Posts Tagged ‘Military’

Smoking ban in U.S. Military?

According to, the Department of Defense is considering banning smoking in the U.S. military:

One in five Americans uses tobacco, but more than 30 percent of active-duty military personnel and about 22 percent of veterans use tobacco. The DoD spends more than $1.6 billion per year on tobacco-related medical care, increased hospitalizations, and lost days of work.

Uh, dudes.

You can’t ban smoking in the U.S. military. Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms is not just a federal agency, it’s also a lifestyle. It is favored by dimwits. That’s your demographic, guys.

As a group, military enlisted are not very bright. As a group, the officers are brighter than the EMs, but less bright than their civilian college grad peer group. Smokers, by definition, are not very bright. So it is not surprising that the percentage of tobacco users in the military is 50% higher than in the general population.

A reader wrote to tell me the U.S. military currently claims that their IQs are a little bit above average compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Yeah, I heard that in the news. I don’t believe it. I also see documentaries about basic training and life in today’s military. You would not mistake a documentary about say, the Marine Corps “crucible,” for a rocket scientist convention. If it is true that the U.S. military IQ scores are above the average for American citizens in general, I would expect they are combining the scores of the officers (who are overeducated for their job content) and the enlisted men and that the percentage of officers in the military exceeds the percentage of college grads in the population as a whole. Go look at the academic rankings of a high school class from five years ago. See who in that class enlisted in the military, and who went in as officers and where the smartest and dumbest kids in the class ended up. Go to a high school where almost everyone goes to college and see if anyone at all enlisted in the military. There are individual exceptions. That’s why I used the phrase “as a group.”

One of my Web articles about the military has the subhead “As fit as a drunken, chain-smoking Marine.”

I am in favor of a draft. Indeed, I would prohibit any enlisting, re-enlisting, or military careers. Make it like jury duty. That would lower the percentage of smokers in the military to 20%. It would also lower the level of alcohol abuse in the military. Draftees are a better class of people than enlistees. When I was in the Army from 1964 to 1972, we had draftees. My father and uncles were World War II and Korean War draftees. Elvis and Ralph Nader were draftees.

Did the geniuses who recommended ending smoking in the Deparment of Defense check with the recruiting departments of the various branches of the military? I suspect their reaction would be something like,

Are you nuts!? We were having to recruit convicted criminals and dropouts to make our quotas until the recession! If we can only recruit non-smokers, we’ll have to solicit pedophiles, clincial morons, amputees, and terrorists to make the quotas!

Would the U.S. military be better off without smokers?

Absolutely. And much, much smaller.

Oh, wait a minute. The military is highly disciplined. It says so in all sorts of military propaganda. So just order them to stop smoking. I wonder why no one ever thought of that before.

The truth about many military medal awards

You often read about a guy who is described as “the most decorated soldier in the Korean War” or some such.

I may be the least decorated officer of the Vietnam war.

So in that sense, my qualifications to write about medals may be suspect. But I am going to write about them anyway. If there is an error or omission in this article, tell me about it. I will investigate and, if I find that you are right, I will correct it, apologize if appropriate, and give you credit for bringing it to my attention.

How did I achieve least-decorated status in spite of being a West Point graduate, airborne, Ranger who volunteered for Vietnam? Easy. I did not suck up to my superiors. What does that have to do with earning medals? Almost everything.

The vast majority of military medal awards are bullshit.

Here is a summary list of the points below:

Two types of medal

Roughly speaking, there are two categories:

• those with objective criteria
• those with subjective criteria

You can also break them down into those related to

• heroism in combat
• attendance
• impressing your boss in a non-combat setting

Although there are a number of medals for showing physical courage, conspicuous by their absence in the military is even a single medal for exhibiting moral courage. No loss, though. Few in the U.S. military ever exhibit moral courage and when they do, like General Billy Mitchell, they are punished, not commended. He was court martialed and forced out of the Army. See my article “No medals for moral courage.”

Objective vs. subjective criteria

Some medals have objective criteria. When I say I may have been the least decorated officer who did a tour in Vietnam, you may think that means I received no medals at all.

Excuse me. I got three of them.

How could a guy who pissed off most of his bosses get any medals? They had no choice. The medals I got were attendance medals. They could not deny that I attended.

My Vietnam medals include

• Vietnam service medal
• two of some sort of campaign medals

There is a photo with both my medals (not mine per se, just the same as the ones I got) at That is a Navy Web site, but those particular medals are the same for both Army and Navy.

You have probably seen the Vietnam service ribbon as a bumper sticker. I have never had such a sticker nor have I ever owned anything with the ribbon design on it other than the ribbon itself which is in a box of old Army junk like my Ranger tab, cadet rank insignia, etc.

The campaign ribbon, which is green and white, was actually awarded by the no-longer-in-business South Vietnamese Army. As with most Vietnam veterans, mine has a scroll indicating I “won” that award twice. The one in the photo listed above has such a scroll because a one-year tour there typically had you in attendance for two “campaigns.” Whatever.

I generally never wore my medals, patches, West Point class ring, or decorations except that I wore my airborne wings when I was in the 82nd Airborne Division. I would have spent a hour a day explaining why I did not have them if I had not worn them there. In my other units, the big shots who needed to know I was an airborne, ranger, Vietnam vet, West Point graduate could see all that in my personnel file. Otherwise, who cares?

Some might figure I did not wear any because it would reveal that I did not have the usual subjective ones. Nah. I was proud of having earned the West Point ring, ranger, airborne, and Vietnam stuff, and those are a bigger collection of the objective awards than the vast majority of officers ever get. And if you do not have the usual subjective medals as a lieutenant, others assume that you must have had a personality conflict with the superiors who normally would have given you the subjective medals, or so several of them told me at the time. I did have a personality conflict with the military bosses who denied me various medals and promotion, as well as other conflicts. I simply thought wearing that stuff was childish showing off that no one else would care about.

Some have argued that I should have worn that stuff to impress my men and get credibility with them. Nah. People who are impressed by that sort of thing are not the kinds of people I want to impress. I would rather impress people who were most interested in how I did my job on a day-to-day basis, not whether I had completed some military school in the past.

Australian soldier’s impression

On 8/28/08, I got an email from a Australian veteran who said,

I trained in the army at Officers School Portsea (Closed 1983), here in Australia and we were always amused about the medals awarded in the American Military. It seemed like someone could get a medal for getting out of bed in the morning. I do not mean to be disparaging, but that was our impression.

Actually, for some medals, like the “I was alive in ’65” medal described below, even getting out of bed was not required.

My award ‘ceremony’

I was amused at the ”ceremony” where I was awarded my Vietnam Service medal. I had just arrived in Vietnam the day before. I was sitting at a sort of Army card table with a private. He was giving me my Jungle boots, pants, hats, etc. He tossed a little cardboard box that slid across the table to me.

“What’s this?’

“Your medal.”

“My medal!? I just got here! How could I have won a medal?”

“It’s for being here. If you set foot in the country, you get it.”


Like I said: attendance

‘I was alive in ’65’ medal

I also got another attendance medal before Vietnam. It’s called the National Defense Service Medal. It was awarded to everyone who was in the military in 1965 because it was a “time of national crisis.”

I was a West Point cadet in 1965. My fellow cadets and I called it the, “I was alive in ’65” medal. We almost all refused to wear it.

Some of our class had been enlisted men in the Army before they came to West Point. For reasons unknown to me, then and now, they generally wore on their cadet uniforms a ribbon known informally as the “Dentine wrapper.” Officially, it was the Good Conduct medal. To put it in my dad’s words, “Oh, that’s just for not being thrown in the stockade during your first six months in the Army.” All enlisted men get the Good Conduct Medal after six months if they avoid going to jail. My dad was a draftee sergeant in World War II.

When the “I was alive in ’65” medal came out, the cadets who were in the Army before West Point added that to their cadet uniforms and thereafter wore two ribbons. I guess some of the girls who came up to West Point for dates thought they were war heroes. The rest of us were embarrassed to have been given a medal for being alive and never wore it as cadets. We were afraid our dates would ask us what it was for.

Cadets also described it, for its colors, thusly:

The red is for the blood we never shed; the blue, for the oceans we never crossed; and the yellow is the reason why.

When you see some general or other brass hat wearing row upon row of medals, keep in mind that almost all are for attendance: being alive in a particular year or being in a particular country for one second or more. They are not much more noteworthy than the gold stars on the attendance portion of your kindergarten report card.


The public thinks medals are for heroism. When the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz finally had his desire for courage satisfied at the end of the movie, it was by presenting him with a medal.

For eons, guys who did not earn medals for heroism have lied about them including wearing them and appearing in public to receive accolades for having earned them. Read the book Stolen Valor for numerous naming names actual case histories about fake Vietnam War heroes and fake Vietnam veterans including one president of the Vietnam Veterans of America and movie star Brian Dennehy. (I was watching TV one day when an announcer said, “Brian Dennehy IS Jack Reed.” “No,” I thought. “I am.” Dennehy made a series of TV movies in which he played a character named Jack Reed. Popular name. It is also the name of a Rhode Island Senator who graduated from West Point.) On 11/1/07, former Atlantic City mayor Robert Levy pleaded guilty to lying about receiving two medals so he could increase his veterans disability benefits by $24,683 over four years. He also claimed to have made parachute jumps that he did not make.

Since I said I was not awarded medals because of my refusal to suck up to my bosses, you may wonder if I did something heroic but did not get a medal for it. Nope. I never did anything heroic. The medals I was denied were Bronze Stars and Army Commendation medals that were given out essentially as attendance medals. I attended as much as the other officers in my unit who got them, but neither they nor I deserved them. The standards for which they are supposed to be given are higher than attendance but, in practice, almost all officers got them just for being officers and for being in a combat zone like all of Vietnam and neighboring areas.

Bronze Star medal

During World War II, my dad was a battery clerk in an artillery battery of the 79th Infantry Division in Europe. Battery clerk, more often called company clerk, is the job made famous by Radar O’Reilly in the movie and TV series M*A*S*H. My dad was not like Radar O’Reilly, but he held the same central position in the battery so he was privy to all the paperwork coming through. He got the job because he was the only man in the battery who could type, a skill he learned in a high school course.

He said that one one day during World War II when he was in Europe, word came down from higher headquarters to award the Bronze Star medal to all the officers in the battery. Another WW II vet who read this and who was in the same part of France as my dad during the war said,

[The bronze Star without a V device for valour] was called the officer’s Good Conduct Medal.

The Bronze Star is supposed to be awarded for courage under fire or meritorious achievement, that is, doing your job well.

That’s a big “or.” It’s like awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor for intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty or getting no cavities at your annual dental check-up.

I suspect the Bronze Star is awarded either for courage under fire or just failing to piss off your boss so that the hundreds of thousands of suck-ups can tell people they won the Bronze Star, but fail to mention that they got the suck-up version rather than the courage-under-fire version. When it’s for courage under fire, the Bronze Star is accompanied by the “V device” indicating valor. My freshman and sophomore year cadet roommate, Dan Kaufman, who later became Dean of the Academic Board at West Point, won the Bronze Star with V device in Vietnam. Do you suppose we could get the non-V-device guys to wear an “S device?”

Wikipedia says,

Most of the bronze stars awarded are for non valor and do not have the V device.

That’s the understatement of the freaking century.

Bronze Stars and ArComs in my Vietnam battalion

In one of the battalions I was in in Vietnam, the unwritten policy on Bronze Stars and ArComs (Army Commendation medal) seemed pretty straight forward.

If the battalion commander really liked an officer, he got two Bronze Stars and an ArCom. While I was there, only one officer fit that description. This lieutenant got his second Bronze Star for giving CPR to a heat stroke victim on a patrol he took out. He should have been court martialed for what he did in that incident, not decorated. I described that incident in detail in another article somewhere at my Web site that I do not recall at present.

If the battalion commander was neutral about an officer, he got one Bronze Star and one ArCom. That was what every lieutenant who was there when I was got except for the guy who got two Bronze Stars (above), me, and a lieutenant who was short, quiet, and slight of build. He only got an ArCom, which I surmised was for not being manly enough. As far as I could tell, he did the same quality work as everyone else.

If the battalion commander liked an enlisted man, that enlisted man got an ArCom.

If the battalion commander did not like an enlisted man, that enlisted man only got a certificate of appreciation from the battalion.

What did I get? None of the above. In the battalion commander’s opinion, I was lower than an unpopular enlisted man, even though I was one of only a handful in the 400-man battalion who were West Point, airborne, ranger grads.

Why? These things are not explained but this is the battalion where my company commander repeatedly ordered me to sign a false arms inventory which I refused to do. It is the unit where I was motor officer for 12 hours because I refused to sign a motor vehicle maintenance report that said 95% of our vehicles were in great shape when, in fact, 85% were dead lined (undrivable). See my article, “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” It is also where all the officers but me wore uniforms on our day off, Sunday morning, then changed to civilian clothes at noon. I thought that was dumb and wore civilian clothes to breakfast. I wrote about that at one of my other military articles at this Web site.

Here is an email I got from a visitor to this site about his military experience with Bronze Stars and ArComs.


My name is Michael Grant and I live in Portland Maine and I am a graduate of the Vietnam war from 1972-1973.

I have read the article you wrote on Pat Tillman’s Silver Star award for "bravery".

I worked in a Military Intelligence unit in DANANG, SVN and I have to tell you that BRONZE STARS were handed out like water. Every enlisted man and officers received a BSM, but I got the ARCOM because the major just did not like me..all of the enlisted men in my unit were E-4′s with an MOS of 72b20 (teletype operators).

I have a problem when Special Forces soldiers in IRAQ were denied BSM medals but in SVN clerk typists and teletype operators were awarded BSM for simply being in-country..I guess I just don’t get it…

The DOD should revamp the whole medals process and start over as it has become a personality contest when it comes to the awarding of ARCOM and BSM medals. I think that more BSM medals were awarded from 1972 to 1975 than at any other time of the conflict..

Thank you for taking the time to read this

Michael Paul Grant

Portland, Me

I [John T. Reed] wrote back to him:

May I post your email in my discussion of medals?


John T. Reed

Michael Grant wrote:

Yes you may. I also need to tell you that when I was in the Maine National Guard from 1977 to 1988 it was policy that only the officer staff will be awarded ARCOM’s and that enlisted folks only would qualify for the Army Achievement Medal or the State of Maine AG award. I will always believe in my heart that military officers will pat themselves on the back with fruit salad awards and give enlisted people the peanuts.

Thank you

Michael P. Grant

Here’s another I got on New Year’s Day 2010:

Great article Mr. Reed.  I enjoyed it and also others comments as well.  I’d like to add my experiences with this as well.

 I am a veteran of OIF 1 (03-04) as an MP in the ARNG.  After we arrived in Baghdad, all of the platoons in the Company were split up and given to other higher echelons to supplement their missions.  My platoon went to an Artillery Battalion ( which was great since most of us were ‘Gun Bunnies’ before we re classed to MP ), and I remember another platoon was sent to some Infantry Batt. in the 82nd ABN.  It so happens that my platoon was now designated to wear the 1st Armored Div.  ’combat’ patch.  The other platoon, 82nd ABN patch.  However, the Inf. guys told them "  We don’t wanna see you guys wearing our patch on your right sleeve!   It aint right. Ya’ll aint paratroopers.  Don’t do it in our site."    Hahaha.  So I guess some 3 week CONUS course ( Abn school )  is more hooah than patrolling the streets of Baghdad for a year.  Pathetic!

Oh yeah, at the end of the deployment, every soldier in the company got their ARCOM.  All platoon sgt’s and above got bronze stars.  Pathetic.

Here is another I got in April, 2010

Dear Mr Reed

I’ve read your article about military medals with great interest. It did get me to think a bit about my own experiences.

I will start by saying that even though I spent 9-1/2 years active duty and 6 years in the National Guard that I was never in combat so nothing I ever did could qualify as valorous in the normal sense of the word. I don’t want this to get too long, but I want to give a very brief summary of my military service.

U.S. Air Force 1972-1978

Security Police

U.S. Army 1978-1981

Quartermaster Corps

Platoon Leader (Petroleum Pipeline Operating Company)

BN S-1

Army National Guard 1981-1987


Commanding Officer (HQs detachment, Petroleum Supply Battalion)

Corps of Engineers

Petroleum Pipeline Engineer (Brigade S3)

My first real medal other than the usual NDM, GCM, and Expert Marksman Medal (yes, the Air Force gives a medal instead of the badges like the Army) was the Air Force Commendation Medal. The first year I was in the Air Force I spent walking around aimlessly guarding B-52s on nuclear alert, often when it was -20 degrees or worse. In the Air Force, with few exceptions, the only personnel carrying loaded weapons are the Security Police. I think ALL those SAC SPs who ever walked the flight line through a winter on the northern tier deserve some sort of medal. Unfortunately, as you have pointed out, enlisted men (especially the lower ranked ones stuck out in the cold) rarely get medals. I got mine because I was smart enough to get an office job and got to know the Squadron Commander personally. When I was PCSd to air base ground defense training in Texas (headed for Vietnam) in 1973, I asked my E-7 supervisor if I could get a medal of some sort. He asked me what I wanted and I suggested a Meritorious Service Medal. He said, well, that was an “officer medal” but I could get an AFCM. Then he said if I wanted it that I would have to write up the recommendation and citation myself and get the colonel to sign it. Which I did. Even though this is one medal I truly feel I deserved, it was only because I was literate enough to land a job working for the CO and could do all the paperwork myself. The other poor schmucks pounding asphalt at 20 below got nothing but frostbite. But I don’t feel guilty a bit.

Now while I was at that pre-Vietnam training course (this was summer of 73) everyone’s orders were cancelled since no more new troops were getting sent over there. Lucky for me. Most of the airmen got sent back to their previous bases, but because my wife and HHGs had already been sent to my hometown in California, they reassigned me to the only SAC base. This was a major headquarters base with no planes to guard and only cushy jobs for SPs. The best assignment I ever had. I was able to go to night school and then two full semesters on the government’s dime and got my BS degree. I was turned down for Air Force Officer Training School, but then thought, hey! I’ve got an idea…I’ll apply to Army OCS! That was much, much harder than it sounds, but when I was leaving the USAF for Ft. Benning, I did get another PCS AFCM that I did nothing for except doing a good job like I was being paid to do. (In the military though, when an enlisted man actually does a good job the officers are so surprised they can’t help themselves.) The one thing I really wanted that they said I couldn’t have was my Security Police Badge. I personally asked the Squadron Commander if I could have it, he wrote the letter authorizing it, and I was able to take it with me. When I look in my “memory box” once in a while, that means more to me than any medal.

I don’t want to bore you with too much, but after a while I wound up as the S-1 for a Quartermaster Battalion. That job consisted mostly of: typing up the CO’s/XO’s correspondence, processing enlisted and officer evaluation reports, processing medal citations, and being the announcer during parades every Friday afternoon. “Ladies and Gentleman, please rise for the passing of the colors…Ladies and Gentleman, the 267th Quartermaster Company!!…”

I can attest that there was a definite hierarchy when it comes to medals and there was more than a few times when the Battalion Commander personally nixed awards, not because he knew the soldier personally, but because he didn’t like the company CO or even the platoon leader who submitted the award request. Nevertheless, my job as S-1 was a treadmill of “PCS” medals, mostly for officers, CWOs, or senior NCOs. It was extremely rare for anyone below E-7 to get an Army Commendation Medal and when they did they probably deserved it. Later, when the Army Achievement Medal was created that became the default. So at least by the 80s, anyone E-5 and below with an ACM should be given props. That may have changed though since the 90s and Gulf War. Now on the officer side, if you saw an officer who was never enlisted wearing an AAM you know they really pissed someone off. Personally, I’d have been embarrassed to wear an AAM as an officer. And the ACM was not a whole lot better, mostly reserved for mediocre 1LTs. I decided to get out for a host of personal reasons, even though I liked the peace time Army (actually an easy job) and my separation award was a Meritorious Service Medal. That too, believe it or not, is one I’m proud of because even though it was a routine award for the 1LTs/CPTs in favor with the CO, in a year and half as an S-1 I never saw any junior officer separating from the Army get one. The Army generally is not too happy when a junior officer quits. I hadn’t gotten along all that well with my Battalion Commander (never a yes man), so I was surprised when several months later a registered letter showed up with the medal.

Finally, and I want to keep an already too long story less long, I was a Commanding Officer in the North Carolina National Guard. I will say, because most normal awards were “federal” awards they had to be approved at the federal level even if approved by the state AG. So needless to say these were much harder to get for National Guard soldiers and even officers in peace time. Over the last decades with so many active duty deployments this may have changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a lot of bias against the National Guard personnel. When I was an S-1 on active duty part of my job was coordinating with NG units from all over the country that were assigned to train with our battalion and I can tell you that there was a lot of bias against what were always called “weekend warriors.” When I actually became a weekend warrior myself, I discovered that at least among the officer corps of the National Guard who had never been on active duty, most of the ridiculed incompetence was more true than I ever imagined. (However, the National Guard enlisted personnel were generally of much higher quality than their active duty counterparts!)

Sorry for such a long letter, but my conclusion is that each service member must decide for themselves what their medals mean to them because the standards for awarding such are so totally subjective and often vindictive. I don’t disagree at all with your article “Did U.S. military personnel really earn all their medals?” Yet, not all medals, even non-combat medals during peacetime are without merit.


Steve Willis

Doing my job?

Some might wonder did you do your job? Of course. I am a West Point graduate for Chrisssakes.

What was my job? The battalion commander was mad at me before he met me. I volunteered for the Ranger Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit in that corps (D Company 75th Rangers) when I was in the states. I was sent to Vietnam to fill that slot. But a West Point classmate got there the day before me. He had the same resume as I did and he got that job because the Army did not concern itself with issues like which lieutenant volunteered for the damned job.

Instead, I was sent to an air defense artillery unit. You might think this was silly because the enemy had no airplanes in Vietnam. True, but the ADA units were used as perimeter security aiming their anti-aircraft guns horizontal to the ground to shoot at attacking enemy ground forces. I kid you not.

So I report to that unit. One of my company mates from West Point was there. He promised to show me around after I met the CO. The CO went through a big spiel about how every ADA officer in the Army was frantically trying to get into his unit because it was the best one for their career (only ADA unit in Vietnam). I did not understand why he was doing this. One, I was signal corps (communications), not ADA. Two, I was not career.

At one point, he bragged about how many Purple Hearts his unit had been awarded. I laughed quietly and commented that I did not want one of those. I thought he would agree. He was outraged. (To get a Purple Heart, an enemy bullet or shell fragment must pass through your body at a great rate of speed. Many, if not most, Purple Hearts are awarded posthumously.)

‘Do you want the job?’

To my astonishment, after this sales pitch, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, Lieutenant Reed, do you want the job?”

My thoughts went something like this.

“Say what!? Do I want this job? What is this—a civilian job interview? I’m in the freaking Army! I was ordered to report here. Mine is not to reason why. Since when do first lieutenants have a choice about what job they get?”

After considering the question for a minute or two, I said, “Sir, I am planning on getting out of the Army as soon as my commitment is up. I am not a career officer. If this job is extremely sought after by career officers and greatly helps their careers, it probably should go to one of them.”

He threw me out of the unit 20 minutes after I had arrived and sent me back to the colonel who had assigned me there. When I arrived back at the replacement depot, the full colonel who had dispatched me had already been chewed out by the lieutenant colonel who “interviewed” me for sending me. Go figure. Colonels outrank lieutenant colonels.

Then the full colonel chewed me out. I rejected his criticism. “Sir, that battalion commander insisted that I kiss his ass in order to join his unit. I will not do that, sir. I will do my job, period.”

The problem was that, on paper, I looked extremely gung ho: West Point, Airborne, Ranger, volunteered for Green Berets, Vietnam, and the LRRP unit. Both the replacement depot colonel and the battalion commander assumed I was a career officer. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups. They felt as if I had lied to them. I did not do any such damned thing. No one ever asked me if I was career. I just wanted to have a sort of gung ho five years then get the hell out.

Signal Corps?

Some might say how gung ho can you be if you are in the signal corps? Good question. Answer: not much more gung ho than I was. At the time I graduated from West Point, signal corps was considered one of the five combat arms. Some years it is not. Indeed, my two platoon leader assignments were in an infantry battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division and in a heavy artillery (8-inch and 175-mm self-propelled howitzers) battalion in Vietnam.

