As defense secretary, Charles Hagel is likely to be particularly attuned to the needs of enlisted soldiers and skeptical of the demands of senior officers. That's my takeaway from reading the transcript of an oral history interview he gave to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Sure, he was in Vietnam 45 years ago -- but he made these statements in 2002.
"The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys who come back in the body bags," he said near the end of the interview.
He also came away from Vietnam underwhelmed by his senior leaders. Here's an extended comment about that:
I was not much impressed with our -- our battalion leaders, our XOs. I don't -- I didn't ever get a sense that they came down in, enough into the platoon company level to really do what I thought officers should do. And the lieutenants and the captains carried the bulk, as they do in any war, essentially. But it was the sergeants. It was the senior enlisted that carried the weight. I mean really carried the weight. And it was obvious to everybody. And they -- the senior sergeants were the reassuring, calming guys. And in many cases, many cases, these were the guys that didn't fall apart. And some of the officers did. And some of the officers couldn't read maps very well. And I just -- I never had much confidence in -- in a lot of the officer corps. Now, there were exceptions to that. Some exceptional officers that I saw and I served with.
It is also striking how the Army he served in differs from today's. In 1968, Hagel had been in the Army less than two years, yet for a short time after the Tet Offensive, he served as "acting company sergeant." That's a green force.
Other stuff that struck me:
Charles T. Hagel (AFC/2001/001/2230), Photographs (PH02), photographer unknown, Veterans History Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
. . . The United States has the most lavishly funded military on the planet, and what does it buy you? In the Hindu Kush, we're taking 12 years to lose to goatherds with fertilizer.
Something is wrong with this picture. Indeed, something is badly wrong with the American way of war. And no one could seriously argue that, in the latest in the grim two-thirds-of-a-century roll call of America's unwon wars, the problem is a lack of money or resources. Given its track record, why shouldn't the Pentagon get a top-to-toe overhaul - or at least a cost-benefit analysis?
Just to be clear: I disagree with Hagel on Israel, on Iran and on most everything else. But my colleagues on the right are in denial if they don't think there are some very basic questions that need to be asked about the too-big-to-fail Defense Department. Obama would like the U.S. military to do less. Some of us would like it to do more with less -- more nimbly, more artfully. But, if the national security establishment won't acknowledge there's even a problem, they're unlikely to like the solutions imposed by others.
By Jeff Williams
Best Defense office of reviewing books about obscure weapons
"History does not repeat itself but it rhymes" - Mark Twain
As the centennial of the First World War is nearly upon us, it is rather ironic to note that Mark Twain's insight bears some relevance in today's world. A hundred years ago there was also an intense naval competition between two great powers. Today we find American naval supremacy being challenged by the up and coming Asian land power China. This is not so different from the early 20th century when Great Britain's rule of the waves was challenged by the powerful European land power Germany.
Like contemporary America and China, Great Britain and Germany were very substantial trading partners, but also global strategic rivals. As that rivalry increased in tempo it drew British naval power away from her far-flung empire closer to home in the North Atlantic and North Sea. These two bodies of water in effect acted as a gate to the maritime ambitions of Germany.
This situation is not so different from China's strategic concern today about its own access to those sea areas that it considers of vital strategic interest. In light of this, both the United States and China find themselves in a competition to develop strategies and tactics for new technologies that in many ways resembles the century old contest between Great Britain and Germany.
To help us understand that naval rivalry between the British and Germans, comes the familiar figure of Norm Friedman, a highly regarded naval writer well known among those with an interest in naval warfare past and present. His previous works such as U.S. Aircraft Carriers and Naval Firepower are the gold standards for a more in-depth understanding of both naval aviation and surface gunnery in both World Wars. Friedman's new book Naval Weapons of World War One: Guns, Torpedoes, Mines and ASW Weapons of All Nations is an excellent addition to his library of naval writings.
The real impact of Friedman's book is the tracing of the development of weapon systems, how they were understood, and their influence upon tactics and strategy. For instance, the long-range torpedo had a significant impact upon the thinking of both British and German naval theoreticians. The 1914 British adage was that "gunnery fills a ship with air but the torpedo fills it with water." The Royal Navy's tactical response to this observation was to increase the range and rate of fire of their gunnery, in order to disable an enemy vessel, followed by the coup-de-grace of a destroyer-led torpedo attack.
However, there were unintended consequences to increases in the rates of fire of a battleship's main armament. Certain key safety precautions were informally set aside, such as keeping turret ammunition flash doors open rather than having them safely shut during action. Many naval historians like to point out that the deck armor of the ill-fated battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible was too thin. In actuality their tragic loss had much more to do with the "tactical factor" of dangerous ammunition handling techniques adopted to speed the rate of fire rather than the "design factor" of deck armor thickness. The original concept of the battlecruiser as a class was high speed for scouting ahead of the battlefleet. These ships likely could never have reached their designed speed if deck armor was made thick enough to protect against excellent German AP shells, thus defeating the rationale of their operational intent.
German ammunition handling procedures at Jutland were far safer, albeit slower, in that flash doors remained closed and ammunition was stored in brass cases rather than vulnerable silk bags. This did reduce their rate of fire but also considerably lessened the risk of a catastrophic explosion. Consequently, the hard school of battle forced the British to rethink ammunition handling and enforce safer procedures. Battle also instructed them on developing improved fire-control to overcome German maneuvering, designed to disrupt fire-control solutions.
Additionally, the British had studied and liked the idea of a massed torpedo attack at the culmination point of a battle and without further evidence made the assumption that the Germans did also. While the Germans might have liked to make massed torpedo attacks, they didn't. German doctrine considered torpedoes far too expensive and valuable to be squandered in such a fashion. The famous turn away of the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland, screened by only a few torpedoes, was far from being the massed attack that Admiral Jellicoe, the British Grand Fleet commander, anticipated.
One of the most surprising revelations Friedman makes concerns the fact that while it was long-standing Royal Navy practice to maintain a tactical fleet plot during an engagement, it was not German practice. According to Friedman, what happened at Jutland "was that the German commander Admiral von Scheer, discovered to his surprise that he had no idea whatever of what was happening -- he maintained no plot and the situation was far too complicated for anything less. In that sense he was profoundly defeated and the only important conclusion he drew was that he never wanted to fight the British fleet again." Von Sheer's self-induced confusion was largely responsible for allowing Jellicoe to place his fleet across the Germans not once, but three times. Additionally, it seems the primitiveness of German tactical doctrine was largely responsible for the failure of von Scheer's initial cruiser scouting plan. The botched job of scouting led directly to von Scheer's later surprise and confusion.
Freidman's book also discusses the use of mines as a highly potent weapon. Tactically laid minefields constrained the maneuvering of both fleets in the North Sea and had probably more direct implications on immediate naval operations than any other single factor, other than the submarine. The mine was the ultimate passive-aggressive weapon whose cost-benefit was highly efficient and remains so to this day. He also reviews the primitive beginnings of ASW and thoroughly discusses both its limitations and future promise to be fully revealed in the Second World War.
Norm Friedman's book is not a page-turner, but if you have an interest in naval history and the interplay of technology, tactics, and strategy, you might enjoy this new addition to his library of naval literature. In my view, just the coverage of the British and German experience at Jutland is worth the price of the book.
-Many thanks to ‘Tyrtaios' who contributed many important suggestions to the writing of this review.
Jeff Williams spent his working life at IBM and Merrill Lynch, but always sustained a deep curiosity about military and naval history. His paramount interest has always been the Royal Navy of the Georgian era but his fascination with the First World War has led him to extend that interest to the naval campaigns of that conflict.
The last two chapters of Emile Simpson's War From the Ground Up offer some of the best things I have read on strategic narrative. They also may be the most significant part of the book, because I think he breaks some new trail here.
His point of departure, as you might have noticed in his piece for Best Defense on Friday, is that narrative is a key element of strategy. "Strategy does not merely need to orchestrate tactical actions (the use of force), but also construct the interpretive structure which gives them meaning and links them to the end of policy." (P. 28) That is, it offers a framework into which participants and observers can fit the facts before them. "Strategic narrative expresses strategy as a story, to explain one's actions." (P. 233)
This aspect of strategy is both more important and more difficult now than in the past, he argues, because of the global information revolution, which means more audiences must be involved in one's strategic deliberations. When military action not only serves political ends (as in classic war) but must be judged in political terms to determine who is prevailing (as in our current wars), he argues, constructing a persuasive narrative becomes key to success.
You run into trouble when your "strategic narrative does not correspond to the reality on the ground," he warns. (P. 125) That phrase evoked for me the Bush administration's rhetoric about Iraq in 2003-05 -- first insisting that there was no insurgency, then claiming it was "a few dead enders" and that steady progress was being made.
It also made me think about the fundamental contradiction of the Bush administration embracing torture as part of an effort to defend rights and freedoms it held to be universal. As Simpson warns, "The moral high ground, once evacuated, is very hard to regain." (P. 209) That admonition should be remembered by anyone devising a strategy in the 21st century.
