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Good intentions and tiny bits of progress are not enough

Posted by John Reed on

Here is an email I got from an Army sergeant and my response. What he says is typical of the way people who work for the government think about their careers. It is wrong or at least incomplete. And it is bringing down our government.


I have read, with no small amount of inner laughter, many of the articles pertaining to military matters at your website. The Ranger School article was of particular note, as I too look back to that experience almost twenty years ago without enthusiasm. However, having served in the Ranger Regiment for thirteen years and seven combat deployments with them, I do feel quite strongly about their accomplishments.

I don't know what elite means, but I do know what sacrifice, courage, compassion, skill, determination, and professionalism means. Night after night, year after year, the 75th pursues our enemies. Two weeks ago I flew to a base to deliver two explosive detectors to a small group of 75th Rangers. On the LZ I found them, twenty or so, gathered around a scratch on the ground, overhead photos strapped to their arms and oriented to the terrain model (for that is what the scratch really was), going over it one more time. I was proud of them. You should be proud of them too. They are as good as America gets. [Reed note: That “good as america gets” phrase is not true but it is understandable coming from a person who has been in the military since he was a teenager and who has been told that incessantly for his whole adult life. There are 310 million Americans and if you set up some objective test—IQ, job competence, results achieved, strength, athletic ability, unselfishness, being a good husband and parent, etc.—to figure out who were the “goodest,” the military would have some members who would do well but the military would come nowhere near dominating such a competition. When it comes to getting things done in an efficient, competent, ethical manner, the vast majority of civilian for-profit companies would run circles around the U.S. military.]

My father was an Airborne Ranger in in '69-70. He never went to Ranger School. He coached football, high school and NCAA DIV 1. He got into real estate, did well. Died in a car accident some years ago. He had a lot of the same things to say that I recognize in your writings as well. I don't agree with all of them, of course, but the similarities were enough that I was compelled to write.

I thoroughly enjoy your articles Mr. Reed. I look forward to reading more.

A last thought, if I may. The Army will change its' equipment, its' doctrine, it's uniforms, its' wars. It will not change its' DNA. By that I mean it's people. Fallible, petty, treacherous, heroic, greedy, kind, stupid, dull, brilliant, ignorant, magnetic, loud, and noble. The "lumber of the land", as Homer so aptly put it, will forever be our greatest weakness, and the source of our enduring existence. I don't think in terms of victory or defeat, but of endurance, of lasting. When I read of the young officer who spoke of fighting like hell for a Bronze Star for what I assume was a Sergeant while in the line, as opposed to the piñata method of awarding medals at a Corps staff, I had to laugh. Well, of course! Did he not expect that?! Hasn't that been a bone of contention since Ugg and Dugg stood and threw rocks at the other tribe while Yarp stood behind and told them where to throw? My point is that he did fight to get that Bronze Star for his soldier. He endured it, he lasted. It should make him feel better in a year or two, when he is out of the Army and the frustrations are more "deep buried" as opposed to "surface laid".

I'll close out. Thanks for the articles and thanks for your service as well. My service is closing out soon. Twenty years is enough for me. I hope you find future success, just lay off us enlisted eh? [I give no pass to the enlisted men. They are part of the problem and the notion that they bear no responsibility for SNAFU is typical enlisted mind set.]

Cheers and Rangers Lead The Way,

[Reed note: I decided to leave off his name and other identifying information.]

And here is my response:

The main difference between career guys like you and guys like me is not disputing what I say but rather a different hierarchy of values. [Reed note: the hierarchy of values and its importance are discussed at length in my book Succeeding]

Succeeding bookIn civilian life, it is similar between big, non-profit organizations and small for-profit ones or self-employment.
Guys like me adhere to the hierarchy of values that the Army officially claims to adhere to. Career guys focus on the rare moments where they were allowed to do the right thing, friendships, hardships they endure, and cameraderie, but they otherwise just go along to get along rationalizing all the SNAFU and lying and sucking up with a few well-worn excuses like "There are bad apples in every barrel."

The military could be what it claims to be. West Point almost is. But instead, those who would fight to make it that are driven out and the close enough-for-government-work crowd remains and keeps it the way it is and even lets it get worse.