I would not have been allowed to go to Ranger or Airborne schools if I had not chosen one of the combat arms. My main reason for choosing signal corps was that it paid better. How so? It had the longest schooling by far and you got TDY pay (temporary duty per diem) in addition to your regular pay while you were in school. My second reason for choosing signal corps was that, at that time, most of the training was at Fort Monmouth, NJ. I was from NJ. I wanted to invest in real estate there during my time in the Army in preparation for my planned civilian career as a real estate investor. Indeed, on April 15, 1969, I bought my first duplex in NJ while I was in radio officer school at Fort Monmouth. Also, as I explain in my article about whether someone should go to West Point or stay there, U.S. Army bases are mostly in isolated, relatively rural locations in the Confederacy. The climate and bachelor social life at those bases are awful. In NJ, both were infinitely better.

The colonel then told me he felt obligated to disclose to every unit commander in the corps that I had been thrown out of my first unit in twenty minutes. Gee, thanks, colonel.

He also threatened me that my tour in Vietnam might not go so well if I did not start “playing the game.”

Predictably, none of the various commanders wanted me after hearing his disclosure. So he had to force me down the throat of a battalion commander who had already turned me down.

Assistant to a guy who was not authorized an assistant

So my “job” in that unit was to be the assistant platoon leader to an Officer Candidate School two-year guy who was getting out of the Army the day he left Vietnam. Nice guy. College graduate. But only the most minimal Army training. It was ridiculous for me to be his assistant. Some may think he had combat experience. Nah. There was no combat at that location (Plantation Post near Long Binh).

There is no such thing as an assistant platoon leader. One of my West Point classmates and fellow Airborne Rangers was also in the battalion and was also an assistant platoon leader. As far as I know, he did nothing to antagonize the battalion commander. He later transferred to Green Berets out of that battalion. The battalion commander and my company commanders there were non-West Pointers. As I said in my article on whether you should go to West Point, being a West Pointer often seemed to hurt me during my time as an officer. This battalion would be an example of that.

During my time in that battalion, I got the job of taking a truck-size radio teletype unit (A/N-GRC 26D and a squad of soldiers to install and operate it) to a place called Bunard. I did and brought it back after the several-month Special Forces operation there. There were no problems or complaints about the job I did. That is where the Mad Minute story I tell elsewhere in my military Web pages took place.

That replacement full colonel and I ran into each other many months later in Vietnam. He was a West Point graduate. He was sort of sheepish and reminded me of our first meeting, saying while smiling in a friendly manner that he had chewed me out. I looked him square in the eye, thanked him politely for approaching me in a friendly way, then narrowed my eyes and told him in no uncertain terms that I had not changed one iota during the time I had been there and did not plan to. Not long afterward, I was suddenly transferred to the artillery unit right after I refused to sign the false motor vehicle report. He may still have been the guy in charge of assigning me. Gee, thanks, colonel.


On another occasion, bored, I asked the platoon leader if I could try to straighten out all the non-vehicle equipment we had that was not working. He thought it was a great idea. First, I found that some of our paperwork was not in order and cleaned that up. Then I discovered that many requisitions we had properly submitted were not filled. The regs said I had to file follow-up forms. I did. Higher headquarters told me that was illegal.

Huh!? The regs say it is required.

Those Army regs were superceded by a USARV reg that says no follow-ups.

Really!? OK. Well, I’m gonna need a copy of that reg because I doubt my commanders will believe me.

There is nothing to copy. It’s a verbal reg.

Verbal? Are you kidding?


I then told my platoon leader that I needed to go over to USARV (Headquarters, United States Army in the Republic of Vietnam) and try to get a copy of that reg. I assumed they had some sort of reg library there where I could look it up and copy it.

Court martial me?

I was wandering the halls of the USARV HQ building, the Pentagon of Vietnam, which was a sort of suburban office building, looking at the various directories on the walls trying to figure out where the reg library would be. A major saw me and asked me if he could help me. When I explained what I was doing, he chewed my ass for “going outside the chain of command.” I protested that I was just looking for a document, not any majors or other officers. I said I figured I would find a spec. 4 in charge of a room that had the regs. He ordered me back to my unit where my battalion commander had already had been chewed out by phone when I returned. There was talk of court martialing me for going there without permission of my commander, but the platoon leader said he OKed my going there.

Previously, in the states, I had occasion to wander the halls of the real Pentagon in Washington, DC for reasons I forget. While I was studying the directories there looking for my destination, no one accosted me and chewed me out for going “outside the chain of command.”

In Vietnam, I was ordered to go through the chain of command.

Oookay. I sent a letter to the company commander listing all of our overdue requisitions. No response. I went to his office to ask about it. He told me he was not going to do anything about it. I thanked him and informed him that meant I would then have to go to the battalion commander about it. He could not refuse.

Battalion commander then Corps Commander

The battalion commander sensed that my next stop was the Corps Commander: Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell. The battalion commander asked me what the top-priority items were. I explained that the corps commander’s FM radios were going to all go out any minute because all the handsets but one had worn out (worn connector pins) and the last one was more rapidly wearing out because we had to constantly move it from radio to radio.

He made a couple of phone calls. Suddenly we had eight brand-new handsets. Disaster averted.

What were the phone calls? He was going outside the chain of command by calling friends he had met throughout his career and asking for favors or calling in favors he had done them in the past. That’s the way the lifers really get things done when the spirit moves them. He was not court martialed for going outside the chain of command. That all-purpose, blank-check accusation is just trotted out when you piss someone off. Informally it’s one of those “trumped-up charges” you often hear about. You cannot go through the chain of command because the chain of command writes your officer efficiency report and any attempt to go “through” them means going over their heads which will be the end of your career. And you cannot go outside the chain of command because it’s illegal. Catch 22. Checkmate. Now shut up and go sit in the corner and wait until you’re eligible to retire at half pay.

The battalion commander also told me to stop pursuing the other unfilled requisitions in any way, shape, or form. Remember this is in Vietnam, during a war. Ooookay. My mistake. I thought fixing our broken equipment was a good thing. I did not realize that doing so embarrasses incompetent and/or negligent superiors who outrank the battalion commander and is therefore absolutely verboten, other “less important” issues, like losing the war, notwithstanding.

I could go on, but you get the idea. As holder of a non-existent job as assistant to a platoon leader who himself had little to do (because the battalion was designed to be moving constantly but was, instead, fixed), I had to look for stuff to do and whenever I started to do anything, I was ordered to stop, essentially for doing it the way it’s supposed to be done which screws up the Situation Normal All Fouled Up Army by forcing others, including people who outrank my superiors, to do their jobs.

Mess hall and field jacket inspector

I’ll give you two more examples. My next-to-last job as an Army officer was assistant to the assistant supply officer. They ordered me to inspect the mess halls at Fort Monmouth. I did. But the company commanders complained bitterly that I was doing surprise inspections rather than informing them in advance. I said that would greatly reduce the effectiveness of the inspection and that it should not make any difference if the CO was doing his job. I was promptly removed from that duty.

My final job was signing off on the supply paperwork of soldiers who were processing out of the Army. In that job, I replaced a spec. 4—the equivalent of a corporal. I surmise I was supposed to be humiliated by this. Actually, I liked it because I was finally working in a building by myself away from the lifers. I don’t think the taxpayers were getting much for all the money they spent training me for five years in that job, but, hey, mine is not to reason why and those high ranking officers have information to which I may not be privy. Maybe they had great reasons for putting me in a spec. 4’s job.

Anyway, I got taken out of the job as well. Why? At that time, 1972, soldiers were fond of keeping their Army field jacket when they got out of the Army. That was not allowed. It was one of the pieces of property that was rather valuable, owned by the Army, and had to be turned in before you got out. My signature on their out-processing papers meant, among other things, that they had turned in their field jacket. When I refused to sign off for the soldiers who brought no field jacket to my supply building, the soldiers would scream bloody murder because all their buddies had kept theirs. The lack of my signature meant they had to pay for it out of their final pay to get out. After several days of refusing to sign off on such soldiers, I was replaced by a Spec. 4 who would.

If you have been in the Army, you are probably nodding your head while reading this. If not, you probably think I am exaggerating. If you are in the latter group, I hope you join the military. It will serve you right. But you might want to check with another guy who was in before you make that mistake.

Purple Hearts

Ostensibly, Purple Heart medals are objective. You have to be wounded by the enemy to get one. But as the Swift Boat project book Unfit for Command alleged, military personnel sometimes get them undeserved either because the wound in question was self-inflicted or because it was so minor or indirect that few would try to get a Purple Heart for it. That book said that one of John Kerry’s three Purple Heart medals was for a self-inflicted wound (getting hit by rice grains blown up by Kerry’s own grenade) and that another was so minor the doctor was annoyed that Kerry made him fill out paperwork so he could get the Purple Heart.

Apparently, the truth about Kerry cannot be proven one way or the other, but I found the Swift Boat allegations credible. Kerry seemed to be campaigning for President while he was in Vietnam in many ways, including pursuing medals. Kerry was awarded two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts. Kerry was only assigned to Swift Boats for a brief period (about four months) and was able to get himself out of Vietnam, and did so, because of a rule that allowed him to do so because he had three Purple Hearts.

Generally, Purple Hearts are legitimate, earned medals. They may or not indicate heroism. They may also indicate stupidity or foolhardiness or glory seeking, but I will generally give a Purple Heart winner the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, a legitimate Purple Heart award means that the military person in question was within range of enemy weapons and that they probably were aiming at him or a group that he was a member of when they fired.

One of my West Point roommates said after reading this that there should be different grades of Purple Hearts for posthumous, disabling wounds, serious wounds that heal, and John Kerryesque boo boos that require no medical treatment. I suggest a Pink Heart or a TS card for the last category. I also suggest Blue Hearts or some such for line-of-duty deaths and serious injuries not caused by the enemy like Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death.

Purple Hearts and other heroism medals

The most interesting thing to me about Purple Hearts is their proximity to other medals awarded for heroism. For example, my erstwhile cadet roommate Dan Kaufman who won a Bronze Star with a V device for valor also got a Purple Heart in that same action. Indeed, the burst of enemy fire that wounded him killed his APC driver who was next to him.

You should be somewhat suspicious of military personnel who have one or more heroism medals, but no Purple Hearts. This is especially true of groups where numerous heroism medals were awarded, but few or no Purple Hearts. It is the opposite analog of the situations in Vietnam like My Lai where numerous dead were reported along with few or no enemy weapons captured. That scenario suggested that unarmed civilians were murdered rather than a firefight with enemy soldiers.

The Swift Boat veterans make much of the fact that John Kerry’s swift boat did not need repairs for enemy fire damage in the actions where he was purportedly wounded by enemy fire.

Where there is enemy presence and valor medals are awarded, there ought to also be multiple Purple Hearts and enemy fire damage to vehicles and other equipment. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there is no smoke, there probably was no fire either.

The fascinating, best-selling book Freakonomics applies economic statistical techniques to all sorts of interesting situations like comparing how long it takes for a Realtor® to sell her own house to how long it takes to sell her clients’ homes. (It took longer to sell the Realtor’s own homes because they held out for higher prices than they recommended that their clients hold out for.) I wish that author, Steven D. Levitt, would apply those techniques to the question of the awarding of heroism medals compared to the awarding of Purple Hearts to the same guys for the same actions.

I suspect he would find that there are often suspiciously more purported acts of heroism than there are wounds and equipment damage in the same actions. I also suspect that he would find that there are suspiciously more Purple Hearts being awarded to enlisted men and suspiciously more heroism medals being awarded to officers in the same actions. In other words, in a given battle, the enlisted men get wounded and the officers get decorated.

Officer medals versus enlisted medals

I would also like Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt to compare the medals awarded to officers to the medals awarded to enlisted men. Also, the medals awarded to high-ranking officers to the medals awarded to low-ranking officers. I don’t think there is any question that the number of medals awarded will be shown to be directly proportional to rank. That is, the higher your rank, the greater the probability you will be awarded a medal for a given action, while lower ranking enlisted men and officers who were just a few feet away in the same action received no medals or fewer medals.

I commented during the 2004 Kerry campaign that his enlisted fellow swift boat crewmen were awfully loyal to him considering they were standing right next to him on a very small boat when he got his two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts yet they got few, if any, medals in the exact same actions against the enemy. I figured they were willing to keep their mouths shut about whether Kerry deserved his medals so they could be famous as the former crew of the president of the United States. The swift boat veterans who criticized Kerry were also there with him at the same time but they would not get fame if he won the election because they were in different boats (except for the main author who replaced Kerry on Kerry’s boat).

As the above discussion of the Bronze Stars and ArComs reveals, many times officers get medals or higher medals for essentially the same undecorated service as enlisted men in the same command at the same time. Apparently, such medals do not reflect any performance by the recipient in question in the situation cited, notwithstanding the words in the medal citation or the criteria for the medal. Rather, such awards are mere echoes of the commissioning ceremony that occurred years before. That is, if you got commissioned as an officer in, say, 1968, you receive Bronze Stars, ArComs, and other medals for decades thereafter, really, just for having been commissioned back in 1968.

Career officers will admit privately that what I am saying is true. They will argue, privately, that there is a widespread medal inflation in the officer corps and if a given officer decides to play it straight and only award medals according to their actual criterion and actual officer performance, that officer will destroy his subordinate officers’ careers. And he is right, but that does not justify this routine dishonesty. It is yet another manifestation of lack of integrity and moral courage in the military.

Here is an email I got from a current active-duty Navy officer who wishes to remain anonymous.

Mr. Reed,

Once again, you’re spot-on with military analysis. My experience (redacted+years Navy, enlisted and officer, line and staff) has been very similar…the award you get (yes, everyone gets one, unless you leave in handcuffs) when you leave a command ("end-of-tour") is based pretty much on your rank. Nowadays, in the Navy, if you’re an O-1 or O-2, it’s a Navy Achievement Medal (NAM). If you’re an O-3 or O-4, it’s a Navy Commendation Medal (NCM), and if you’re an O-5, it’s a Meritorious Service Medal (MSM). Really, really super performance (or stellar butt-kissing) can up the medal one notch (so an O-2 might get a NCM).

For enlisted, it looks like E-6/junior E-7=NAM, senior E-7-E9=NCM, and E-9 with lots of duties gets an MSM.

A couple of quibbles:

-I was surprised you didn’t mention ADM Boorda’s medal-related suicide. <>

-WRT General Conway’s medals, those are gold stars on his National Defense Medal, not oak leaf clusters. As you say, each represents a subsequent award.

As I’m still active duty, I’d prefer to stay anonymous.

Good points. I had forgotten that the military is very big on welcoming and going-away ceremonies. They have to be—someone is doing one or the other almost every week.

When you leave a unit, you typically get some sort of plaque or other gift that has some mention of the unit on it and a medal or two. (I never got any such plaques or going-away medals.) The typical officer has a collection of plaques that would rival Bob Hope’s den. And since you also get a medal for leaving, that’s a lot of medals. The medals my battalion gave out in Vietnam were part of the departure ceremony, usually added onto the supper meal in the officer’s mess.

Politician medals

Politicians including those on active duty like to visit the front like tourists and get medals for doing so. You can read the silver star citation of Lyndon Johnson here. Even the wording of the citation does not meet the criteria for the silver star. He went on a bombing mission as a tourist. They got shot at. He was “cool.” He cares? He was just a passenger. Johnson was a congressman before World War II. He went into the Navy as a lieutenant commander. Most career Navy officer retire at that rank. He started at it. The silver star is an Army medal and he was given it by the Army, not the Navy, his branch of service. He later became Senator, vice president, and president.

Obviously, he only got the medal because he was a congressman. No doubt he was neither the first nor the last.

No combat, please, we’re bureaucrats

Here’s an email I got on 1/5/09:


Here is one of my experiences with medals.

One of my squads was on patrol in Mogadishu in 1993. They came under machine gun fire and one of the Marines was instantly killed. Another Marine packing an M203 fired an HE round right at the ambushers but was within the arming distance so the round bounced away harmlessly. While still under MG fire this kid runs down the alley enough to get some arming distance and sends the ambushers off to Allah.

The SecDef was coming to visit us and we were rushed to put a few men forward for recognition and this guy was an obvious choice so I hand wrote his citation saying the above. A few days later, the S1 who was a buddy of mine and knew my temper took me aside and said he had some bad news. He shows me my handwritten citation and the attached note that read "Sounds too much like combat! Remove all references to action and resubmit."

By the way, the award was a Navy Comm with V….it’s not like I was shooting for a Silver Star or anything.

Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Best regards,

Mike Broihier

As you predicted

Here is an email from a West Point Lt. in Iraq

…awards are still very much inflated, as you predicted. I know several people here who will probably get Bronze Stars and they barely left the base at all—when they did, it was on an aircraft, not on the roads where the real danger is.

The suicide of the top officer in the Navy

Admiral Jeremy Boorda was the first former enlisted man and was also the first Navy head who was not an Annapolis (U.S. Naval Academy) graduate who worked his way up to the very top job in the U.S. Navy: Chief of Naval Operations. (The other branches call it Chief of Staff but the Navy has to be different—some sort of stepchild, sibling-rivalry thing.)

Army Colonel David Hackworth, the most decorated officer in the U.S. military, called for a public investigation into two medals on which Boorda wore V devices indicating they were awarded for valor. Hackworth and media accounts said Boorda was not authorized to wear the V devices. Boorda committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest while he was still Chief of Naval Operations. He had been told an hour earlier that the NewsWeek editor who was going to interview him was going to be asking about the V devices. He abruptly said he had to go home to eat lunch and, while at home, shot himself. He left two notes one of which was addressed to his sailors and said he felt disgraced.

Two years after the suicide, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., who had been Boorda’s commander in Vietnam and who also became Chief of Naval Operations, said Boorda was authorized to wear the V devices. Apparently, Zumwalt had issued some sort of blanket authorization for all those on 100 ships in the Vietnam war zone that they could wear such devices on certain medals. (See

The paperwork on the medals in question did not contain the wording required to authorize V devices. In 1995, on the advice of the Navy’s Office of Awards and Special Projects, he removed the decorations from his ribbons. The Navy did not officially determine whether Boorda was entitled to the V devices based on the technicality that no one had petitioned the Board of Correction of Military Records for such an investigation.

I do not regard the Boorda incident as significant or typical. Whatever their other faults. military officers generally do not wear medals they were not authorized. Too many of their colleagues would immediately recognize the fraud. That is not to say they don’t wear medals they did not earn according to the official criteria for the medals. They do that constantly.

The Boorda incident does illustrate the perceived importance of medals to one’s career.

Congressional Medal of Honor

The Congressional Medal of Honor is almost always a legitimate award, but I still have some complaints about it.

For one, there seems to be a component of extreme popularity in many of the awards. The two Medal of Honor recipients I knew, Gary Littrell and Buddy Bucha, were both extremely popular personality-wise. Bucha was a member of the West Point Class of 1965. He was my regimental (1,200 cadets) commander when I was a freshman in the Class of 1968. I never spoke to him, but plebes at West Point are very aware of seniors, especially regimental commanders. Bucha’s Medal of Honor citation is at his Wikipedia entry.

I would not be surprised if their getting the Medal of Honor had something to do with their likeability. If not, it’s a hell of a coincidence. I’m not saying they did not deserve the medals. Rather, I am saying that heroic behaviors in battle seem more widespread than awards of the Medal of Honor. In other words, it appears to me that unpopular guys who exhibit comparable or greater bravery often do not get the medal. Too few CMHs are given out. Perhaps because those who decide think you need to not only be very brave in a given action but a saint in general as well.

A visitor to this Web article accused me of “casting aspersions” on Buddy Bucha and the Medal of Honor itself. I see no basis for that, plus, I asked Buddy. He responded, after reading this article,

I read your article and  found nothing offensive or disparaging in it with regard to the brief passage about Gary and me.


In closing, I  am not offended by your comment.

Bucha also made several other general comments worth note.

Bucha comment Reed response
By [the Swift Boat Vets] suggesting that the system is so  prostituted that one can fake a Purple Heart intentionally is to cast a very  dark shadow over the awards systems which in turns cheapens all that we have  to give the widow, mother or father and/or family of a fallen soldier.  I  understand that some times medals are given that might not measure up to similar medals awarded in other circumstances.  The system is not perfect, but it is not prostituted.

A fallen soldier, by definition, would not fake the purple heart for the enemy fire that caused his death.

The Swift Boat vets accused Kerry of getting one purple heart for being hit by flying debris from his throwing his own hand grenade into an enemy rice cache to destroy it. Since the Swift Boat Vets were not eyewitnesses, they were stretching to give such detail. They also said he got a purple heart for a minor scratch. Again, I would like to have heard that from the doctor who treated Kerry and wrote up the paperwork that qualified Kerry for the purple heart as a result of that wound.

I thought the Swift Boat vets were stretching to find fault on a couple of occasions in the book like where they complained that the enemy guy Kerry shot dead was a teenager in a loin cloth. Lots of Americans were killed by teenagers in loin cloths in Vietnam.

[Swift Boat vets accusations are]
decades old rewrites from so called witnesses with an  obvious political agenda

Kerry’s version is just as old and he certainly had the biggest political agenda among the Swift Boat Vets and himself. The SB vets are lawyers and such. Kerry is the only career, professional politician among them. I am not aware of any dispute about the Swift Boat vets being Kerry’s replacement, peers, and colleagues at the time. As I recall, they claimed to be eyewitnesses to some Kerry events and not to others. Again, I am not aware that even Kerry questioned whether they witnessed the things they said they witnessed.

Speaking of politics, I was surprised to read in Bucha’s Wikipedia write up that he is a foreign policy advisor to Obama. Such persons were typically supporters of Kerry not Bush in 2004. The other Medal of Honor winner I mentioned above, Gary Littrell, was briefly prominent in the 2000 FL presidential election recount when the Dems proposed throwing out absentee ballots. Bush supporter Littrell went on TV to protest that many such ballots are from U.S. military personnel stationed overseas. Being a Medal of Honor winner does not elevate you above politics nor does it give all the medal winners the same political views.

I understand that some times medals are given that might not measure up to similar medals awarded in other circumstances. Agree.
 The system is not  perfect, but it is not prostituted.

I will defer to Bucha’s judgment with regard to awards of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Both he and Gary Littrell were both presidents of the Medal of Honor society. I know little about awards of the second highest bravery award, the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, or the Navy Cross. However, I disagree with regard to the Silver Star and the Bronze Star and many non-bravery awards. Many, maybe most, of those awards are valid. But many are not. Were they “prostituted?” The pertinent definition of that word is “To sell (oneself, one’s artistic or moral integrity, etc.) for low or unworthy purposes.” Yes, they were prostituted. See the discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s Silver Star in this article. Here is a similar discussion of Senator Joseph McCarthy from his Wikipedia write up: He flew twelve combat missions as a gunner-observer, earning the nickname of "Tail-Gunner Joe" in the course of one of these missions. He later claimed 32 missions in order to qualify for a Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received in 1952. McCarthy publicized a letter of commendation which he claimed had been signed by his commanding officer and countersigned by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then Chief of Naval Operations. However, it was revealed that McCarthy had written this letter himself, in his capacity as intelligence officer. A "war wound" that McCarthy made the subject of varying stories involving airplane crashes or antiaircraft fire was in fact received aboard ship during an initiation ceremony for sailors who cross the equator for the first time.

The pertinent “low or unworthy purpose” was to use the award to improve political chances and to deceive people about the military service of the Senator in question. There have been many other incidents of inappropriate blanket awards of medals that are supposed to be awarded only on a case-by-case basis. It is less true of the Bronze Star with a V device and the Silver Star than of non-bravery medals, but there are too many incidents involving the Silver Star and V to characterize the system as merely “imperfect.”

Bucha said there was nothing wrong with Boorda wearing a V device.

That seems to be the official consensus although some Navy lawyer recommended that Boorda stop wearing it and Boorda committed suicide when Newsweek was about to report his wearing of the V. I don’t know what to make of it all. By Bucha’s and Zumwalt’s account, Boorda certainly seems to have overreacted when he shot himself.