So, he advises, "The key in counterinsurgency is to match actions and words so as to influence target audiences to subscribe to a given narrative." (P. 154)
Strategic narrative must not only be rational but also have an emotional component, he says. "War is as much a test of emotional resistance as a rational execution of policy." (P. 193) Nor does the need for it go away. "The requirement is to maintain the narrative -- perpetually to win the argument -- is enduring, not finite." (P. 210)
Helpfully, he cites the Gettysburg Address as an example of the presentation of a strategic narrative. I think he is correct in that insight. He also invokes Kennedy's inaugural address. I think he is correct that it indeed was a presentation of a narrative -- but I think that JFK's "bear any burden" narrative was incorrect, and would be proven so a few years later in the jungles and villages of Vietnam.
Lt. Matthew Cancian, the Dave Goldich of active-duty Marines, has a good piece in the January issue of Marine Corps Gazette criticizing commanders who pretend to be carrying out a counterinsurgency campaign without really doing it:
We go through the motions of counterinsurgency without focusing on what really matters. This leads to a focus on process metrics instead of outcome....We patrol in order to be able to report hours spent patrolling.
Tom again: Anytime you see someone focusing on their inputs (time and other resources expended) rather than their results, you should be suspicious. This is true in civilian life as well as in the military, I think.
By Emile Simpson
Best Defense guest columnist
Afghanistan 2013: time to evolve the strategic narrative
(By ‘strategic narrative' I mean the explanation of actions: the lens that we propose to people through which to view the conflict.)
a. We need to adjust the strategic narrative in relation to the 2014 transition deadline.
i. Since 2009, the coalition strategic narrative has successfully toned down expectations of the more idealistic aspects of the campaign, which means that audiences now gauge coalition ‘success' primarily in terms of the stability of the Afghan state, the credibility of Afghan security forces, and coalition casualty figures. The last one will fade as we pull back, placing increasing emphasis on the first two.
ii. Our current strategic narrative still presents the conflict effectively as a zero sum game: the Taliban will either come back or they won't. This is closely associated with the proposition, that we mistakenly encourage, that what we are engaged in is a ‘war,' in which one's aim is defined against an enemy. By conditioning audiences to expect success or failure to present itself in a binary manner, we hamper ourselves: first, the conflict is not likely to produce a binary outcome, which will make our job in terms of explaining the conflict over the next few years very hard, and we will lose credibility by our failure to match what is actually happening to what we said would happen.
iii. Why is the conflict not likely to produce a binary outcome? The ‘Taliban' is a franchise movement; most of its field commanders fight for their own self-interest, hence why many simultaneously have connections into the Afghan Government. The dynamics of the conflict are thus kaleidoscopic, with actors competing vis-à-vis one another, not polarised. The bulk of the coalition leaving will accelerate the kaleidoscopic dynamic, as we are the main object against which the Taliban ‘franchise' can define itself to maintain its cohesion (i.e. less cohesion means more self-interested dynamics). The Soviet experience of transition in 1988-90 supports this analysis.
The likelihood is the Afghan Government will maintain the cities and the roads only (they don't have the logistical capability or political will to hold more), but neither do the insurgents have the combat power, logistics, or command structure to mass, take over a whole city, and hold it. This will create (and is already creating) a ‘core' area held by the Afghan Government and a ‘peripheral' zone beyond. What will result is a patchwork of allegiances, with some villages, and even broad remote areas, controlled by power brokers linked to the insurgency, others to the Afghan Government, or more likely, linked to both. By maintaining a narrative that emphasises a binary outcome, we will be perceived as having failed, when in reality the Afghan Government controls the key areas, and over time, will make pragmatic arrangements with those who control the periphery to maintain relative stability in Afghanistan.
b. We should not invest any coalition credibility in holding the peripheral areas: Over the next three years, the Taliban flag may go up in some towns and villages. In our current narrative, that will be seen as a major victory for them. In reality, to control dusty villages on the periphery, and even remote district centres, means little. We need to adjust our narrative so people expect that, and when it happens, people believe us when, legitimately, we point out that this is insignificant. By so adjusting the narrative, we take pressure off the Afghans to hold the peripheral areas, which they do not want to, only being there because they perceive it as a condition for us giving them support. We also take the initiative away from insurgents by recognising that this is a war for political more than physical space: insurgents are attention seekers -- they want us to react to a provocative flag raising because by reacting we show the world that they matter -- should they raise a flag in a forlorn district centre and we appear neither to look nor care, they have a serious problem.
c. The narrative needs to allow for maintaining some (but significantly less than today) coalition combat power in Afghanistan beyond 2014: This is the insurance policy that ensures the Afghan Government does not lose the cities and roads. The model should be in extremis back up to the Afghan security forces (airpower based, with boots on the ground as a last resort). This is critical, as the perception (amongst the insurgency, the Afghan people, the Afghan Government itself, and international audiences) that the Afghan security forces will hold the core areas will create space for de facto political settlements on the ground.
d. ‘Moshtarak' is over -- the narrative now needs to emphasise Afghan sovereignty: Ultimately there will remain a real possibility of the Afghan state, which is incompetent and corrupt, collapsing in on itself with little action from the insurgency until it genuinely sees itself, and is seen by insurgents and Afghans, as sovereign. In 2009 ‘moshtarak' -- side by side -- was the visual metaphor chosen to characterise the strategic narrative; that made sense at the time. However, side by side means shared responsibility, and that is incompatible with genuine sovereignty. Time now for coalition press conferences to get very dull, as most answers should amount to: "ask the Afghan Government, they are in charge." The litmus test of Afghan sovereignty will be when people stop asking the coalition their questions.
Emile Simpson served in the British Army as an infantry officer in the Gurkhas from 2006 to 2012. He deployed to southern Afghanistan three times and is the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Columbia, 2012).
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
I may be in your neighborhood soon. Here is list of my speaking engagements for the coming months:
Wed. Jan. 23 -- Two events at Army War College, Carlisle, Pa. -- lunchtime talk and an evening seminar
Tues. Jan. 29 -- RAND, Pentagon City, Va. (noonish) -- talk
Tues. Feb. 5 -- Army-Navy Club, Washington DC (6:30) -- talk
Tues. Feb. 12 -- Lewis Sorley's group, The Tertulias (noonish) -- talk
Wed. Feb. 13 -- members of Congress, Capitol Hill (6:30) -- discussion
Thurs. Feb. 14 -- GAO national security staff, DC (2 pm) -- talk
Sunday, Feb. 24 -- George Marshall house, Leesburg, Va.
Tues. March 12 -- The Basic School, Quantico, Va. (4 pm) -- talk
Wed. March 13 -- Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, Pa. (7:15) -- talk
Tues. April 2 -- Marine Corps University. (2 pm) -- talk
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Two career MWDs, both at the ripe old age of eight, recently traded in their military leashes for the comforts of civilian life. Brit, a German shepherd, was formerly a "patrol narcotics detection dog for a military police unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington." Bubba (pictured), a chocolate lab with one tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan behind him, was a bomb-sniffing dog for the Army.
Bubba's last tour in Afghanistan was apparently cut short when the 80-pound dog took a bad tumble, falling through a canvas roof. But his new owners, the Van Fleets, report that Bubba's wounded leg doesn't keep him from enjoying his new home or from taking measures to keep his new family safe. The couple, who lives in Trumansburg, NY, say that Bubba "will case the perimeter" of their home whenever he's outside and "insists on inspecting whatever object in one's hands."
Brit on the other hand, is continuing to offer his services to those in the military but in a rather different capacity. Along with his new owners, the Russells of Fayetteville, NC, Brit is making the rounds at the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg as a therapy dog, having taken therapy-training classes in order to assist wounded veterans. He's only made a handful of visits so far, but his presence already seems to be making an impact.
"The boy is a traffic stop," [his owner, Russell, who accompanies Brit on these visits] says. "Everyone stops to say hello or give him a hug."... On several occasions, those soldiers have broken down in tears while hugging Brit and have thanked him for the service of military working dogs overseas...."They tell me 'When the dogs come, it makes our day.'"
Canine news of interest: The practical use of the canine nose seems without limits. This week I came across three very interesting articles about sniffer dogs being used to detect some pretty unexpected...things. In Britain dogs are helping authorities uncover counterfeit condoms, and in California dogs are being employed to track down fox droppings in an effort to preserve the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. They're also using dogs to sniff out fox dens in Queensland, Australia, though in this case it's to cull the population, not save it. Who knew?
Rebecca Frankel, on leave from her FP desk, is currently writing a book about military working dogs, to be published by Atria Books in August 2013.
