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.