My sense is that the Navy did three things out of frustration with the lack of medal-winning opportunities for their non-pilots: create the swift boats, create the “riverine” force commemorated in the “fictional” book The Lionheads, and blanket award V’s to sailors sitting on ships that had no enemy contact in the South China Sea. As far as I can tell, the Navy simply felt left out of the “fun” and took these steps to get in on it. Men die as a result of such sibling rivalry nonsense in the U.S. military, including, apparently, Boorda.

Bucha said authorities should perhaps look deeper into medal awards when an area is proclaimed to be so dangerous that virtually everyone there is due a medal, then a subsequent set of commanders in the same area makes no such report. Makes sense.
But if you look a chest full  of ribbons and you see a particular leader has been there in the fights and  his or her rank suggest that when there they were in a position to received  awards of valor and yet none were received, then perhaps you are looking at  leadership perfection personified. Mission accomplished, no KIA, no WIA no  valor required.

Excellent point. The bottom line is accomplishing the mission, not being brave or getting wounded. On D-Day, the Allies who landed on Juno, Sword, Gold, and Utah beaches accomplished their missions and suffered relatively light casualties. But the guys who landed on Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, got chewed up and probably got a lot more purple hearts and bravery awards.

The difference was due in part to intelligence mistakes, navigation mistakes, very bad terrain (bluffs), and so on. One just looking at the awards of medals for wounds and bravery might conclude that the Omaha Beach leaders were better than the others. But good leadership often reduces casualties and the need for valor. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and an ounce of superior preparation and leadership often prevents a pound of casualties and requirements of taking dangerous chances (bravery) to accomplish the mission.

I recommended others for awards and some were simply just not processed by the Division HQ out of indifference or distraction. Another good point. In addition to malevolence, many medals are not awarded as a result of plain old inefficiency, lack of motivation, and error. Generating and getting approval of medal awards is, among other things, extra work for all involved. Furthermore, the people who have to do the extra work rarely get any bravery medals themselves. No one ever got in trouble for not awarding a deserved medal.
I have no doubt in some case  personality is a factor since that same personality may very well be the  reason, a particular individual acts in a particular way that others may  determine is valor. I was using personality only in the sense of likeability. Bucha’s use is also true. Different personalities shine in different challenges.
The key is that we must believe, while not perfect,  that the ribbons or medals awarded are merely expressions of thanks from a  grateful nation. I think expression of thanks is one of two official purposes of medals. The other is motivating military personnel to behave in ways that enhance national defense. However, I must add that there are absolutely other unofficial uses of medals, namely to impress voters in subsequent political campaigns, to get promotions and status among fellow military personnel, to impress civilians, to elevate the self-esteem of insecure individuals, to “keep up with the Jonses” in rivalries between military branches and services. And the withholding of medals awarded to others who served the same (my connection with medals) is used as a punishment and to motivate subordinates to comply with OVUM and OPUM.
Often, I would suggest, medals may act as obstacles to particular career paths  or opportunities.  And in those case, the medals may in fact be burdens  that prevent an individual from achieving more and rising to higher  success.

Aha! VERY interesting observation coming from a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Surprising and a little intriguing, actually. At another article about the military at this Web site, I quote Wes Clark (West Point class of ’66) as saying if you want to have a successful career as an Army officer you need to avoid being a Rhodes Scholar, Heisman Trophy winner, or winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. My Succeeding book has multiple warnings about this unexpected adverse effect of high achievement. I would be very curious as to exactly what Bucha is referring to here, but I don’t want to bother the guy. I will simply note that Bucha resigned from the Army in 1972, seven years after graduation. He got an MBA from Stanford which gave him an additional four-year obligation and may account for why he did not get out after he completed his West Point four-year obligation which would have been 1969. You might think a guy who won the Congressional Medal of Honor would be inclined to stay in the Army for a career. In the context of his comment, it would appear there are some unexpected ramifications of winning the CMH. Maybe jealousy?

It is all the more interesting when you note the timeline of his brief military career: 1965—graduate from West Point; 1965-7—Stanford MBA program; 1967—101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, KY; 1967-70—Phuoc Vinh area of South Vietnam (I visited Phuoc Vinh several times in 1969-70 as part of my II Field Force radio officer duties.); April, 1970—Bucha departs Vietnam (he must have extended his original one-year tour for at least two six-month periods to be there from 1967 to April, 1970); May 14, 1970—Bucha awarded Medal of Honor; 1970-2—accounting instructor at West Point; 1972—resigned from the Army.

In other words, his entire time in the Army after he got the CMH and observed that medals may act as “obstacles” or “burdens” to success were spent at West Point. ???

Again, thanks for sharing your article.   


Bud Bucha

Thanks for your contribution to it.

Jack Reed


Douglas MacArthur’s Medal of Honor

Douglas MacArthur’s father Arthur MacArthur (no kidding) got the Medal of Honor in the Civil War. He was as theatrical as his son, if you can imagine such a thing. If you have any doubts, read about how he died. Son Douglas got the Medal of Honor, too. For what? For leaving his men on Corregidor while he and his wife and son snuck out of there in a PT boat. Those men he left behind ended up in the Bataan Death March. Douglas made speeches like “I shall return” and did wading ashore in a class A khaki uniform for photographers.

I don’t think Douglas MacArthur deserved the Medal of Honor for what he did in the Philippines in 1942. He may have deserved it for his heroism during World War I. Rather, I think he got the Medal of Honor in 1942 because in those early dark days of World War II when America was getting its butt kicked in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, the nation needed heroes. They gave him the Medal of Honor because the public wanted someone to be proud of and inspired by. That is not the criterion that is supposed to be used.

Pat Tillman getting the Purple Heart and Silver Star, neither of which he was entitled to because of the lack of enemy fire, are another example of medals being awarded for public relations and support for the war rather than individual actions that qualify for the medal. See my article on the Tillman incident.

I also do not like generals getting Congressional Medals of Honor. It is not their job to be that far forward in a battle. They cannot effectively do what they are supposed to be doing, coordinating the attack or defense, with bullets whizzing and explosives going off around them. They know too much to be that close to being captured by the enemy. It is theoretically possible that a general might deserve one, it would take an extremely rare, if not non-existent, situation.

Some of medals are reserved exclusively for generals and admirals. For example, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal is for stuff you do in a “duty of great responsibility.”

Hell, I think an investigation should ensue whenever anyone above the rank of captain gets a bravery medal. Majors who are S-3s (operations officers) or battalion XOs (executive officers—second in command) and battalion commanders in infantry or armor battalions might legitimately be awarded bravery medals—like the Ia Drang Valley battle commemorated in the book and movie We Were Soldiers.

Compare the criteria for the bravery medals to the job descriptions of the different ranks. Captains and lieutenants are company commanders and platoon leaders. The criteria use phrases like “risk of life,” “gallantry,” “heroic.” Majors and above generally should not be in such situations. They should be looking at maps and talking on radios.

Throwing yourself on a grenade

As I said in my article about Hollywood depictions of weapons, I think throwing yourself on a grenade is a bad idea for all concerned. Read that article for details like those about former VA head and Senator Max Cleland who would be dead if he had thrown himself on a grenade instead of trying to pick it up. (It was not in combat. He thought it had fallen off his own belt when he got out of a helicopter and was just picking it up to put it back on his belt. He did not know the pin had come out of it and it was going to explode.)

There seems to be a policy that throwing yourself on a grenade “to save your buddies” gets you an automatic Congressional Medal of Honor.

Throwing yourself on a grenade is stupid. It insures you are killed and probably few if any of your buddies would have been seriously hurt if you had instead just yelled “Grenade!” and dove away from it.

Many young men have self-esteem problems and insecurities. Many probably dream of being the big posthumous Medal of Honor hero as a result of throwing themselves on a grenade. That would explain the apparent upsurge in this stunt.

By automatically awarding the CMH to such men, the military and Congress encourage this stupid move. It is akin to naming high schools, high school stadiums, and other high school buildings after high school students who commit suicide. Most schools stopped doing that after it was pointed out that it encouraged such suicides. The deceased students figured it was their best shot at immortality. Some soldiers and Marines are apparently now figuring the same thing with the guaranteed-CMH belly flop on the grenade.

Too few CMHs

There can be no question that too many medals are given out by the U.S. military. I read that after our invasion of Grenada, the number of medals given out, 8,612, exceeded the number of U.S. military personnel who were ever in Grenada.

When it comes to the Congressional Medal of Honor, however, I believe too few are given out. For one thing, there appears to be a one-man-per-battle limit. (Exception: In the Battle of Vera Cruz, whatever that was, 56 Navy guys got Medals of Honor. Hell, there were only 92 casualties in that battle, only 22 of whom died. The Navy is weird—some sort of stepchild, sibling-rivalry thing.)

For example, it appears to me that damned near everyone who landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day should have gotten one. Similarly, Admiral Nimitz famously said that “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” on Iwo Jima. One could argue that a hell of a lot of those guys should have gotten the CMH.

It is extremely unlikely that only one man earned the CMH is some of our extremely ferocious battles like the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu in Somalia, Gettysburg, and many others.


Medics have gotten a disproportionate share of CMHs. They probably still have received fewer than they should have. Just think about where they are on the battlefield.

A hundred guys are pinned down by enemy fire. One gets hit. The medic goes to him. Obviously, that one who got hit was probably in the worst location on the battlefield at that moment. Now the medic has to join him there. Plus the medic’s work requires him to be in a body position other than flat on the ground which is probably the position of the wounded man before he got wounded. F’get about it.

Helicopter pilots

Same goes for helicopter pilots who go into hot landing zones.

The basic everyday job description of a medic or hot LZ helicopter pilot almost replicates the exact wording of the bravery medal citations.

Too few posthumous awards

I suspect there are too few posthumous awards of the CMH. Why? Because it is more compelling and enjoyable for the living to make a hero of a survivor than of a victim. Living heroes are more useful to the nation than dead ones. Death is depressing. Survival is uplifting.

David Hackworth’s book About Face

In his book About Face, Army Colonel David Hackworth says that he and his buddies sat around after combat writing up medal citations on each other. But he said that the officers generally rejected or downgraded the medals awarded as a result. In one case, he and his buddies recommended a guy who had been killed in Korea for a Congressional Medal of Honor. The officer who received the paperwork downgraded it. Hackworth attributed this to the inarticulateness of the enlisted men in writing the recommendation.

I suspect there was also a bias against enlisted men at work.

Medals awarded to ease the consciences of the officers who incompetently ordered them to their deaths or injuries

In About Face, Hackworth quoted a fellow Korea War officer, Roy Herte, to the effect that sometimes bravery medals are awarded to salve the consciences of higher ranking officers who stupidly sent men to their deaths or serious injuries. Herte was awarded a Silver Star after a mission he had protested before it went out. It was a broad daylight patrol to enemy lines to capture a prisoner of war. Such patrols, always extremely dangerous, are almost always scheduled for night time, especially in terrain devoid of vegetation like the trench lines in the latter stages of Korean War. The patrol could be observed by the enemy almost from its beginning. Three men were killed on the doomed patrol before it got close to the enemy.

Years later, Herte said to Hackworth,

To this day, I contend that the award [Silver Star to Herte] was made not so much for any heroism on my part but to placate the consciences of those who made the inept decision to send the patrol out in the first place.

Hackworth said he agreed with Herte’s analysis of the motivations of the officers who both ordered the patrol and the Silver Star for Herte, but he added that Herte did deserve the Silver Star for his actions on the patrol. He apparently did not think that the officers who recommended the Silver Star knew about the details of Herte’s action in the patrol. (This story is related on page 260 of the paperback version of About Face that was copyrighted in 1989.)

Medals awarded to co-opt the recipient

I would add that sometimes medals appear to be awarded to co-opt the recipient. That is, to discourage him from revealing some embarrassing truth because it might diminish or refute his bravery medal. One definition of co-opt is, “To persuade an opponent to join one’s own side.”

I suspected in the Pat Tillman case that the Army posthumously awarded him a Silver Star and Purple Heart that he was not entitled to (because no enemy was involved) in the hope that the Tillman family would keep the friendly-fire nature of Tillman’s death quiet to preserve the public’s perception that he had heroically attacked the enemy in the incident. See my articles on the Tillman death and cover-up for more on that.

If a tree falls in the forest…

Another fact that Hackworth caused me to think of is the absence of witnesses. Roughly speaking, the more brave your actions, the fewer people there are to likely to be around to see them. It takes more bravery to act alone than to act with thousands of fellow soldiers or Marines around you.

Secondly, bravery is more likely to be engaged in by enlisted men and more likely to be witnessed by enlisted men. There is supposed to be one officer in a platoon of 40 men. In combat, the officer cannot be everywhere at once, visibility is usually reduced by vegetation and smoke and dust, and the officer is often killed, thereby leaving even fewer officers available for witnessing and documenting bravery.

Bravery by an enlisted man that is not witnessed and documented by an officer reminds me of the tree that falls in the forest about which the Zen question is asked: “If no one hears it, does it make a sound?” If gallantry is not witnessed and documented in writing by an officer, is it gallantry? Obviously it is, but in that circumstance, there is not likely to be a medal awarded.


The Swift Boat Veterans book about John Kerry, Unfit for Command, complained that he was awarded two Silver Stars based on self-documentation. That is, he was involved in an action, wrote an after-action report, and his superior, who was not present at the battle, wrote a recommendation that Kerry receive the Silver Star based on nothing but Kerry’s own after-action report. I cannot say it for sure happened that way.

Kerry and his Democratic supporters denounced the Swift Boat Vets up one side and down the other. But I must note that the Swift Boat Veterans were not a bunch of right wing nut cakes. They were the other swift boat officers who were Kerry’s colleagues in Vietnam. The swift boats operated in groups. So when Kerry did what he got the Silver Stars for, the Swift Boat Vets were on other boats yards away. I can believe that they shrugged off Kerry’s medals at the time but then were outraged that he would used them to try to win the presidency.

Regardless of whether you want to believe the Swift Boat Vets on Kerry, believe that officers do often get medals basically for recommending themselves in after-action reports.

Enlisted mutual recommendation

I do not mean to suggest that enlisted men are angels when it comes to medals. As a group, they have less power and less ability to game the system. They are also less benefited by medals than officers so they have less incentive to seek them. But to say they have less incentive does not mean they have no incentive. There are probably more enlisted men than officers who are in the military because of the action figure, hero image.

NCO’s, especially the higher ranking ones, are somewhat officer-like in taking care of Number One and each other. Also, many short-timer enlisted men are quite smart and articulate and shrewd and no doubt have gotten medals for themselves or their buddies by gaming the system.

Sometimes, enlisted men also like to get away with stuff, like get one of their number a medal without good reason, just for the fun of it.


Too many medals are probably awarded to non-infantry and non-armor branches like artillery and signal corps. Why? Ultimately, those officers compete with infantry officers for higher rank. Generals generally are considered to not be affiliated with a branch. Officers in branches like artillery and signal corps feel that their guys are at a disadvantage with infantry officers when competing for general rank, so they try to make sure their guys have as many bravery medals as the infantry guys.

Artillery and signal corps guys sometimes serve with the infantry. Artillery forward observers are quite entitled to some bravery medals. Each infantry battalion has a communications officer. I was a communications platoon leader in an infantry battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division. But the job description of the communications platoon leader is generally not one involving bravery. Unless you are getting overrun, by the enemy, you would be involved with batteries and repairs and antennas, not gallantry. A West Point classmate who was in the engineer branch said that combat engineers often accompanied the infantry when bunkers and such were expected. They, too, should not be suspect when winning bravery medals and they should get some sort of combat badge.

In October, 2009, I was surprised to learn that former VA head and U.S. Senator Max Cleland had more or less the same job that I did. He was a communications officer in an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cav in Vietnam—same job I had in the 82nd Airborne and almost the same job I had in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. He got a silver star in the Battle of Khe Sanh but received his famous injury—losing his right arm and both legs—at the hands of a stupid U.S. enlisted man who got the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades. (So he could throw them quicker?) One fell on the ground when they were getting out of a helicopter at a cold LZ (no enemy fighting go on) where he was to set up a radio relay station. The pin came out and the handle popped off starting the 4-second fuse burning. Cleland assumed it still had its pin in and bent over to pick it up. When his right hand was five inches from the grenade, it blew up.

A reader of this article told me the following in July, 2009:

Well, as of a few years ago, the US Army came out with the combat action badge (CAB) for non-infantry branches, and the qualifications for it are relatively the same (to my knowledge). -equivalent award.


Enlisted radio operators approach platoon leaders, company commanders, and medics in their extra exposure to enemy fire. They have to hang with the officers and they are conspicuous to the enemy by their equipment.

Again, I expect the incidence of Purple Hearts among artillery forward observers and communications platoon members would be similarly as high as among infantrymen. So awards of bravery medals to such non-infantrymen would not be suspect.

Once again, the number of Purple Hearts and bravery medals should be similar in any group. I suspect analysis would reveal that the branches other than infantry or armor have too many bravery medals in relation to their number of Purple Hearts.

Racial discrimination and reverse discrimination

There has also been plenty of evidence of racial discrimination in the awarding of medals including the CMH. Again, I would like to see a Freakonomics-style analysis of the awarding of Purple Hearts versus the awarding of heroism medals among minority military personnel. I suspect that minorities would have relatively more Purple Hearts than medals for heroism. The incidence of Purple Hearts and heroism medals ought to be roughly the same for all ranks and races. I doubt that it is.

I also suspect some minorities have gotten medals they did not earn on a sort of affirmative-action basis to preclude false charges of racial discrimination. On January 13, 1997, Democratic President Clinton, who got some 90% of the black vote in elections, presented Medals of Honor to the families of 6 deceased Black World War II heroes and one living hero, Vernon Baker. I do not know the merits of those cases, but I expect Washington DC is more receptive to awarding or upgrading medals to blacks who served in the past than to whites who served in the same wars.

An argument that blacks were discriminated against, which I agree with, proves my point. The medal should be awarded based on the actions of the man in question, not to fill a quota or to redress a disproportionately low number of awards. In 2004, Democratic party official Rodney Shelton said, "The black vote is absolutely critical to the Democratic vote," says Shelton. "We just can’t win without it." Accordingly, efforts by politicians, especially Democrats, to upgrade medal awards to blacks for actions that occurred in the distant past warrant great suspicion.

The only legitimate reason to upgrade such awards is new facts coming to light that reveal the wrong medal was awarded. Upgrading awards because of a general belief, or even evidence, that blacks were widely discriminated on back then cheapens the medals. A general disproportionately low number of medals being awarded to blacks should be dealt with by a general Congressional proclamation to that effect, not upgrading of the medals of particular personnel to fill a quota created by changes in racial sensitivities or Johnny-come-lately cynical ploys to garner minority votes.

Basically, you get the medal of honor for “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” Not for getting a lesser medal while being black at a time when blacks were discriminated against in all things including medal awards.

Dorie Miller

People are agitating to get U.S. Navy sailor Dorie Miller the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Amazingly, back then, the Navy used blacks as mess stewards in the officers ward room (dining room) on ships. Miller moved his mortally-wounded ship‘s captain to a first aid station on the ship then manned a .50-caliber machine gun and reportedly shot down five Japanese planes in spite of never having been trained to operate a machine gun.

I commend him. I apologize for the fact that the Navy treated blacks the way they did back then. The Army wasn’t much better, but they only put them in separate units. As far as I know, they did not generally use them as servants. I commend him for successfully using a weapon that he had not been trained to use. I further commend Miller for shooting down five planes. (assuming the kills were really his) If a U.S. fighter pilot does that, he is designated an “ace.”

But whether he earned the Medal of Honor that day would have to be taken up with the witnesses who were there and the officers who decided he should get the Navy Cross—the second highest medal for bravery after the Medal of Honor. They might remember that there was indeed discrimination against Miller and recommend the upgrading of his medal. Miller himself died later in World War II when his ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

In Miller’s case, the affirmative action campaign to get him the Medal of Honor actually started in 1941. The Secretary of the Navy at the time, Frank Knox, said Miller’s actions warranted the Navy Cross, not the Medal of Honor based on the specifics of the action and the wording of the Medal of Honor criteria. Generally, there was a lot of pressure from black groups and white politicians to award the CMH to Miller shortly after the incident happened. It is possible that Miller did not even deserve the Navy Cross, but got it because he was black to placate the clamor for decorating him.

The criteria for the Medal of Honor is “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” Firing a machine gun an enemy planes may have been “above” Miller’s training and normal job title, but it was not above and beyond the call of duty for a U.S. Navy sailor to shoot at Japanese planes during the Pearl Harbor attack. All U.S. military personnel are trained in rifle marksmanship. Being a good shot does not warrant the CMH.

The standard for the Navy Cross is “extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.” I have seen reenactments of Miller’s firing at the Japanese. The more recent the Pearl Harbor movie or documentary, the bigger deal is made of Dorie Miller. But all accounts say the same thing. There appears to be no dispute whatsoever about the facts of his case. He manned a .50-caliber machine on the deck of his ship, the battleship West Virginia, and blasted away at the Japanese planes until he ran out of ammunition.

I doubt the Japanese pilots knew he existed. Their mission was to sink ships, not to kill individual sailors. Plus when you’re flying around at 300 miles an hour it is hard to see individuals and what they are doing. Certainly no Japanese aviator could know Miller’s success rate during the battle. I would think the Navy Cross would be reserved for extraordinary actions like running into a burning engine room to get the engines restarted to ram an enemy ship or some such.

Shooting at the Japanese until they ran out of ammunition was what hundreds of U.S. military personnel were supposed to do and did do that day. I find it hard to see “extreme” gallantry in what Miller did. Rather, his actions matched the standard job description of a sailor operating a machine gun: point gun at enemy and pull trigger. Certainly, U.S. Navy sailors did that hundreds of thousands of times while under enemy fire during World War II, especially in the later stages when Japanese kamikaze planes were attacking U.S. ships in great numbers.. In those battles, there were probably 50 to 100 guys on each ship doing the exact same thing that Dorie Miller did at Pearl Harbor. If Dorie Miller deserves a CMH for that, so do all the others, of whatever race, who did the same thing in all those other battles.

Hollywood depictions notwithstanding, the enemy probably never fired at Miller as an individual. Crap was flying all over and being outside in an unprotected area that day at Pearl Harbor could get you hurt, but probably by stray bullets or fragments, not by a bullet aimed at you because you were firing a machine gun.

In the unlikely event that a Japanese plane was actually shooting directly at Miller as depicted in recent movies, I would rather have been in Miller’s position than the pilot’s. Think about it. Which is harder? Using a hand-aimed, swivel-mounted, .50 caliber machine gun shooting a tracer every fifth bullet while standing on a docked ship to knock down a 30-foot long, 5,300 pound, aluminum airplane with a 40-foot wingspan —or hitting a six-foot tall man on the crowded deck of a battleship with engine-cowl-mounted, fixed machine guns while flying a plane at 300 miles per hour?

I’m not saying it was not a courageous act. But there is a difference between shooting at an enemy who is shooting at you or your colleagues in a battle—standard, required behavior for all U.S. military personnel in all battles—and “extreme gallantry.”

With regard to his shooting down five Japanese planes, how does anyone know that? Fighter planes have gun cameras that film whenever the trigger is depressed. They film where the guns are aimed. In a dog fight where one plane is following another, the relative speed differential between the two may only be five or ten miles an hour. That makes the enemy plane move very slowly in relation to the American plane that is firing at him and its camera. But at Pearl harbor, there was no gun camera on a .50 caliber machine gun on a battleship deck. Plus, the planes were moving at 300 miles an hour relative to the Americans shooting at them from a standstill.

All hell was breaking loose. After they got over their initial shock and broke the locks on the ammunition storage rooms, the Americans were blasting away at the enemy with every available gun. How could anyone tell which American gun shot down which enemy plane? I doubt they could. I suspect Miller got credit for five planes not because he shot them down, but because more than that number were shot down generally at Pearl Harbor and because he was the only black guy shooting at them. Call it affirmative-action kill credit.

I am all in favor of awarding Miller the medal and kills he deserved, if any, but I do not care for all the agitation in his favor from black organizations and politicians. Any request to change Miller’s award should come only from witnesses to the action. No one else has any business getting involved. Racial and political organizations have no standing and have an obvious conflict of interest. Politicians, for example, may seek an upgrading of Miller’s medal to woo black votes.