Emile Simpson's core observation on the Afghan war is that when war is simply violent politics, one shouldn't expect it to end, because politics doesn't end. As he writes in his book, "The outcomes of contemporary conflicts are often better understood as constant evolutions of how power is configured." (P. 2)
Once you see the conflict in Afghanistan as political at its core, then just talking about the enemy as a unitary force makes no sense. For example, when in 2005 Helmand's provincial governor was ousted from office and so could not pay his followers, he sent them to work for the Taliban, which was hiring. "Akhundzada and his men did not ‘change sides'; they remained on their own side." (P. 44)
Seeing military action through a political lens, as he advocates throughout the book, also puts coalition operations in a different light. Wresting control of Kandahar city from the Taliban might seem to make military sense if it is the enemy's center of gravity, he notes. But think of it instead as a political problem. "In political terms, to have identified Kandahar city as the decisive point was a bold move; however, for a political consultant in a US presidential election, it would be like the Democratic Party investing massive resources in trying to win Texas." (P. 100)
He also warns that it is easy for the Taliban's leaders to negotiate, because it gives them legitimacy, but hard for them to reach any agreements, because then they would have to enforce them, and they can't. "If the leadership were to negotiate a political settlement only to have it ignored by the groups it claims to control, it would lost all credibility." (P. 78)
He thinks that official corruption is "a significantly more relevant issue than the insurgency" in terms of the future stability of the Afghan state. (P. 152)
Nobody has yet written an overall history of the Afghan War. I nominate Emile Simpson. (Who, by the way, was a captain, not a lieutenant, as I mistakenly said my first post about the book, on Tuesday.)
Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/New America Foundation
The NRA was in no position to oppose this change in the law. And some soldiers may live because of it. Good.
By Ron Rogers
Best Defense office of veterans' affairs
There were four of us left in the VA Clinic waiting room in Morehead City, North Carolina. There was a rather bulky fellow with a huge shock of white hair and half-asleep, a woman waiting to drive a neighbor home, a young veteran of Fallujah and Helmand, and myself, a Vietnam veteran.
The woman, a bright senior, and I started out talking about the man she was driving and that conversation morphed into Afghanistan and getting the heck out. I mentioned that the hardships of Korea, the "forgotten war," made Afghanistan pale by comparison. The older gentleman seemed to wake up and mumbled an apology for jumping into the conversation and he was welcomed -- of course. He was a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant who had fought in Korea and Vietnam. He acknowledged that Korea was the forgotten war and told a brief story about his unit "resting" behind the lines, but still having to man defensive positions. One night he was handed a .38 revolver (!) and sent to man the front gate of the compound. It began to snow and soon it had piled up to shoulder height. Two days later they were able to reach him and relieve him on post. Note that he did not talk about the cold, the lack of food and water, or the hardships of the fights that preceded resting. We talked some more about how, in Vietnam, he had gotten tired of the infantry and changed his MOS to aviation ordnance, and he spoke of his gauging the intensity of the battles by the amount and type of ordnance he was supplying for the planes. He observed that it was not going well. And then he was called back to see the doctor.
It was running very late and was now 1730 (for a 1530 appointment). Next the woman's friend came out and they left. I was now alone in the room with a rigid, taciturn, powerfully built young man who was standing at parade rest facing the door and wearing a backpack. His face was a slightly hostile mask. I asked him if he was a veteran and he said yes, he was a Marine. I observed that he must have been in Afghanistan and he replied that he had fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked him what he did and he said that he had been a "door kicker." He said it with both pride and resignation -- he was not happy. Part of it was due to the fact that his wife hadn't shown up yet to take him home. He phoned her and it was clear that they were not communicating well. I took a chance and said that I had observed that many younger veterans were seemingly angry and asked if he was doing OK. He revealed the very sliver of a smile and said with some hesitation that "he was doing OK." He said that he had spent 10 years in the Corps and that at the very end, he too had changed his MOS to aviation and proudly said that he had worked on Harriers. Then it turned out that both he and his brother had fought in the same places and made the same shift to aviation. He politely listened to my mentioning that I had read books by Bing West, who West is, and also Little America. When I said that West had explained the folly that led to the vicious second Battle of Fallujah, he acknowledged that with an angry nod and a "yes." Then I mentioned that in Little America General Nicholson had been described as a nice man with the wrong instincts about where and how to fight. It was clear that this former NCO was not happy with General Nicholson at all.
Just then his wife drove up and he said, "Time to go home to my three kids." I exclaimed "three?" and he smiled. I asked if he was now working as a civilian at Cherry Point and he showed surprise and said yes that he was working on Harriers. I said that that was a good job and that "I had found that the best thing to say was ‘welcome home,' so welcome home." He smiled for the first time and said, "that was right -- welcome home," and we shook hands and he went out through the door to join his wife.
Now alone in an ever colder waiting room, I marveled at the parallel careers of these two Marines, separated by fifty years, but sharing the same thought processes -- that kicking doors had gotten old and it was time for a change. And, just as comfortable as "the Gunny" was with his life, this new veteran Marine was going to go through a difficult transition to reach that place as I had noted his demeanor and his difficulty in communicating with his wife on the phone. They were going to have to learn to communicate and perhaps deal with his demons or their marriage would come to an end. He is a fine young man.
He and his brother are home now, but are we helping them to get all the way home?
The author served on active duty and in the Reserve for 23 years and was lucky to spend most of that time in Army Special Forces, with a diversion to Intelligence. While in Vietnam, he served both on an "A" Team and with DARPA. As a reservist, he served in OSD. In civilian life he has been an editor for McGraw Hill, a civil servant with USIA, and an IT manager in Washington. He is now retired on a boat in North Carolina.
Emile Simpson doesn't think we can just walk away from COIN. As he writes in his book, "Counter-insurgency is likely to remain the more effective operational approach to deal with an enemy who wants to fight in an irregular manner," (p. 11).
"The control of political space is as important, if not more important, than controlling physical space," (p. 6). There is a good master's thesis to be written on just exploring that thought.
And don't think you can just ignore the politics. "One cannot refuse to engage in political activity: the empowerment or marginalising of individuals and groups will occur through coalition actions, whether deliberate or not," (p. 107).
He seems to reject the "hearts and minds" shorthand often used for COIN: "‘Classic' counterinsurgency...was far more about population control than about popular support," (p. 150).
Finally, he observes that classic Western military thought calls for concentration of force against the enemy's center of gravity, but warns that insurgencies generally avoid concentration.
His bottom line: "If in a given conflict the policy choice has been to commit military forces to achieve an outcome in a country in which the enemy refuses conventional battle and lives among the people, counterinsurgency, properly resourced, and in a realistic political context, can be highly effective," (p. 235).
I've been critical on occasion of the Army's Military Review, so I want to point out that the new issue has several provocative articles. The best, I think, is one on critical thinking by Col. Thomas Williams. He argues that Army PME "needs work." He thinks the Army needs to focus "less on knowledge and content and more on the ability to question and argue." He also calls on the Army to develop what he calls heretics -- "leaders capable of challenging convention to create imaginative solutions regardless of the operational environment." Like Roseanne Cash, Colonel Williams knows that the beginning of wisdom is not to walk into a situation thinking you know the answers, but figuring out the right questions.
I eagerly dug into another article, "Meritocracy in the Profession of Arms," and wanted to like it, but put it down disappointed. The author clearly has something on his mind -- basically, re-emphasizing competence. I am all for that. But the article seems to be kind of a rant about the "muddy boots" mindset. He uses the phrase six times in the article, but never defines it, which would be the first step in explaining why he finds it so pernicious. (And to quibble, I don't think the author was well-served by his proofreader: You'd think the Army's premier magazine could spell General Westmoreland's name correctly on page 20. Also, to be even pickier, at the bottom of page 49, the current month is given as "Janaury.")
The significance of the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary is not that he is the first Vietnam vet to be tapped, but rather that he is the first combat-veteran enlisted man ever to be picked. (Like Forrest Gump, he served in the 9th Infantry Division.)
I think that is nice. But I don't think it particularly will help him with the job. I worry more about the lack of diversity in the backgrounds of the members of the Obama cabinet. Too many former members of Congress, too few people who know much about the real world.
It also is kind of weird that the three of the last four SecDefs picked by a Democratic president have been Republicans, at least in name (Hagel, Robert Gates and William Cohen). Where's that Democratic bench?
I remain a fan of President Obama, but I think he and his team have a certain tone deafness on national security. The military may just look like a political problem to certain offices at the White House, but it really needs to be considered as something more than that.
Library of Congress
Over the Christmas break I read several books, but the one that will stay with me most, I think, is Emile Simpson's War From the Ground Up. His core theme is an examination of "the use of armed force that directly seeks political, as opposed to specifically military, outcomes," (p. 1). Kind of like Clausewitz's most famous dictum turned upside down. In Afghanistan, he writes, "the ‘war' is better understood as a direct extension of political activity."
First point: This guy knows how to write. Although the book is a rather dense academic study (the section on the British in Borneo mainly bored me to tears), occasionally he just lets loose an observation or aphorism that is striking. It is not always enjoyable reading, but just when you are about to MEGO, he hits you with a great line.
