While all branches of the military experienced challenges, only the Army was in crisis. According to a March 2007 story in USA Today, the retention rate of West Point graduates was "as much as 30 percentage points lower than the rates for graduates of the Navy and Air Force academies." A common complaint was that the elitist academy graduates were the problem, not the Army per se, since ROTC and Officer Candidates School (OCS) officers remained at high rates, but that's a myth. Retention problems afflicted ROTC scholarship officers even more than West Point graduates. A 2010 monograph by Colonel Casey Wardynski, Major David Lyle, and Michael Colarusso analyzed the retention of officers in the 1996 cohort by commissioning source. While it is true that the percentage of West Pointers in the class of 1996 drops dramatically at the five-year point (from 90 to 60 percent), it must also be said that OCS officers started the year at 70 percent. And while the USMA rate declined steadily to 41 percent at the eight-year mark, this mirrored the ROTC officers who had three-year scholarships, and was higher than the 35 percent eight-year retention of four-year ROTC scholarship officers.
The Wardynski monograph made it clear that the exodus was as real as it was widespread. But the puzzle as to why remained. As author Wardynski asked: "How did the [the Army] move from a senior captain surplus, then to shortage, then to crisis in the decade following the end of the Cold War?"A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in January 2007 provided even more details:
[T]he Army is experiencing a shortfall of mid-level officers, such as majors, because it commissioned fewer officers 10 years ago due to a post-Cold War force reduction. It projects a shortage of 3,000 or more officers annually through FY 2013. While the Army is implementing and considering initiatives to improve officer retention, the initiatives are not integrated and will not affect officer retention until at least 2009 or are unfunded. As with its accession shortfalls, the Army does not have an integrated strategic plan to address its retention shortfalls.
There were many reasons for the crisis, but the explanation that seems most obvious is the ongoing wars in the Middle East. Remember that late 2006 to early 2007 was the lowest point in the war. The Bush administration was starting to admit what troops on the ground had been saying all along: the strategy in Iraq was not working. In the words of Colonel Jeff Peterson, now a permanent member of West Point's faculty: "We were losing in Baghdad in 2006. We were losing. The enemy was winning. It had to change."
Relying on a volunteer force is challenging, especially when the economy is strong (meaning demand for talent is high), but even more so during a conflict that the public dislikes. That's all the more reason to think carefully about the intertwining issues. Peterson wasn't saying that the war or the volunteer force was the source of retention and recruiting woes. He was simply commenting on the nature of fighting an insurgency. Peterson, like almost all officers, supports the all-volunteer force and he also disagrees with characterizations of the personnel system as being in crisis. The news media, however, found the war explanation too convenient.
Here's the catch. None of the war explanations can explain why retention problems preceded the 9/11 attacks. In a 2002 RAND report, James Hosek and Beth Asch "identified a roughly 5 percent decline in officer annual continuation rates among those [officers] in their midcareer." The authors argued that the number is deceptively small, but "small declines in annual continuation rates can translate into dramatic declines in manpower over a several-year period. Therefore, this decline must be taken seriously." Likewise, Wardynski et al. argued that declining retention has been a problem since 1983 and that "by 2001 the captain retention situation was becoming untenable."
In fact, the Army has been plagued with talent bleeding for decades, and its personnel practices have never been reformed to address the problem. President Harry Truman appointed a committee to consider the problem in 1949, and the secretary of defense asked the Brookings Institution's Harold Moulton to do the same in 1950. Two more task forces were commissioned early in the Eisenhower administration, calling attention to an annual retention rate of enlistees of just 20 percent. Then in 1954, after the Korea hostilities stopped, the Senate Armed Services Committee called attention to the "critical and delicate" problem of the officer brain drain. Arthur Coumbe, a military historian, attributes the severity of the competency weaknesses in the officer corps to the centralization of command and control in the 1960s. Regardless, retention rates simply collapsed late during the Vietnam conflict, down to 34 percent for OCS officers in 1969 and 11 percent for ROTC officers in 1970. All this goes to show that the current crisis has a long precedent.