Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mr. Lind, may we focus our rage please?

Many of you have by now have at least heard of, if not read, William S. Lind’s latest, “An Officer Corps That Can’t Score.” If not, give it a read and come back. A lot of people are taking a swing at it – and now what everyone is back from Easter doings, time for me to give it a shot as well.

Off the bat, Lind made a statement that needs immediate rebuttal;
The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps.
Well, I’m not sure where or who he is listening to – but there is not silence on any of these issues … and there is the problem I think. I’ll get to that in a second. First things first:
1. Lebanon? I assume he is referring to our ’82-84 Lebanon incursions. That was an aborted peace enforcement operation that was a fool’s errand to begin with. Good thing we left when we did. Mistake? Yes. Poor concept and design? Yes. Military defeat? No. Strategic bumble – absolutely.
2. Somalia a decade later? See above. This whole exercise in CNN-effect meets UN-fuzzy warfare was a political error from beginning to end. The military did what it could given the constraints and restraints that were put on it. This was a failure of the civilians in leadership of the military. Full stop. I’ll repeat. Mistake? Yes. Poor concept and design? Yes. Military defeat? No. Strategic bumble – absolutely.
3. Iraq? After fits and starts, like you always see in complicated wars – I’m sorry - we got this about right in the end. We walked away with something we could call a victory here. Good people can argue if we should have left a small counter-terrorism force behind, but on balance we can walk away – due to President Bush’s determination to see this through BTW – with something we can accept. Of course, it is up to the Iraqi’s to make the best of the opportunity we gave them – and that is fine. You can try to make the argument that it was a defeat, but good luck with that, as no one has made that a convincing argument yet.
4. Afghanistan? The jury is still out, but when I was there, we were still on the path to winning with Shape, Clear, Hold, Build district by district. Six months after I left is where things started getting iffy following the President’s December 2009 West Point speech. That naive nightmare will make the odds of something acceptable like we had in Iraq a lot less likely. But again … the civilians make the calls. Win or loss? TBD.

Let’s review Operational Planning 101 for a moment, shall we? I’ll do a 2-week seminar in just a couple of paragraphs or so.

The military does nothing without political direction and guidance. Depending on your Operational Planning confession, POL/MIL guidance informs the Strategic level plan. That prescribes the Operational level plan. That in turn gives the outlines for the Tactical level plan.

Besides their drudge work on Staffs, O-6 and below do not make anything happen above the Tactical level. For that matter, neither do 1-2 Star General Officers/Flag Officers (GOFO). Further up the chain, the Operational level belongs to the 3-4 Star GOFO. The Strategic level belongs to the 4-Star senior leadership and their civilian masters. 

For those who know how Afghanistan works from the NATO side of the house: Tactical:ISAF, Operational:JFC Brunssum, Strategic:SHAPE. (NB: is actually isn’t that clean because there is also national levels, and the tactical is blurred by the Regional Commands and the occasional reference of ISAF as the bastardized “In-theatre Operational” – just an ugly C2 diagram).

Above the Strategic, again this depends on your Operational Planning confession, there is the Political/Military, AKA POL/MIL. That is your senior civilian and military leadership … with the civilians running the show. Mark that.

This is where I think Lind is referencing when he says “military officers” – as much of his critique is not the fault of anyone below O-6.
Substantively, at the moral level—Colonel Boyd’s highest and most powerful level—our officers live in a bubble. Even junior officers inhabit a world where they hear only endless, hyperbolic praise of “the world’s greatest military ever.” They feed this swill to each other and expect it from everyone else. If they don’t get it, they become angry. Senior officers’ bubbles, created by vast, sycophantic staffs, rival Xerxes’s court. Woe betide the ignorant courtier who tells the god-king something he doesn’t want to hear. (I know—I’ve done it, often.)
Notice that? Yep’r, a little too much Boyd on the brain. 1,024 words, four of which are “Boyd.” Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Boyd … but too much is too much. Moving on.

A few things above. In my experience, in private few of your best Junior Officers buy any of the rah, rah BS. The best are just the opposite; they are critical and questioning. I say “in private” – as only a select few will say anything but the official line in public. That is a byproduct of a very real issue that he only touches on briefly – command climate about contrary opinion. That has been and always will be a part of military life even before Mahan was told, "It is not the business of naval officers to write books." – the question is how heavy a presence is it? Is it Soviet level or Dutch level?
The vast majority of our officers read no serious military history or theory. A friend who teaches at a Marine Corps school told me the most he can now get majors to read is two pages. Another friend, teaching at an Army school, says, “We are back to drawing on the cave wall.”
This is not too far from one of my major critiques of our wardrooms, but here Lind is missing the source of the problem – how we access our officers. He is only yelling at the symptoms.

For an example, the CNO, a nuke submariner, natch, is pushing the Navy towards 85% STEM major requirement for officers. By their nature and education, science, technology, engineering and math majors do not know their history that well, nor will they make the effort to educate themselves on it. In practice, technicians infrequently are intellectually curious about the other side of their brain. There are exceptions of course, but you get out of one end of the machine the results of the raw material you put in it.