Combat Infantryman’s Badge

The Combat Infantryman’s Badge (CIB) is not a medal per se, but I generally respect it. It is a sort of attendance medal, but the location where you have to be to get it is noteworthy—in combat with the enemy. Unlike many of the bravery medals, I suspect that comparison of the awards of Purple Hearts and the awards of the Combat Infantryman’s badges would correlate. That is, the share of the military’s Purple Hearts would be about the same as the share of CIBs in a group.

One complaint about the CIB is that it is only awarded to guys who are in the infantry branch. Some non-infantry guys, like radio-telephone operators, communications platoon members, combat engineers, and artillery forward observers are standing right next to the CIB winners and are crucial to their functioning. The other branches who assign members to infantry units should come up with their own combat signalman’s or combat artilleryman’s badges that have the same criteria as the CIB, only not including that the person must be in the infantry branch.

One guy who was in Desert Storm said everyone in his unit got one for essentially nothing. The war only lasted 100 hours. In Vietnam, I think you havd to be walking around in the boonies searching for and finding the enemy for six months or some such to get one. The Desert Storm guy said his fellow soldiers joked that CIB in their case stood for “Crossed Iraqi Border.”


As most people know or suspect, medals attract gloryhounds—guys whose goal is to get bravery medals. These guys are a hazard to themselves and to others.

John Kerry seemed to be one of those. He ended up with two silver stars and three purple hearts. It sounded to me like he was seeking medals for his future presidential campaign when he was in Vietnam.

In one case, he and another swift boat captain decided the next time they were attacked from the riverbank, they were going to run the boats right at the source of the attack, beach the boats, and change at the enemy like infantry. That is a bit ballsy. It was also not standard operating procedure for a Naval gun boat, but the element of surprise is a principle of war. However, I will point out that Kerry apparently put himself in for a Silver Star afterward via an after-action report that resulted in his superior recommending him for the Silver Star. And I will point out that the result could have been disastrous. Running a Navy vessel aground is one of the worst things a Naval officer can do in general. I believe it is a career-ending mistake with bigger boats. While it is easier to get a smaller vessel back off the beach or river bank when you do that, it is not a certainty.

The basic idea of a swift boat is that it is, well, swift. Boats, almost by definition, are very vulnerable to fire from land. The main defense for the swift boats in Vietnam was to maneuver and make themselves harder to hit. You cannot armor swift boats. They have to float and they have be be fast. Armor runs counter to each of those needs. Furthermore, boats are very vulnerable to perforation. Perforation below the water line lets water in. When a certain quantity comes in, the boat sinks. Any quantity slows the boat down thereby making it more vulnerable to enemy fire. When you run the boat aground, you expose the portion of the hull that is normally below the water line to enemy fire. If it takes a couple of significant below-water-line holes, the fact that the engine might be able to pull it off the bank is no longer relevant. You and your crew are stuck there. If the enemy force, the size of which Kerry could not have been sure of, had been large enough, and it would not have to be very large, Kerry, his boat, and his men would have been annihilated.

Also, Kerry in Vietnam made home movies, using a camera he bought at the Cam Ranh Bay BX, in which he reenacted his combat exploits including the beaching of his boat and charging onto the shore. In the film, he was dressed like a Hollywood infantryman not like the captain of a Navy boat.

He claims he did not do the grounding or reenactment filming for future campaign purposes. Anyone believe that? Me neither. Click here for an article about it.

If you simply volunteer yourself and only yourself for more dangerous locations and missions, which I do not recommend, I would say that’s a form of glory-seeking that can only hurt yourself. But if, when you are dangerous situations, you make them more dangerous and unnecessarily dangerous in your quest for medals, you are likely endangering the accomplishment of the mission and other U.S. military personnel around you.

People who have an extraordinary number of bravery medals should be viewed with some skepticism about their intentions if not the accuracy of the medal citations. Absent unusual circumstances or assignments, no one should have lots of bravery medals. Generally, anyone who tried to acquire an extraordinary number of bravery medals would be killed or severely wounded. The “most decorated soldier,” Col. David Hackworth in the second half of the Twentieth Century, was extremely lucky as much or more than he was brave. That is what you would expect and it is what he said in his autobiography About Face. The bravest soldier of that era probably died of combat wounds.

Of course, as reported in the book Stolen Valor, many of the men who claim to be highly decorated are total frauds. Either they were in Vietnam but did not earn the medals they claim or, in many cases, they were not even in the military or in a war.

Medals of the current Commandant of the Marine Corps

You can see a photo of the current Marine Corps top officer General James T. Conway on the Internet at the Marine Corps Headquarters Web page. Click on the photo to enlarge it. As it shows, he has seven rows of ribbons.

The public probably figures, “What a combat hero!”

Let’s go through them one by one and see. His bio at the USMC HQ Web page says,

General Conway’s personal decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with palm, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with two Gold Stars, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon.

Those are all non-combat, “good bureaucrat” medals with the possible exception of the “Combat Action Ribbon.” The Grunt Web site describes the Combat Action Ribbon thus,

Personnel who earned the Combat Infantryman Badge or Combat Medical Badge while a member of the Army may be authorized to wear the Combat Action Ribbon. The principal criterion is that the recipient must have participated in a bona fide ground or surface combat firefight or in an action during which he was under enemy fire and his performance while under fire was satisfactory.

Translated into plain English, the fact that Conway got that ribbon means he was present for a firefight and behaved as he was supposed to. He did not do anything heroic or extraordinary. In other words, it is a combat attendance ribbon, the equivalent of the Army Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

Conspicuous by their absence in all of his medals are Purple Hearts or any medals for bravery or gallantry in combat. Not that their absence means he is a bad guy. It’s just that one would think the Marine Corps would have lots of officers who had Purple Hearts and bravery medals and that one of those would be more likely to be promoted to their top job. They basically rejected their best combat heroes and gave their top job to their best bureaucrat. Not the impression I got from their recruiting commercials.

Also conspicuous by its absence is a Vietnam Service Medal. The guy is a year younger than I am. He was commissioned the year I was in Vietnam. Why did he not go to Vietnam? Why did the Marine Corps give their top job to a Marine who didn’t go to Vietnam when Marines who did are still on active duty?

Oh, and look at the second medal from the right on the third row from the bottom. That would be the “I was alive in ’65” medal—with two oak leaf clusters. Only Conway wasn’t alive in ’65. He was a student at Southeast Missouri State University that year. In his case, it must be the “I was alive in ’75, ’85, and ’95” medal. (Two oak leaf clusters mean he was awarded the National Defense Service Medal three times. His mom must be very proud.)

Current Army Chief of Staff General George Casey, Jr. medals

According to his Wikipedia bio, these are the medals of the current top Army general:

  • Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
  • Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
  • Legion of Merit (with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters)
  • Defense Meritorious Service Medal
  • Meritorious Service Medal
  • Army Commendation Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
  • Army Achievement Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
  • Expert Infantryman Badge
  • Master Parachutist Badge
  • Parachutist Badge
  • Ranger Tab
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge
  • Army Staff Identification Badge

Every single one of these is a “good bureaucrat” medal or a military training school graduation indicator. No Purple Hearts and no medals for bravery. Again, there are lots of guys in the Army officer corps who have Purple Hearts and bravery medals. You might think that the Army would prefer to promote those guys over pure bureaucrats. Nope.

Former Centcom Commander General John Abizaid medals

I wrote about General John Abizaid at some length in my article on whether there is such a thing as military expertise. Here are the medals his Wikipedia bio says he got.

  • Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
  • Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
  • Defense Superior Service Medal
  • Legion of Merit (with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters)
  • Bronze Star Medal
  • Defense Meritorious Service Medal
  • Meritorious Service Medal (with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters)
  • Army Commendation Medal (with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters)
  • Army Achievement Medal
  • Combat Infantryman Badge
  • Expert Infantryman Badge
  • Combat Parachutist Badge
  • Ranger Tab
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge
  • Army Staff Identification Badge

Again, these are ALL “good bureaucrat” medals except for some Army school completion awards and the CIB which is a combat attendance medal. No Purple Hearts and no bravery medals in spite of the fact that many Army officers who could have been given the Centcom Commander position did have such medals.

I discussed this with one of my West Point classmates and he pointed out that bravery medals are generally won by junior officers up to majors and lieutenant colonels in infantry units and he noted that the current crop of big generals missed Vietnam. That would mean they would have had to get their bravery medals in Grenada (1983), Lebanon (1983), Panama (1989-90), Desert Storm (1991) or Blackhawk Down (1993). Since these guys were second lieutenants in the early 1970s, it would have been harder for them to win bravery medals because of the brief durations of the various combat actions after Vietnam and because they were higher rank in the 90s. On the other hand, part of the meaning of medals is that when there was action, you were where the action was.

Fair enough, but that makes another point I made in my article about whether there really is any such thing as military expertise. People keep saying that Bush should listen to the generals. Why? Where did they learn how to fight asymmetrical wars? Same place they earned medals for bravery in combat: nowhere.

And I think by parading around wearing seven rows of medals these guys are impersonating combat heroes because the public does not understand that most of those medals are for office work, not combat. I also think the generals show way too little humility about their knowledge of how to fight asymmetrical wars. For example, I do not hear any of them protesting the “Listen to the generals” line. The generals should say, “Hey! Don’t look at us. What do we know about winning these kinds of wars? We’re still trying to figure it out.”

Anyway, you can see the pattern here. The big brass, parading around in front of TV and other cameras with their rows upon rows of medals, are not the combat heroes the public assumes. Almost all their medals are suck-up medals for impressing a long succession of bureaucratic bosses. The awarding of medals in the U.S. military is now and long has been a scandal.

‘Major’ Calderone

The 11/26/07 Army Times tells of an officer in the Army reserves who lied about receiving a bunch of awards and decorations and even what rank he was. According to Army records, he is a captain (OCS) and the only awards and decorations he earned were a Utah National Guard achievement medal, 2 Army reserve achievement medals, a National Defense Service Medal, an Army Service Ribbon, and airborne wings. He did a one-year tour in Iraq in 2005.

Here are the awards he actually wore for years and claimed in a faked military record file:

  • Silver Star
  • Special Forces Tab
  • Ranger Tab
  • Senior Parachutist badge
  • Freefall Parachutists Badge
  • Special Operations Diver Badge
  • Humanitarian Service Medal
  • Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal UN Medal
  • Army Good Conduct Medal
  • Southwest Asia Service Medal
  • Combat Infantryman Badge

It is fairly common for civilians to falsely claim to be war heroes or higher rank than they actually were. But it is quite rare for someone on active duty to do it. This guy was on active duty. His fellow soldiers were suspicious. When they tried to see his military records, they never arrived. They turned him in. He pled guilty. Among other things, he managed to talk his way into getting paid as a major even though real military records authorized no such rank for him. He has not yet been sentenced.

Had such a person been in my unit, I would have asked him how he happened to attend so many black ops schools—especially since he was a mere National Guard or Reserve officer. Apparently that is the same thought his fellow soldiers had before they turned him in. Also, his Silver Star suddenly appeared late in 2006 long after he had returned from Iraq.

Emails from readers

Here is an email I got from a reader in January of 2008

your story reminds me of my time in the navy.  When i first joined i wanted to earn every medal i could, later i learned how much ass i would have to kiss and said screw it. I can just do my job and go home. One day one of the guys (an E-6) asked if i could take on this project that would save the command millions of dollars. It took me more than one month and when i was done he told me that he tried to get me a navy comm. but they can not give them to an E-4. The next day he was at an award ceremony receiving a navy comm. Pretty shitty huh?

 V/R Jacob Turvey

Pretty typical, actually.

Here is one from 9/08:

Mr. Reed,

I tend to concur with your evaluation of the military awards system. I may be considered a disgruntled riffed officer (passed over to RA Major), but I did go into the National Guard ten years after to get my 20 years as an E-5 (based on civilian acquired skills), needed about 5 years, and stayed until I was 60, in 1999, when they threw me out because of age, although I developed MS then, and couldn’t have continued. I loved the national guard and particularly the people in it. Most were honest, hard working souls who wanted to contribute and learn.

My real gripe about the awards system concerns the Distinguished Flying Cross. As a 3-tour army aviator, I cannot to this day see how some non-rated senior officer riding in a C & C helicopter over an military operation where there is enemy contact, can claim to be eligible and be awarded the DFC. Lots of the non-rated GO’s of the RVN era have them. What a travesty.

Regardless, I did retire as an O-4, am on 50% disability, and although I’m almost 69, am still working in a profession that I love, if only in the office and not the field.

Regards, Roger Smith

Here is another from 10/19/08


Your web page addressing the issue of whether some military personell really earned their medals was long overdue.  When I was assigned as a combat engineer in Viet Nam in 1967 I quickly realized that there existed a marked disparity concerning who received awards.  Although I did not actually have a combat MOS I was assigned to a security force and spent most of my time in the field.  During a rocket attack in the TET offensive in 1968 I took shrapnel in my left arm from a 122mm rocket.  Wasn’t really all that bad.  I bandaged it and kept on with the mission.  Later I was told by my platoon sergeant to keep my mouth shut about it because our commanding general didn’t like engineers receiving medals…he considered us non-combatants.  (We were under II Field Forces)  [Reed note: I was in II Field Force in Vietnam] What I came to find out later was that the unit officers had private ceremonies where they awarded each other medals.  I’ve told other veterans about this, but the usual response is that I don’t know what I’m talking about.  Thanks for setting the record straight.

Larry F.

And another from 5/25/09

I just want to let you know that I enjoyed reading your article on medals.

Having been an enlisted man in Vietnam, it amazed me that officers and senior NCO’s in our small unit took care of each other by getting their tickets punched with these medals. I was with a small military intelligence unit that was attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. We had one 4-man track that was assigned to the combat units and spent some nasty time along War Zones C & D in the early part of 1970. We seldom had 4 people, but often operated with only 2 people in the field. We always had trouble getting support from the rear, including getting our mail, as nobody wanted to come out to the field. On May 1, we went into Cambodia. It took two weeks before it became a relatively secure situation.

The officers in our rear unit decided it was safe enough to come out to the field in Cambodia, have their picture taken with us, and then leave before nightfall to get back in time for happy hour. The tom-toms must have been beating, because for the next 10 days, all we got was a steady stream of day visitors from battalion, the large group units in Bien Hoa, and the Saigon officers from Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. They all got their photo ops. We still had work to do, but had to brief these guys and give them the Cook’s Tour.

 I am sure that they all put themselves in for some kind of a medal when they got back to their safe havens. I wanted to get out of Cambodia, not because of the enemy, but because of these guys. After a while, the novelty wore off for them, and we got a chance to go back to normal and do our work. Oh, and by the way, nobody gave us any kind of medal or commendation. We really didn’t deserve one, as we got to see the guys of the 11th ACR get their tails in the ringer day after day, with no complaining. They were the real heroes.

Regards, Name witheld by writer’s request

Here’s another email I got 7/9/09:

John –

With regard to medals, you wrote this:

"If the battalion commander liked an enlisted man, that enlisted man got an ArCom.

If the battalion commander did not like an enlisted man, that enlisted man only got a certificate of appreciation from the battalion."

Believe it or not, the awards situation got worse since those days. Although certificates are still popular, another medal worked its way onto the Army uniform. In 1981, the Army (and presumably the Navy; and by extension the Marine Corps) created their respective Achievement Medals (Army = Army Achievement Medal; AAM).

This one really takes the cake. It probably came about as a result of increasing numbers of soldiers in a peacetime military at that time. Therefore, to have more meat to throw at privates hungry for recognition and with nothing on their uniform except the Army Service Ribbon (given for completing basic training – also known as the gay pride ribbon for its resemblance to the gay pride flag), the AAM was created. It’s a lot cheaper than a pay raise.

When I was relatively new in the Army, I heard this and other attendance awards referred to as PCS awards. I thought it was a joke, but it was not. As you know, you get an award for when you do a permanent change of station (PCS) to another location after completing a regular garrison assignment. Depending upon what rank someone is, the award can be an AAM, ARCOM, MSM, etc. As a Specialist (formerly Spec 4), I got an AAM for leaving Korea and PCSing to Fort Bragg. Boy, did i feel like a hero (not!)

– Mark

[Reed response: I love the phrase “PCS awards.” PCS means “permanent change of station” as the writer says. It means the man or woman in question is being sent to a different assignment at a different location. This happens an average of once a year to career military persons—far more often than it happens to civilians. Civilians who work in offices are constantly having little birthday parties and going-away parties for co-workers who are retiring or moving away or taking another job. The military does the same but they have to make a big deal out of any ceremony—including giving you a freaking medal for a routine rotation to a new job. So many of the medals you see on the chests of “decorated” career military pesonnel are nothing but the equivalent of the going-away mementoes at the we’ll-miss-you lunches that take place all over America daily. Imagine what civilian workers would look like if they kept all that junk and had it sewn onto their work clothes every day. Would we call them “highly decorated” desk “heroes?”]

Here is another email sent to me in the summer of 2009 from a 21st century West Point graduate who has done at least one tour in the Middle East and is still on active duty in his five-year indentured-servitude period.

I agree with most (I’d say about 95-100%) of what you have to say about the military in some of your articles I’ve read. As for other awards, you’re pretty much right on.  The funny thing is that in the past few years in Iraq, some people in my unit while in Iraq (lifers of course) thought that bronze stars were being handed out like candy (if they were or were not deserved).  So to fix that problem, the chain of command in my brigade/battalion established a set number of bronze stars/ARCOMs/etc. that could be awarded.  Obviously, this did not fix the problem as you can imagine.  All that did was it allowed all the field grade officers, company commanders, and sergeant majors to earn the award without allowing the more qualified, lower ranking, heroic soldiers to earn it.  I was on a transition team (which is a team that advises and patrols with the Iraqi National Police/Army), and our team leader, a major, who spent hours on end browsing the internet in an air conditioned office and falling asleep on mounted patrols was the only one put in for the BSM while everyone else was put in for the standard AAM/ARCOM.  So, essentially the same problem persisted.  The only thing that happened was that the award structure altogether was downgraded.  Generally, this is how awards were based in my infantry battalion during my tour in Iraq:

E1-E4: AAM (or certificate of appreciation if there was UCMJ action)


E8-E9: BSM

01-03: ARCOM (with the exception of company commanders)

04 and higher: BSM

It’s funny, yet also so sad, as to how the military has not changed much even since the time you were in during the 60s/70s (especially in regard to how screwed up it is).

Your stories of the ass-chewing sessions bring back memories of some of the lifers I’ve had to deal with these past few years.  I’ll tell of one example.  I was the intelligence trainer for our Iraqi National Police battalion, and our major ordered me to give them classified material on numerous occassions (obviously illegal if it is not releasable to the Iraqi government).  I refused and was told that I did not have "initiative" and didn’t want "to get things done" in an ass-chewing fashion.  Given that the INP was infiltrated so much with Mahdi militia and other anti-American insurgents, even if it was legal, it probably wasn’t a good idea anyway.  That’s just one example, but the rest are very similar to the nonesense that you’ve experienced.

My last comment is about how West Pointers are treated.  You touched on this in your medals article as well as several others.  West Pointers are generally treated like crap by non-West Pointers in today’s army as well.  I’ll tell of one example.  On my first day at the basic course, our course manager walked in and the first words were, "I hate West Pointers.  They are all pathetic, arrogant, and they are jerks.  They are simply not team players."  Now to put this in better context, West Pointers are generally put in the August and September courses.  However, [we] were in the October course at the time, and this particular field grade officer said this not knowing there were going to be a few more West Pointers in this particular class (obviously, this major and others quickly found out from our files).  So, the few of us rolled our eyes, and thought, wow, what a great first impression of [our] branch.    

There are so many other problems that will continue to persist in the US Army, and there are so many more to mention.  But that would be in a much larger, perhaps endless, email.

Here is a typical email I received in 2009:

John, please do not attribute these comments to me on your site.  However, from one person to another, and as a Combat Veteran with two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Army Commendation Medal with Valor Device, I agree with much of what you say.  I tell people over here who want "action" that they do not know anything about which they speak.

I can also tell you awards mean next to nothing.  I spent a 15 months as a REDACTED Platoon Leader in one of the worst areas in Baghdad last deployment.  I had to fight like a demon to get my Senior REDACTED awarded a Bronze Star.  Now, I am in Corps HQ, and I see everyone (including staff workers and drivers) receiving them.  It makes me pretty angry.

Thanks for your articles, I appreciate them.  I graduated USMA in RECENT and will be transitioning out of the Army after I return from my current deployment.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed

Is Afghanistan Obama’s Vietnam?

Will Afghanistan be Obama’s Vietnam?


Obama is actually opposed to all wars and defense spending in general. But he lied about that during the campaign because he thought it might make him look too soft on defense and the war or terror.

During the campaign, he said Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time. Afghanistan, with its far lower casualties back then, became “The Official War of the Democrat Party.” They really oppose everything military, but they refuse to be truthful about that.

Guess what. The Iraq war seems to be mainly over in terms of U.S. casualties. We paid the Sunnis protection money to get them to stop shooting us.

I doubt they will be adding a line to the Marine Corps Hymn about that. Indeed, they may need to remove the line about “to the shores of Tripoli.” Marines went to Tripoli because barbary pirates were extorting money from us to stop capturing our merchant ships. In other words, the Tripoli pirates demanded protection money. We refused to pay it. Now, 200 years later, we are back to paying it. Only this time it’s to allow our soldiers to occupy the country, not so we can use the Mediterranean for merchant shipping. It would be a lot cheaper to leave Iraq and spend the money and lives saved dealing with the economic crisis here.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have recently become far more successful at killing Americans and other NATO soldiers. The casualty rate in Afghanistan is way up and way higher than the current Iraq casualty rate. Obama is now sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and promises to send tens of thousands more after those.

Will many of them die there? No question.

Why? So Obama won’t have to admit he was lying during the campaign about the Afghanistan war being a good idea.

The main reason for the deaths of 5,000 troops in Iraq is probably Bush being unwilling to admit he was wrong to invade.

Dying to save lying politicians from having to admit prior lies or mistakes is probably the main cause of death of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam and in the twenty-first century and Barack “Change you can believe in” Obama is no different from the presidents who played that same game and thereby presided over thousands of U.S. military deaths in Vietnam and Iraq.

Memo to prospective U.S. military personnel. Get a civilian job instead.

So will “Obama’s Vietnam” bring down his presidency? Nope. It would if that was all that was going on. Obama doesn’t need a Vietnam to bring down his presidency. He has a depression. His leading us into another Great Depresion through protectionism and off-a-cliff deficit spending and increased government interference in the marketplace will be so much of a bigger mistake than Afghanistan that people will not even remember the quagmire there.

John T. Reed, West Point Class of 1968, airborne ranger Vietnam veteran

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

Bum’s rush: the Democrat ‘stimulus’ hustle

Obama says Congress needs to pass his “stimulus” package immediately. Nancy Pelosi says we lose “500 million jobs a month” until we pass it. [the population of the U.S. is 310 million]

The Democrats’ message, translated into plain English, is “Stop looking at our ‘stimulus’ bill. Just pass it.”

Since they have the votes, it’ll pass. Since all the votes but two are Democrats, that party will own the bill.

They have said the world would come to an end if it did not pass quickly. Now it has, and the implication of the world-coming-to-and-end rhetoric is that we will be in economic paradise the day after it passes.

More likely, nothing will happen at all. Next month will bring more layoffs. It will become more and more apparent to those who voted the Democrats this power that no one in Washington knows what they are doing or cares about those outside of Washington. The parts of this plan that actually might relate to stimulating the economy are just a guess, but most of the bill assures Democrats of bigger government which is what that party is really all about.

An international trade war has broken out. A front-page story on the 2/6/09 Wall Street Journal was titled “Nations rush to establish new barriers to trade.” There is talk about closing that barn door, but the horses already appear to be gone. And the bad-mouthing of NAFTA by Hillary and Obama in the Ohio primary were a contributing factor, as were the “Buy American” provisions in the “stimulus” package.

An international trade war means we will have a depression. That’s not a macroeconomic prediction. Just a simple two-step action reaction. Trade wars reduce trade—by two-thirds in the 1930s. If you reduce trade by two-thirds, and the current trade war should do that or worse, you create a worldwide depression—one that building a frisbee golf course in Podunk (one of the pork items in the “stimulus”) won’t lay a glove on.