Second point: I was amazed this was written by a former lieutenant. It is an effort to put the war in Afghanistan into a Clauswitzian context. He succeeds. "The possibility that one can ‘win militarily' but lose a war is indeed perverse logic; it totally unhinges strategic theory, as it disconnects the use of force from political purpose," (p. 138).
Third point: I suspect we'll be hearing from this guy again. So you might as well get in on the ground floor and read it.
I plan in the coming days to delve deeper into the book in a series of posts. It is almost several books in one, so I will break out sections.
Oddly, this is the second book I have read recently with the title War From the Ground Up. The other one, last winter, was about the U.S. Army's 90th Division in World War II.
By Lt. Col. "A.N. O'Nymous," U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
When I was a junior military intelligence captain and S2 for a combat arms battalion, I was a "toxic leader." There were no good reasons for this, but the fact that my immediate boss was toxic, that I was having personal issues, and that I was leaning strongly toward leaving the military all had something to do with it. During this period, which lasted close to two years, selfishness guided my every action. I was not only selfish but lazy, desiring a sense of accomplishment without wanting to do the extra work it takes to build an effective, trained team. I cared neither about teaching nor mentoring my subordinates, and I did not listen to them. I also drove them hard. The result was an S2 Shop that seemed to check all the right boxes but was hardly a team.
My shop's apparent accomplishments were strong. We exceeded the standard in every security inspection conducted by higher-ups, not only passing but incurring zero reports of deficiencies. We were also highly successful during our two deployments to a maneuver training center. During our first deployment, my templates for enemy disposition and my descriptions of enemy action were so accurate that I was under suspicion for cheating for most of this exercise. (I didn't cheat; I had just done my homework well.) Near the end of this exercise, the brigade commander even sent the brigade S2 to me for training, which was no doubt a humiliating experience for that major. During my second deployment, my staff work helped my battalion defeat the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) in more battles than we lost -- the only time that year that a friendly unit accomplished this feat.
But, I was the guy in my shop doing all the briefings and drawing all the templates. My troops' jobs were to simply battletrack and take care of my logistical needs as our command post hopped from one place to another. Of course, they were unhappy doing such menial chores. My bright lieutenant, NCOs, and soldiers knew they should have been doing much more than this. All also knew that the way we were doing business was dysfunctional. What if, for example, something happened to me? In the long term, this would have been a good thing. In the short term, though, it would have been a mess.
Everyone was unhappy, and, unsurprisingly, a large rift developed between me and both my assistant S2 and senior intelligence sergeant. Eventually, this rift fueled further unprofessionalism from my assistant S2 and me. Things got personal.
Since my shop had met or exceeded every goal given us and I got along well with my battalion commander, I more than half-expected a top block rating for my final efficiency report. Our army being what it is, I probably would have received this rating in many units. Thankfully, I did not. My battalion commander, who was not himself a great leader, strangely exercised wisdom in my case. I'll never forget, for my final counseling, his sitting me down and telling me: "You have been responsible for much of my success. When I list my battalion's accomplishments for my boss, I do so knowing that you were instrumental in many of them. But, you didn't get along with my majors, you didn't get along with your soldiers, and I blame you for that. I'm going to give you a report card that is squarely center of mass, and that's the best that I can do."
This warning was indeed the best thing he could have done for me, because this warning -- along with an underlying sense of shame that I could not shake -- initiated some serious introspection on my part.
Compounding this good fortune, in my next two jobs (I became a staff officer and company commander in Iraq), I was blessed with the best set of leaders with whom I have had the pleasure of serving. Watching them in action made a hugely positive impression on me. Reading a book that my next commander gave me, Major General Perry Smith's Rules and Tools for Leaders, made a similar impression. Experiencing the positive climate change that took place in the Task Force 1st Armored Division headquarters when Brigadier General Martin Dempsey replaced Major General Ricardo Sanchez (the epitome of a toxic leader) also made an impression. Things began to click and fall in place, and I returned to a better path, continually learning as I went.
The article "Narcissism and Toxic Leaders" in the current issue of Military Review sheds some light on my failings then. Narcissism, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Joe Doty, Ph.D. and Master Sergeant Jeff Fenlason argue, is the essential condition for toxic leadership (though not all narcissists are toxic leaders). Narcissists have "an in?ated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves." Toxic leaders, who are not necessarily screamers, are those narcissists whose selfish, destructive behaviors create unhealthy organizations and demoralized troops. The authors persuasively contend that our military should develop "methods to enhance its [narcissism's] positive attributes and raise awareness of its negative ones."
What I like best about this article is the authors' observation about self-deception, how toxic leaders (giddy with their seeming string of professional successes, I imagine) often do not even know that they are toxic. That was certainly true in my case. Toxic leaders' driving junior leaders from the military, their creating subordinates who are themselves toxic, their units' members failing to act ethically in the absence of immediate supervision, their units lapsing into utter ineffectiveness when they depart the unit and the motivation to work (fear) is removed -- all of these results have nothing to do with their leadership, these leaders tell themselves. They are great leaders, they think. After all, their report cards say so.
The authors conclude that our military needs to place "more emphasis on mentoring, self-awareness, self- regulation, and emotional intelligence." But, how do we do this, and is this enough?
Based on my experience, what our institution must do first to counter this persistent problem is to improve how we evaluate leaders. As a junior captain, I was lucky to get the report card I actually deserved. We need to take more of the luck out of this process. A good place to start would be with incorporating 360-degree feedback from leaders' subordinates, peers, and raters into their efficiency reports. It is also important for our military to figure out how to better assess a unit's health and to make this assessment a key element (if not THE key element) of efficiency reports. In other words, obvious indicators of mission accomplishment need to be better balanced with indicators of overall unit health and morale. These latter indicators might include, for example, command climate survey results, soldier retention rates, and the time the unit dedicates to the professional development of its officers and soldiers.
Getting leader efficiency reports right would require of our military a great deal of serious thought, study, and energy. However, the long-term results would be unquestionably worth it.
Just as important, though, is helping to prevent toxic leadership in the first place by improving education in our service schools. I should have been thinking about "organizational culture" and "organizational leadership" before I was a major at the Army's Command and General Staff College. True, I received my commission from Officer Candidate School, where there is probably time for only a day or two of such discussion. However, robust discussions, videos, and authoritative and compelling testimonies regarding "what right looks like" in healthy organizations and "what wrong looks like" in unhealthy organizations would probably have made a huge difference for me if I had received this instruction at basic course, advanced course, and the now-defunct Combined Arms and Services Staff School.
Similarly, teaching cadets who are attending military schools and ROTC programs to recognize the signs of healthy and unhealthy units might make a huge difference for these officers, and such classes should be consistently taught at NCO schools, too. Such a block of instruction -- regularly and consistently applied in service schools throughout a leader's career -- would at least get leaders thinking about putting their units' long-term health and their troops' professional development before short-term mission accomplishment. It is especially important that junior leaders receive this instruction while their character is still malleable. Our pushing junior leaders to units without this education, when they are prone to automatically emulate apparently successful leaders (who, in real terms, may not be successful at all), is harming these young leaders, their future units, and their future troops -- in a few cases, perhaps, irreparably.
The views offered here are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. military.
By "yet another Marine LT"
Best Defense department of the JO exodus
Why are we getting out? It's about the low standards.
We joined because we wanted to be part of an elite organization dedicated to doing amazing things in defense of our nation. We wanted to make a contribution to something great, to be able to look back at a decisive chapter in American history and say "yeah, I was part of that." We joined the Corps because if we were going in to the fight, we wanted to serve with the best. We wanted the kind of job that would make our friends who took soulless, high-paying corporate jobs feel pangs of jealousy because we went to work every day with a purpose.
It causes a deep, bitter pain to acknowledge that I don't think this is the organization in which I currently serve. The reason we're getting out is because the Marine Corps imposes a high degree of stress, yet accepts Mission Failure so long as all the boxes on the list are checked.
I'm talking about the Field Grade Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan who didn't know who Mullah Omar was. I'm talking about a senior Staff NCO in the intelligence community who could not produce a legible paragraph. I'm talking about a Battalion Commander who took pride in the fact that he had done zero research on Afghanistan, because it allowed him to approach his deployment with "an open mind." I'm talking about contractors, some of whom were literally paid ten-fold the salary of my junior Marines, who were incapable of performing basic tasks and functionally illiterate. The problem is not so much that these individuals pop up every now and then, as every organization has its bad eggs, but rather that we see them passed on through the system, promoted and rewarded. If we are truly the elite organization we claim to be, how do we justify the fact that we allow these individuals to retain positions of immense influence, much less promote through the ranks? How do we justify this endemic tolerance for mediocrity or outright incompetence?
