Career Fear: A Worm in the Core of American Military Values
Dr. Davida Kellogg
Dept. of Military Science
Dept. of Geological Sciences
and Institute for Quaternary Studies
University of Maine, Orono ME 04469


"Count thee not on certain promotion
But rather to gain it aspire;
Though the sight-line aims true on the target,
There cometh, perchance, a misfire."
— Captain Ronald Hopwood, The Laws of the Navy


I started out to write an entirely different paper for this JSCOPE, one about the illegal and immoral use of children as soldiers in tribal warfare and what we, in conjunction with the UN, ought to be doing about it. But while organizing my ideas for that paper, I talked with young officers and cadets of several Services about how they looked on this sort of "rescue" work among the roles they envisioned filling in the course of their military careers. What they had to say about their long-term expectations for careers in their respective Services (or rather, their lack thereof) changed my mind and my subject. I thought it troubling enough to put aside my original paper and call together this panel. At the outset I wish to state that no one on this panel has come here to embarrass any Service before this forum with evidence of what has been termed "career fear" in its ranks. We are here today in the hopes of drawing your attention and concern to what we see as the corrosive effects of career fear on the ability of our young officers to live and work within the expectations of their Services’ core values, and the pressing need for further study of ways and means to alleviate this serious problem.


I am told that bringing up the subject of career fear in any context is opening a can of worms, that it is one of those unpleasant realities, like PTSD, that many would prefer not to look in the eye and may take umbrage at our urging them to do so. Nevertheless, in this paper I shall argue:

        1. that career fear is not only a reality, but pandemic among junior and mid-level officers of all our military services;

        2. that outbreaks of career fear are nothing new to the American military, but have proceeded naturally from this nation’s historical boom-and-bust cycles of heavy recruitment and conscription to meet wartime manpower needs, followed by peacetime cuts to the bone, and often beyond;

        3. that the current outbreak, which has predictably ensued from military funding cut-backs beginning in the 1970s, is just as predictably intensifying as downsizing continues;

        4. that the career fear engendered by drastic peacetime cut-backs has historically led to concerns and behaviors among military officers that run counter to expectations encoded in the core values espoused by all Services; and,

        5. that because career fear literally eats away at those core values — the governing precepts at the very heart of American military service — we ignore it at our own and our nation’s peril.

Finally, I shall address the ultimate cause of the cyclical nature of military recruitment and retention, which I believe lies in the reluctance of the American people to look honestly at the implications for its future of its past 222 years’ history, and take responsibility for fulfilling the duties inherent in its extraordinary (and onerous) Constitutional right to civilian control of the military.


Career Fear — Its Nature, Reality, and Origin

As far as I am able to ascertain, the term "career fear" was coined by CAPT Robert F. Bennett (USCG, Ret.) in his opinion piece in the April 1996 edition of the USCG Academy Bulletin1 to describe a certain morbid preoccupation among junior and mid-grade officers, much in evidence since the advent of the latest rounds of military cut-backs beginning in the 1970s, with their chances for promotion, and with preparations for the move to the civilian sector should they be passed over.

 The term’s origination with a member of the Coast Guard may be fortuitous. CAPT Bennett and those (mostly retired) officers who responded to his letter may have seen the problem coming because, to their credit, they continued to keep lookout for skunks coming over the horizon of junior members of their Service even after they themselves were comfortably retired. Or it may be that the Coast Guard, historically under-manned and under-funded, has functioned as a sort of miner’s canary in giving early warning of the outbreak of what Bennett characterized as a "group phobia...of epidemic proportions," which may already have reached "the stage where it interferes with mission performance by creating a paralysis of sorts among the ranks of those who are expected to be proactive and innovative."

"Getting ahead in the Coast Guard has never been tougher," began an Aug. 1996 article in Navy Times,2 echoing CAPT Bennett’s observations. But the strongest evidence that, as one respondent to CAPT Bennett’s article put it, "something is very, very wrong"3 are the results of the 1995-1997 Coast Guard Workforce Cultural Audit, which revealed that:

      "1. half of all respondents believe the Coast Guard does not reward and recognize high-performing personnel in all ranks, rates, grades, and job types;

        2. fewer than half believe the Coast Guard encourages them to take reasonable risks to improve performance, and most respondents perceive that the outcome for personnel who take risks and achieve the wrong outcome is a shortened career;

        3. most shared the perception that one ’bad’ supervisor can derail an entire Coast Guard career."