Your citations of moments when you and I would be proud of the Rangers support what I said in some articles. One is about how U.S. military forces "saddle up" and march to the sound of the guns, a rare thing on this planet when you think about it. [I mentioned that in my review of Unforgiving Minute.]

But I also wrote that the career military, like liberals, think good intentions are a 100% substitute for results and that they only need cite occasional instances of progress—a school built in an Afghan village here or a particular squad-size combat mission that was difficult and successful there—not overall net progress like winning a war—and that they only need to supplement their good intentions and occasional tiny progress with talking a good game and looking the part and they are thereby entitled to their medals, pay, pensions, and health care.

This mind set, also engaged in by the liberals who run the government, will almost certainly result in their defaulting on your pension and health care benefits. And there will be considerable poetic justice in that.

Someone has to get the big picture right. We can't all expect to be paid for nothing but good intentions, occasional bits of progress, and talking a good game. Career military do their 20 years of SNAFU and then expect to get real money cumulatively in the amount of around $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 for the rest of their lives. It used to happen. It will not anymore because the civilian equivalent of the military in the Congress and the White House were also SNAFU and substituting good intentions for results and all that. What a coincidence!

And now the government has spent all its money and is about to exhaust the credit of current and future generations of Americans. The idea is that we are putting impossible debt on our grandchildren. We are trying. The colossal joke is it is us, as well as future generations, who will have to pay the piper. The piper is about to arrive now, not in the distant future.

And as a consequence, current and future retired military are going to have to leave the golf course get real jobs where good intentions aren't enough and they have to truly earn their pay every day. Many are now in double-dip civilian government jobs which will also go away. And both the golf course guys and the double dippers will find it hard to get real jobs because the their SNAFU civilian counterparts in Congress and the White House have piled mountains of taxes and regulations on business causing permanent economic stagnation.

The people of the entire developed world, including the career and retired military, are about to get schooled on what happens when hundreds of millions of people tolerate massive misbehavior and negligence by government employees. I wrote a book about it called How to Protect your Life Savings from Hyperinflation & Depression.

Someone has to get the big picture right—win our wars, live within our means, make sure government can keep its promises. No one did.

Enjoy your retirement—while it lasts.

John T. Reed

[A full list of my military articles is at If anyone thinks I am not paying enough homage to our “selfless servant warrior heroes,” please read my article on that crap.]

Here is a fascinating email I got from a friend in response to the above. I have redacted his name and company. The company is a large, household, name publicly-traded corporation. He is talking about career U.S. military personnel who are convinced they are better than civilians but who have never worked anywhere but the military since they were teenagers.

But then again, they have been living in an "alternate reality" since they were the tragedy is that "they don't know that they don't know", like a catholic priest giving marital advice.

[redacted company name], I worked alongside a few smart qualified Russian immigrant professionals who had grown-up in the Soviet system, and then emigrated here. They were good, smart, and tough workers, but occasionally they would say and do strange things, and come to absolutely bizarre conclusions about how to respond to a given interpersonal or organizational situation.

Everybody commented on it. They never made it to management. It was because their formative adult experiences were the "alternative reality" of the Soviet Union, and they could never get past their early ducklings.

And here is the kicker: I noticed the EXACT SAME PHENOMENA in the handful of 20-and-out retired lifers that worked at
[redacted company name]. Nobody trusted them to operate autonomously because they operated (from our perspective) on their own bizarre, but internally consistent to them, "the-military-is-reality" mindset.

We had a few retired Lt Cols, a few retired Master Sergeants (these guys specialized in yelling and bluster when ever anybody called them on their bullshit...the Colonels were more subtle), and one retired Brigadier General who lasted only 18 months when the CEO finally figured out that the guy was all show and no go, and was completely and utterly helpless without a phalanx of flunkies (newly exited Captains that he hired) wiping his ass and filing his expense reports.

I have never seen a bigger disconnect between appearances and personal capability than this guy in my life! He was the company joke...the other SVP's just rolled their eyes and smirked whenever his name came up.