If you really want to know what an institution values, don't look at its mottos or mission statements. Look at how it spends its resources, especially its human capital. Economists call this "Revealed Preference." When I was in the midst of a time-critical project aimed at mapping insurgent networks in Helmand, I was told to put the project on hiatus so I could organize a visit from General Allen. The implicit message was that a smooth itinerary and content General were more important than catching an insurgent cell before they left for Pakistan. How else was I supposed to interpret this? In my opinion, it's not so much that the Marine Corps doesn't value ideas, but that -- when the chips are down and careers are at stake -- it values appearance and conformity more than winning. The implicit message -- what the Marine Corps reveals by its actions -- is that it's okay to fail to provide any added value, so long as the PowerPoint slides are free of typos, no serialized gear is lost, and everyone attends the Sexual Harassment Prevention training
The biggest issue is that few are willing to acknowledge Mission Failure because doing so is considered "unprofessional," especially for a lieutenant. As an Army Special Forces veteran I worked with was fond of saying, "you get what you incentivize." As it currently stands, there is an overwhelming incentive for officers at all levels to simply keep their units looking sharp, turn in rosy, optimistic assessments, keep off the XO's radar and, above all else, keep from rocking the boat. No matter what becomes of your battlespace, eventually the deployment will end and you can go home. Why risk casualties, a tongue lashing or missed PT time when the reward might not come for years down the road? Why point out that the emperor has no clothes when everyone one involved is going to get their Navy Comms and Bronze Stars if we just let him keep on walking down the road.
We should be better than this. I have found several of the comments and reviews of your latest book baffling. We can quibble about the merits of Marshall's management techniques or the specific metrics by which we should measure officer performance. But can't we unanimously agree that sub-par commanders should be weeded out, especially in an organization that calls itself "the finest fighting force on the face of the earth?" The practice of actively relieving (and eventually separating) leaders for under-performance is no panacea, but shouldn't it at least be a starting point?
I don't want to be misunderstood. The most extraordinary and talented people I've ever met are still serving in the Corps. I live in a wonderful area, I'm well-paid and generally like the people I work with. Given the chance, I would happily deploy again. But looking down the road at what the billet of a Field Grade officer entails, I have to wonder whether the sacrifices will be worth it. Maybe they will. I've seen some Field Grade officers who love their jobs and feel like they're serving a purpose. But I'm not sure I'm willing to take the gamble.
I was told at The Basic School that the most important role as a leader is to say, when everyone is tired and ready to declare victory and just go home, "guys, this isn't good enough, we have to do better." I simply don't see enough leaders willing to say, regarding the things that really matter, "guys, the last eleven years weren't good enough, the nation needs us to do better."
I've seen many positive reviews of my book, and a few negative ones. But I have not seen one so entirely ambivalent as the one by retired Army Brig. Gen. John Brown in ARMY magazine. On the one hand, the general thinks my new book is "engaging, well-written, sensibly documented, and interestingly organized." He adds: "People are going to read and enjoy this book."
On the other hand, there is actually quite a lot General Brown dislikes about my book. Most of all, he really, really hates my emphasis in the book that the Army should fire ineffective generals, and even announce such actions. "Much the same was said about public flogging in its day," he comments. I guess that makes George Marshall a public flogger.
At this point in the review, the GPA (the Generals' Protective Assocation) kicks in. "We need not apologize for being protective of our colleagues and their reputations," he admonishes. Hmm. I would say, Oh yes you do, if by doing so you have protected failures and incompetents at the expense of the troops and the nation. That would be at least unprofessional, and perhaps a dereliction of duty.
General Brown also takes sharp exception to my description of the 1991 Gulf War, in which he fought. "I had been under the illusion that accomplishing all assigned missions with a minimum of casualties while liberating a friendly country and driving out a powerful adversary was a success -- but what do I know?" I would respond, It is not what you knew then, it is what you have learned in the last 22 years. What we do know now is that Saddam Hussein believed he had won that war, because he emerged from it as the sole Arab leader to take on the United States and its allies militarily and survive. (See page 386 of my book for quotes from his cabinet meetings about this.) Plus, the 1991 war never really ended -- we fought in Iraq for another two decades. Bottom line: If your foe thinks he won, and the fighting doesn't end, then I don't think you've won your war. Rather, I think you may have won your first battle and then ended the conflict prematurely.
General Brown also thinks the way I write about Generals Franks, Sanchez and Casey is "presumptuous." I thought I was just using plain English. Trying to say clearly what one really thinks is harder than it looks.
Oddly, Brown disregards the account at the beginning of my book about how I came to write it. He suspects I had "a portfolio of favorite stories" I wanted to tell. Rather, as I explained in a section beginning on page 7 of the book, I was puzzled by how the same U.S. Army that was so quick to relieve during World War II was so slow to relieve in Iraq, and it made me wonder if lack of relief is liked to lack of accountability -- and most importantly, if lack of accountability leads to lack of adaptivness
He also seems to have skipped my long section on the post-Vietnam rebuilding of the Army, saying that in my account, "American generalship involved in successes off the battlefield since World War II don't seem to matter."
Yet. Yet for all that, he emerges surprisingly enthusastic about the book. It ends, he says, "with some pretty respectable recommendations." His surprising conclusion: "The Generals will raise your blood pressure and expand your mind. I recommend it."
In related news, the Army War College library put The Generals on its new suggested reading list.
Maj. Scott Stagner took this lesson away from his time in 2006 commanding a 7th Special Forces Group detachment in southern Afghanistan: "We are so rushed as officers to get through and check blocks. In my opinion, everyone is looking more toward their next job than they are at their current job. I fault our system for that ... We rush people through because we are stuck on this system of trying to get everyone through all the jobs that we can possibly get them exposed to. So, 1) they are never held accountable for truly their actions. You have to really mess up to get relieved and it does not happen very often. And 2) you don't ever get to operate in the job that you are training for. You are always getting trained to move on to the next position, so rather than employing the best person for that job. The best person is the guy that gets pulled out immediately to go and do something else."
I wrote Veterans on Trial to provide an unflinching view of how combat-related PTSD evolved and to assess its current and future impact on American society and, in particular, on the court system. I sought to serve another major purpose as well -- to set the stage for a hard look at future policy considerations for U.S. military interventions.
The idea for the book arose while I was participating in a multi-disciplinary bioethics working group on the ramifications of PTSD. The widespread incidence of PTSD in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars convinced me that this was a critically important project. The title refers to the trials and tribulations that veterans must undergo, not only in court, but in their daily lives as they negotiate the transition to civilian life. I refer also to the fact that PTSD will continue to be a source of controversy, not just within the psychiatric profession, but in serious criminal cases in which the stakes are the highest and as a human cost factor in future political and military decision making concerning war.
I begin by focusing on the management of psychiatric casualties by military leaders and psychiatrists during American wars from the Civil War forward. I begin by stripping away the confusion -- and obfuscation -- that have prevented a clear understanding of the origin and role of combat-related traumatic stress in war-time. Although PTSD has become widely known in popular culture, I believe that the public's understanding is superficial. The public has only a rudimentary idea of what PTSD is, how it arises in military service, how it affects mental and physical health, and why it is not taken into account in decision making about war. This is so, largely, because so much of what is said about it by the military, as well as by mental health professionals, is overly simplistic, incomplete, and inaccurate.
PTSD finally gained official recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association during the post-war cultural upheaval following Vietnam. That came about, not because the Vietnam War produced more PTSD, but because of the post-war cultural turmoil. The social-political alliance supporting veterans would not let go of the issue. PTSD and its predecessor conditions have arisen in each war because of a constellation of old and new factors configured in unique ways. I learned that, paradoxically, all wars are different but, in a sense, all wars are the same.
I examine critically how the disorder has been a moving target, undergoing transformation in the various DSM editions. I also argue that it is far more complex and variable than the experts claim. I explain in detail how PTSD has been used when veterans were on trial in criminal court after Vietnam and, more recently, during and after deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I bring the narrative to its logical application -- an analysis of the key problems facing military and political leaders today. The most critical problems that have been inadequately dealt with, in my view, are military sexual trauma (MST) and the escalating military suicide rate. I find particularly blameworthy the chronic failure of political and military leaders to consider -- before deploying military force -- the human cost of war. They are equally culpable for their lack of accountability for the consequences of the interventions. One measure is to provide a seamless transition from military to VA care.
I am also convinced that, despite the growing role of women in the military, the military has utterly failed to take obvious steps to bring about the cultural change needed to eliminate widespread sexual assault and harassment. The high rate of suicide among active duty soldiers and veterans is a clear signal of dysfunction within military culture. Although I recognize that the leadership has instituted some typical measures in an effort to stem the tide, the military has failed to take the most obvious step to uproot the causes - a painstaking examination of the root causes within its own culture.
It is obvious to me that political leaders must shoulder responsibility for failing to take into account the human cost of war before making decisions to use force. If all costs, including human as well as economic, social, and foreign policy, were taken into account fully, war would become what it should be - a last resort for critical situations to be used only after every possible diplomatic measure.
I confront other controversial subjects, including the widespread creation of veterans treatment courts and the claim that returning veterans are bringing violence into American society. As for the former, I believe that diversion programs for veterans should be available to other defendants based on an equal justice standard. Establishing special courts for any category of citizens, even deserving veterans, is misguided because it is inconsistent with our system of justice and it lets the responsible institutions -- the executive and legislative branches - off the hook by cleaning up the problems that they created.
