The Best Defense

Flournoy’s principles

Michele Flournoy, the second most powerful person at the Pentagon nowadays, gave a fascinating talk to Army officers yesterday, and I am not saying that just because she used to be at the think tank were I hang my hat, CNAS.

She likes the rule of law. "The United States must exemplify respect for the rule of law. We have to stop invoking American exceptionalism and return to our historical role as champion of the rule of law both domestically and internationally." Nice idea, but I am not sure how get we from here -- where torture was made national policy -- to there. There is a lot of "do whatever it takes" disrespect for law embedded in the last seven years of American history that the administration doesn't seem very interested in cleaning up.

She also is hot to trot for multilateralism. I think the test of this will be the first time we do something unpopular at home because our allies really really really (as my daughter would say) want us to. I don't know what that might be. Maybe sign up to the International War Crimes Tribunal? 

She has an interesting take on "the commons," and the role the U.S. military should play in policing it. "We see increasing tensions in the global commons: the sea, space, cyberspace and so forth. These are really the connective tissue of the international system and of our global society. And we must ensure access to these shared resources remains open." Are you listening, Navy and Air Force?

She also gives a big shoutout to the Hoffman/Mattis school of "hybrid warfare" (no, it is not about armoring up your Prius). "We need new competencies, but we can't afford to lose the old ones."

One Army colonel posed an interesting question: Okay, what would you call this strategy? It's a good question. Flournoy didn't have an answer, and neither do I. Basically, it sounds like a plan for a mature national security policy.    

I expect Robert Gates to step down as defense secretary about a year from now. Might he be succeeded by Ms. Flournoy?

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Best Defense

A U.S. Naval Academy grad asks: Where's the leadership?

I really liked this note from Marine Lt. Nathan Cox, one of those "bitter grunts," as aviators call them. He has some problems with the academies, most notably in failing to teach genuine leadership. Is this a system that provides the agility we need in our military leaders?

But Cox mounts a passionate and persuasive defense of their worth. Please read all of this before deciding whether he is right or wrong.

I am a Naval Academy graduate and Marine Infantry officer with two Iraq deployments and four years' time in service.  . . .

With regard to the quality of the education, I found the Naval Academy quite demanding academically, and I have heard anecdotally from exchange cadets that it is quite a bit different in that regard from West Point. Most of the military officers with master's degrees teach the introductory level and professional courses while the civilian and military PhD's teach the higher level stuff. Grade inflation does not exist. Anything over a 3.0 requires a major amount of work and many bright people struggle just to pass. I found the higher level history courses I took to be outstanding, although I admittedly didn't take civilian courses I could compare them with. I never experienced any of the problems posters cited at West Point involving instructors not knowing material. 

The problems I had were with the leadership training or lack thereof. The actual formal leadership training I got was not helpful at all, ranging from completely irrelevant academic "leadership" classes that seemed pulled from corporate boardrooms to ballroom dancing lessons (yes, those really happened). Midshipmen are given less actual responsibility and freedom than a private right out of boot camp and are forced to comply with a byzantine and illogical set of rules, known as midregs. Midregs often violate the spirit and sometimes even the letter of the UCMJ and also occasionally contradict each other, generating a destructive contempt for "stupid rules" among midshipmen that did not serve me well in the Marine Corps.

The end result of this "training" is graduates who have little experience in actually leading people when their actions have consequences and a misperception about the importance (and effectiveness) of working within the system and its rules. The system of student government that exists is ineffective at teaching leadership skills because the elaborate midshipman rank structure provides no actual power or responsibility.... As a result, Naval Academy graduates don't know what it's like to make decisions that will cost the government money, make a real difference in the status quo or determine whether people live or die anymore than ROTC graduates do. In reality, Academy graduates probably have less experience because they're so much more sheltered. The real problem is that there is absolutely no effort made to evaluate whether what the Naval Academy does makes better officers. It is simply assumed that because the Naval Academy does it, it must work. The reasons given for some of the training we had were literally laugh out loud ridiculous, but no one has ever checked with graduates, after some years in the fleet, to get feedback on what training methods helped us and what did not. . . .