Among the root causes found by the Coast Guard for these perceptions were that:

      "1. Evaluation criteria are too subjective;

        2. Officer promotion criteria are too vague and change from board to board;

        3. Officer promotion decisions are dependent on subjective evaluations;

        4. Promotion decisions are based on comparisons with others within a zone instead of service needs;

        5. Initial perceptions of career opportunities in the Coast Guard are too optimistic; "

And, most disturbing among all these findings, the perception among responding sailors that

        6. these conditions have rendered their leaders "too concerned about themselves to help subordinates sufficiently."

Wherever it first cropped up, career fear is hardly confined to any one Service. Many of these same findings and concerns about rampant "careerism" in all services were brought before JSCOPE back in 1982 by MAJ (now COL) Charles Hudlin, USAF4 in the wake of the Vietnam Conflict. My own recent experience is that it has become as impossible to talk with young American military officers of any Service about their work without getting around to the subject of career fear as it is to talk with writers without hearing about their agents and publishers. And friends in the Chaplaincy, whom I have asked for a "reality check," tell me they are now dealing with the emotional and spiritual fall-out from the stress this mounting competition for a place in their service has placed on these young officers. Limited and anecdotal as they are, I submit that my personal observations are part of a growing body of indications that career fear is both real and pervasive throughout our military today. Although it is still to be released, the 1997 Leadership and Professionalism Assessment reportedly5 found many of the same causes for concern listed above — fear of failure and consequent risk averse behaviors and decision making patterns among leaders, including reluctance to recognize, draw seniors’ attention to, or take responsibility for problems — in the Army. The single most disturbing finding of the Secretary of the Army’s Senior Review Panel on Sexual Harassment, which has been released, is that significant numbers of our soldiers (~ 40% of both male and female respondents) drew the same conclusion as CG sailors from these behaviors — namely that their leaders care more about promoting their own careers than they do about promoting the welfare of their troops.6 In his Nov. 16, 1998 speech on Military Leadership before the Naval War College, former Secretary of the Navy, and Superintendent of Annapolis, James Webb, decried the finding of "a recent study" that "only one in ten Navy junior officers [now] aspires to command." To his not so rhetorical question, "And what is a military Service whose leaders do not aspire to command?" he answered, "It becomes a gutless bureaucracy, pushing papers and taking a paycheck," and concluded, "These young officers did not come into the Navy with this attitude. The circumstances of their careers have inflicted it upon them."

While it gives me no satisfaction to watch this accumulating evidence confirm my personal observations, as a student of American military history I do not find it surprising. Career fear is nothing new to the American military, but may be viewed as a natural and expectable psychological response in military personnel to this nation’s historical boom-and-bust cycles of recruitment and conscription to meet war-time manpower demands followed by peacetime downsizing.7 Naval History buffs and readers of Patrick O’ Brian’s historical novels8 will recognize this as an even older pattern we inherited from our British forebears. The quotation with which I have prefixed this paper was part of a venerable old poem offering advice to junior officers from a real CAPT of the British Royal Navy, who served during the same time period in which O’Brian’s novels are set. A whole constellation of contributing proximate causes,9 some unique to a particular Service,10 have been identified for the current outbreak, but I believe that it may ultimately be traced to deepening military funding cut-backs ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, affecting all services in common.11

If, in fact, as our history indicates, morale does track these boom-and-bust recruitment (and, more to the point, retention and promotion) cycles, then career fear may be expected to intensify as drawdown continues, with increasingly serious morale and ethical consequences to our entire military organization. Historically, career fear engendered by drastic peacetime cut-backs has elicited concerns, attitudes, and behaviors among military officers that run counter to the expectations encoded in their Services’ core values.12 For the purpose of this discussion, I will assume that the core values propounded by all five Services set forth essentially the same set of moral expectations. The core values Honor, Integrity, Courage, Loyalty, Respect, Selfless Service, and Duty promulgated by the Army are subsumed by the trinities of Honor, Courage, and Commitment; Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do; or Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, respectively. Taking these values in turn, it may all too easily be seen how career fear, by its very nature, works counter to both the spirit and letter they embody.