The officers in company and field grade are also rational beings; they are responding to the risk/reward factors in their career, and the demand signal from the system in general. As the sayings go, you get what you inspect, and you get what you reward. Until you have a system that rewards intellectual effort, critical thinking and creative friction, you will only have those things at the margins – especially in the GOFO ranks.

There are plenty of officers who are interested in history and theory – but – you have to look for them. You also will have a lot of trouble finding them in the GOFO ranks. There is Lind’s problem – he doesn’t have an issue with the officer corps – he has an issue with the POL/MIL level – that is the senior civilian leadership and the Generals and Admirals in the seats next to them.

Besides Admirals Stavridis and Harvey in the naval service – both of whom are now retired – there has been little intellectual give and take where GOFO will happily paint outside the lines on various topics. Off the record I have seen more, but they will only do so on background or on a personal basis. Why? Simple; command climate. GOFO have them too. Where does that come from? Senior civilian and military leadership.

The first half of Lind’s article is a hot mess, but the second half has some very valid and Salamanderesque observations;
… an officer corps vastly too large for its organization … Command tours are too short … the “up or out” promotion system and “all or nothing” vesting for retirement at 20 years. … It is not difficult to see how these two structural failings in the officer corps morally emasculate our officers and all too often turn them, as they rise in rank and near the magic 20 years, into ass-kissing conformists.
I had to read the last bit a few times. The “too often” is perhaps accurate depending on how you define percentages. He doesn’t say, “all.”
Congress could quickly fix all of them. Why don’t they? Because they only look at the defense budget, and these are not directly budgetary issues.
Closer. That is civilian leadership. Again, Lind misses this critical point about our system. He double downs at the end;
Only our officers themselves can fix these deficiencies. Will they? The problem is circular: not until they leave their bubble.

If American military officers want to know, or even care, why we keep losing, they need only look in the mirror. They seem to do that most of the time anyway, admiring their now-tattered plumage. Behind them in the glass, figures in turbans dance and laugh.
OK, there is some internal house cleaning that needs to be done – but it isn’t going to happen until there is a SECDEF or Service Secretary who makes it happen – or enables the right 4-star to make it happen.

Some ideas:
- Remove STEM degree requirements completely, or to no more than 50%.
- Benchmark some of the British officer accession and retention policies – specifically related to up-and-out and specialization of career paths.
- Repeal and update Goldwater-Nichols starting with JPME requirements. Move war college attendance until after selection to O5 (CDR/LtCol). Replace with opportunity for fellowships or advanced education 24/36-month opportunity windows. Only fund resident programs at civilian institutions. Emphasize in precepts to selection boards.
- Expand foreign exchange tours. Emphasize in precepts to selection boards.
- Forget BRAC, empower a broad Staff consolidation and restructuring of manning documents. Force pain ashore.
- Freeze all officer and senior enlisted on-base housing and begin to decommission sub-standard housing without replacing units. Force leadership to live in the communities they serve.

That’s a start.

Finally, I would offer to Mr. Lind that he needs to power down, reset circuit breakers, restart, and then recalibrate. He has some valid points … it is just that his targeting is off.

If you don’t like what happened in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq & Afghanistan – don’t expend all your rounds on military officers – especially those 2-star and below – they are not your problem. Look at the selection process for the 3-4 star levels on the uniformed side of the house – then more importantly look at the sources of those in civilian outfits that came in to power via political parties, think-tanks, & preferred PhD issuing institutions that created the intellectual raw material that informs decision makers.

It won’t make you as popular as bashing a bunch of Colonels/Captains and junior – but it will get you closer to the problem that vexes you so.

Now for Part II and III on Mr. Lind's article.

I'm an early-cohort Gen-X type who left active duty in '09. Perhaps my view is generational? Let's compare and contrast.

Exercising a rare bit of self-control on my part, two friends of the blog published over the weekend their responses to Lind; the late-cohort Gen-X LCDR BJ Armstrong, USN and the Gen-Y LT Matthew Hipple, USN. I didn't read either until I wrote the above.

Both these gentlemen are well known to members of the front porch. We can't seem to get the Millennials feet off my lawn and faces out of their smart phones - so we'll go with what we've got. I'm going to quote generously, but read them all in full. We have some overlap - as we are seeing things from a slightly different angles.

Let's look at BJ's first, Gardening in a "Barren" Officer Corps.
Lind errs on the side of being insulting to some of the dedicated men and women in uniform, but that does not really worry me. They have thick skin. More seriously, he leads his civilian readers astray, leaving them with an inaccurate depiction of a military completely unused to debate.
Exactly. It isn't the military readers that should be our concern, but the impression the civilian readers take away.
This past Wednesday, the U.S. Naval Institute held their annual meeting in Washington D.C. In an auditorium full of junior officers, mid-grades, and admirals, as well as civilians, academics, analysts and retirees, the past year’s writing in the institute’s flagship journal Proceedings was recognized. An award went to Rear Admiral Robert Wray, who advocated an unpopular position: a tiered readiness and forward deployment system for our naval forces that would fundamentally change much about our Navy. The institute also recognized Lieutenant Ryan Hilger, who wrote a prize winning article on reform of the NATO alliance and adjustments to the relationships between the United States and our overseas partners. These are just two recent examples, but they are not outliers. And they run counter to Lind’s claim that “not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change.”
Just an example of the top-shelf discussion that is going on. Not rough-n-tumble, but important creative friction. You need all levels - and if you are looking you can find it.

