike a vague chord with most Americans.

Ambivalence over battle stems from the queasy feeling that combat just doesn't resolve anything anymore.  Notions of conflict are more muddled now, with new terms like hybrid warfare, cyber conflict, and human, energy and climate security.

While the last century's fixation with battle might have been overly obsessive, the post-Cold War dismissal of the banality of battle is equally unhealthy.  When enemies resort to armed conflict, battles can happen. It makes little sense to ignore the importance of combat.

Let's keep the study of battle.

On the other hand, remember battle is just one component of war, like an inning is just one part of a baseball game. The outcome of combat has relevance only in the context of the larger conflict.

All battles are worth reflection.

While students of battle tend to focus on what it takes to win a fight, it’s just as important to determine what can be learned from getting whipped.

Here are five battles from American history where losing wound up putting the nation on the path to victory.

5. The Battle of Long Island:

George Washington's effort to hold off the British Invasion of New York could not have gone worse. Luckily, the Continental Army avoided complete annihilation by slipping across the Long Island Sound, under cover of darkness. The battle itself was a humiliating defeat for Washington. But, the loss also revealed an insight that was key to the ultimate American success: The Continental Army could afford to lose battles; but if it remained an Army-in-being, the British couldn't declare victory. Washington rightly surmised that, as long as the enemy couldn't win the war, they would eventually lose.

4. Little Big Horn:

Custer had better days. When his small detachment of the 7th Cavalry was wiped out on the Montana plains, there were big repercussions. After the Civil War, the lion's share of the military budget went into the Army's coastal fortifications. The Army ground forces were mostly a constabulary, second-hand lot strewn across the Southern and Western states.  Custer's last stand was a bit of a wake-up call. Congress began to supply better arms and equipment. The Army started on the long march to becoming a modern landpower. D-Day was more than a half-century in the future. But the journey from the Spanish-American War to World War I to World War II started out West.

3. Kasserine Pass:

No less an authority than General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, argued that the route to victory in World War II ran through Western Europe. The sooner the Allies invaded France the better. But to Marshall's chagrin, the American Army was detoured to North Africa. In its first major battle with the Nazis, the GIs learned they weren't ready for primetime. The list of shortfalls was long—bad senior leaders, poor air-ground coordination, inadequately trained troops, and on and on. Rather than being remembered as the horrific defeat that it was, the battle became the first lesson in learning how to win on the ground in modern war. Two years later, the Americans hit the beach in Normandy knowing far better how to confront the face of battle.

2. Task Force Smith:

North Korea invades. President Truman, while on break in Independence, Mo., quickly orders in U.S. troops. The closest forces are American occupation troops in Japan. Rushed to the front, they barely present a speed-bump to the invading army as it heads south.  The tragedy of Task Force Smith is often recalled as a case study in unpreparedness. The troops had little training and rusty ammunition; some trudged to the front in sneakers because the Army was short on boots.  

On the other hand, even if the task force had had been stocked by Rambo, the troops still would have been steam-rollered. The numbers they faced were just overwhelming.  What's crucial about this battle is that it demonstrated Americans’ determination to act as a Cold War Asian-Pacific power, even in the face of defeat. There were terrible trials ahead—not just in Korea, but in Vietnam as well.  Nonetheless, America stuck it out in Asia. Arguably that determination contributed to victory in the Cold War as well as the region’s development in the post-Cold War era.

1. Desert One:  

Once the Iranian Revolution was underway, it became clear that the new regime in Tehran were not going to be our friends. Angry crowds seized the U.S. embassy. The staff was taken hostage. There were no signs the regime planned on giving them back. President Carter green-lighted a rescue mission by U.S. special operations forces. It does not go well. In fact, at Desert One, the designated landing site inside Iran, everything goes wrong.  Nobody gets rescued. Servicemen die in a horrible, fiery crash. Maybe, technically this was not a battle, since the only enemies present proved to be misfortune and misjudgment.

Still, this was not one for the win column. But years later, the Senate Armed Services staff used the mission failure as a case-study to inform and push for joint reforms. Arguably, the operation was less about failures in joint-interservice cooperation than the staff contended. Nevertheless, highlighting the Desert One disaster served as the catalyst for the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, and those reforms helped revitalize the U.S. military in the 1980s.

Never underestimate the importance of battle in the struggle of fighting and winning wars. Never underestimate the importance of learning from losing for the task of turning defeat into victory.

The U.S. had its share of setbacks in the last decade. Rather than be demoralized by what has not worked out, Washington ought to be trying to figure out what will work.  Let the debate begin on what is the Long War's most important lost battle.

This piece originally appeared in The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/your-us-history-book-crying-5-worst-us-military-defeats-ever-164163

Our armed forces must be ready to act anywhere in the world where vital national interests are threatened. This can be achieved by ensuring the military has the resources and skilled personnel it needs to keep us safe and maintain freedom. 

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