The Best Defense

Lawrence Korb's unhelpful letter today to the editor of the New York Times

Today's New York Times carries this letter from Lawrence Korb, who in the early 1980s was an assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics:

I disagree with Gen. H. R. McMaster ("The Pipe Dream of Easy War," Sunday Review, July 21) when he attributes our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan to an overreliance on new technology, which clouded our understanding of the conflicts.

The problems in both wars were created primarily because President George W. Bush and his advisers ignored the advice of the Army chief of staff about how many troops to send into Iraq and the on-the-ground commanders' warnings about disbanding the Iraqi Army and civil service. Similarly, in Afghanistan they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in 2003 by ignoring our military commanders and diverting manpower and resources to the unnecessary war in Iraq.

This is the problem I have with Dr. Korb's letter: I worry that it helps enable the U.S military to go on blaming the civilians for everything that went wrong in Iraq. Yes, I know the Bush administration made huge mistakes -- like invading Iraq in the first place, not having a plan for what to do once it got there, and operating on bizarre assumptions rather than a realistic assessment of the way forward. In fact, I wrote a book about all that.

That said, the U.S. military made huge mistakes as well, but has not had to confront them nearly as much. The fact of the matter is that our military was badly unprepared for the tasks facing it in Iraq, especially at the general officer level. Had the Bush administration listened to General Shinseki and sent twice as many troops, we likely would have had our poorly commanded troops simply pissing off twice as many Iraqis. Good strategy will fix bad tactics, but good tactics will not fix bad strategy, or take the place of no strategy.

Why do I think the U.S. military has failed to heed the lessons of Iraq? Because I think that, among other things, it has never addressed two major problems it had there. The first is torture, the second is the effect of troop rotations on the conduct of the war. (For example, why did some units torture, and others didn't? And what was the effect of rotating all but the four stars out every year?) Korb's letter, and similar expressions, simply make it easier for the military to go on whistling past the graveyard.


The Best Defense

How a rogue pilot misbehaved for years in a B-52 squadron, and so killed 4 people

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on Feb. 1, 2013.

Of all the military services, the one I know least about is the Air Force, which doesn't get a lot of electrons on this blog. So I was especially intrigued to finally sit down and go through a study sent to me months ago by a Best Defense reader. "Darker Shades of Blue: A Case Study of Failed Leadership" is a thorough, careful study of how leadership lapses over the course of several years ultimately led to disaster in an Air Force bomber wing. It's also a beautiful if horrifying exploration of how bad shit can happen despite volumes of rules and regulations aimed at ensuring safe practices are followed.

Even if you care nothing about the Air Force, it is a fascinating study of leadership, and applicable to many different situations. Basically, it is the tale of how an out-of-control pilot managed to consistently break the rules, but did so with a clever understanding of how to manipulate the system. So, for example, he would push the limits until his commander sat him down and gave him an oral warning. But these were not recorded. So the pilot, who had a reputation as perhaps the best B-52 pilot in the Air Force, would lay low a bit and then, when the next commander came in, the pattern would repeat itself. The rogue pilot got by on a series of these "last chance" reprimands. Subordinates knew what was going on, and found themselves in the position of either risking their lives by flying with him, or risking their careers by refusing to do so.

When a senior officer was told about video evidence showing a recent instance of flight indiscipline by the free-styling pilot, he responded, "Okay, I don't want to know anything about that."

Eventually, on June 24, 1994, a B-52 with the rogue pilot at the controls went down at Fairchild Air Force Base while attempting a tight 360 degree left turn around the control tower at 250 feet above the ground. It "banked past 90 degrees, stalled, clipped a power line with the left wing and crashed," killing four crew members -- three lieutenant colonels and a colonel.

The key thing to watch, warns the author, Tony Kern, is "incongruity between senior leadership words and actions." That is a very important lesson for any organization.

(A big tip of the official BD baseball cap to the person who sent me the link a couple of months ago -- I searched all four of my e-mail accounts and couldn't find who it was, but I appreciate it.)