The February, 2009 “stimulus” plan will do nothing but add another $800 billion of debt to our problems.

Payoff to supporters

There are many reasons why they don’t want us to look at it. Mainly, it’s not a stimulus bill. It’s a financial payoff to the various left-wing groups that supported Obama: global warming true believers, unions, environmental extremists, pro-abortionists, corporation haters, and the rest of the usual suspects in the Democrat coalition. Instead of earmarks, which are well, earmarked for a specific project, the “stimulus” package is blank-check pork or wild card earmarks. The Democrats appear to see the recession as a chance to raid the piggy banks of the elementary school kids of today and tomorrow and dump on them the enormous debt that is being created for such projects as improvement of trails in the woods, contraceptives, free health care for affluent children, and so on.

Obama’s chief of staff, the reptilian Rahm Emanuel said,

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

That tells you all you need to know about the Obama White House’s perspective on the current economic problems: they are an opportunity to get all the leftist Christmas wish list items for the last 30 years bum’s rushed through hidden in a monster bill disguised as a recession cure.

‘I won’

Obama famously responded to an effort by a Republican to persuade Obama to change one of his legislative positions by saying

I won. I trump you on that.

Trump this. You won the election. You get to live in the White House, period. The November election results do not mean you get your way in everything. They may not mean you get your way on anything. You still have to win the voters over to your side bill by bill. There are no more mandates any more, especially when you get elected on vague promises like hope and unspecified change.


All money for the “stimulus” package and all other government spending like national defense and social security payments, comes from the same source: business profits.

Business profits provide:

• jobs

• employee salaries and wages, a portion of which goes to the government as taxes

• business taxes to the government

ALL tax revenue starts out as business profits. The greater business profits are, the better the economy does and the more money the government has to spend on its activities.

The public thinks government jobs are equivalent to private enterprise jobs. No. Government jobs all require private businesses to fund them. No private business profits, no government.

Business and parasites

The American public can be divided into two groups:

• private business

• parasites on private businesses, namely government

Parasites in the natural world, like leeches and tape worms, are smart enough not to suck so much blood that they kill the host animal. Government is not that smart. For evidence, look at the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, and China and India before they switched to capitalism.

If the federal government wants to spend on a “stimulus” package or anything else, it must get the money by taxing private business either now, or in the case of deficit spending, later.

Democrats loves jobs, but they hate employers.

Democrats love housing, but they hate home builders, also called developers.

Democrats love tax revenue, but they hate business profits.

Democrats love leadership, but they hate managers.

Democrats love freedom, but they hate deregulation.

Democrats are congenitally incapable of creating a proper stimulus package because they desperately hate that which needs to be stimulated: profit-making businesses.

Jack Kemp says,

If you want more of something, subsidize it.

If you want less of something, tax it.

In America we tax growth, investment, employment, savings, and productivity and we subsidize non-working, consumption, welfare, and debt. The Democrat “stimulus” bill is more of that. It also subsidizes environmentalist nuttiness like global warming, having sex with strangers (free abortions and STD money), union wages, uncompetitive U.S. corporations, poorly-run banks, getting sick, not paying your debts, failing, and walking around in the woods, the latter being an activity which one would have thought did not need to be subsidized.

Only if they get credit for them

The Democrats are in favor of more jobs, but only if they get credit for them, like government jobs and government construction projects. They can name the structures created after themselves and put bronze plaques with their names on them where the public will see them as they use the building. When private enterprise hires someone or builds a building, no politician gets credit for it.

The Democrats are in favor of more tax revenue, but they hate corporations and business profits so much that they mindlessly discourage businesses from increasing profits, which would mean they would have to pay more taxes. The best example came in a late Democrat debate where George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson repeatedly explained to Obama that his plan to raise capital gains tax rates would reduce the amount of revenue coming to the government. We know this because capital gains rates has been raised and lowered in the past. When you raise the rates, people sell before the date of the raise then hold on to the assets in question until a new administration lowers the rates again. And when rates are lowered, many owners of stocks and real estate sell them to take advantage of the new, lower tax rates. When Kennedy (Democrat) and Reagan (Republican) lowered tax rates, Democrat politicians howled at the “unfairness” of rich people paying the same tax rates as the non-rich, but the government got more revenue from the taxes in question as a result.

Obama finally claimed that his reason for raising capital gain tax rates, in spite of the fact that it would lower government capital gains tax revenues, was “fairness.”

There is no such thing as fairness. It is merely a politician’s code word for favoritism to his supporters. What Barack was saying is that he and his supporters hate business and rich people so much they will even raise tax rates on them in a “cut off our noses to spite our faces” manner. Democrats would rather hurt Democrat-enacted government programs by reducing government revenues than let rich people pay lower tax rates even though those same lower rates mean the rich people actually pay more total taxes.

To Democrats, punishing the rich for being rich is a higher priority than improving the economy. The two goals are mutually exclusive which means Democrats will not be improving the economy.

Optimum rate for maximizing tax revenue

There is an optimum tax rate if your goal is to maximize government revenue. If you set the tax rate too low, like 1%, you hardly get any revenue. But the same thing is true if you set it too high, like 99%, because people will quit working or doing whatever it is you are taxing at 99%. Somewhere in between 1% and 99% is the Goldilocks rate, the just right rate that produces the maximum tax revenue.

If Democrats were not more consumed by their hatred of business than their stated goal of good government, they would recognize that no one should ever raise the tax rate above the rate that produces the maximum government revenue. Republicans may want to charge a lower rate than the one that maximizes government revenue because they are not the party of maximizing government revenue. But both parties should easily be able to agree never to go above the rate that maximizes revenue. They cannot because the Democrat voters are too dumb or too consumed with business or rich people hatred to understand this.

This is explained by the famous Laffer Curve. Most people think the Laffer Curve was a Reagan Administration thing. It was. It is also a forever thing that applied to government revenues since taxes were invented and always will. Famed liberal economist John Maynard Keynes identified it before Laffer.

The lesson from lotteries

The Laffer Curve is easy to see in another form of taxation called state lotteries. State lotteries siphon off a certain amount of lottery ticket money to spend on government stuff. The rest of the ticket revenue goes for administration, marketing, and paying winnings to players.

From time to time, stupid politicians try to pass laws that increase the state’s take, which, in turn, decreases the amount of winnings paid out to players. Invariably, many former players stop playing and the higher percentage government take results in lower government revenues because the percentage of people playing goes down farther than the government share percentage goes up. The politicians are then forced to lower the rate back to the one that optimizes the government take. By the way, the optimum winners payout percentage in state lotteries appears to be 60%. That is how much of gross ticket sales Washington State, for example, pays back to its winners.

The basic principle is that incentives matter. When government gets too greedy and lowers incentives too much, people stop doing whatever it is government is overtaxing. Overly high tax rates also encourage extreme legal efforts to find loopholes and increase the amount of illegal efforts, that is cheating.

If Democrats were competent and well-intentioned, they would realize that the only way to fix the economic mess is to encourage businesses to operate as efficiently as possible, to expand, and to innovate. All economic growth comes from businesses innovating better ways to do things and new products and new markets.

How would they do that? Well, it ain’t the Democrats “stimulus” package. It is closer to the opposite of the Democrats “stimulus” package. You would :

lower all tax rates at least down to the ones that optimize government revenue, even lower rates might maximize U.S. prosperity which is arguably a better goal than maximizing government revenue

• eliminate all unnecessary regulations

• encourage foreign businesses to locate in the U.S.

abolish all tariffs and other restrictions on imports to the U.S. and encourage other countries to do the same, which make Americans dollars go farther and gives us more to spend on U.S.-grown products and services

• encourage a brain drain of talented citizens of other countries to immigrate to the U.S. by our offering more opportunity than the more socialist Old World—the story of America—and the basis for our two centuries of prosperity

mimic the economies that have grown the most in recent years, namely China and India, by becoming less socialist, not more as the Democrats are trying to do

• let poorly-run companies like the Big Three U.S. auto companies go bankrupt—it’s like going on a needed diet

end the exemptions in antitrust laws that say unions are allowed to violate those laws

In 1953, the CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson said to a Senate Committee:

…what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.

That is not true. General Motors is a poorly run company that has made overly generous concessions to its unions over the years. But the following similar statement by another early 20th century figure is correct.

President Calvin Coolidge once said that,

The business of America is business.

That is not currently politically correct, especially among Democrats, but it’s true. Every American, including government employees and welfare recipients, is ultimately living off of business profits. Socialist idiots ought to finally figure that out and do everything they can to maximize the profits of honest businesses.

Do nothing

Will Democrats do any of the things I listed above? Absolutely not. Their hatred of business transcends all other motivations. So how about a Plan B?

OK. Do nothing at all. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by an economist was titled “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Business is cyclical. It always has been. Some years business revenues go up. Other times it goes down. Now is the latter.

It used to be that the public accepted and understood this. When I was a kid in the 1950s, my mom would often urge me to save for a “rainy day.” The current economy is a “rainy day.” Obama wants to borrow trillions that your children and grandchildren will have to pay back to end “rainy days.” It’s a fraud. We will always have “rainy days.” And your children and grandchildren will always have the mountain of debt that Obama laid on them in his efforts to make it look like he was fixing the economy.

Hundreds of mainstream economists oppose Obama ‘stimulus’

The 2/9/09 Wall Street Journal had a full-page ad paid for by the Cato Institute. It quotes Obama saying,

There is no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jumpstart the economy.

Then it has its own headline:

‘With all due respect, Mr. President, that is not true’

How many times do you see a battalion of Ph.Ds unequivocally call the President of the United States a liar?

Then there is one paragraph that recounts the failed efforts to use government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt in the Great Depression and by the Japanese government in their 1990s depression. It further states that,

To improve the economy, policymakers should focus on reforms that remove impediments to work, savings, investment and production. Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth.

It appears to be signed by about 250 economists, almost all associated with U.S. universities. For example, here are those whose names start with U through Z:

Kamal Upadhyaha, U. of New Haven; Charles Upton, Kent State U.; T. Norman Van Cott, Ball State U.; Richard Vedder, Ohio U.; Richard Wagner, George Mason U.; Douglas M. Walker, College of Charleston; Douglas O. Walker, Regent U.; Marc Weidenmeier, Claremont McKenna College; Christopher Westley, Jacksonville State U.; Robert Whaples, Wake Forest U.; Lawrence White, U. of Missouri at St. Louis; Walter Williams, George Mason U.; Doug Willis, U. of Washington at Tacoma; Dennis Wilson, Western KY U.; Gary Wolfram, Hillsdale College; Huizhong Zhou, Western MI U.

Obama is supposedly smart. If he is, then he is a lying son of a bitch who is selling the country down the river to pander to the most ignorant voters.

The alternative explanation is that he is dumb, hasn’t done his homework, and won’t admit it when he has made a trillion-dollar mistake. I thought that was supposed to be a description of George W. Bush? (Actually, it is.) But Obama said he would bring “Change we could believe in.” That brings us back to the same conclusion the economists reached. Barack Obama is a liar who will sell us all down the river to win the votes of the ignorant.

Credit and blame

Then politicians discovered that they could get elected by taking credit for the top of the business cycle and by blaming the other guy for the bottom of the business cycle. It’s well known that the party in power in a down part of the cycle loses the election. The truth is politicians and government are irrelevant to the economy although they do have the power to mess it up with rent control, price controls, gasoline rationing, tariffs, and so forth.

Nowadays, incumbent politicians flail frantically using their powers to prevent or end downturns or to at least bullshit the public into thinking they are doing everything that can be done to fix them. An incumbent who “did nothing” would be pilloried by his opponent. But the truth is doing nothing is the best course of action.

Worst except for all the others

The free market is the worst economic system except for all the others. That applies not only to generally producing prosperity over the long term, but also to recovering from recessions. We will get out of the current recession fastest if the government does nothing. According to the book New Deal or Raw Deal by Burton W. Folsom, Jr., recessions before the Great Depression lasted three to five years. The Great Depression lasted until World War II—about 12 years. Why? Because the government, both Hoover’s Republican administration and FDR’s, flailed incompetently and thereby turned a short recession into a long depression.

They triggered an international trade war which dropped international trade by 66%. There is no way to deal with an international trade war other than to end it. Trade wars increase prices—because you have to buy everything from your own country rather than from the cheapest source—and trade wars decrease jobs because of layoffs in export industries and in domestic industries because of the drop in international business.

They tried to control prices—always disastrously stupid and destructive. They paid farmers not to plant crops—an idiotic practice that never ended after the Depression ended. They built unneeded expensive buildings like the football stadium at my high school. (I did not attend that high school until 1962, but the WPA plaque seeking votes for FDR was still there.) They hired unemployed guys like my uncle Frank to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps. A bunch of make-work nonsense with guys living in tents and wearing military style uniforms. I never got to meet my Uncle Frank. A CCC truck backed up over him and killed him in Sitka, AK. That can happen in private business, but I’ll bet it happened more often in the CCC just like it happens more in the military, another SNAFU government organization.

How does the free market fix recessions? Debts that are too big get reduced by paying them down, renegotiation, or bankruptcy. Inventories that are too big are worked off by slowing or shutting down production. Leases for space no longer needed are abandoned when they end, bought out if they have not yet ended, or cancelled through bankruptcy. Employees not needed because of the drop in sales are laid off. Companies that took too much risk fail. Those that took prudent levels of risk survive. This is fundamentally healthy and necessary, like weeding a neglected garden. Like losing weight, recovering from recessions is painful. But also like losing weight, you are better off for having done it.

John Stossel, who is listed as an unappreciated national treasure on my Web page listing such people, wrote an excellent article about the wisdom of doing nothing called “This is no time to panic” in the February 2, 2009 Weekly Standard.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

Obama doesn’t need experience because his advisers have experience

President Barack Obama has no experience at anything related to being president. He hardly has any experience at anything at all.

But we have been assured that doesn’t matter because he will have all sorts of extremely experienced advisers.

I am an expert on expertise and how to impart expertise. I have written 83 how-to books, many of which are about how to impart expertise to others, namely my coaching and how to write how-to books titles. I have also written over 5,000 how-to articles that have all been published to a national or international audience.

I addressed this issue very squarely in the second book I wrote back in 1981. That book is called Aggressive Tax Avoidance for Real Estate Investors. It is now in its 19th edition.

The vast majority of laymen think the Internal Revenue Code is so complex that only accountants and tax lawyers can understand it. Therefore they do not try. They simply hire an adviser, namely an accountant or attorney, and turn it all over to them. Here is my response to that from page 34 Aggressive Tax Avoidance… which has a subhead “Why you must know the law:”

Why you must know the law

You don’t need to become an accountant or an attorney. But you do need to know tax law. For a number of reasons.

1. Day-to-day decisions. Every day throughout the year you make decisions pertaining to your real estate investments. Many of these decisions have tax ramifications. If you are ignorant of the law, you won’t recognize the ramifications—and you’ll blunder.

In most cases, a year-end visit to your tax adviser is too late to correct these blunders.

There’s an example of this in the famous Starker decision (602 F 2d 1341). T.J. Starker was doing a delayed exchange. He had an attorney, Charles Duffy. But Starker did not consult Duffy at one stage of the exchange. Starker was supposed to receive property from the Crown Zellerbach Corporation. But at one point, he told Crown to deed two properties directly to his daughter instead of to him.

When IRS tried to tax the whole transaction, they lost—except on the two properties Starker told Crown to deed to his daughter. Had he asked his attorney, the tax could have been avoided. But Starker did not know that switching the grantee had any tax ramifications.

In other words, April 15th isn’t the only “tax day.” Every day is tax day, potentially. You can’t have a tax adviser looking over your shoulder every day. So, to an extent, you have to be your own tax adviser.

2. More efficient use of adviser. If you don’t know tax law, your tax adviser will have to spend part of each session giving you a kindergarten class on the law. That would be worse than paying a computer repairman—at computer repairman rates—to read the owner’s manual to you.

Investors who don’t know the law tend to ask questions like,

“Why can’t I claim the historic tax credit? The building’s more than 100 years old.”

An investor who does know the law would be more likely to ask,

“I’d like to get the historic credit on 153 Harvard Avenue. It’s not in the National Register. But it is in a historic district. Do you think I have a chance of getting it declared ‘significant’ to the district?”

3. Evaluating your adviser. This is the most important reason why you must know the tax law. How can you tell if your accountant or attorney is worth a darn unless you know something about the tax law?

Most people pick their tax adviser on the basis of his “bedside manner.” They can’t choose according to competence level because they would not know a competent adviser from an incompetent one.

Frequently, people tell me that this book showed them that the family accountant had been giving them bad advice for years. But until they learned the law, they thought he was doing a great job.

John Zacarro, husband of 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, is a case in point. According to the former Big Eight accounting firm of Arthur Young, Zacarro’s family accountant of 40 years, Jack Selger, “did not take advantage of the many tax shelters that were readily available.” (Time, September 3, 1984)

A famous real estate book author who shall remain nameless switched from having an accountant do his taxes to doing them himself the year he first read this book.

Reading this book will make you a well-informed consumer of tax advice. Then you’ll be able to tell whether your tax adviser knows his stuff or not.

4. Counteract adviser conservatism. Most of us are more conservative when we handle other people’s affairs. Tax advisers are often more conservative when they’re giving you advice than they are on their own tax return.

If conservatism were free, that’d be fine. But it’s not. If you follow conservative tax advice, you’ll pay more than the law requires. You can tell the adviser not to be conservative. But suppressing his conservatism is easier said than done.

Most of your tax adviser’s other clients are conservative. They tell him,

“Just make sure I don’t get audited.”

So tax advisers tend to assume that everybody who walks through their door has the same goal—avoiding audit—and he does your tax return accordingly.

Avoiding audit is a very dumb goal. For one thing, it’s virtually impossible. You might still be audited no matter how conservative you are. And the conservatism which most people use to avoid audits is typically a self-inflicted “audit” which is far more severe, thorough, and costly than the vast majority of real audits.

In the case of President Obama, the reasons why he cannot be ignorant of the subjects and just rely on his advisers are the same except that I would reword #4 to “Counteract adviser bias.” In income taxes, the main problem is conservatism. In national government policy, there are zillions of different types of biases.

CIA director

What specific advisers will Obama be relying on? One of the most important is his Central Intelligence Agency director. On 1/6/09, he named Leon Panetta to that position.

Instantly, critics complained that Panetta had no intelligence experience, which is correct.

How did Panetta’s supporters respond? Panetta doesn’t need any experience because he will have all sorts of extremely experienced advisers.

Advisers advising Obama’s advisers

Excuse me. I thought Obama was the one who didn’t know anything but was going to rely on his advisers. Now we are told the that Obama’s advisers don’t know what they are doing either, but that doesn’t matter either because Obama’s advisers have advisers.

Obama’s selection of Panetta for CIA is evidence of my third argument from Aggressive Tax Avoidance… If you do not know what you are doing, you are in a lousy position to select competent advisers. Obama has no experience or training in national security or intelligence. As a result, he made an incompetent selection for his adviser known as the Director of the CIA.

Bias in the advisers who said to select Panetta

This blunder also illustrates my Aggressive Tax Avoidance... argument number 4. The advisers who advised Obama to select Panetta were obviously biased against national defense and intelligence and in favor of such defense policies as the Beatles “give peace a chance” and eliminating “root causes” ends all world violence and that, not interest in having a strong defense, motivated their advice.

Day-to-day decisions

Obama has not yet made any decisions because as I write this on 1/6/09, he has not been inaugurated yet. The same is true of Panetta as CIA director. But it is true without a doubt that both will start making extremely important decisions involving intelligence after inauguration day. For one thing, you do not always have time to convene a committee of advisers before you make a decision. Furthermore, because of their ignorance of intelligence and the ramifications of various decisions, both Obama and Panetta will no doubt make decisions without consulting the committee of advisers and those decisions will be such that the committee of advisers will unanimously denounce the decision after they learn about it.

Efficient use of adviser

When Obama and Panetta consult their advisers, it will be like molasses. Because they know nothing, the advisers will constantly be giving each of tem kindergarten classes on the subject in question. That is time-consuming. As is gathering the committee meetings itself. In a world connected by electronics that move information at the speed of light, Obama’s unprecedented reliance on advisers is anachronistic. There may have been time for such things back when our presidents were wearing powdered wigs. In the 21st century, we need a president and CIA director who know what they are doing, not a couple of guys who rely totally on un-elected advisers schooling them after the crisis starts.

Conflicting advice from advisers

There is also the problem of a lack of unanimity among Obama’s advisers. I addressed that problem in my Web article about which form of ownership a real estate investor should use: corporation, limited liability company, sole proprietorship, S corporation, etc. In that article I said,

To make the decision correctly, you would have to consult with a competent lawyer from each pertinent specialty. That list includes, but is not limited to:

1. federal income tax law

2. state income tax law

3. state tort law

4. federal laws pertinent to real estate

5. securities laws (possibly)

6. bankruptcy planning

7. estate planning

8. pension planning

9. elder law

10. college financial aid law

11. landlord-tenant law

12. partnership law (possibly)

13. trust law with some entities

14. divorce or family law

15. foreign law if your entity will be created in a foreign country like the Cayman Islands

16. HUD law

17. business law

18. construction law (possibly)

19. criminal law (possibly)

20. environmental law

21. labor law

22. finance/debt collection law

Can you really check with lawyers in all those specialties? As a practical matter, no. It would take too much time and money. And guess what! Even if you could, it would leave you worse off because their advice would conflict. Some would say to use an LLC because of the advantages and disadvantages in their area while another would say go with sole proprietorship because of the advantages and disadvantages in his area.

Who would resolve the conflicts? No one. In medicine, general practitioners and pharmacists resolve some conflicts. But there is no one in medicine to resolve specialty conflicts like a surgeon who recommends surgery for your cancer and a radiologist who recommends radiation treatment. General practitioners can resolve some general conflicts. But they do not oversee surgeons and radiologists.

And in the legal profession, there is not even a general practitioner at all. You’re on your own, baby.

Obviously, the same problems arise from a president relying solely on advisers, only more so. For example, how to deal with terrorists involves the attorney general, secretary of state, CIA Director, military, and so on. Those advisers will give Obama conflicting advice. Who is the general practitioner to whom he must turn to resolve the conflicts?

The president.

Ooops. Obama has no experience at anything so he cannot play that role. Neither can anyone else.

‘The power team’

I have also written about this relying on advisers theory when it comes to beginning real estate investors being told by get-rich-quick gurus that they don’t have to know anything because their “power team” of experts will take care of them. This is bull. The bad real estate gurus just say it to sell their expensive seminars and “mentoring” services, not because it’s true.

Most successful organization heads have outside advisers who advise them on matters requiring narrow, specialized expertise like law and engineering. But it is nonsense to think that the head guy can be expert at nothing. He at least needs to be expert at things like hiring subordinate managers. Obama has never done that. And the head guy usually needs to be an expert at the core activity of the organization in question. For the White House, that is running an executive branch of government, like mayor, county administrator, governor, or cabinet member. Obama has never done any of that either. He knows nothing about anything including how to hire and use the right advisers.

We are in big trouble with this guy in the Oval Office. He doesn’t know what he is doing and relying totally on advisers cannot fix that.

Colin Powell is a racist

The media has reported that over 90% of U.S. blacks support Barack Obama. I said that a few may do it because of his resume, character, and positions on the issues. In other words, those few blacks would support Barack Obama if he was a white guy named Barry O’Brien who also had a razor-thin resume, a left wing voting record, and a desire to “spread the wealth around.”

The vast majority of the rest of the blacks who are supporting Obama are doing so for one reason: his father was an African. In other words, they are racist. Colin Powell is apparently one of those racists.

Colin Powell endorsed Obama on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, 10/19/08.

Why did he do that? Many others believe it was racist including Rush Limbaugh. Others like O’Reilly have at least raised that question indicating they saw such a possibility. O’Reilly said it was part animosity toward the Bush Administration and Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. I suspect that’s true, but only part of it. I saw the endorsement speech. I concluded Powell’s affection for Obama was purely racist.

You can see the video and transcript of the endorsement yourself at

I am going to quote portions of it and show why I say it makes no sense other than racial.