Neither honor, integrity, nor courage is fostered in an atmosphere where junior officers are reluctant to speak honestly for fear of displeasing a superior, whose opinion may later determine whether he will be allowed to continue in his chosen career.13 In such an atmosphere, where "going along to get along" becomes SOP, the missions and good of the Service will routinely be given short shrift. When a single less-than-optimal outcome can end a career, the premium military personnel traditionally place on courage, selfless service, and initiative in the performance of their duty shifts downward towards caution, self-interest, and an understandable if not admirable reluctance to take responsibility.14 Duty, honor, and integrity are pitted against loyalty in a lose-lose contest when superiors are forced to agonize over how to report honest and expectable mistakes made by promising JOs in the course of learning difficult and dangerous jobs without ensuring their non-selection15 and whether to inflate grades on Officer Evaluation Reports in order to give even those with "zero defects" a fighting chance for a dwindling number of promotions.16 In the zero-sum game massive drawdowns create, a real "player" quickly sees that anonymous selfless service in support of a superior to whose position he himself may aspire, respect for enlisteds with little ability to affect his future promotions, and loyalty to peers with whom his relationship has become one of no-room-in-the-lifeboat-every-man-for himself competition, do not pay.17

But an officer who micromanages his troops’ performance for fear that any mistake they make will impact negatively on his career, or drives them for the sake of his own rather than unit survival, will lose first their trust and respect, and then their loyalty and cooperation as concern for excellence in the work they do degenerates into slacking off and grumbling. "Bilging" ones classmates, or collecting "purple falcon awards" (for showing them up before superiors) in an effort to get oneself singled out for success, may be an effective strategy for survival in an overstaffed corporation, but such behaviors are fatal to the mutual trust and loyalty among officers, and between officers and their troops, upon which all their survivals on the battlefield may well someday depend.18 No one on this panel is proposing that military officers should be granted Civil Service-like tenure. We are all seriously concerned that not only may we be "eating our young"19 by routinely overproducing fully qualified young officers and then throwing them into unhealthy competition to determine which of them will be allowed to continue to serve, but — to carry CAPT Bennett’s biological analogy to its disturbing but logical conclusion — we may actually be encouraging behaviors that will make both them and the troops who will have to depend on them in combat more vulnerable to "predation" by our enemies.

Even if, as has been claimed,20 the current "best qualified" promotion strategy which results in a high percentage of pass-overs of fully qualified and competent officers) functions as required to fit an ever smaller pyramidal force structure to the shrinking defense appropriations available to support it, serious questions remain as to the morality of using "fully qualified" young American officers (who are, after all, human beings) as means to this fiscal and political end, when other solutions21 might be found that are less corrosive to something as absolutely vital to military effectiveness as morale. Although some (like CAPT Mel Hallock, USCG Ret., Career Fear Revisited, in the Bulletin, June, 1997) report having observed continued highly competent and professional performance among passed-over (Navy) officers, the reality is that such an experience (or the expectation of such an experience at every junction in one’s career) is as corrosive to the morale of a soldier as it is to that of an oil company employee, or automobile construction line worker, or university professor, for that matter. When asked whether he had observed much career fear in the Navy, one of this panel’s members, a chaplain, replied "Are you kidding? I have an entire practice devoted to it." The anxiety and depression caused by constant and worsening career fear cannot help but affect soldiers’ work, and it cannot help but affect the morale of others in their workplace. But in combat loss of morale is exponentially more serious because. as in no other workplace, lives are at stake. So vital is morale to mission accomplishment and unit cohesiveness and survival in combat that the Army has recently promoted it to the status of one of only 11 Principles of War. This is what GEN Colin Powell meant when he called it "a force multiplier." What he did not say outright, but is becoming increasingly clear, is that the lack of morale is a force decimator, with all that that euphemism implies about mission failure and attendant soldier deaths. It is, therefore, not only a mistake, but a dangerous mistake, to imagine that because military personnel may be more reticent than civilians about career fear they are immune to its psychological effects, and the whole subject can safely be ignored.

