Sunday, October 7, 2012

Thoughts on Military Culture Today and its Implication for the Future Force

I compiled the following thoughts in preparation for a trip to DC this week for a panel discussion with the Chief of Staff of the Army's Strategic Studies Group on "Military Culture Today and its Implication for the Future Force.” The panel is on Wednesday, so you have a few days to comment and perhaps have your voice heard at the panel.

For an organization facing a period of significant transition, during a time of continued resource advantage and undefined threat, coming on the heels of the traumatic experiences of two ambiguous-to-unsuccessful wars, adjustments to culture will be critical to the success or failure of any reform efforts. Recent experiences have significantly skewed the organization’s culture, which must be re-grounded in order to move ahead rationally.  You can see my general thoughts on this issue in more detail at “Disruptive Thinkers: Defining the Problem.”

Friday, March 9, 2012

Forgetting Our Own History - The Messy Process of Modernization

I had the opportunity to do an interview with Robert Tollast on some issues with the transition in Iraq for Global Politics this week.  I'll let you know when he publishes it.  I found myself coming back again and again to the theme that our surprise with the way things went there owes more to a lack of understanding of our own western history of state formation than it does to some cultural peculiarity of Arabs.  To back that up, I offer an excerpt from my forthcoming book, War, Welfare, and Democracy: Rethinking America's Quest for the End of History, (Potomac, fall 2012).

The lofty discourse of philosophers and other intellectuals has too often ignored the sordid reality of state making.  Charles Tilly, the preeminent historian of state formation, has compared the process to the protection rackets of organized crime.  Local warlords provided protection for merchants and farmers in turn for rents, later taxes.  They vied with rivals, each seeking to expand their territory and their revenues.  Certain conditions, noted by anthropologist Robert Carneiro among others, brought people together and forced them into competition over resources, yielding the wars that produced the state:  competition drove the creation of militaries, internal security, bureaucracies and taxation mechanisms, and campaigns to create allegiance to the ruler and the nation.[1]  Over centuries, with no world public opinion to judge them as criminals, warlords became monarchs, created state governments, and cobbled together empires.  The process of Western state formation was morally dubious, but there was no international community to judge and intervene as there is today.  Only the strong survived, forcing competitive development of state capacity.  While the foibles of developing states today evoke exasperation, they should not be surprising when considered against the long road of European state development.  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Toward at Typology of Military Dysfunction

Cross-posted from the Marine Corps Gazette blog.
In previous posts, I've explored some organizational and incentive factors as to why the military acts the way it does.  Actions at the individual level, though, are often the most perplexing.  For instance, why would people who have risen to senior levels with 20 years or more of experience in the organization exhibit such toxic personalities as to drive middle managers to homicidal or suicidal contemplation.  I haven't actually seen a case of actual suicidal thoughts, but I have heard more than one officer say, "I wish they would just fire me and put me out of my misery."  The screaming, belittling, and insecure; the email all-caps yellers (who cc the world); the control freaks; the incompetents; the indifferent...  What is the pathology behind this behavior, I wondered.  I reached out to some friends to test their reactions to the question, has a decade of the stress of combat operations caused irreparable psychological harm to our senior officers?  While the answer is undoubtedly yes in some cases, I think that some more salient factors have contributed to the dysfunction and may move us toward understanding (I doubt rectifying) the situation.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gordon Gekko, DoD, and the La Brea Tar Pits

It would be good for the stockholders in DoD, Inc. to remember Gordon Gekko thundering in the original Wall Street: "You own the company. That's right, you, the stockholder. And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their luncheons, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes. ...  Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I'll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I've been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!"

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Syria, R2P, and the Real World

For more on this back and forth see this post.

I annoyed several people today on Twitter when I mused as to whether those who were touting our responsibility to protect (so glibly abbreviated by people who want this to be a "thing" as R2P) the people of Syria were going to be heading down to recruiting offices to join in the effort.  This was a rhetorical jab and one that some took umbrage to, saying that people who aren't in the military have a right to an opinion, as well, and that such questions are too important to be left to generals.  The sensitivity of these Ivy Tower champions of the utility of force to such jabs drives me to distraction, but it also misses my point.  I do think such issues are too important for generals.  They are also too important for people who have neatly packaged conceptions of the world, designed to fit through the narrow funnel of academic theory and confirmed through "research trips" consisting of friendly conversations sitting cross-legged on a dirt floor or in a coffee house or university, plus maybe a few years working to churn out policies that practitioners shake their heads at from the bowels of the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom.  One need not have served to have an opinion, but I do think that people signing others up to "protect" with glib assumptions of easy and limited interventions and quick success deserve the rhetorical jab.  And this is not a jab at all who inhabit the ivory towers of academia and rarified policy, because some understand the sordid reality of the world just from others' accounts of them.  The ones I aim at, however, have missed them in their quest for elegant theories and policies.  Finally, even for those who vow to "understand the sacrifice" involved in such interventions and have "counted the cost," this is a sterile, abstract, and academic accounting that I think would be far different if they were rallying to the gunfire as idealists once did in a different age, as volunteers in World War I and II or the Spanish Civil War, to take examples in which the U.S. was not involved (initially in the first cases).

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Getting Real About STOVL

This is a cross-post from the Marine Corps Gazette Blog.  For more background behind my thoughts, see this post and this Marine Corps Gazette article.

Thom Shanker from the NYT reports this morning about Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's decision to take the F-35B Lightning II off of probation. The B variant is a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) jet capable of taking off from short landing strips or the deck of an amphibious ship (as opposed to a catapult-assisted launch and an arrested landing on a full-sized carrier). The Marine Corps' story is that STOVL is needed for (a) use in amphibious scenarios and (b) expeditionary scenarios where landing sites are limited. Shanker alludes to this in discussing "the importance to the Marine Corps of coming up with a replacement for its Harrier jump-jet, which has proved its value in countering insurgencies and terrorists in rugged, remote areas."

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Arc of Enterprise

In an email between colleagues yesterday, one pointed out an article in Joint Forces Quarterly and labelled it as subpar.  That's putting it nicely.  My sole contribution to the discussion was to state that this is what happens when we are overspecialized.  I didn't elaborate in the email, but I will here.  I'm still working through Richard Rumelt's Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, which I highly recommend, and a few days ago encountered a section entitled "The Arc of Enterprise."  What we are seeing today in the military, and in the government more generally, is a familiar phenomenon in business, and in health for that matter.  When you get too fat for your own good due to an advantageous "resource position," you start to not only lose the race, but to lose your own vision of how to run the race.  This need not be a terminal decline, but it must be recognized to be corrected.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Must Reading: The Great Deleveraging

FT's Alphaville blog has must reading for anyone trying to understand our economy these days.  They quote Bill Gross of the bond company Pimco, a market authority, in his attempt to describe the Great Deleveraging we are seeing.  I touched on this in a previous post that tried to explain our balance of payments crisis and the underlying structural imbalances.  Gross is talking about the private lending that buoyed the system and underwrote these imbalances.

Since 1971, when the U.S. went off the gold standard and the Bretton Woods system evaporated, banks have been able to use "credit and the expansion of debt to drive growth and prosperity" with no anchor.  Credit became "a substitution for investment in tangible real things - plant, equipment, and an educated labor force."  The Great Recession of 2008 marked the limit of this credit expansion, or leveraging.  Gross goes on to say, "The financial markets are slowly imploding - delevering - because there's too much paper and too little trust."  Because the system cannot create any more credit, it must deleverage.