Powell Speech Reed Comment
I have some concerns about the direction that the party has taken in recent years it has moved more to the right than I would like to see it, but that’s a choice the party makes. What’s that got to do with McCain? Conservatives are extremely unhappy with him. He has taken the Republican party toward the center with his various maverick positions. Which Republicans did Powell work for? Reagan and two Bush’s. He claims McCain is to the right of Reagan?!
And I’ve said to Mr. Obama, you have to pass a test of ‘do you have enough experience?’ Obama not only has less experience than any presidential candidate in history, he is far behind whomever has the second least experience. He has never held an executive position, that is, one where he managed other people. He dabbled in teaching in law school. He was a 23-year-old editor of an international trade newsletter. All his other jobs were essentially campaigning behind various do-gooder fronts.
I have especially watched over the last 6 or 7 weeks as both of them have really taken a final exam with respect to this economic crisis that we’re in and coming out of the conventions.


First, who is interested in Colin Powell’s take on how to manage an economic crisis? What the hell would he know about it? Check his resume on Wikipedia. It’s all military, national security, and Secretary of State. No domestic or economic experience or training.

Secondly, what did either McCain or Obama do regarding the crisis? Nothing. Both made a couple of phone calls. Both voted yes on the bailout. McCain shot his mouth off a little. Obama displayed a cool, calm, and collected demeanor. In fact, neither McCain nor Obama has a freaking clue about economic crises. The current crisis is unprecedented. Few people on earth, if any, know what to do. Reduced to substance, Obama said nothing and did nothing other than vote yes. To put it another way, Obama merely showed that he learned the lesson from the deodorant commercial: “Never let ’em see you sweat.” There was no “final exam” to use Powell’s phrase. That will come on Inauguration Day. God help us no matter which one gets elected.

And I must say that I’ve gotten a good measure of both, and in the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to how to deal with the economic problems that we were having. And almost every day there was a different approach to the problem. McCain was unsure. Who wouldn’t be? 47-year-old Obama doesn’t know any more about it than 72-year-old McCain, if he even knows as much. His silence on the matter is just another example of his being “present.” He’s like the guy at your company who got promoted to big boss because he stood back and avoided ever doing anything that might piss anyone off. Others tried to take action and were passed over because someone did not like the action they took.
I don’t believe [Sarah Palin]’s ready to be President of the United States, which is the job of the Vice President.

He cites no evidence. This is nothing but a Democrat party talking point. Essentially, it’s an intellectually-dishonest debate tactic known as “name calling.” He simply declares her unready, but offers no facts or logic to back it up.

Sarah Palin probably would not get an interview if the most important job in the world were filled like important executive positions normally are. But the same is more true of the other three major candidates. She has more executive experience (mayor and governor) than the other three put together.

Mr. Obama at the same time has given us some more broader inclusive reach into the needs and aspirations of our people. He’s crossing lines– ethnic lines, racial lines, generational lines. He’s thinking about all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values.

Bull! Obama is making strong efforts to register blacks and get them to the polls. That’s racist. He also called his grandmother “a typical white person” and rural voters desperate people who are clinging to their guns and Bibles. He keeps describing McCain as “out of touch” which is code for too old. He said “they’re” gonna tell you I’m black. In fact, he is the only one who keeps saying that, not “they.”

Obama and his people are constantly playing the race card, calling almost every criticism of Obama racist, including criticism of his association with white terrorist Bill Ayers.

If Obama did not have a black father, none of us would have ever heard of him. He would not be the Democrat presidential candidate. So said Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman major party VP candidate. She was quite correct. The Obama campaign has been based primarily on race since the beginning.

I’m also troubled by…what members of the party say, and is permitted to be said, such things as, ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’

That’s a barefaced lie. An old woman said that at one of McCain’s town hall meetings and McCain instantly corrected her. It was all over the TV.

I believe that Obama, McCain, Hillary, and George W. Bush are closet atheists. In other words, Obama is neither a Christian nor a Muslim. You would not have been at any risk of being run over by any of them if you stood in the church doorway when they went to college or spent their early adult years. I think they just pretend to be Christians because it is required in elective politics. If they quit politics you would once again be safe in those church doorways.

But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’

Powell is babbling here. The answer to his unnecessary question is that there is something wrong if he is Muslim or was and falsely says he never was. It’s an honesty question.

Also, a lot of Americans are rightly concerned that many Muslims, including many in the U.S. think God wants all Americans and other infidels killed and plan to fulfill that wish. They are also rightly concerned that one avowed Muslim tactic is to infiltrate Western societies by shaving off their beards and seeming to be non-religious. Like I said, I doubt Obama believes in God, let alone the Muslim version of God.

And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know, but I’m troubled about the fact that within the party, we have these kinds of expressions. There are 300 million people in the U.S. In presidential elections, about half of them vote Republican since the Reagan elections when a higher percentage did. To say that you are not going to vote for McCain because unnamed persons in his party—that is some of the 150 million Republicans—said something Powell did not like is ridiculous. Of course, you could say the exact same thing about the nut job Democrats who call for the death of Nancy Reagan and Dick Cheney, the gang rape of Sarah Palin, etc.
I think he is a transformational figure, How so? Because he’s half black? Apparently. There is nothing else about him that suggests transformation. His accomplishments other than graduating from affirmative-action Ivy League universities have been less than mediocre—so microscopic they are invisible. His legislative record is run-of-the-mill leftist. He promises to change everything, but he has never previously changed anything in his 47 years.

Also, compare Powell’s life with that of McCain and Obama and ask what aspect of Powell’s experience caused him to support a Democrat against a Republican. I put the similarities with McCain in red and those with Obama in blue.

  McCain Powell Obama
birth year
military career
midshipman/officer 27 years including Vietnam
ROTC cadet/officer 39 years including Vietnam
federal service
Congressman from 1982-1986; Senator since 1986
National Security Advisor under Republicans Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State under George W. Bush
Senator since 2005
invasion of Iraq 2003
said he opposed in a speech
accent and grammar
no accent; normal educated American grammar
no accent; normal educated American grammar
faux, uneducated, Deep South black accent and grammar (I heard a 2001 recording of Obama speaking. He had no accent then. Real accents are learned in childhood. Obama apparently acquired his current accent as a fake affectation after he was in his 40s.)
cocaine use
none known or likely
none known or likely
admitted cocaine use

Do you see anything in that list that indicates Powell has more in common with Obama than McCain? The only thing I see is race. Most people would think Powell’s Jamaican parents come closer to Obama’s Kenyan father race-wise than to McCain’s Caucasian parents. Otherwise, McCain and Powell have not only had very similar lives, they have almost been side by side in their government service serving as military officers at the same time in Vietnam and elsewhere and serving in Washington at the highest levels of the federal government in the 80s and 90s.

Both ‘bargainers’

Another reason I see for Powell supporting Obama over McCain is they are both what Shelby Steele calls “bargainers.” (Steele is a black American author, columnist, documentary film maker, and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.) Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote about Obama and Jeremiah Wright.

Steele says that prominent blacks fall into two categories:

• bargainers (Obama, Oprah, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and I presume Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice)

• challengers (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright)

He also says some, like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, fall into a third category, who ignore their race and behave as individuals. Seems to me that’s the only way any of them should act.

Bargainers, according to Steele, tacitly agree not to say “shame on you” and embarrass whites about slavery and segregation in return for white support of the individual in question.

In his 10/31/08 column, Thomas Sowell seems to say that Powell has changed sides—abandoning the “bargainer” mode that got him promotions, fame, and high positions in three white administrations for a new “challenger” persona that makes him more popular with blacks. Sowell notes that, in his memoirs, Powell said he opposed racial quotas. Ha! If there were no racial quotas, no one would have ever heard of Colin Powell. He would have been a high school principal in a bad neighborhood in New York City or something similar.

But Sowell says that at the Republican National Convention, Powell not only demanded racial quotas and preferences, but he did so with a raised fist. I missed that. What a two-faced weasel! Apparently Powell was a closet anti-white racist throughout his 40-year career of sucking up to white bosses. Now, in his 70s, he has come out of the closet and revealed what he is really about. He also criticized Tiger Woods for saying he did not like being labeled “black.” (Tiger Woods is only 25% black. He is also caucasion, Native American, Thai, and Chinese. Unlike Obama, Woods denies none of his ancestors.)

Sowell also faults Powell for the “moral crime” of letting a New York Times reporter go to jail for refusing to identify who told him that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA and for letting Scooter Libby go to jail for remembering events differently from a reporter. Powell knew all along that it was his subordinate Richard Armitage who told the Times that Plame worked for the CIA. But Powell remained silent and let those two people go to jail needlessly.

Two affirmative-action empty suits in a pod

I also think both Powell and Obama are affirmative-action empty suits. Powell is a hyper wimp who opposed Desert Storm when he was head of the U.S. military. That was the 100-hour war to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait which he had invaded. Even the U.N. approved the expelling of Saddam from Kuwait by military force! Powell wanted to rely on economic sanctions. Saddam Hussein would still be there if we had.

Although he had a 39-year military career and held all the top jobs the military has to offer, a career Army officer of that time said Powell “left no footprints.” That is, he came, he got positions and promotions, but he did not do anything other than preside. Sound familiar? In other words, Powell voted “present” when he was in those high positions.

Powell says he just decided to support Obama, that he was undecided until 10/19/08. Yeah, right. I say he decided in favor of Obama the day he learned his skin color and that nothing Obama ever said or did or promised would have changed that support.

Maybe racist is not the right word

I believe Powell endorsed Obama because of the race of Obama’s father, but I also believe that this racism on the part of Powell and the vast majority of the 90% of blacks who support Obama is very different from the normal way the word “racist” is used. Racism usually means that the racist believes his race is superior to the other race. That was the brand of racism exhibited by the Nazis and by white supremacists.

But black support for Obama seems to be an upside-down version of that: a desperate group inferiority complex that may be salved if one of “their people” wins the highest office in the world. This in spite of all the gains made in recent decades by American blacks, not the least of which is Colin Powell himself. He was the first black to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the first to be National Security Advisor to the President and the first to be Secretary of State. Furthermore, he was named to those positions by three Republicans: Reagan and the two Bushes. His Secretary of State successor was Condoleeza Rice, a black woman also appointed by a Republican Bush.

Yet, after all the progress by blacks in general and his own extraordinary individual progress, he throws the Republican party that gave him those positions under the bus in a heartbeat. He supports the Democrat party that has not given blacks such positions because, as has been famously reported many times, the Democrats actually do relatively little for blacks because they know they can take black votes for granted. Democrats just talk the way blacks want. When judged by their actions, they treat blacks far worse than Republicans.

But none of that matters to Powell. That fact that Obama’s father was a drunk, bigamist, serial impregnator and abandoner of his many wives and children matters not. The fact that Obama’s mother was white and that Obama was raised entirely by whites and an Indonesian stepfather matters not. The mere fact that Obama’s absentee biological father was a native of Kenya, Africa trumps all. It trumps Powell’s loyalty to the men and party he served. It trumps Obama’s razor-thin resume. It trumps Obama’s leftist ideology which is the opposite of the ideology Powell allied himself with when his career was benefiting from those alliances. It trumps Obama’s associations with many people whom Powell would never have associated with.

Indeed, it is interesting that both Powell and Obama associated with people—Republicans in Powell’s case and radicals in Obama’s. Early on, they used those associations to advance their careers. Then, when they no longer needed the associates in question, they dumped them without the slightest hesitation or apology.

An Obama election will not deliver blacks to the promised land. On the contrary, this election has revealed, surprisingly to non-blacks, how far the inside of most black minds is from a post-racial world. Blacks will know they have truly arrived in the post-racial world when the black support for a black or quasi-black major candidate reflects that candidates’ character, experience, training, and positions on the issues, not his skin color—when the percentage of blacks who support a major black candidate is around the normal black support level for non-black candidates in races where neither candidate is black—namely about 50%.

I urge voters to decide, not like Powell, purely on the basis of the color of Obama’s skin, but rather like Martin Luther King hoped: by the content of the candidates’ character. I already voted absentee. I voted Libertarian to say to the two major parties, “I am not happy with either of you. Move in the Libertarian direction.” I have only voted for a major party candidate for president twice in my life: Democrat in 1972 and Republican in 1980. I have no dog in the McCain-Obama fight. Neither of them should be allowed within a mile of the presidency.

Maybe just a careerist

I have called these men words that end in “ist:” racist, athesit, leftist. But I often wonder if there is only one “ist” that applies to the likes of Obama or Powell or Hillary—that all of their behavior is opportunistic and they only resemble leftists, for example, because that is what will advance their career at a given moment.

That word is “careerist.” One on-line dictionary defined that as,

Pursuit of professional advancement as one’s chief or sole aim

The Wikipedia article says,

Careerism is not simply the desire to succeed. In the work place, careerist individuals are often seen as conniving workers who will stop at nothing to succeed.

The word “sociopath” also comes to mind with regard to people like Obama or Hillary.

It is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: "The essential feature for the diagnosis is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood." Deceit and manipulation are considered essential features of the disorder.

Here are the symptoms from that article. A person with the disorder need not have all of them; only some of them.

* Persistent lying or stealing

* Recurring difficulties with the law

* Tendency to violate the rights and boundaries of others

* Substance abuse

* Aggressive, often violent behavior; prone to getting involved in fights

* A persistent agitated or depressed feeling (dysphoria)

* Inability to tolerate boredom

* Disregard for the safety of self or others

* A childhood diagnosis of conduct disorders – this is not a symptom but "a history of"

* Lack of remorse, related to hurting others

* Superficial charm

* Impulsiveness

* A sense of extreme entitlement

* Inability to make or keep friends

* Recklessness, impulsivity

* People with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder often experience difficulties with authority figures

Sound like anyone we know?

Financial meltdown

Starting in September, 2008, there was a worldwide financial meltdown. Regular readers of this Web site have complained to me that during the weeks after the meltdown began happening, I was silent about it.

Not a traditional blogger

I am not a traditional blogger. Bloggers pop off instantly about everything. I am a professional author with 80 books and over 5,000 nationally-published articles. To write about an issue as complex and important as the financial crisis of the fall of 2008, I had to do a lot of reading and watching. Since pertinent events have happened about every other day, there is also the question of how can I write about it until it stops unfolding? On October 11, 2008, I finally felt I knew enough and had seen enough to comment intelligently on the subject.

Key questions

Whose fault was it?

What should we do about it?

Politicians pointing fingers

Incumbent politicians hate financial bad news because the other party uses it to defeat incumbents. As I write this, the Democrats are blaming the Republicans for the meltdown because they have had a president since 2001 and were in control of Congress prior to 2007. Obama’s poll numbers have jumped significantly since the meltdown—maybe enough to hand him the White House.

Are the Dems right? Partly. Republicans are, indeed, averse to regulations and enforcement of regulations. Lack of both contributed to the meltdown.

The Republicans say it’s the Dems’ fault because they blocked repeated Republican attempts at reforming FNMA and FHLMC and because the Dems enacted the anti-redlining Community Reinvestment Act which is a sort of affirmative-action program for “disadvantaged minority” wannabe home buyers.

Community Reinvestment Act

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was signed first by Democrat President Carter. It was changed to push even harder for more “minority” mortgage loans by Republican President George H.W. Bush (Bush I) and by Democrat President Clinton. It is mortgage affirmative action.

My wife was an FDIC bank examiner for 21 years retiring 12/31/06. FDIC is one of the government agencies charged with monitoring and enforcing CRA. She says CRA contributed to the subprime crisis, but not as much as the Republicans claim. She is a Republican. I am a Libertarian. She primarily blames securitization of home mortgages and the opportunity for banks and Wall Street firms to earn fees from it for the crisis. Securitization means putting thousands of home mortgages into packages to be sold to Wall Street investors.

Democrat resistance to reforms

President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain among others tried repeatedly to force FNMA and FHLMC to lend more conservatively. Their public statements and proposed bill are quite easily accessed on the record. See a partisan blog that researched the matter. Democrats, most prominently House Financial Services Chairman Congressman Barney Frank; Senator Chris Dodd, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and others. Senator Dodd received the most campaign contributions from FNMA employees of any senator. Barack Obama received the second most. Dodd also received special treatment on a mortgage he got from Countrywide, the nation’s largest subprime lender. Obama was a community organizer for ACORN, a trainer for ACORN, and legal Counsel for ACORN, a predominantly black, major pusher of subprime lending to “minorities.” He also has directed taxpayer’s funds to ACORN and other similar entities in his capacity as IL state senator and/or U.S. senator. Obama’s campaign paid an ACORN affiliate, Citizens Services Inc. $800,000 for “get-out-the-vote” projects for his 2008 presidential primary campaign.

In her capacity as a federal bank examiner, my wife worked or bank requests to open or close branches, to merge with other banks and for new banks to start. She said that every, I repeat, every such application was opposed by a letter from ACORN. FDIC was then required to get a response from the bank in question to the ACORN complaint. FDIC paid little attention to ACORN complaints because when you oppose every single application from everybody for every action including both opening and closing branches, you don’t have much credibility. But the banks did not know whether the FDIC would defer to the ACORN opposition or not. In many cases, the bank would pay money to ACORN to settle the dispute and ACORN would subsequently withdraw their opposition.

If you turned back the clock to about 1990 and eliminated either the Democrat or Republican policies, the problem would be smaller, but not non-existent. You would have to eliminate both sets of policies to make the problem go away completely. Both parties and their presidential candidates are scum. They are only different in the ways they are corrupt. Democrats never saw a poor person they did not want to throw the taxpayer’s money at. Republicans never saw a military program they did not want to throw taxpayers’ money at. In the subprime crisis, the Democrats favored policies that they believed would help them get black votes and low and middle class votes, regardless of the danger to the taxpayers. Republicans favored policies that would let businesses do what they wanted regardless of the danger to the taxpayers.

The basic pertinent Democrat principle is socialism which is invalid.

The basic pertinent Republican principle is deference to the free market which is generally correct, but which does not apply to areas where the taxpayers’ money is being used, or may be used, as in the $700 billion bailout. In other words, the free market is fine when the participants are risking their own money. It cannot be unregulated when the taxpayers’ money is being spent or risked. Corporate welfare is not always a bogus accusation.

Why did this happen? The regulators and politicians did not want to be party poopers. When prices were rising year after year, the warning signs were there, but the public did not think anything was wrong. Regulators are supposed to blow the whistle anyway. They generally did not either on their own initiative or because of political pressure not to. Politicians never stop parties. Preventing something that the voters are not worried about from happening gets you no votes. Politicians are only interested in votes. They could care less about stopping bad things from happening.

Made to sell versus made to keep

In the old days, like the 1970s, savings and loans made mortgage loans and kept them. Recently, banks and relatively unregulated mortgage companies made mortgage loans for the sole purpose of selling them to Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA or “Fannie Mae”) and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC or “Freddie Mac”) and other Wall Street firms. In the 1970s, mortgage lenders wanted to make good loans because they were “making their own bed and they were going to have to lie in it.” More recently, the mortgage originators only wanted to make loans that they could sell. Whether the loan turned out bad later was generally not their problem.

I am a real estate investment expert. One of the well-known facts in real estate is that buildings that were built by a builder who intended to keep the building for himself to live in or rent out as an investment are infinitely better buildings to own than buildings that were built with the intent to sell. I managed one of the latter once in Vineland, NJ. It was disaster. The various short cuts that the builder took to save money continually cost us problems and expense and made the building perform badly. The builder thought he would be long gone by the time we discovered all the problems and he was right.

(I did not buy the building. I was just a salaried property manager for the company that organized the limited partnership that bought it. But I was the face of the company to the unhappy investors. They would complain that it was my fault the property was underperforming. One group demanded a meeting with me. They came in intending to chew me out. They asked me why the building was underperforming. I told them. They leaned back in their chairs and said, “We were going to chew you out, but your analysis was so honest and informed that we have nothing to add.” One of their questions was to demand to know why the latest income statement I had sent out differed greatly and unhappily from the projections in the prospectus. I said, “Because the prospectus was bullshit.” I had not been associated with the company when it bought the building and issued the prospectus.)

Do not buy mortgages that were originated to be sold rather than held if you can avoid it.

‘Credit enhancement’

So-called “credit enhancement” was another big factor. You can sell bonds—which is what mortgages are—for more money if they are AAA. So Wall Street invented “credit enhancement.” With credit enhancement, some entity with a good credit rating says they will guarantee the bonds or mortgages in question. That is, if the mortgages default, the credit enhancer will cover any resulting losses.

That’s fine in theory, but it requires the person or entity buying the mortgages because of their enhanced credit to make sure the credit enhancer—companies like Lehman Brothers and AIG—can make good on the guarantee—even if millions of homes fall in value and go into default as a result.

One of the main problems is that the various credit enhancers were unworthy of the trust placed in them. They welshed or were about to thereby convincing the federal government that they needed to intervene.


There is a business cycle of boom then bust then boom then bust. Leverage is borrowing money to invest in business or securities or commodities. During good times, people and entities tend to borrow a greater and greater percentage of the assets they own. This is dangerous, but it does not seem so at the time. The problem is that the more you borrow, the harder it is to survive bad times. The more you borrow, the less trouble it takes to bankrupt you.

As well explained by Robert Shiller in his book Irrational Exuberance, people keep claiming we have entered a “new era” when the old rules no longer apply. They apply this bogus new-era theory to leverage among other things.

I have long had an article at this Web site about buying real estate for nothing down. I wrote a book called How to Buy Real Estate for Little or No Money Down. In both, I have long said that it is imprudent to lend more than 80% of the value of a property. It is only prudent to make such high loan-to-value ratio loans or mortgages if the loan is guaranteed by a person or entity who would qualify for the top 20% of the value of the property on an unsecured basis. In real estate, higher than 80% loan-to-value ratio mortgages are often made and prudently made because entities like the FHA or VA or private mortgage insurance companies guarantee the top 20% of the mortgage against default.

Numerous people contacted me telling me that I was out of date, that we were in a new era, etc. Bull! I was right. I told you so. The current crisis stems to a large extent from imprudent loans, called subprime. Those loans had two things wrong with them. 1. Their loan-to-value ratio was too high and the guarantor of the top 20% of the loan was not strong enough to fulfill the guarantee if a large number of mortgages defaulted simultaneously. 2. The character and capacity of most subprime borrowers was unsatisfactory as was well known from centuries of loan underwriting experience but they received the loans anyway.

Everyone involved borrowed too much. When you borrow too much, you cannot survive even the slightest downturn in your income or the value of the assets pledged as security for the loan—a house in the case of a home mortgage. The home buyers borrowed too much—as much as 110% of the value of the property. The lenders themselves also borrowed too much.

Banks are leveraged about 12 to 15 to 1. That means if you bought a bank, you would typically be making a 1/15 = 7% to 1/12 = 8% down payment to acquire millions or billions of loans. FNMA and FHLMC were allowed to raise their leverage to 32 to 1 as part of the “solution” to the first acute event of the crisis: the failure of Bear Stearns. That means that to buy the billions of mortgages they owned, you would only have to put down 1/32 = 3%. With that much leverage, your equity is wiped out by a mere 3% drop in the values of your mortgages.

The other players like AIG and Lehman Brothers were also highly leveraged. Everyone was betting that property values would keep going up. They did not. No one had enough equity to survive the change.

The mortgage foreclosure rate in the U.S. in October of 2008 is only about 2.5%. During the Great Depression, it was about 50%. So why is 2.5% causing so many problems? Leverage. If you only have a tiny percentage of equity in your home or bank or mortgage lender, you are wiped out by a tiny increase in foreclosures. The normal foreclosure rate is around 1%.

Irrational exuberance and irrational despair

Former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan called the stock market and real estate market euphoria of the late nineties and early 2000s “irrational exuberance.” Yale professor Robert Shiller repeated the phrase in the title of a book I just finished reading in October, 2008. It causes people to pay ridiculously high prices for stocks and real estate. During the dot-com boom, people were accepting ridiculous price/earnings ratios and even price/sales ratios (in the case of corporations that had never made a dime of profit) for stocks they bought.

For example, in 1998, eToys had $30 million in sales and lost $28.6 million, yet the stock price of the company made it worth $8 billion. At the same time, Toys R Us had sales of $11.2 billion and profits of $376 million but it was only worth $6 billion in the stock market. eToys went bankrupt three years later, meaning it was worth next to nothing then.