So far, I have discussed only "tactical" consequences of the emotional fallout from career fear. If they do not give you cause for concern, perhaps the strategic consequences of our officers’ adopting career fear-driven coping behaviors in opposition to Service core values will. One may argue as to whether "ethics ever won a battle,"22 but in this age of increasingly visible "television war" in which public opinion will play an ever larger role, for our officers to be seen behaving unethically on the battlefield will lose us wars.23

Given the devastation that recurrent career fear works on soldier’s psyches, morale, ethics, survival, and mission accomplishment, perhaps it is time that doing something proactive were considered instead of damage control each time the old "downsizing blues" come round on what Arlo Guthrie called the "cosmic guitar."24 My contention is that, jury rig as we may within individual Services and commands, until we have educated our civilian masters to the fallacy of "the traditional American attitude toward war as an aberration in which the bully that disturbed the peace must be soundly and quickly thrashed so that American society can return to normality," we will be condemned to dance to "the traditional rhythm of sharp expansion of the armed forces in wartime and precipitate contraction immediately thereafter"25 until finally some other power is calling the tune for us.


1. CAPT Robert F. Bennett, USCG, Ret., Career Fear— a Legacy From the Sixties, Bull. USCGA Alumni Assoc., April 1996, p. 21-24.

2. Bill Stump, How to Maximize Your Future: Junior Officers Have Tough Row to Hoe, Navy Times, Aug. 7, 1996, p.14.

3. CDR Scott Jones, USCG, Ret., Performance Evaluations and Promotions, USCGA Alumni Assoc., Oct., 1996, p.3-4.

4. MAJ Charles Hudlin, USAF, Morality and the Military Profession: Problems and Solutions, In Military Ethics, NDU Press, Washington DC, 1987, p. 81-97.

5. Sean Naylor, Leader Survey Still Secretive/ A Year After the Fact, Poll Showing Malaise Still Not to be Released and Survey Says..., Army Times, July 13, 1998.

6. COL Wm. Bell, The Impact of Policies on Organizational Values and Culture, JSCOPE XXI.

7. According to the text used by most ROTC units, (Wm. Stofft, et al., American Military History, 1988, US Army Center for Military History, Washington DC) p. 101, the first major downsizing of the American Army was called for by Congress on Sept. 24, 1783, only four days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the War for Independence."

8. Specifically, The Yellow Admiral, Patrick O’Brian, 1996, W.W Norton, New York, 262 pp., in which O’Brian’s Hornblower-like hero, Jack Aubrey is "yellowed" or nominally promoted to Admiral without command at sea due to downsizing of the British Navy following the Napoleonic Wars.

9. Among them, the switch from a "fully qualified" to "best qualified" basis for promotion, and a "numbers driven" officer evaluation system as the primary criterion for determining "best qualified" status.

10. E.g., the transfer of the Coast Guard from the Dept. of Treasury to the Dept. of Transportation.

11. The Army Times reported in an Aug. 10, 1998 article entitled Troop Cuts Get Tentative OK that, over the disapproval of the House National Security Committee, "Congress has allowed the services to run as much as 1% below full strength, and gave the Army permission to run as much as 1.5% under." A sidebar extracted from the 1999 Defense Authorization Bill shows graphically that by the end of Sept. 1999, DOD officer strength will be down another 2,799 from present already falling numbers.

12. What is probably first recorded instance in American history occurred in the winter of 1782, when near-mutinous petitions were circulated among the officers garrisoned at Newburgh, NY, urging them to refuse to fight if war continued (or to lay down their arms if peace were declared) unless Congress awarded them their long-overdue back pay and the half pay for life customarily allotted to British officers upon retirement, with which they had expected to make a civilian life for themselves in a peacetime America that would have no further use for most of them as soldiers.

13. CAPT P.A. Turlo USCG Ret., Ethics and Career Fear — Is There a Link?, Bull. U.S.C.G.A. Alumni Assoc., June 1997, p. 4-5, among others. On this subject CAPT Turlo wrote, "...If I were a JO in today’s Coast Guard, I would certainly be writing letters to the Bulletin and to CGHQ expressing my serious concerns about ethics, career fear, and other issues. Of course I wouldn’t actually MAIL the letters...just throw them away. Why? Career fear. It’s better to not say anything at all than it is to risk saying something politically incorrect or saying something that the ‘boss’ doesn’t want to hear" In a similar vein , CDR Bill Parker USCG Ret. wrote in his response to CAPT Turlo’s letter, "...There is a lot [left] unsaid for fear of career ending words reaching the wrong ears," and that "Feedback from my boss came in the form of statements like: ‘Don’t write so many things down, you never know who is going to read them,’ or better yet, ‘You have too many ideas.’ It doesn’t take a young officer long to learn the lessons of situations like the above, and stories like these from others, to quickly induce career fear."