There BJ parts with the first half of Lind's article and gets close to the same place I did with the second half;
However, we also shouldn’t entirely dismiss Lind’s critiques. The structural issues Mr. Lind raises are important and worth considering, from staff bloat to using an industrial age promotion system in the 21st century. He also raises the specter of careerism and the classical lament of military conservatism. The reality is there are plenty of officers who are too comfortable with the status quo. The majority avoids the difficult and messy work of reform, or even innovative thinking. The same was true in the days of Lind’s friends Boyd, Wyly and Wass de Czege, officers who struggled with this reality as they tried to reform their services in the 1970′s and 1980′s. The fact that these men are best remembered as colonels, and not as service leading general officers, helps illustrate the point. These are weighty issues. Yes, they are the kind of things that a number of officers are writing and thinking about. But is that enough?
BJ also sees that there is a cultural thing that we need to get right.
The list of today’s creative thinkers and reformers tends toward the more junior ranks, at least in public. It is still a legitimate question to ask, “Are the flags and general officers listening?” Is there any sign that these efforts are valued institutionally? I’ve never seen anything that would appear to support critical thinking, innovation, reform or any other similar topics in the precepts of a promotion or selection board.
You get what you select. Full stop.

BJ ends with a good roll-up;
William Lind is 100 percent correct when he points out that there is much about our military, which is desperately calling out for reform. He is also 100 percent wrong when he categorically states, “only our officers themselves can fix these deficiencies.” It takes reform-minded men and women in uniform, advocates and supporters in our nation’s political leadership, and an interested and informed American populace. We should take his article as an opportunity to demonstrate that have many been working hard to develop and advocate the reforms we need. We also must continue that work and expand our debates and solutions to include an ever-wider audience.
Verily. Now to Gen-Y. Over to Matt and his take, Our Debating Military: Here if You're Looking.

Those who lurk in "discussion boards" best viewed in DOS 3.0 and read email chains full of AOL email addresses, will nod their heads at the following. There is a lot of discussion, at the company and field grade levels at least, if you are willing to get outside your comfort zone to look for it;
Rather than our officer corps living in a bubble, perhaps some of those discussing the internal debate of the military writ-large need to reach out of their bubble to see the rich discussion happening -right now-.
opinions will be heated and varied. The Center for International Maritime Security has featured an entire week debating the merits of the Navy’s,“Air Sea Battle,” concept. The United States Naval Institute archives decades of articles relating to the debate over carriers. Small Wars Journal is a running testament to the continued debate over insurgency and irregular ground conflicts. There are also sometimes-anonymous outlets, like the Sailor Bob forum, Information Dissemination, or the wild wonderful world of Commander Salamander’s blog; they are quite popular in -light- of the often unique and critical perspective taken by writers.
If I may indulge myself a bit here; I would add the wee talk show I host with EagleOne of EagleSpeak once a week, Midrats, to the mix if you like your talk a bit nicer.

Hipple does a solid job helping expand the net a bit;
Perhaps Mr.Lind is disappointed in our lack of engagement with Mahan, in which case I would direct him to LCDR Benjamin Armstrong’s book, “21st Century Mahan.” Perhaps Clausewitz is our flaw? The Army and Air Force officers writing at “The Bridge” would likely demolish THAT center of gravity, if the snarky Doctrine Man doesn’t get there first.
Like BJ, a strong roll-up;
The military is by no means perfect, but such imperfection is what drives the debate that both officers and enlisted are engaging in on a daily basis. Mr.Lind suggests interesting structural reform to better cultivate leadership in our officers. However he cites the need for such reforms based on a decrepit caricature of an officer corps the US Military is not saddled with. If one hasn’t, as a USNI author once told me, “done one’s homework,” ideas fall flat. There IS a debate happening in America’s Officer Corps, an educational and engaging one. We’re not too hard to find if you look.

1 comment:

@goatmaster89 said...

Sal - "By their nature and education, science, technology, engineering and math majors do not know their history that well, nor will they make the effort to educate themselves on it." I take exeption to that.

Naval officers have always been linked to their technology and platforms more than land officers. Nelson and Wellington were both great leaders, but Nelson had to know how to judge the wind and reef the sails or all the leadership skill in the world would not have won the day at Cape St. Vincent. The 20th century equivalent to that was getting a boiler to make steam. In the 21st century, the technical skill will likely be in the area of information technology. Leadership skill maters, but it is nessecary, not sufficient.

Note well this geeky EDO techie still knew about Nelson's bridge at the St. Vincent.