The 1-star retired general (might have been a 2-star, don't remember) was very personable. His shtick was the OPPOSITE of the gravel-voiced, jaw-thrusting "damn fine officer...balderdash....I-am-a-very-important-and-serious-person-with-Gravitas" stage act. We called him "General Glad-Hand".

He was a proud West Point grad, and wore one of those gigantic rings....about the size that some black rapper have that are encrusted with diamonds and gold. He liked to display it too... I believe the term is ring-knocker ? I had never encountered a person who was proudly displaying their college ring TWENTY YEARS (!!) after earning it. Oh well, to each their own, was my attitude. [Reed note: I was the only one in my class not to buy a class ring. I may be the only one in the Long Gray Line who did not buy one. No big reason. It was expensive, ostentatious, I never wear a ring including a wedding ring although I have been married for 36 years. I have never owned a ring of any kind. I did not want to be a “ring knocker” as West Pointers are called in the military. And the company that made the rings can make one at any time if I had ever changed my mind, a service normally used by guys who lose their ring. A large percentage of West Point grad wives wear a minaiture version of their husband’s West Point class ring a their engagement ring. I asked my wife a few months ago if I was correct to think she would have vetoed that if I suggested it. After a thoughtful pause she said, “Maybe back then I would have considered it.” Not now.]

General Glad-Hand was an expert at all the prehistoric Mayflower WASP social graces...and his wife was "a perfect and gracious hostess from 1957". I went to a dinner party at their house once. I swear I thought I had been time-travelled back to the stage set and mannerisms of "My Three Sons"....or "Mad Men" without the edge. And this was 1990 !

General Glad-Hand had served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the Cold War, where his job (as he explained it) was literally to go to cocktail parties at other embassies 7-nights a week, standing around with drinks in his Formal Mess Uniform, chatting with the other Military Adjutants from other countries, hoping to pick up a little military intelligence.

He told me he was the 1st to break the news that the Soviets-and-the-Chinese were shooting at each on their border again, and that "scoop" got him his generalship. Later on, he was President Reagan's "football carrier". The guy with the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes. (Why you need a general to silently carry around a briefcase that is never opened, and to speak only when spoken to, is beyond me..)

He came to the attention of our "Steve Jobs" like founder CEO, who had no military experience, was big on actual leadership, and wanted to give a general a try. General Glad-Hand was a superb presenter and briefer...entertaining, clear, personable, likeable, and so on....provided he was handed his script and overheads. He was completely incapable of generating (or even comprehending) his material, but like a superb actor, just give him a script, wind him up, push him out on stage, and he will entertain and impress the audience ! (But NEVER let him answer the questions about the material after his pitch...have someone else do that...our CEO learned to his embarrassment.....also just like an actor.)

Our CEO gave him a real-job to start with, but after it became obvious what he was, he was just trotted out for Board Meetings as "Reagan's football carrier" so the Board Members could rub shoulders with "a hero" and be suitably impressed and feel they would sign-off on the CEO's budget and initiatives with nary a question, which was General Glad-Hands true usefulness.

I encountered General Glad-Hand early one morning (before everybody else got there) staring in befuddlement at the filter-cofee maker. I took pity on him and showed him how to make filter coffee. It was obvious that this 45 year old man had not made himself a cup of coffee since percolators (remember those?) went away and were replaced by filter coffee makers in offices. General Glad-Hand also hired an extraordinary number of "personal assistant" staff. Even the CEO had 1 secretary and 1 personal assitant aide-de-camp. All other senior managers had 1 secretary. General Glad-Hand had 4 or 5 people (all ex-military) who had various titles, but their real job was to personally cater to him....very noticeable and out-of-step with the corporate culture.

Oh, and the good General was a HORRIBLE driver. Possibly from having been sitting in the back of staff cars and such his whole entire some sort of Chinese Dowager Empress, unable to walk because of her bound feet.

General Glad-Hand left of his own accord after a couple of years, and got himself appointed to the Boards of a variety of Firms doing mucho business with the Feds and the Pentagon. I believe the proper term is "cashing in his stars" ?