14. For example, the Coast Guard Human Resource Director’s Talking Paper on Selection on a "Best Qualified" Basis of Oct. 28, 1994 states that "Certain jobs offer increased responsibility and visibility. Officers and CPOs need to consider opportunities to distinguish themselves in a positive manner from their peers. An individual who succeeds in an especially challenging assignment will gain the reputation and evaluations to achieve success." The question of whether it might be more prudent for this individual to hang back than to risk biting off slightly more than someone of his rank and experience is absolutely certain he can chew is elided.

15. CDR D. A. Goward U.S.C.G., Operational Incidents and Accountability: How We React — A Process Improvement, Bull. U.S.C.G.A. Alumni Assoc., June 1996. CDR Scott Jones U.S.C.G. Ret. expressed this concern well when he wrote (Performance Evaluations and Promotions, The Bulletin, Oct. 1996, p. 4-5) "The current system punishes officers for mistakes. And yet ‘mistakes’ are a natural part of risk taking behavior. Coast Guard service is inherently a risky business. How in the world can we expect junior officers to learn and mature if we immobilize them with the threat of career disaster from a defect on their evaluation? We must allow them to try and to learn from constructive criticism of their actions, good and bad....This is impossible in a climate of fear." Or, as Barney Turlo so colorfully put it (CAPT Bob Bennett Hit the Nail Squarely on the Head, The Bulletin, June 1996, p.3), "JOs should be working their butts off and learning valuable lessons from their inevitable mistakes, not continuously worrying about OERs and promotions."

16. In his response to CAPT Bennett’s article (in the Bulletin, Oct. 1996), CAPT L.I. McClelland aptly characterized this as being "about the maneuvering between personal accountability and loyalty to subordinates."

17. VADM James Bond Stockdale, U.S.N. Ret., Machiavelli, Management, and Moral Leadership, Military Ethics, NDU Press, 1987, p.33-44. Also, in the recent remarks of Commandant of the CG, ADM Loy to OCS Class I-99, to the effect that an officer who is overly concerned with hanging on to his career "won’t risk an unfavorable evaluation by giving the boss bad news or by admitting mistakes, ... doesn’t understand the importance of teamwork and recognizing the contributions of others, ... can’t muster the resolve to resist group think, and ...cannot have the moral courage to elevate principle above personal advantage."

18. Numerous Army studies, manuals, and professional papers quoted by Wm. Bell, Ibid.

19. CAPT Robert Bennett, Ibid. Interestingly, eating one's young is exactly what species biologists have designated "r-strategists" do. These species produce large numbers of young at frequent intervals, few of which survive fierce competition with their sibs and heavy predation, in which the parents themselves may take part. Guppies are "r-strategists". Humans are "k-strategists", which produce few offspring and invest heavily in parental care. My point is that for human beings in general, and Americans in particular, individuals have value.

20. U.S.C.G. Human Resource Director’s Talking Paper on Selection on a "Best Qualified" Basis, Oct. 28,1994.

21. Such as production of a smaller, but more stable, numbers of Academy graduates and other new officer cohorts when continued drawdown is anticipated, and instituting a more realistic and humane Officer Evaluation System that encourages young officers to take chances and responsibility in learning their inherently risky jobs. and leadership and ethics training such as is being developed at the Center for Army Leadership capable of discouraging the sorts of unacceptable "numbers driven" behaviors proceeding from career fear, even if, in the worst case scenario, the economic and political conditions which cause it cannot be ameliorated.

22. GEN Ronald Fogelman, USAF, Ret., The Core Values in Combat, Joseph A. Reich Sr. Distinguished Lecture on War, Morality, and the Military Profession, USAFA, Nov. 12, 1997.

23. Davida Kellogg, Guerrilla Warfare: When taking Care of Your Troops Leads to War Crimes, JSCOPE XIX. Also see Gavin Bulloch, Military Doctrine and Counterinsurgency: A British Perspective, Parameters, Summer 1996.

24. Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant.

25. Stofft, Ibid. p.14.