Get rid of 'up or out'

Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has looked at the way the armed services promote people and found it seriously flawed. For more than half a century officers and enlisted personnel who have twice been passed over for promotion could consider their careers over. This "up or out" policy aims at weeding out the less competent while pushing up the promotion ladder those who are considered most promising. For a long time it made sense. Today, with the military's need for specialists greater than ever, it doesn't.

The armed forces spend billions of dollars competing for talent with the civilian economy. Enlistees are offered generous inducements to sign up. The services spend heavily on costly training and reenlistment bonuses. At the same time, as Rumsfeld notes, the military clings to a promotion policy that often forces some of its most skilled people into premature retirement. Rumsfeld calls it a "mindless" way to do business. In a major reform after World War II, the armed forces initiated regular evaluations of people who were eligible for promotion, replacing the archaic custom of advancement based solely on seniority. Between the two world wars the seniority system had frozen the careers of many promising younger officers, among them some who would one day lead U.S. forces to victory. The change assured that the deserving would advance more rapidly. It also left the services with limited flexibility for retaini ng skilled specialists who might not fare well in the increasingly competitive contest for promotion.

Candidates for promotion are never told why they are rejected. In many cases it's simply the luck of the draw. When only 20 colonels out of a thousand can be promoted to brigadier general, a lot of good people are going to lose out.

Rumsfeld is pondering many changes in the military. Here's an important one: a policy that would help retain desperately needed candidates who happen to have been "passed over."

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