(Read on)

I believe the fundamental problem lies with the leadership of the service academies and how they are held accountable. The mission of the Naval Academy is supposed to be to develop midshipmen morally mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty et cetera, but in reality, the overriding goal of the Academy's leadership is to avoid getting in trouble. I should qualify this by saying that my observations are four years old, but I really doubt much has changed. When I was there, it was absolutely clear that the thing that mattered most to the Superintendent, more than Beating Army and certainly more than preparing midshipman for war, was staying off the front page of the Washington Post. Every time he talked to us, it was invariably 60-70% sexual harassment and/or alcohol, 20-30% Beating Army and whatever was left over for anything really relevant. The way that the Naval Academy handles midshipman is designed primarily to reduce to an absolute minimum the chance that they will do something to embarrass the academy, not to give them experience that will be useful as combat leaders. . . .

During my first deployment, we spent a good three months fuming because we couldn't figure out how to get to island caches in the Euphrates. Pretty pathetic for the Marine Corps, yes. Eventually, we either waded or borrowed/rented Iraqi fishing boats and made our way over. These operations were conducted in complete ignorance of any small boat doctrine and could easily have resulted in disaster. The importance of controlling aircraft effectively is obvious to any infantry officer or pilot that has been in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Naval Academy has ample time and resources to accomplish these tasks. They could be taught quite easily by eliminating the bullshit filler/time wasting stuff that took up a good 20 hours of my week when I was there.  Eliminating noon meal formation and inspections alone would save a good 4 hours a week spent standing outside having the shine of your shoes inspected (not a skill that helped me as a platoon commander). 

One thing I don't understand is why West Point isn't better at this.  It has a much narrower skill set to train to and it seems to me it could easily make all its graduates into very proficient infantrymen, a skill set applicable to every career path in the Army (witness the 507th Maintenance Company) by graduation. Apparently, however, this is not the case.

If West Point is anything like the Naval Academy, and I suspect in this case it is, the reason academy training isn't superior is due to the military's system of ruthlessly stamping out any incentive for risk-taking. We are taught over and over that, in a tactical situation, any decision is better than no decision and "he who will not risk, cannot win". When it comes to training, equipment acquisition or doing pretty much anything that isn't a tactical decision, however, senior officers can be relied on to chose the course of action least likely to result in a substandard fitrep with the precision of a metronome. It seems more than a little ironic that we are taught to take calculated risks with Marine's lives, but to avoid at all costs risks to our promotion chances. This mentality does affect tactical things, for examples, the Marine Corps' insistence that Marines in Iraq wear their full flak, including neck, throat, eye, hand, groin protection and front rear and side SAPI plates. . . .

Back to the service academies. I don't really think there is much chance of them actually going away.  While I agree that, at this particular moment in time, there is little difference between ROTC and academy graduates, this may not always be the case.  . . .   The service academies give the military a guaranteed source of qualified officers. For example, since the war started, the number of officers the Marine Corps has been able to recruit from PLC and ROTC has steadily dropped while the number of 2nd Lieutenants commissioned from the Naval Academy has almost doubled, from roughly 160 a year to about 270. The number of ROTC officers followed public opinion, declining as the war got less popular. 

.... Do our service academies need to be improved? Yes, they do.  Would we lose much more than just a source of officers by closing them?  Absolutely. I feel strongly that making the purely financial decision to close the service academies, based on the assumption that civilian colleges will continue to indefinitely provide the number and quality of ROTC graduates they do now, would be a mistake.  Nevertheless I am glad you brought the topic up. I hope the discussion it generates will force the service academies to seriously defend why it is they exist and improve their training to justify themselves. There is no doubt they have been sitting in a big, fat comfort zone for at least the last several decades, telling themselves over and over how great they are and they could stand to be held accountable for how well they accomplish their stated mission.

Nathan Cox
1st Lieutenant, USMC"

I also like seeing a man who puts his name behind his views.