The Best Defense

Warnings for the U.S. military about innovation and the information age: The Pentagon looks like a minicomputer firm

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on January 7, 2014.

Here I want to focus on Michael Horowitz's warnings for the U.S. military in his book The Diffusion of Military Power. They include these:

  • "The information age may portend a much greater level of risk for U.S. conventional military superiority than some previous authors have envisioned."
  • Don't get too comfortable just because you enjoy current dominance. Horowitz cites the example of Digital Equipment Corporation, which was a power in minicomputers, but failed to understand the emergence of the personal computer market. It had the resources, but lacked the imagination, and so failed to deal with changes in the environment -- I would say a bit like our national security leaders in September 2001.
  • A great danger, especially for mature organizations such as the U.S. military, is investing in "incremental improvements to the last great thing, rather than the next great thing." So don't confuse innovations that enhance your current way of doing business with innovations that may require a new way of doing business -- but may also produce much greater gains.
  • The great changes of the information age have not yet really hit any military. "Information technology has generally been employed in a sustaining rather than a disruptive fashion. It has not yet led to large-scale organizational changes or major shifts in thinking about the situations in which force deployments are possible."

This is one of the books that not just teaches you, but makes you think on almost every page. My head hurt when I read this -- and I mean that in a good way.


The Best Defense

'Once an Eagle' actually gets it right

By "Capt. B"

Best Defense guest book critic

Just read your re-run (I'm enjoying them tremendously) about Once an Eagle and was stunned at the premise: a seminal novel on officership has skewed and jaded an entire generation of officers against staff work. I kept reading hoping the piece would address the real message of the book, but it failed to even acknowledge it.

Arrogance, political scheming, and careerism displayed by Courtney are outward symptoms of personal selfishness and self-worship. Sam is the model of selflessness, loyalty to his men, and professional soldiering above personal advancement.

If the reader is in doubt, the novelist, Anton Myrer, brings this center stage when the two are stationed in the Philippines and Courtney offers Sam a position on his future staff, with the promise of exposure to D.C. circles and advancement. Courtney's purpose is to gain an ally, use Sam's talents, and hobble a future competitor. Sam's only consideration is whether the assignment will better prepare him to lead men in the coming war. Sam later learns of Courtney's trickery to change his orders to C&S College with shipping him away as an observer to the Chinese. Sam's reply is, "he's going where he wants, and I'm going to learn how to fight Japs, we both get what we want."

I have served as a platoon commander in combat, company XO in deployment preparation, and assistant operations officers for a battalion in combat. Staff work is valuable, as are good staff officers. If the modern officer is so shallow as to believe Myrer's work is a condemnation of "the staff" then he need only be instructed by the Prussian model. The issue at hand is one's character, not the capacity in which it is demonstrated. The most courageous officer I know was the S-3 who understood how to run a staff, stood up to the BN Cmdr when he was wrong, and guided a disgruntled 1stLt who was frustrated that he wasn't out "being a real Marine."

Character, selflessness, and love: these are the qualities of a leader, on either end of the radio, and in this classic work.

"Capt. B" is a Marine infantry officer who has both led men and served on staff in combat.