Our CEO never hired another General again. Been there, done that. If ya need an empty-suit presenter, you can find them in the civilian world that can actually do their own Q & A sessions.

Name redacted on my initiative

Here is another email from a West Point class of 94 guy responding to the General Glad Hand email. [my comments in red]

I can't agree enough with the article in which your friend castigated General Glad Hand. I just had the same experience myself, with an O-6 [full colonel] recently retired from the [military] Medical Field and looking for a second career. Boy had a resume as long as your arm and was honestly one of the best-looking paper candidates any of us had ever seen. When he came on board we rapidly discovered that none of our patients cared to be treated by him in any way, shape, or form. He refused to adhere to protocols and spent much of his time bragging about the "good old days in uniform." When he found out that I was USMA '94 and his brother (USMA '79) had been one of my professors at the Academy, all work effectively stopped as he ignored his entire schedule to regale me with tales about all the "Army heavy hitters" that we both knew. I actually had to tell him to "at ease" and return to work because we weren't paying him to sit around and shoot the shit. He yelled at the front desk administrators because they (no shit) did not stand at Attention when I walked in the door (he considered me equivalent to a Brigade XO, and wondered how the subordinates could not figure out the respect due my "rank"). He excused all of his ignorance, stupidity, and incompetence by stating that he did not have the "support staff" he had grown used to whilst serving as an O-6. Getting rid of him was a relief. He was absolutely flabbergasted that a "kid" would speak to him in such a fashion and would neither tolerate nor support his excuses and blame-laying. Even more interesting was to see this supposed "rock-hard leader of men" reduced to tears. No, I'm not kidding. Crying like a baby. I couldn't get his ass out the door fast enough. Nobody in this organization is in a hurry to hire an ex-military person ever again.
…[H]e himself was ROTC. This didn't, however, stop him from eating, sleeping, and dreaming the Army and basking in the glow of his hallowed, deity-like West Point graduate brother. And worshipping his and his brother's past superiors and compatriots who now were at the "top" of the Army food chain.

He also expressed disappointment that his brother had retired after 20 years' service to go work for a Fortune 500 company rather than stay in and make it to the General Officer ranks, even though he could not stop bragging about how much money, power, and success the brother now enjoyed in the civilian world.

I guess the dichotomy shouldn't surprise me (having seen it so many times on so many occasions) but it was still a bit disturbing as it played out. I actually find it kind of sad that this gent is going to live out the rest of his life in such a delusional state. But better him than me I guess. [Unfortunately, he has many equally delusional peers who are still in the military at high rank and positions and think they are competent at something called national defense when in fact they have spent their entire adult lives in a results-are-not-necessary buceaucracy wasting taxpayers’ money and endangering the U.S. and the Free World through incompetence at military matters. See my article “Is there really any such thing as military expertise?”]

He considered me a "traitor" for having "milked the system" by getting my degree from West Point and then "jumping ship" at the first available opportunity. He said that it was "shocking, disappointing, and nauseating" that a graduate of those "hallowed halls" had not been inspired to stay in the Army until the very end, as the sacred tradition established in 1802 demanded of its "spawn." [Been there. Done that. The phrase that was thrown at me was that I had it made as an Army officer and I “couldn’t wait to throw it all away.” In fact, West Point graduates do not have it made in the Army. They are a discriminated-against minority in the officer corps. But he was right about how I could not wait to“ throw it away” or as I put it at the time, escape from this Kafkaesque nightmare.]

I told him that I had found the Army so ridiculously nauseating that had I stayed in one moment longer I would have puked myself to death. He could not conceptualize this, and said that I evidently had some sort of ingrained personality "flaw" to not have embraced in its entirety the blessed society into which I had matriculated during my Plebe Year. [Reminds me of Catch 22. Only those who lack common sense and a desire for liberty want to stay in the Army and those characteristics are precisely ones that should result in such people being excluded from the Army.] At this point I reminded him that we were not in the Army, that it was I (not him) who was actually in charge in the current situation, and that we were paying him to treat patients, not bask in his past glory, so to please drop the subject and get back to work.

Thanks for continuing to tell the truth! Have a good one!

Jeff Owen USMA ’94

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