Over at Foreign Policy’s “Best Defense” blog, guest writer Hank Waggy offers an innovative solution for getting rid of the worst troops in the all-volunteer military: pay them to leave the service at the end of basic training.

Waggy is an active-duty Major in the Army, serving as an intelligence officer.  So, it’s a fair assumption that Waggy has run across a few troops who had no business in uniform.  From his perspective, both the soldier and the service would be better off if they parted ways before the military makes an even greater investment in an individual who probably won’t pan out.

From Waggy’s column:

As a leader, 90 percent of your problems are caused by 10 percent of your subordinates, or so says the old wisdom. A lone service member on the wrong end of the performance spectrum can monopolize multiple leaders’ time. In extreme cases, young, disgruntled soldiers can jeopardize lives and risk national security. Sorting out the military’s future problem children would benefit the organization as a whole. Identifying who the problems will be presents a challenge only answerable in hindsight. Fortunately, the private sector provides a ready solution perfectly scalable for the military: pay people to quit very early in their career.

Zappos, the on-line shoe retailer, garnered attention in 2008 when Harvard Business Review detailed what Zappos called “The Offer.” During an employee’s initial training, Zappos offered the employee cash to quit, a sum that grew over time from just $100 to $4,000. The logic behind the offer: any employee willing to forego employment for the payout would likely be a poor fit for the company in the future and lacked the strong commitment to the company’s vision. For a company like Zappos that prides itself on its customer service, a disgruntled employee costs money. Reportedly, about 97 percent of trainees decline The Offer. 

An on-line shoe retailer may not be perfectly analogous to the military, but both organizations benefit from a motivated workforce. The strength of the all-volunteer military is the combination of dedicated volunteers and the elimination of disgruntled conscripts. For military volunteers, the chance to join the military may fulfill a lifelong dream, provide excitement, pay for school, continue a family tradition, acquire marketable skills, build discipline, or any of the practically innumerable reasons folks join the military. But for a (hopefully) small cohort, joining the military is a decision they soon regret. Perceived as trapped by their initial enlistment contract, the disgruntled trainees soon bring bad attitudes and poor performance to their first duty station. Their organizations will soon pay the price.

To illustrate this problem, Waggy offers the examples of Bo Berghdahl and Bradley Manning.  From Day One of basic training, it was apparent that both were a poor fit for the Army.  By releasing them from service during or after basic, the nation would have been spared Berghdahl’s traitorous turn in Afghanistan, or Manning passing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.

To get rid of the slackers, malcontents and poor performers, Major Waggy suggests offering a “separation payment” to the bottom 10% of each basic training class.  The stipend would be equal to one or two months’ of basic pay, providing a small sum to help the former soldiers get on with their lives.  

The concept is not without merit; if their basic training performance is any indication, many of these soldiers will remain sub-standard performers, creating problems for their commanders, platoon sergeants and anyone else in their chain of command.  Many of these laggards will be denied reenlistment and by the time the Army reaches that point, the taxpayer will have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay, benefits and training, with little to show for that outlay.

But why pay a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or coastie who can’t cut the mustard?  There are procedures in place to help “cull the herd,” from the recruiting station to the operational unit.  The late, great Chief Buddy used to preach that all supervisors had an obligation to “flush early and often,” and you can’t fault his logic.  Contrary to what some believe, the military is not a social welfare project and the armed services do not have an obligation to retain troops who can’t pull their weight.  So, instead of “wash-out bonuses,” perhaps the answer is better enforcement of existing standards.  

To be fair, that is not as easy as it sounds.   If the Army (or any other branch) is going to eliminate the bottom 10% in basic training, then recruiters will have to increase the number of accessions, to ensure required manning levels are maintained.  And obviously, the cost of recruiting and training new soldiers will increase, in an era when the military is finding it increasingly difficult to meet enlistment quotas.  But we believe the service should hold the line at offering separation payments for those unable to meet fundamental standards in basic training.  A few weeks of unsatisfactory performance should not be worth a small payout, even if it is only $2,000.   

Besides, what sort of message does it send to recruits who make the grade?  True, most of them will serve at least four years in the military, but the thought of wash-outs being sent off with a stipend is bound to create resentment.  Additionally, it represents an unnecessary expense in an era when defense dollars would be better spent on those who will actually contribute–not those who fail to measure up.