As for societal violence, contrary to familiar claims made after nearly every war, veterans have not been proven to cause a spill-over of violence in civilian society. While isolated episodes do occur, it is painfully true, as shown by recent events, that American society has a long history of episodic violence. Americans suffer from a national amnesia about the violence in civilian society, just as we do about our reliance on force in our foreign policy. For so young a nation, we have a well-developed national mythology to explain away the policies and practices that we do not care to acknowledge.
I cannot urge too strongly that we -- political leaders and citizens alike -- forego our usual post-war practice of evading a hard look at the mistakes, misjudgments, and lessons of war. Unless we undertake a painstakingly critical examination of these long wars, we are destined to repeat the past - and we will suffer the consequences.
Barry R. Schaller retired from the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2008, but continues his judicial service on the Connecticut Appellate Court. He also is a Clinical Visiting Lecturer at the Yale Law School and the author of Veterans on Trial: The Coming Court Battles Over PTSD, published in 2012 by Potomac Books.
That was the question that kept on coming back to me as I read Joshua Phillips' None of Us Were Like This Before. It is not a perfect book but it is an important one.
Yes, there are ethical and moral reasons for conducting a comprehensive review of instances of torture of Iraqis, Afghans and others by American soldiers over the last 10 years.
But there also are practical reasons:
1. The damage torture does to those who inflict it. (Two of the soldiers in the unit Phillips examines killed themselves after coming home.)
2. The damage torture does to our war efforts-both in the host populations, and in world opinion.
3. The effect on the current force.
The questions I would like to see addressed include:
--Who stopped torture?
--What were the characteristics of units that indulged in torture? And of those that didn't?
--How can we better train soldiers to deal with this?
--Are there continuing effects on the force that need to be addressed?
One final note: Phillips writes that, "I rarely met a detainee who had received an apology, or any acknowledgement at all, for the harsh treatment he had endured during U.S. captivity."
Haft and Harrison Suarez
Best Defense personnel symposium leaders
At last Friday's beer call we had a turnout of eight people. It was an intimate group of truly concerned people, and the meetup went very well. The only consensus was that the current system isn't working, but the discussion helped the two of us refine our thinking. As usual, it left us with more questions than answers.
Here are our notes:
We've produced an organizational culture of risk-aversion and conformity, as well as a "stay in your box, just do your time" mentality. This is a tactical/operational reflection of a strategic leadership problem.
The causes put forth were all related to incentives: short deployments, high rates of turnover, inability to fire people for poor performance (you can only fire for ethical transgressions), and a habit of sending non-performers away on training teams to Iraq/Afghanistan, even while we preach partnering as the main effort.
As relates to personnel policy, we discussed it in the context of the RAND study which talked about DOPMA essentially unionizing the military. The group agreed that it's had the effect of driving many top performers away. Worse, for the ones who do stick around, the military is limited in its ability to reward them with faster promotions or movement to more prestigious/influential billets.
A common trend is that all of this stuff is happening at such a high level, and yet it's having a dramatic impact on the lowest ranks (not just officers-it doesn't take long for enlisted Marines to know which of their leaders is good and bad).
So who's to blame?
Should we blame the high-performer who decides to walk away? He could keep serving, but how long can you be frustrated and under-appreciated before you go look for something better?
Should we blame bad leadership? That's an easy answer, but most of the bad leadership is just a response to incentives. "That's just the way the game is played" has more power than we acknowledge.
Should we blame the Marine Corps? It operates within the law, Anbar and Helmand are arguably the biggest success stories from the two wars, it's maintained expeditionary units across the globe the entire time, and oh by the way it stood up a new branch for Special Operations Command. It's certainly done its part.
Should we blame the Congress? They aren't familiar with the personnel policy-most of them haven't served. And who puts them there in the first place?
So should we blame the American people for electing the Congress? For choosing not to serve in the all-volunteer force? How can we? The message they got was to go shopping and that the wars would be quick and easy.
What we decided was that we all share in the blame. No one person or group can take responsibility for everything that's going wrong. Instead, at every level, this is a response to incentives.
So how do you change the incentives? We can debate specific fixes for hours. But most simply, you have to take care of your top performers and you have to get rid of those who aren't up to the task. That's not pleasant when someone has served honorably for a decade and has a family, but who does the military exist to serve?
PS: We'd like to give a shout-out to Schlafly Pumpkin Ale.
Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez are two former infantry officers in the United States Marine Corps. The views presented here are their own and do not represent the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense. Yet one feels there is a good chance that Jay-Z is down with them.
Rear Adm. John Kirby
Chief of Naval Information
Here are 15 books that have made an enormous impact on me, personally and professionally. Indeed, I can honestly say that each of these has affected not only the way I do my job, but the way I think about the way I do my job.
These are books I have read and re-read several times and often give as gifts.
It's not an all-inclusive list by any stretch. I love to read lots of different stuff. There are no works of fiction on it, for example, and there are no works of naval history -- both of which I enjoy immensely. I chose, rather, specific books that have helped me make sense of the world around me and shaped the ways in which I try to communicate for the institution.
I claim no particular expertise in public relations. I've never received any formal education in the field. These books, then, have largely served as my reference library for a career built through "on-the-job" training. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
1. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
This is THE definitive book on how to write powerfully and clearly, everything from memoirs and travel pieces to science and technology articles. Right in the opening pages -- on page five in fact -- he talks about the unspoken transaction between a writer and his readers: "Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from paragraph to the next, and it's not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize.' It's a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength." If you want to write with clarity and strength -- and we should ALL want to do that -- this is the book you need to read. Then pick it up a few months later and read it again.
2. Brave Men, by Ernie Pyle
War is messy and ugly, cruel and destructive. But it is also a STORY, a story of drama and skill and pain and suffering. It is tragedy and comedy all rolled into one, the exclamation point at the end of the human sentence. Nobody -- and I mean NOBODY -- tells that story better or more simply than Ernie Pyle did. Brave Men, first published in 1943, is a collection of his syndicated columns from the time he landed with our troops at Sicily until the liberation of Paris. He writes about World War II from the perspective of the troops, from the average Joe. There isn't a lot of strategy in this book, but there is an awful lot of heart.
3. Generating Buy In: Mastering the Language of Leadership, by Mark S. Walton
Adm. Mullen made me read this book before we left Naples to come back to DC. We both found it enormously helpful as he prepared to be CNO. It's not a big book, but it's full of big ideas about how to communicate effectively. I still consult it frequently. It's a MUST read. And don't let the title fool you. This is not some boring, new-age business book. It's about telling good stories and about being persuasive.
One of the chief lessons author Mark Walton -- a former CNN producer -- tries to impart conveys is the power of THREE. People typically don't remember more than three things at a time. That goes for messages, too. When you make a pitch, deliver a speech, or write a PA plan, keep it to three points and make them as personal as possible. Take the audience on a journey with you and you'll get "buy in."
4. The Eloquent President, by Ronald White
We all know that Lincoln was a powerful speaker, but what many people don't realize is just how hard he had to work to develop that skill and just how vital he considered it.
Examining a different speech, address, or public letter in each chapter, White explains the evolution of Lincoln's rhetoric from the lawyerly tones of the First Inaugural to the "immortal poetry" of the Gettysburg Address. He shows how hard Lincoln worked to be good at communicating. This is one of the best books I've read in the last five years, and it only reinforced for me the enduring power of the spoken word -- the speech --and the art form that is speechwriting.
5. The Savage Wars of Peace, by Max Boot
America has never really been an isolationist power. That's the premise of Max Boot's book. But just as critically, he says, we're pretty good at fighting "small wars."
We've had lots of practice, as Boot points out, basically staying "involved in other countries' internal affairs since at least 1805." And, let me tell you, THIS is a Navy-Marine Corps story: the Barbary Wars, Panama, Samoa, the Philippines, the Boxer Rebellion, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Beirut, Grenada. The list goes on. We were there.
You may take issue with Boot's conclusions about how and why such wars are fought, but his views deserve a hearing -- especially when we still have tens of thousands of troops fighting such wars in Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere, even while we stay ready for the large ones which may yet loom.
6. Let the Sea Make A Noise, by Walter McDougall
OK, this is a doorstop-sized book. Let me just get that out there right now. But it is well worth the time it will take you to read it. McDougall tells the twisted and sometimes sordid international history of the North Pacific since about the 16th century.
He does this masterfully and, as one reviewer says, "with a special emphasis on the intertwined histories of the Americans, Russians and Japanese." But he also tells the story by dreaming up seminars hosted by ghosts: Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary; Kaahumanu, consort of Hawaiian King Kamehameha; William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state; Count Sergey Witte, prime minister to Russia's Nicholas II; and Saito Hirosi, Japanese ambassador to the United States. The ghosts argue with him and with each other, as they debate the relevant issues and try to derive lessons for us today.
