RAND sociologist (and my friend) Laura Miller argues in USA Today that the Army needs to embrace "sabbaticals" for its top performing officers. Year-long breaks would obviously give these officers a much-needed break from back-to-back-to-back deployment pace of the Army. But, more importantly, she writes that it would develop Army leaders with more depth and breadth, and possibly improve civil-military relations as well:
Immersion into a world of diverse civilians -- including current or future intellectual, financial, or political leaders of different nations -- would help prepare officers for future military interactions with coalition partners, relief workers and indigenous populations. These assignments could also promote a more seamless collaboration with American organizations in fields such as intelligence or law enforcement.
Although officers learn quite a bit "on the fly" in Iraq or Afghanistan, corporate or government sabbaticals could enhance skills required to stabilize and rebuild war-torn societies. They could gain expertise in areas such as law, banking, government, management, city planning, transportation, public policy, community policing and business administration.
Organizations with reputations for creativity and innovation would make ideal locations for officer assignments. After all, officers need to develop their cognitive muscles if we are to sustain a flexible, adaptive Army. Exposure to problem-solving frameworks, jargon and strategies of civilian leaders expands the officers' toolkit and counters Army "groupthink."
Civil-military relations could also benefit. Many of America's elite have little or no firsthand knowledge of today's military professional. At the same time, business leaders might appreciate sabbaticals as a means to offer tangible support for those who have served their nation.
It's a good idea. Like most good ideas, it has a cost: To make it work, the Army would have to expand the officer corps to create a manpower surplus. That would be expensive. And it would be difficult. It takes years to grow mid-ranking military officers, and the Army is already short on them.
The long-term return on investment would likely be significant, but also hard to quantify. We're talking about soft things like "a broader perspective" and "contacts in Washington."
That said, this is the kind of innovative thinking we need to strengthen the military officer corps, and I'd like to see something like this adopted. But with one friendly amendment -- we should broaden this to include senior sergeants and warrant officers as well.
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