People get that stupid in both directions. In October, 2008, Charles Schwab has a market value of $21 billion based on its stock price. It also $27.8 billion in cash in its bank account. That means you could buy it for $21 billion by buying all the stock, then shut it down and pocket the $6.8 billion difference (assuming Schwab does not owe a lot of money. If they do owe a lot of money, one would wonder why they did not use the cash to pay down the debt). Actually, Schwab should use the cash to buy back its own overly cheap stock because the company clearly has substantial value above and beyond its bank accounts. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig says at present (10/11/08), 10% of all publicly-traded companies are valued by the stock market at less than the amount of cash in their bank accounts. You need to see the value of their other assets and liabilities to draw a definitive judgment, but as with Schwab, one would expect that they would pay off their debts if they had more cash than their market capitalization.

In Anchorage, AK in the late 1980s, people fell into irrational despair about that market. Prices fell to ridiculously low levels. One of my California readers followed my advice to go invest there. He bought a 4-plex for $130,000. He put $3,900 down and had $6,955 positive cash flow the first year from the property. That’s a 178% cash-on-cash return! That window of great opportunity slammed shut fast, perhaps in part because I told my readers nationwide about it and a number of them went there to buy and word spread.

The current irrational despair will create huge bargains in both stocks and bonds and probably already has. Stock companies will probably start paying more dividends to make their stock more attractive to investors so they can raise capital to expand. Many companies and their insiders will probably buy their own stock back because they know the company produces far more net income and net assets than the stock market is currently giving them credit for. Recently, banks were allowed to buy their own stock back. That was previously prohibited. Because the market is being so idiotic about the values they are imputing to the various banks, the banks’ management and remaining shareholders are getting a fabulous bargain by buying back their own stock.

The market shifts from “growth” to income over time. “Growth” means people buy a stock or real estate because they believe it will go up in the future. When that belief is not present—as now—the market switches to an income orientation. That is, investors will value stocks and real estate according to the amount of income it throws off. The less you pay for a stock or property, the greater the return you get from its dividends or cash flow. When the prices fall ridiculously low, the income returns get ridiculously high. At the same time, as the dopey masses rush to buy bonds, bond yields fall, thereby making the dividend yields on stocks and the cash flow of rental properties even more attractive relatively speaking.

The Great Depression

The Democrats and media are trying to encourage as much fear of a Depression as possible to get votes and ratings. It’s working. Obama will probably get elected and have filibuster-proof majorities in Congress. God help free enterprise and the future prosperity of the American people.

People think the Great Depression was caused by the 1929 stock market crash. Nope. It was caused by the Federal Reserve keeping money too tight. And prolonged and deepened by tariffs and government intervention into the free market. Th Fed is bending over backwards to avoid that now. Fed head Ben Bernanke is reportedly one of the leading scholars of the causes of the Great Depression. But Anna Schwartz is another. She co-wrote a book on the causes of the Depression with Milton Friedman. She thinks Bernanke is misdiagnosing and mistreating the causes of the current economic crisis which are not the same as the one in the 1930s. In particluar, she thinks liquidity was a big problem then, but not as much now. She also thinks the Alan Greenspan-run Fed caused the recent subprime crisis.

Unfortunately, the other big cause, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, is not under Bernanke’s control. And the politicians will sell out the nation to get re-elected. Furthermore, Smoot-Hawley type tariffs would have a much greater depressing effect now because of the greatly increased level of international trade now compared to the 1930s.

We already had evidence that today’s politicians will condemn Americans to a deep depression via tariffs in the Ohio Democrat primary. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sucked up to Ohio voters by promising to renegotiate President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA treaty, which eliminated many tariffs.

The majority of Americans, especially Rust Belt voters like those in Ohio, are too ignorant to understand that tariffs hurt the countries that pass them. They see it as the repatriation of jobs. In fact, tariffs hurt the countries that pass them, in no small part through retaliatory tariffs by the other countries who can no longer sell to America. That kills jobs in both countries and the hurt far exceeds whatever jobs “come back” to the protectionist countries. Virtually all economists agree on this, and they rarely agree on anything. During the Depression, 1,028 of them in the U.S. signed a petition against the Smoot-Hawley tariff, to no avail.

Follow the money

Watergate’s Deep Throat famously directed Bob Woodward to “Follow the money.” Those angry at the subprime mess should do the same. In doing so, they will find out something that no media story has revealed. Most of the lost money went into the pockets of those who sold their homes from 2004 to 2006. My oldest son is currently trying to buy his first home. The houses he is looking at sell for about $300,000. a couple of years ago, they sold for about $550,000. They are all foreclosures.

Who got the $550,000 when they were at that level? Mostly the home seller—probably about $250,000 in a typical case. The various bad guy middlemen in current media stories—real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, Wall Street investment bankers, FNMA/FHLMC, bond-rating agencies, banks—had to split among them about 10% of the sale price or about $50,000. Multiply that by all such deals and you get the share for the various parties.

Were the buyers who have since defaulted on the mortgages bad guys? Yes. They typically lied on their mortgage application. If not, they would not have gotten the loan. The lenders did stupid things like not verify the income and net worth statements made by the borrowers. But they did not make loans to those who did not make or have enough as far as what they claimed was concerned. Who taught and coached the borrowers to commit those felonies? Probably those on commission who interfaced with them during the deal, that is, real estate brokers and salespeople and mortgage brokers and salespeople.

Lying on a mortgage application violates 18 USC 1001, 1012, 1014. Those are all federal felonies, that is, they carry both fines and prison sentences. Persons charged with those crimes are also usually charged with mail fraud (18 USC 1341), wire fraud (18 USC 1343), conspiracy (18 USC 371), and racketeering (18 USC 1961 et seq.). These are also all federal felonies.

On TV, subprime borrowers typically depict themselves as victims who did not know what they were doing. They’re lying. They were speculating that homes would continue to go up in value and they would get rich from the appreciation as a result—all before the foreclosure happened. They knew they could not afford the payments, especially on the loans that were to reset to higher interest rates. They just bet—with taxpayers money we now realize—on continued rising prices. they knew exactly what they were doing. The media and Democrats who are now depicting them as victims and demanding that the bailout protect “their homes” are also lying.

Executive compensation

Politicians and media are focusing on some high executive compensation. That nonsense has been going on throughout America for decades. It is an outrage and part of a broader problem called corporate governance. Corporate executives are supposed to have the interests of their shareholders at heart. In fact, the CEOs hire and fire the board of directors that is supposed to represent the shareholders. The boards do whatever the CEOs want, including approving scandalous compensation, golden parachutes, poison pills, and a number of other things that harm shareholders. The problem, which is well described in the 2008 book The Gridlock Economy is too many owners. If a corporation is owned by five shareholders, the CEO will damned well do what they want or they will fire him. But when there are five million shareholders, the CEO can ignore all but major shareholders—if any—who would have 51% of the vote on the board. Because ownership has been atomized, no single shareholder has the power to get the CEO to behave, nor do the tiny shareholders have the motivation to exercise their rights to organize the shareholders into groups big enough to compel good behavior.

However, excess executive compensation is no more than 1% of the subprime mess. Realtors® and mortgage loan officers got more collectively, if not individually, than Wall Street executives. Most of the money went to the sellers who are generally innocent of any misbehavior. As with previous similar scandals involving REITs, LLCs, and S&Ls, millions of bad deals were done to entitle relatively small (per deal) fees for a relatively small number of commissioned salesmen and Wall Street executives. The public’s focus should be on reforming the laws to prevent recurrence of such problems, not on a small number of corporate executives. I do not oppose punishing corporate executives and boards who misbehaved, but the main focus needs to be on correcting the mess and preventing it from recurring, not class envy about a small number of salaries and bonuses.

Bill O’Reilly

Bill O’Reilly is one the main idiots pushing executive-compensation justice as the main focus of media coverage of the crisis.

Jim Cramer of Mad Money

The meltdown seems to have revealed what Mad Money host Jim Cramer really is about. I have seen two pertinent clips. In one, from early 2008, he made fun of those who advocated selling Lehman Brothers, calling such an action “silly.” Lehman has since gone bankrupt which means those who did not sell lost every penny they invested in Lehman Brothers.

I did not say to sell Lehman Brothers. I do not make any such recommendations in either direction. The reason is no one knows about such things including me. But Cramer surely did say to buy or keep Lehman stock. And that was disastrous advice. The fact is he did not know what he was talking about and had no business making any comment either way.

I have also seen a shaken Cramer somberly telling people to remove from the stock market any money they will need in the next five years. That was his salient reaction to the stock market crash in the fall of 2008.

Excuse me. Not putting in stocks money you will need to spend in the next five, or even ten, fifteen, or 19 years is ancient, standard stock market advice. It is the advice that all competent, honest stock market experts have been giving for decades. I believe you will find that advice, roughly speaking, in the following highly-respected books:

Unconventional Success by David Swenson

The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing by John Bogle

Capital Ideas by Peter L. Bernstein

Capital Ideas Evolving by Peter Bernstein

The Four Pillars of Investing by William Bernstein

Winning the Loser’s Game by Charles Ellis

It’s also in my book Succeeding which I finished writing in July, 2008 and came off the press in August, 2008.

I have never paid much attention to Cramer. I see him ranting when I surf channels on TV. I would simply dismiss him and anyone like him as being more certain about everything than anyone can legitimately be about anything. As long as the stock market bubbles around more or less normally, guys like Cramer can rant and rave and predict and recommend and not get exposed. But when the stock market moves like it did in 2008, people like Cramer are revealed for what they really are: bullshit artists.


Greed is another thing blamed for the meltdown. Greed is ever present. Those who are charged with protecting taxpayers from stuff like this need to assume there is always greed and design their programs so as to make sure greedy people do not rip off the taxpayers. For example, there are all sorts of safeguards (although not enough given the occasional scandal that we read about) to prevent people from collecting money from social security that they are not entitled to. Why? Because we know greedy people will do that if they are not stopped.

Which candidate is best to preside over corrective action on the economy and reform of the bad practices that caused this?

Probably McCain, but both he and Obama are jokes as far as being president of the U.S. is concerned. I would not be surprised if neither McCain nor Obama has ever reconciled his own checking account. In the world of high finance, these guys are babes in the woods. I doubt they even knew the definitions of the various finance terms in the media stories about the crisis until they got briefed. They are also both demagogues who will sell us all down the river via more government programs and spending, more pork (McCain doesn’t request it, but he votes for it), protectionism, scapegoating Wall Street and capitalism, socializing previously private businesses, and more.

What does McCain know about money other than marrying it?

What does Obama know about money other than how to get it from the publisher of your failed-when-it-was-first-published autobiography by getting a speaking gig at the 2004 Democrat Convention?

Neither of these guys has ever run a business or even worked for one. Except for a brief stint as his father-in-law’s celebrity P.O.W. greeter, McCain has always been a government employee or the son of a government employee. McCain was literally born into the federal government. (His father was an admiral.)

Obama’s qualifications to run the world’s largest, most advanced economy

Obama’s checkered resume lists a never-discussed year at Business International Corporation in NYC (editing two international business periodicals right after he graduated from college My book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book has a chapter about editors in which I complain strenuously about wet-behind-the-ears brand-new college grads ineptly editing my real estate investment articles when I was 30 years old.) and apparently three years at the New York Public Interest Research Group (a proclaimedly “non-partisan” organization that seems only interested in liberal stuff).

He was a Catholic Church community organizer for three years in Chicago then went to law school. After that, he got a fellowship at the University of Chicago and spent most of his time writing his autobiography, which flopped after it was published in 1996. It later became a best seller after he made a speech at the 2004 Democrat convention and the book was re-issued. He then worked on registering black voters. He was a part-time lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years. In that “publish or perish” profession, he published exactly nothing in his field. He was associated with a law firm that was involved in black voting rights and local economic development but let his license to practice law lapse in 2002. Barack Obama has less experience in business and finance than the vast majority of people reading this article.

The recurring theme in his life is impressing various white mentors and supporters who then let him play the eternal dilettante writing books and/or endlessly campaigning rather than ever working at the job he’s being paid for like the rest of us.

It appears he has spent his adult life just fiddling around a few hours a day. He took five years to write his first book: Dreams From my Father. I have written 81 books. It takes about nine months part-time to write a full-length book, not five years. He must have been doing a lot of sleeping late, knocking off early, and sipping white wine to need five years to write a book, especially an autobiography where he did not have to do any research or interviews.

If you want a president who has some competence in the current economic crisis, write in Mike Bloomberg’s name. Absent some huge surprise, we will probably get either Obama or McCain, neither of whom is qualified to run any aspect of the federal executive branch other than McCain might be knowledgeable about working with Congress. (Many think McCain is qualified to be Commander in Chief of the U.S. military. No, he’s not. He was a light attack bomber pilot and P.O.W., not a general. With a refresher course, he is qualified to be Executive Officer of a light plane squadron. He’s better qualified by far to be CIC than Obama and the other non-Wes Clark candidates, but not adequately qualified.) Obama draws a paycheck from the Senate but probably knows less about the Senate than the DC area teachers who take their classes there for tours. Both candidates are especially unfit to be involved in economic policy.

Being ignorant of the various functions of the executive branch means that they will have to rely heavily on expert advisers, but it also means that they each know so little that they have no way to tell which advisers are best. Instead, they will determine which adviser to listen to according to the “bedside manner” of that person. Economists and capital markets experts will push Obama or McCain around on financial issues. Generals and admirals will also push both around although less so with McCain. Diplomatic service veterans and foreign leaders will push Obama around on foreign policy. Congressional leaders will push him around on working with Congress. McCain will be pushed around less, but that doesn’t mean he knows what he’s doing when he resists their pushing. He is more likely to reject expert advice, but no more likely than Obama to make the right decision. Fundamentally, neither man will know what he is doing as president. It will be on-the-job training for both.

Senate experience is nothing but jaw-flapping experience—plus a way to learn how the Senate works for Biden and McCain. Obama doesn’t know how to find the men’s room in the Senate. The presidency is an executive position. Sarah Palin is the only one of the four candidates with executive experience and her executive experience would not be enough to get her past the first interview if the job were awarded like important executive positions usually are.

These guys also have political advisers and will let them trump the substance advisers every time.

Media and Democrat sensationalism

Both the media and the Democrats have disgraced themselves in this crisis by pushing sensational accounts of dire problems. Fox News’ Shepherd Smith is fond of using the words “economy” and “subprime” interchangeably. The economy is Coca Cola and your dry cleaner and the teachers at your local Catholic schools. It’s true that lots of subprime mortgages are in default—actually just 6% of U.S. home mortgages are currently in default. But it is not true that the economy and the subprime mortgages are the same thing.

Smith also likes to tell you how many trillions of dollars of 401(k)s were wiped out by various one-day movements in the Dow. But when the Dow went up over 900 points on 10/13/08, did Smith note how many trillions that added to 401(k)s? Nope. Why? Probably because he and the rest are about ratings, not truth. The proper fact to report is the percentage by which the Dow went up and down, not talk about dollar amounts without explaining how many people worldwide own those stocks. Smith and others say the percentages, too. They should only do that. The dollar figure is extremely misleading and alarming to those not knowledgeable enough to ignore it and focus on the percentage.

The media is also fond of graphs that do not have zero as the bottom of the vertical scale on the left side of the graph. Rather they put the recent high of the Dow or S&P 500 or whatever at the top left of the graph and the current figure at the bottom left of the vertical scale. That dishonestly makes all drops look like 100% drops. If they used graphs with zero as the bottom of the vertical scale, you would get a proper perspective on the meaning of the movement of the index. On the first day of the crisis, the San Francisco Chronicle had a front page graph that dropped from the top of the page to the bottom of the above-the-fold part of the front page. It was a 2% drop.

Both the media and the Democrats want or almost want a Depression because it would be good for ratings and getting votes. That’s why they are trying to talk the nation into believing we are having one. Unfortunately, with Depressions, that can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” His phraseology suggests that fear itself is no big deal. In depressions, fear itself is the only necessary ingredient and can trump all other facts. Democrats and the media are throwing as much gasoline as they can on the fear fire to give themselves more power.

Democrat Senator Schumer is fairly accused of having deliberately started a run on Indybank that led to that bank’s failure. Democrat majority leader Harry Reid said that a huge household name insurer he refused to name was about to go out of business. All huge, household name insurers then had to issue news releases swearing it was not them.

Obama’s solution

One of Obama’s solutions is to pronounce a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures. Excuse me. That is immunity from having to pay your mortgage payment for the most dishonest, irresponsible homeowners in America—at the expense of the bank shareholders, other mortgage lenders including individuals who invest in mortgages, and the taxpayers who guarantee deposits used to make mortgage loans.

McCain’s solution

McCain would forgive the amount of mortgage debt that exceeds the current market value of a house whose owner is behind on their payments. He would also lower the mortgage interest rate to 5%. Who gets stuck with that loss? The taxpayers.

In other words, those who were so dishonest and irresponsible that they borrowed more than they could afford to pay, then did not pay their mortgage payments, get a gift of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt forgiveness. They also get a 5% mortgage. That rate is lower than people who paid their mortgages on time can get.

People who do not pay their mortgages should have to move out and let the lender sell the house to a real buyer who can qualify for a mortgage. Most of those in default should probably be locked up, not rewarded with taxpayer’s money for felony fraud.

The “solutions” of both candidates are pure political bullshit. Neither cares about anything but getting past the election with a majority of electoral votes. No legality. No fairness. No justice. No sensible finance. Just vote counting and posturing.

The correct solution is to do nothing and let the lenders foreclose. If any lenders are too big to fail or too interrelated to fail or any of that, the federal government should make them a loan, but not otherwise get involved.

What should we do as individuals?

Most discussion of the crisis is from a macroeconomic perspective. That would be useful for the king of the world. However, there is no such person. And even if there was, you and I aren’t him.

I think a big part of the problem is that our citizens are ignorant of economics, markets, free enterprise, and business. Furthermore, our college students have long been the targets of socialist indoctrination by America’s college professors and to a lesser extent by our public school union teachers. In the public schools, the problem is less socialist indoctrination than just plain lousy education and ignorance. But this has allowed us to evolve into a situation where when there is a speed bump in free markets, like gas price increases or falling stock market indexes, our citizens want free markets replaced with government-run markets. “Government-run markets” is a contradiction in terms. Cuba has such a system. We will be far worse off if we go that way and we seem to be doing just that.

But other than complaining about it, what can you and I do?

As individuals, we need to just deal with the world and the nation the way it is. Complaining about the way it ought to be or used to be is a waste of time.

Leaving the country

When George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, one of my son’s college classmate friends was so disgusted that he left the country. Where did he go? He joined the Peace Corps. I thought that was funny because the Peace Corps is a federal government agency of the executive branch. Like all federal government agencies, the Peace Corps’ ultimate boss is the President. George W. Bush’s portrait is in every federal government office including those in the Peace Corps.

My point here is, don’t get nutty and leave the country for a general unhappiness with election results. Am I saying that no one should leave the U.S. over economic issues? Not necessarily. It used to be that the U.S. was the country most committed to free enterprise. That may not be so if Obama is elected. It may not even be so already. My father-in-law lived most of his adult life as an expatriate American living overseas. Many do that. It is a fairly common and reasonable way to live your life.

Depending upon the specifics of your skills and goals, it is possible that you may be better off living and working in a country with a greater commitment to free enterprise than the current or Obama-ized U.S. That could be a greater general commitment or just a particular niche that is better overseas than in the U.S. I have known some guys who have spent their adult lives living in the Middle East where they have a lot of oil money to spend and need Western expertise for many of the new businesses they now want.

Study the changes, take appropriate action

If you stay, as most probably should, you need to look at the changed rules in the U.S. Also at the changed market aside from government laws and rules. In recessions and depressions, overall business volume shrinks. For most commissioned or self-employed persons, that means their income goes down. Many salary or wage employees see their income drop 100% because they get laid off.

But some people—those who work in countercyclical industries—see an increase in income. An example of a countercyclical industry would be foreclosure specialists like auctioneers, asset managers of foreclosed properties, foreclosure lawyers, regulators who work in the new bailout-created agencies. There are also new industries or ways of doing things that arise and prosper during recessions and depressions, not because there is a recession or depression, but just because they are good businesses with great products or services and relatively little competition.

Stuff got invented during the Depression, including baby food, nylon, TV, and photocopiers. There were new hit songs, dances, and clothing fashions during the Depression. All sorts of new ways to do business came into being during the 30s. Some were government-supported like deposit insurance for banks and 30-year, fixed-rate, low-down-payment home mortgages. Others were pure market-based like the rise of shopping centers, increased ownership of cars, people moving from farms to the metro areas and people moving from urban areas to the suburbs.

Basically, economic opportunities decline during recessions and depressions. But they also change. If you are adversely affected by a recession or depression, you need to change yourself. Study the new market and take the action you need to capitalize on the new opportunities. That action may be moving to a new part of the U.S. or the world. It may be getting new knowledge or training that qualifies you for more attractive opportunities. My Succeeding book is big on the importance of the structure of your career. If you have been a salaried employee your whole life, and get laid off, maybe you should try a new structure like commissioned sales or your own business. My book is also big on achieving an optimal match between your strengths and weaknesses and your career. Most people never do that in their whole lives. It is always the best approach and important but it becomes far more important during hard times.

There are also economic shifts as people become more bargain conscious. Campbell’s Soup stock goes up. Ruth’s Chris goes down. Costco and Wal-Mart go up; Nordstrom’s down. More fuel-efficient cars go up; SUVs go down. And so on.

Many people got rich during the Depression because of the Depression. Many other became rich during the Depression in spite of the Depression. The fact that there is less overall opportunity does not mean there are not many attractive niche opportunities. If we get hard economic times, your focus needs to be on finding a better economic situation for you and your family. Do so with confidence that the opportunities are there. Whining about the demise of the late lamented economic good times like the lyrics in the Depression song Brother can you spare a dime is not helpful. Find a way to win, not excuses for losing.

The BEST article I have seen on why the meltdown happened is this one by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, and other books.:

Here is an op-ed piece written for the New York Times by Warren Buffet, one of the top three richest men in the world. I agree with it. Normally, I do not publish others’ writing. But in this case, I believe he wants these thoughts distributed as widely as possible. The piece may also be at the New York Times Web site. It was sent to me in an email.

Op-Ed Contributor

Buy American. I Am.



THE financial world is a mess, both in the United States and abroad. Its problems, moreover, have been leaking into the general economy, and the leaks are now turning into a gusher. In the near term, unemployment will rise, business activity will falter and headlines will continue to be scary.

So … I’ve been buying American stocks. This is my personal account I’m talking about, in which I previously owned nothing but United States government bonds. (This description leaves aside my Berkshire Hathaway holdings, which are all committed to philanthropy.) If prices keep looking attractive, my non-Berkshire net worth will soon be 100 percent in United States equities.


A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. And most certainly, fear is now widespread, gripping even seasoned investors. To be sure, investors are right to be wary of highly leveraged entities or businesses in weak competitive positions. But fears regarding the long-term prosperity of the nation’s many sound companies make no sense. These businesses will indeed suffer earnings hiccups, as they always have. But most major companies will be setting new profit records 5, 10 and 20 years from now.

Let me be clear on one point: I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market. I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month — or a year — from now. What is likely, however, is that the market will move higher, perhaps substantially so, well before either sentiment or the economy turns up. So if you wait for the robins, spring will be over.

A little history here: During the Depression, the Dow hit its low, 41, on July 8, 1932. Economic conditions, though, kept deteriorating until Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933. By that time, the market had already advanced 30 percent. Or think back to the early days of World War II, when things were going badly for the United States in Europe and the Pacific. The market hit bottom in April 1942, well before Allied fortunes turned. Again, in the early 1980s, the time to buy stocks was when inflation raged and the economy was in the tank. In short, bad news is an investor’s best friend. It lets you buy a slice of America’s future at a marked-down price.

Over the long term, the stock market news will be good. In the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497.

You might think it would have been impossible for an investor to lose money during a century marked by such an extraordinary gain. But some investors did. The hapless ones bought stocks only when they felt comfort in doing so and then proceeded to sell when the headlines made them queasy.