Diving into this book will prove useful for any Navy leader as we begin to focus more of our attention and intellectual capital on the Asia-Pacific region. It's a beast, but also a good refresher.
7. Other Men's Flowers, by Field Marshal Lord Wavell
I have become a big believer in the power of poetry. Poetry is not written for the eye. It's written for the ear, for the heart. It has rhythm and meter and symmetry -- the very things one needs to be a good communicator. It pulls you in even as it makes you smarter.
This is my favorite collection of poems, selected by Field Marshal Lord Wavell, a veteran of both World Wars and a scholarly man. Here is Kipling and Sir Walter Raleigh and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here is Browning and Asquith and G. K. Chesterton. Wavell collected these works for himself, to give him sustenance and comfort. "I have a great belief in the inspiration of poetry towards courage and vision," he said. "And we all want all the courage and wisdom at out command in days of crisis when our future prosperity and greatness hang in the balance."
8. Journalism Next, by Mark Briggs
I'm an old guy, which means I have very little imagination anymore. What I like about this little book is that it forces me to think about "what's next" in the field of journalism. I know enough to know that if I can't understand that, I'm dead in this business. I can't afford to stop learning.
Briggs does a great job laying it all out in simple, clear language -- complete with lots of graphs and pictures so the history major in me can get it. You'll learn the future of micro-blogging, how to edit digital audio and how to make news "participatory." It's a textbook of sorts for digital journalists, but PAOs and MCs can benefit a lot by reading it.
9. Counselor, by Ted Sorensen
I didn't like everything about this book, to be honest. At times I thought Sorensen was being way too self-serving. But then I needed to remind myself that virtually ALL autobiographies are self-serving. And it's a long read too, coming in at a whopping 896 pages.
But there is no denying that Sorensen was to John F. Kennedy what all good staff officers should be to their principals -- a MOST effective advisor. He didn't just write JFK's speeches (which were fantastic no matter what you think of Kennedy's politics); he advised the President on nearly all matters of state -- from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the decision to go to the moon.
Sorensen had plenty of chalk on his cleats. They were covered in it. We should strive for the same.
10. Profiles In Courage, by John F. Kennedy
Speaking of President Kennedy, I have always enjoyed re-reading this Pulitzer Prize winner of his. Artfully written, it tells the stories of eight U.S. Senators who defied constituent and/or party loyalties on conscience alone. He writes, for instance, of John Quincy Adams' break with the Federalist Party, Sam Houston speaking out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and Nebraska Senator George Norris, who opposed the arming of U.S. merchant ships as a violation of our neutrality in the early days of World War I.
All of these men suffered politically -- and sometimes personally -- for taking these stands, but they took them anyway. They had moral courage. This isn't a book about being right. It's a book about doing the right thing. And it's a classic.
11. Freedom at Midnight, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
It wasn't until I read this book that I felt like I truly understood the turmoil we continue to see in South and Central Asia. Ostensibly, this is a book about the partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. And it tells that story exceptionally well. The book reads like a novel. Indeed, the movie Gandhi was based on it.
But it really takes the reader inside the psychology of the four men most responsible for dividing up the British Raj into modern-day India and Pakistan: Lord Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It also reveals the utter brutality of that partition. It's a tragic story, but a critical one to understand if you want to understand why we still struggle with extremism in that part of the world.
12. Stride Toward Freedom, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am ashamed to admit that I didn't read this book until only a few years ago. It ought to be mandatory reading for every high-schooler. Not only was Dr. King a brilliant writer, he was also a good storyteller. And in this small but powerful work, he tells the story of the Montgomery Bus boycott -- the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Why does it matter? Because that was a seminal moment in American history -- the moment when we finally started to grapple with just who really were the "WE" in "We the people." It traces the journey of an entire community, dedicated not just to each other but to a better future for their children, and shows how a young man with passion and natural leadership ability helped transform a nation.
We cannot function as good advisors if we ourselves cannot understand other perspectives. And I don't believe you can begin to understand other perspectives until you feel them. Dr. King made me feel them.
13. The Life of Reilly, by Rick Reilly
I was never much of a sports fan as a kid. I played a lot of sports, but I didn't follow them much. The details of sports coverage just didn't interest me. Then, in college, I took a part-time job as a sports clerk with the St. Petersburg Times. I got to know a bunch of sportswriters and came to appreciate how difficult their job really is. Sure, it's fun to cover sports, but making it interesting and fun for readers is a whole different matter. That takes talent.
There is no more talented sportswriter than Rick Reilly. His column graced the back page of Sports Illustrated for nearly 23 years. Even my wife, no lover of sports, loved to read HIS stuff. She would often get to the magazine before I could and go straight to the back page. When he left Sports Illustrated in 2007, we canceled the subscription.
This book is a collection of his best columns up to about 2003. Some are funny, some are sad, some are poignant. But all of them make you think, and all of them are crisp.
It's like he's talking to you. You don't READ Rick Reilly, so much as HEAR him. That's good writing.
14. Following the Equator, by Mark Twain
Twain has always been my favorite author. I love his humor, his wit and the ease and simplicity of his writing. Following the Equator captures his essence best, in my view. It's a travel log of a trip he took around the world in 1897.
For Twain, the book was an attempt to make some badly needed money, but for his readers -- then and now -- it serves as a window into the world, a window we can still look through. He tackles racism and strip-mining and military adventurism. He lays bare the prejudices and the vices with which many foreign governments administered their colonies. And he does it all with the precision of a scalpel, making you think even as you laugh out loud.
Twain ends the work with this line: "Human pride is not worthwhile; there is always something lying in wait to take the wind out of it." A good lesson for us all.
15. Public Opinion, by Walter Lippman
Lippman was sort of the Tom Friedman of his day -- a columnist, a thinker, a provocateur. He wrote about pretty much everything: politics, social issues, the economy. He published this book in 1922 as a fundamental treatise on the nature of human information and communication. It is still very relevant today.
Divided into eight parts, the work covers such varied issues as stereotypes, image making, and organized intelligence. Though dense in places -- with examples that can be difficult for modern readers to follow -- Lippman lays out the cultural and psychological factors that affect the way people think about events.
"The analyst of public opinion," he writes, "must begin by recognizing the triangular relationship between the scene of action, the human picture of that scene, and the human response to that picture working itself out upon the scene." You don't have to look any further than today's headlines to see how true this phenomenon remains. We would do well to remember that it isn't just "what happens" that affects public opinion. It's what people THINK and FEEL about what happens. It's about the imagery those events call to mind.
You can have personal reading lists and professional reading lists. Here is the Navy's official compilation. It is quite different from Admiral Kirby's, but both are useful and interesting. Explanations and additional info here.
1812: The Navy's War
Cyber War: The Next
Threat to National Security
SEAL of Honor
Wake of the Wahoo
Shield and Sword
Crisis of Islam
Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
Red Star Over the Pacific
Execute Against Japan
The Man from Pakistan
Time Management from the Inside Out
The Morality of War
In the Shadow of Greatness
Wired for War
A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy
Navigating the Seven Seas
From T.P. Cameron Wilson, who was killed in 1918:
. . . The gates of Heaven were open, quite
Unguarded, and unwired.
By Col. Gary Anderson (USMC, Ret.)
Best Defense department of defense de-organization
Three decades ago, when the military reform movement was beating the drum for what became the Goldwater-Nichols legislation, a number of us in uniform and out, were trying to sound a cautionary note. We got outvoted and the legislation passed. "Jointness" became the new mantra, and arguing against it became heresy, if not hate speak. Based on recent events, it may be time to reassess Goldwater-Nichols.
The proponents of the elevation of jointness to absolute military supremacy claimed that it would prevent long open ended wars such as Korea and Vietnam by giving the President and Secretary of Defense better military advice than they got in such conflicts. The reformers also promised more competent and professional military leadership and less cumbersome command arrangements. The results of the wars in Kosovo and Operation Desert Storm in the immediate aftermath of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation seemed to confirm the validity of those promises; but somewhere in the ensuing decades, the wheels came off.
Instead of fast and clean conflicts, we got Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only were they long and strategically muddled, they were also poorly executed by the joint institutions that Goldwater-Nichols was supposed to fix. In his new book, The Generals, Pulitzer Prize winning author Tom Ricks ruthlessly exposes the myth that our generalship was improved by Goldwater-Nichols. He argues that the generalship of the likes of Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez was marked by absolutely mediocre planning and strategic leadership. In Afghanistan, we have had averaged one supreme leadership change a year. In addition the Navy relieved more commanders than in any time in its history, and the other services have been plagued by instances of misconduct by senior officers.
Many of those who argued for Goldwater-Nichols used the German General Staff as a model to aspire to. While the German generals were superb at tactics, they were lousy strategists. After winning the wars of German unification in the nineteenth century, they lost two disastrous world wars. As Ricks points out, our generals are good tacticians, but poor strategists. Ironically, the reformers got what they wished for.
The problem is not just with general officers; our joint staffs have become bloated with unneeded officers due to the legislative mandate that every officer aspiring to reach flag rank has to serve two years in a joint billet. No-one has ever explained how serving as a Joint Graves Registration Officer will produce our future Grants, Shermans, or Pattons. There was a time when being selected for major was the great cut in an officer's career. Today the running military joke is that if you can answer a phone, you can become a Major.
Strengthening the unity of command of joint operations was a good idea, but most of our regional joint staffs are bloated to a point where they ill-serve the commanders who lead them. Because of the number of joint officers the law requires. Admiral Halsey and Rommel won their most famous victories with staffs a fraction of the size of the average U.S. Army brigade combat team staff today.
This can be fixed. Unfortunately, we will need even more legislation. First, we need to get rid of the requirement that all general officer candidates be joint certified. All of our generals and admirals don't need to be superb joint war fighting experts. Rommel was not a General Staff officer, and Halsey would not have wanted to be one. The joint staff track should be reserved for those who aspire to eventual joint command and staff positions, but there should not be a stigma for those who want to lead air wings, Marine Corps Expeditionary Forces or Navy fleets; we need real warriors as well as soldier-diplomat strategists.
A smaller, more elite joint staff corps would allow us to concentrate on creating real strategic expertise. Joint Staff candidates should be put through a series of rigorous force-on-force seminar war games that would test their capability to make both diplomatic as well as military decisions against competent, thinking opponents. Those candidates who come up short in such tests should be sent back to their services with no stigma to their careers. Successful graduates would still spend time with troops, fly airplanes, or drive ships when not serving on joint staffs; however, once selected for flag rank, their command and staff positions would be primarily joint. This would allow joint staffs to be smaller and more efficient.
Goldwater-Nichols has institutionalized mediocrity. We can, and must, do better.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer, is an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs.
By Steve Donnelly
Best Defense guest respondent
Emma Sky's recent paper for CNAS provides a welcoming and Iraqi-freshened perspective to the most recent of many chapters in the story of U.S. relations with Iraq.
But there remain a great many unspoken undercurrents in the human interest stories of a U.S. CPA and military actor, no disrespect intended, rather than a professional analysis of the gaps and deficiencies identified -- which all relate to Iraqi self-governance and support for Iraqi civilian institutions.
Emma's stories reminded me of several meetings in Tikrit and Baghdad in 2008, which, I believe, underscore the complexities of the US muddle, and the limitations on U.S. successes in light of our past history.
On a crisp morning in January 2008, a military convoy wound its way through Tikrit's morning traffic to deliver three State Department civilian advisers to Salah ad Din's provincial headquarters. Parents walked their children to the local schoolhouse, garbed in the clean, pressed, yet shabby garb of war refugees, wary of the passing convoy. The turret-mounted M60 intermittently pop-popped warning shots to oncoming traffic at each intersection, as the electronic jammers shut down all civilian cell phone traffic. Children with no parents to take interest sat by the roadside selling gypsy gasoline from small containers. All these scenes were visible to the civilian advisers through the grimy window of the Humvee.
As the provincial headquarters' halls were swept by the U.S. military escort, widows and their young children, descending into PTSD events when confronted with the same soldiers that, under Big Ray, had once kicked down their door and taken Daddy away, and likely to be suicide bombers, were cleared before the civilian advisers entered to attend a brief meeting with Salah ad Din's civilian leaders.
The civilian advisers were warmly greeted by elected officials from the Provincial Government, mostly Kurds favorable to the United States, and "democratically" elected as a result of the majority-Sunni boycott of elections in Salah ad Din and Ninewa. But the Iraqi civilian administrators were, on first meeting, typically reluctant to speak directly to an American, whether military or civilian.
The reasons for that reluctance were understandable, given their backgrounds. Some were survivors of the Shia opposition left by the United States to fend with Saddam after Desert Storm, highly-skilled civil engineers returning from prestigious exile in Kuwait to find their country in ruins as it had been after the Iraq/Iran War, but with the resources and responsibilities for reconstruction now in the hands of well-intended but unskilled U.S. military E-5s and 0-3s. Most important was an unwillingness to be publicly identified as "collaborators," when, after the United States left, reprisals would be certain, and did occur.
After the meeting, two civilian advisers were directed to another room while the return convoy was being organized. After very careful negotiations through one of the Sunni leaders, they had the opportunity to meet in private with the former civilian engineers and administrators who had operated and rebuilt Salah ad Din before the Baathist purges. They knew where everything was, how to fix it, and were anxious to help, but could not do so directly.
As the U.S. civilian advisers intermediated between the U.S. military, and Iraqi provincial and national leaders to rebuilt the bridges over the Tigris, a complex chain of communication was required, with "anonymous" help from the former Baathist administrators, and indirect calls from current administrators and anti-Americans unwilling to be identified as direct collaborators, but needed to get their country reconstructed.
Through an equally byzantine chain of events and contacts, two of the civilian advisers were invited to attend an Iraqi meeting (no U.S. military, please) in Baghdad in June 2008, where ministry and provincial officials were meeting to coordinate procedures for the upcoming 2009 budget deliberations.
Here, behind closed doors in the Al Rasheed Hotel's main ballroom, Iraq's leading national and provincial technocrats were blunt in their criticisms of the current state of affairs, the crooked politicians they were confronted with, and the hope that by returning to their older and technically-based processes for project and budget considerations, hoped to move the system to one based on genuine need, public participation, technical reviews and cost/benefit frameworks to get Iraq moving again.
As the meeting proceeded, the old-timers mentored the handful of confused post-Saddam administrators on the old cost-budget analysis processes and technical studies used in the older processes, and agreements were made to republish and re-distribute the old budget manuals, so that a modern and functional government could hopefully emerge.
Why were these two State Department civilian advisers being invited into meetings to which U.S. military and prior CPA advisers were never invited, and embraced by the civilian solutions that the CPA and U.S. military had not engaged?
Each was an actual U.S. civilian developer, planner, engineer and builder. They spoke the same language as the technocrats, understood the complexities of the systems problems, and the routine paths for solutions. Bureaucrat to Bureaucrat. Bridge Engineer to Bridge Engineer. Water Treatment Plant Operator to Water Treatment Plant Operator. Builder to Builder. The language, social, and cultural barriers were irrelevant to the common language of troubleshooting and public systems.
Most important, they had each been sent with explicit instructions from Foggy Bottom and Ambassador Crocker's "bubble" to find those solutions, and were empowered by MND-North Commander MG Mark Hertling, and his experienced command staff, who all came with the same common mission: Give Iraq back to the Iraqis.
The lessons of these many experiences were distilled by the State Department civilian advisors into a report arguing for the rapid transition to Iraqi civilian government based on three insights: (1) Iraqis, by their national culture still driving them, are inveterate builders who had proudly built and rebuilt their country as each war and flood swept through; (2) Iraq had invested heavily in training core groups of administrators, public works managers and engineers, who were available, respected by their peers, and anxious to take responsibility for restoring a functional public service structure, but needed help to get past the interim political leaders (many of which were our own); and (3) that joining these insights into SOFA negotiations could provide rapid transition to Iraqi government, and enduring value for future U.S. and Iraqi relationships.
Where Emma Sky's limitations, as a former CPA Administrator and Odierno adviser are most apparent, is perhaps unintended bias toward what the United States, rather than Iraqis, shoulda or coulda have done during and after a chaotic and ill-informed occupation which drove out the very Iraqi engagement and responsibility that was the only viable way forward, and the lack of training and technical experience in the actual systems of government needed to address the lingering issues.
If anything could be recommended at this point, it would be for the Obama Administration to abandon the unwanted meddling in Iraqi police affairs and ineffective training, and to openly and effectively engage that broad Iraqi public through positive political focus on the "plain vanilla" operations of civil government systems and technical advice, which the United States has an abundance of and the Iraqi public seriously needs.
It is clear that the spooks and spies, by not leaving a basically functional, and somewhat reconciled government, lost their entry, and, perhaps, ceded that U.S. role to Iran (actually more to Turkey).
Focus on what the Iraqi public actually needs, and they will tolerate, if they have to, a handful of spooks and spies, but it is axiomatic that if the United States is viewed by that Iraqi public as a helper rather than an unwanted intervener, less spooks and spies would be required, and valid intelligence on the actual Iraq and its problems would be abundant and routine.
The Lesson from Benghazi and Syria: Effective U.S. engagement in these countries is going to require a more sophisticated and meaningful exchange with these many publics than the current military and diplomatic systems consider. Big U.S. footprints, soldiers, and colonial occupiers are unwelcome. Better to use internet engagements to link Iraqi administrators to U.S. technical resources, then re-engage overtime.
Stephen Donnelly, AICP, is a Crofton, MD-based planning and development consultant who served as Senior Urban Planning Adviser, US Department of State, Iraq Reconstruction, during the civilian surge (2007-2009).
US Department of Defense Current Photos/Flickr
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.