Today people who hold cash equivalents feel comfortable. They shouldn’t. They have opted for a terrible long-term asset, one that pays virtually nothing and is certain to depreciate in value. Indeed, the policies that government will follow in its efforts to alleviate the current crisis will probably prove inflationary and therefore accelerate declines in the real value of cash accounts.

Equities will almost certainly outperform cash over the next decade, probably by a substantial degree. Those investors who cling now to cash are betting they can efficiently time their move away from it later. In waiting for the comfort of good news, they are ignoring Wayne Gretzky’s advice: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

I don’t like to opine on the stock market, and again I emphasize that I have no idea what the market will do in the short term. Nevertheless, I’ll follow the lead of a restaurant that opened in an empty bank building and then advertised: “Put your mouth where your money was.” Today my money and my mouth both say equities.

Warren E. Buffett is the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, a diversified holding company

To be continued

Is the military producing leaders?

I recently received an email from a young West Point graduate who had gotten out of the Army and was working at a household name big U.S. corporation. He was flummoxed by his inability to use his West Point and Army leadership training and experience in his work. He complained that the organization was predominantly women and they seemed to have a coffee klatch network that actually ran everything. The official organization chart seemed not to be the way things were really done. He was asking me what leadership style or approach to use. He was an entry-level manager.

Secretary was the real power behind the throne

At Harvard Business School, one of our cases was about a successful builder. What we were supposed to get out of the case by reading the facts about the company and from the Socratic Method questions of the professor was that the whole company was run by the boss’s secretary.

This was not good or bad per se. It depends upon the company’s goals and potential and whether the leadership of the secretary was achieving those goals and realizing that potential better than an alternative leader.

Probably, at least in some ways, it was not. So the lesson was to supplement the secretary where necessary.

Also, there was an obvious need to create a succession in case she quit or needed to be fired as a result of some not-yet-discovered malfeasance or she died or became physically disabled.

There is also an issue of using best practices with regard to checks and balances to prevent embezzlement, kickbacks, and such. Generally, it is not prudent to allow anyone in an organization to have too much control over money. For example, in banking, there is a rule that everyone has to take vacations during which others have to do their jobs. That’s because embezzlers typically never take vacation in order to prevent something from coming up during their absence that would reveal their embezzlement.

‘Managing from the 50th floor’

We also had other cases at Harvard about small companies. I remember one where Professor Earl Sasser—whose brother Jim was a U.S. Senator from Tennessee at the time—commented that a small company executive was, “Managing from the 50th floor when he only has a two story building.” In other words, he was being too bureaucratic and high falutin’ for a tiny company. In another case, I offered the observation that the company in question was just the boss and three girls and a coffee pot—so stop with the management consultant and market research suggestions. Other than getting crap from the females in the class for saying “girls” instead of “women,” that was what the professor that day was looking for.

Results, not ‘leadership’

My point here is that leadership is a really big thing with the military. Too big. Their focus needs to be on results, not process. Leadership is process.

The young West Point graduate I quoted above seemed to see leadership, incorrectly, as an end rather than a means to an end. That faulty perspective was probably the result of the overemphasis on and overuse of that word at West Point and in the U.S. military.

See my Web article on the evidence that Barack Obama is no leader.

What is ‘leadership’ really?

Leadership is also a “talk is cheap” word. Its definition is so vague that bullshit artists can claim it without being called on it. And the U.S. government and military are among the great producers of bullshit in the world today.

Webster’s New Universal Dictionary offers little illumination. It defines “lead” as

“to guide or conduct by showing the way”

Gotta know ‘the way’

What is “the way” when it comes to winning our wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan? There is virtually no evidence that the U.S. military knows the way to win such wars. They are making some progress, but they have been more like a very, very slow moving experimental research project than an organization that knows what it is doing since the middle of the Korean War. Indeed, they may well be moving slower than the world is changing which means they are getting farther and farther away from the answer with each passing year.

Until U.S. military leaders know “the way,” they cannot show “the way” to their subordinates. Knowing the way is a prerequisite—a sine qua non—to leadership. Until such time as the U.S. military figures out the way to win our current wars, leadership is generally a matter for the future.

Webster’s other definitions are merely tautological, that is to lead is to be in charge or direct. Such definitions contain no element of competence or achieving results. Too often, that is the definition that the military intends.

I am in charge of X number of men and therefore I am a leader.


Another Webster’s definition is,

to show the method of attaining an object

That is a teaching definition and, again, it begs the question of whether the U.S. military knows how to attain the object of winning recent wars. They do not.

Webster’s definition number 9 introduces results saying,

to induce; to prevail on; to influence

That reminds me of a definition of leadership that I heard when I was a West Point cadet:

A leader is someone who causes people to do that which they ought to do but would not do in the absence of the leader

This is a results-oriented definition that I like. Once again, however, the phrase “that which they ought to do” means that knowing what they ought to do is a prerequisite to leadership. To put it kindly, the U.S. military has been bewildered about how to win in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Bewilderment is not a foundation for leadership. In the U.S. military, “leadership” has become a substitute for results and a “fake it til you make it” way to cover up the bewilderment.

What about generic rather than war-winning leadership?

I did learn some useful things about leadership at West Point and in the Army.

In the book I wrote called Succeeding, I have a chapter entitled “Mechanical Tricks.” It says that every career or job has aspects that anyone can master. For example, a shortstop in baseball needs to know that he must throw the ball to second base if it is hit to him with a runner on first and no runners anywhere else and fewer than two outs. Anyone can learn that. Does that mean that anyone can learn to be a shortstop? No. I could not. Infielders are born not made. I was born to be an outfielder, albeit not a very good one. My son Dan was a great infielder.

The point is not that learning mechanical tricks of the trade will make you a success at any trade, but rather that any trade you take up has such tricks and you must learn them to maximize your chances of succeeding. There is an old saying among us football coaches that “You don’t need talent to hustle.” Unfortunately, the corollary to that is that many who have talent figure, “If you have talent, you don’t need to hustle.” And at the lower levels of amateur sports, most coaches let them get away with not hustling. Mastering all the mechanical tricks of a trade is hustling.

Are there mechanical tricks of the generic leadership trade?

Yes, there are mechanical tricks to the leadership trade. West Point and the Army teach many of them and that’s good. But as I said with regard to shortstops, learning the mechanical tricks increases your chances of succeeding, but leaders are born not made, so just learning the mechanical tricks of leadership will not by itself make you a leader.

Should West Point and the Army continue to teach those mechanical tricks? Absolutely. What they need to stop doing is claiming they produce the world’s greatest leaders.

Command voice

Let me give you an example. In 2005, my freshman high school football team was doing stretching exercises before an early-in-the-season practice. I was standing next to a natural leader linebacker named Chris Borges who was taking a turn at leading the stretching. I was whispering suggestions to him to get him to learn the mechanical tricks of how you speak to your subordinates in a scattered-around-the-field-outdoors situation. My comments went something like this.

Chris, you need to enunciate the preparatory command more slowly and clearly so they understand exactly what you want them to do. You rushed and slurred the words a little bit last time and they were uncertain which stretch we were doing. That’s why they looked raggedy responding to you.


Chris, when you give the command of execution—the one that gets them to start the stretch—you need to snap it out like the crack of a whip or a gun shot. Let me do the next one and watch how they respond to my commands compared to how they responded to yours. You were too conversational about telling them to start.

I then lead one of the stretches demonstrating to Chris exactly how you enunciate the preparatory command and bark out the command of execution.

Did you see how sharp they were in responding to my command? That was not my age or authority as coach. It was my voice. You need to get the same confident reaction on the field when you call the defense and the strength of the offensive formation. You must use that same tone of voice to yell “Mustang Black!” or “strong right!” or whatever you want so that the team will have confidence in the defense called and promptly execute it.

I also taught him to use his diaphragm rather than his throat to add force to the voice and avoid fatiguing the vocal chords.

I did a similar thing training our quarterbacks how to call cadence and audibles. There is a line in the Bible, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle?” As a result of the training I got in those mechanical voice tricks of leadership at West Point, my linebackers and quarterbacks sounded like pros, not “uncertain trumpets,” as most young high school players do.

On 10/10/08, I went to the high school to watch Chris and my other 2005 freshmen, who were seniors in 2008, play. I hapened to sit next to Chris’s father andmentioned this article. He said that he had come to practice one day and was astonished at how Chris was commanding his teammates in practice. He said he had never heard him talk that way before. Q.E.D.

Taking charge of adults

In January, 2008 I was at a football coaching clinic. Before a session started, the room was full of coaches engaged in loud conversations. The very old guy who was the conference operator came in and tried repeatedly to get everyone’s attention to make an important announcement. But his voice was so quiet and conversational that no one paid the slightest attention to him. I watched this go on for about four iterations then I yelled in my best West Point grad voice at an OSHA-violating decibel level, “AT EASE!” I figured that some of them had been in the military and the others would figure out what it meant. They all instantly shut up and looked at me as if to say, “Who is this nut?” at which time I motioned with my hand to direct their attention to the old guy. (Perhaps I should say “older.” I was 61 at the time.) He made his announcement and left, after which the conversations resumed. No one said anything to me, probably because there was zero uncertainty in my West Point-trained “trumpet.”

Stray artillery round

I was involved in another incident where I similarly took charge of people I was not formally in charge of. In June of 1966, when I was a 19-year old rising junior at West Point, I chose artillery as my branch for a one-month internship to occur in July of 1966. Each cadet who was going on the internship that summer got an hour or a day—I forget which—of quickie instruction on that branch. One of the things they taught us in the artillery session was that when you are an artillery forward observer and you see an artillery round go astray, you tell the guys who are in radio contact with the gun batteries, “Cease fire!” Then you figure out why the round went astray before you resume firing.

The following month, when I had turned 20, I was in an artillery battery in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY. I was with about two dozen officers and another dozen career sergeants on a hill top acting as forward observers calling in artillery fire on old vehicles on another hill about a mile away. I was a mere cadet—not yet even the lowest officer—a second lieutenant. The other officers there were mostly captains and ranged up to the lieutenant colonels who were battalion commanders.

Suddenly, we heard a loud “spit spit spit” sound zoom over our heads followed by a huge explosion in the air about 40 yards away (called a VT shell—VT stands for variable time or some such—those shells have a timer that causes them to explode in the air above the enemy rather than a contact detonator that explodes on contact with the ground or other object). No one was hurt, but we could hear shrapnel (artillery shell fragments actually) hitting our vehicles and cutting through the leaves on the trees around us. Everyone hit the dirt. I crouched down next to a vehicle and looked around at everyone else. Since I was the lowest ranking non-enlisted man there, I said nothing, expecting the colonels to yell, “Cease fire!”

After four or five seconds of stunned silence, I concluded that the others there—all very experienced artillerymen—were in brain lock or did not know what to do so I took charge of the situation and screamed “Cease fire! ” at the half dozen or so jeeps that had radio contact with the half dozen gun batteries that were firing the cannons we were controlling. The radio operators instantly started screaming “Cease fire!” into their handsets and fire ceased.

Investigation revealed that an aiming stake had fallen over at one of the guns. An aiming stake is a five-foot long red and white striped steel pole. You stick it in the ground next to each cannon before you start shooting to serve as a constant landmark from which to make all changes. If you move it, you have to start over with regard to zeroing that gun in on the targets. A soldier went out and picked it up and jammed it back in the ground any old where. The gunner then cranked his traversing wheel around until he found the stake in his surveyor-type eyepiece and they fired the shell that almost hit us. This happened because the gunner and the kid who reposition the post were as dumb as the post. So much for the notion that paratroopers are elite. I remember a master sergeant on the forward observer hill walking around with a jagged shell fragment showing it to everyone. He had to keep flipping it from one hand to the other because it was too hot.

Did this incident illustrate the effectiveness West Point’s leadership instruction? Generally, yes. It is a good illustration of the principle I stated above that before you can lead you have to know the way. Because of the little instruction I had gotten in June 1966 at West Point, I knew the artillery “best practice” of yelling “cease fire” whenever an artillery round went astray. On the other hand, the artillery officers and NCOs on that hill, some of whom were themselves West Pointers, and all of whom had years of formal training and experience with artillery—not just one day—had the same training and more.

My command voice training and experience at West Point was also important. Had I not had it, I probably would have said to the guy nearest me in a quiet conversational voice, “Sir, aren’t we supposed to say ‘cease fire’ when that happens?” As a result of having both training and experience in yelling commands at West Point, I knew to eliminate the middleman of asking someone else to do it and I knew how to use my voice in a way to get the same instant obedience from those radio operators as I did from those football coaches decades later. Since I had given commands many times at West Point, I was totally comfortable giving them that day at Fort Campbell.

I also think my not having brain lock after the explosion was the result of my West Point training. Part of it was from Beast Barracks where the upperclassmen yell at you a lot and you have to learn how to function with that happening. I think upperclassmen yelling at plebes and plebes calling upperclassmen “sir” is wrong and should be eliminated. But it needs to be replaced with a briefer, less demeaning, less hazing type simulation of combat chaos like pilots get when their flight simulators are programmed to give them all sorts of panic situations. We had many such training sessions at West Point mostly in summer time.

Since West Point, I have been in many high-stress situations like football coaching, Vietnam, Harvard Business School, Ranger School, and around serious injuries, where others around me got brain lock or panicked. Because of West Point, I immediately recognize such situations as ones requiring me to slow down, take stock, speak confidently, and make calm decisions. But I must note that some of those who were not responding so well to such situations were also West Pointers. So although I got that from West Point and many, probably most, of my classmates did, too, it did not seem to take universally.

You may wonder what the officers said about my taking charge of the stray artillery round situation at Fort Campbell. Not a word. I suspect they were so profoundly embarrassed by a 20-year old cadet having to take charge of them in a dangerous situation that they simply never spoke of it even to each other.

Covered in blood

I’ll give you one more example of West Point training in leadership directly being effective.

My wife’s aunt, a retired high school physical education teacher, was visiting us. My oldest son was about four and out playing in the yard. He suddenly ran in screaming as if he were on fire covered in his own blood. My wife and her aunt freaked out. I saw that it was a panic-is-not-useful situation and immediately calmed my voice. I took him into the bathroom and wiped the blood off him with a towel trying to find its source. He did, indeed, have a bad cut that took stitches to close, but it was no big deal. We put a towel on the cut and put pressure on it while we took him to the emergency room and got him stitched up.

How did West Point teach me that? At Camp Buckner, which is a wooded, mountainous area just west of the Military Academy, we were trained in dealing with wounded soldiers during the summer between our freshman and sophomore years. They had real soldiers playing the roles of wounded men, complete with Hollywood realistic wounds and fake blood being pumped out as we dealt with them. I remember one of the “wounded” men had his stomach ripped open such that his intestines were hanging out. Another had his head blown open exposing his brain. The soldiers had a squeegee ball hidden in their hand with which they made the blood keep squirting out. We had to calmly administer first aid to these guys and get them evacuated to the rear in the training. When my son came running in covered with blood, I had a “been there done that” feeling. He didn’t even have his intestines hanging out.

Again, this was a best-practices situation. The military knows how to handle those situations and therefore they know how to train soldiers to handle them and therefore the soldiers can lead effectively when those situation occurs. But you can probably get as good or better training in an advanced first aid course or an Emergency Medical Technician course.

Again, the military’s ability to train leaders is limited to their knowledge of how to handle the situation. Not knowing how to win asymmetric wars is a huge problem with regard to producing pertinent leadership. Military training generally only works for specific situations and although there is some spill over to similar situations, like calling plays on a football sideline while the play clock is ticking down, knowing how to care for wounded soldiers does not necessarily make you, for example, an effective leader of the old girls network in a civilian corporation.

Born not made

Some aspects of leadership can be taught and mastered by anyone, namely best practices (yelling “cease fire” when you see a stray artillery round hit) and mechanical tricks (using your diaphragm and speaking in a clear, sharp, loud voice when commanding). But other aspects of leadership fall into the born-not-made category. For example, the fact that most, but not all, of my West Point classmates responded favorably to our training that was designed to keep us calm in stressful situations indicates that those who were born with that quality can have it enhanced by training and experience, but that those who were not born with it generally get little or no benefit from training or experience in it.

There are other such qualities, like politician abilities, that are born-not made. Ronald Reagan was born to be a politician. Empathetic, able to read people and relate to them in ways that caused them to respond. He did not go to politician school. If he had, he probably would have been a better politician sooner. But politician school would have had no effect on my politician abilities. I have none. Don’t want any. But leaders sometimes need politician skills. My lack of them hurt my ability to lead in some situations.


At a more basic level you have things like phobias. People who are afraid of heights cannot be or at least should not be paratroopers. I had no trouble jumping out of airplanes. But there are other areas where I am near incapacitated by unchangeable brain wiring. Paratrooper school is helpful at the mechanical tricks of being a paratrooper as well as the mental attitude it requires. But if you are afraid of heights, no school can do much about that.

I am generally thin and my upper body muscles are relatively weak. My lower body muscles are relatively strong. When my son Dan was a college football player, his weight-lifting marks in upper body were embarrassingly low by Ivy League team standards, but his lower body marks were so high that some of his teammates were embarrassed and did extra work in the weight room to try to match or exceed him—unsuccessfully. (As a senior, my son was a 220 pound, 6’2" running back who once had an open-field, head-on collision with Harvard 2nd-team All-American linebacker Dante Balestracci in a third-and-three run. Dan got the first down. Balestracci went on to a tryout with the New England Patriots. There’s more to being a running back than weight-lifting marks.)

Body types are born not made. Can anyone improve muscles strength from training and work outs? Yes. Can people who tend to be thin like me compete successfully in body-building competitions? Nope. No matter how hard I word, I cannot look or get much better than a beginning gymnast. People tell me I look “fit” or “trim,” but never buff. And I work out seven days a week. My sons all look buff with lighter work outs than I do. My youngest has big guns (biceps) from curling 60 pounds. I curl 130 every third day and have high school sophomore football player biceps (slight evidence of muscles).

Leadership is the same. Training can get you some benefit, especially in mechanical-trick areas, but there is an irreducible, unchangeable, born-not-made component to leadership, body building, and most things in life. Those who have it benefit from the training and experience. Those who do not have it, get little or no benefit from the training or experience and are unlikely to achieve adequacy no matter how much training or experience they get.

And there is still that fundamental problem that no one can teach leadership in an area until they master the underlying subject matter. The trainers and their graduate “leaders” must know the way before they can show the way. In the big picture sense of its win-our-wars mission, the U.S. military generally does not know the way. See my article on whether there really is any such thing as military expertise.

Other West Point mechanical tricks of leadership

Other mechanical tricks of leadership or achieving results that I learned at West Point include:

• reconnaissance

• rehearsal

• recognizing that some people respond to hard ass, but not nice guy, and other people respond to nice guy, but not hard ass

• that people can meet far higher standards than I would have believed if you demand them

• what I call the “Ooomph” principle, that is, you can be a lot more forceful to get people to do things than laymen think

• that conflict is not a to-be-avoided-at-all-costs thing

• the need to take good care of your subordinates

More tricks learned in the Army

In the Army, I learned that not everyone is as talented, motivated, decent, and trained as West Point cadets and that getting the right people under your command is far more important than one would figure out at West Point where almost everyone is a great subordinate. I also learned that only high stress, like Ranger School, reveals some important character flaws. I also learned “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in the Army. For example, my wire squad (switchboard operators and repairmen) in Vietnam did the sort of job that no one noticed, which is the way it’s supposed to be. Every time I walked through their area, which was daily, I said, “Keep up the good work, guys!”

I take no credit for the great job they did. They were doing it that way when I arrived. They needed no leadership so I gave them none. West Point probably would have had its cadets reflexively try to make things better. That would have been for the cadet’s ego and career, not the accomplishment of the mission or the welfare of the troops. It also would have annoyed and mildly insulted the wire guys. If they want, they can make the platoon leader look bad by sabotaging the operation in subtle ways.

So what am I getting to here? That West Point and the Army do know and teach through classroom instruction, example, and experience, many mechanical tricks of generic leadership. That’s good, but very limited.

‘Follow me’

One Army recruiting TV commercial has the narrator say something like, “When a civilian employer asks you if have ever had any leadership experience, just smile.” Then the commercial cuts to a young sergeant saying “Follow me” as he and they parachute jump out of the rear door of a plane.

Cute. The Army is big on that phrase, “Follow me.” It’s on a statute of an infantryman at the Infantry School at Fort Benning.

Leadershipwise, “follow me” refers to two leadership mechanical tricks: setting the example and putting yourself in the location where you can best direct your subordinates. Point man, the implicit location of a guy saying “follow me,” is generally a lousy position from which to lead in battle. Good place to get killed, not to lead.

When I was in the Airborne, the highest-ranking officers always went out the door of the plane first. That’s very “Follow me.” It’s also very wrong. They should be in the middle of the stick (plane load of paratroopers) not at either end. See the true-to-life movie The Longest Day, about the paratrooper landings in Normandy in support of D-Day, where the commanding general of the division did a “follow me” first-guy-out-the-door theatrical stunt then spent the rest of the night wandering around alone looking for troops to command. That, folks, is how not to lead.

‘Managerial,’ not ‘leadership’ experience

As to civilian employers, they generally do not ask if you have had any “leadership” experience. Rather, they ask if you have any experience doing the job for which you are interviewing. They might ask about “managerial” experience, which has a connotation of getting things done in the far less rigid, and far less clear, “chains of command” that characterize civilian businesses. The thought of you barking out commands to the “girls” (as they call themselves) in the office or the more experienced men and women in the company, makes the prospective boss shudder. The prospective bosses would also typically think it brash and naive overconfidence if you started talking about how you were going to use your military “leadership” skills in a civilian company to which you were new. It implies that the civilians already there are not leaders or are ignorant of leadership skills. There is almost no chance of that if the company is worth working for.

As I said at the beginning of this article, you cannot lead until you know the job. Job one for a guy just out of the military is to learn the business you are entering. You cannot lead generally until you know more about it than the people you are leading.

Top big business managers do not fit that because no one can at that level of complexity, but they have to be experts at finding excellent subordinate mangers. Some young captain or sergeant getting out of the military is not qualified to be a high-level civilian manager, in part, because he has zero experience hiring and firing people.

Far from being prized by civilian employers for your leadership skills, civilian bosses are more likely to think you need to be deprogrammed to erase your military notions of top-down, “do what I say because I outrank you,” command leadership to replace them with the ambiguous, matrix, “get along with people” skills that are necessary to succeed in non-military organizations.

Promoted according to your follower, not leader, abilities

One of the dirty little secrets of the U.S. military’s great leadership training and experience is that promotions there are entirely based upon how you do as a follower. The vast majority of the great leaders in the U.S. military have probably been passed over for promotion and the great ass kissers were the ones who got the promotions. Name some of the great West Point leaders and I’ll bet you cannot get very far before you name a guy who got fired by the Army—Patton and MacArthur for example. I shudder to think what would happen if some our current most successful civilian leaders like Steve Jobs or C.C. Meyers were suddenly made Army officers who were subordinate to higher ranking officers. They would probably be court martialed.

Will they train you to be a leader in the military?


Will they give you experience at being a leader in the military?


Will they reward you if you lead well?

Ha! Not a freaking chance!

They will reward you if you make your superiors like you. The U.S. military does not give a rat’s rump about how your subordinates respond to your leadership. They only care about whether your boss likes you.

In my final command position—company commander of Bravo Company at Fort Monmouth School Brigade in 1971, my superiors relieved me because I refused to spend Unit Fund money on a Soldier of the Month Savings Bond purchase that my superiors wanted (in violation of Army regulations) and because I refused to attend “command performance” parties at superiors’s homes on Friday or Saturday nights.

I refused to buy the bonds because Army regulations said I was supposed to spend the money in accordance with the wishes of the troops. I met with them weekly and asked how they wanted me to spend the money. They wanted the foosball machine in the day room repaired. I got the foosball machine repaired. I was following not only Army regulations, but also what I was taught at West Point about taking care of your troops. The Army has no complaint about you taking care of your troops AS LONG AS IT DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TO PISS OFF OR EMBARRASS YOUR SUPERIORS. Actions like having your men take off their boots during a forced march and put their bare feet up so you can walk along and check them for blisters do not bother the brass. But many situations where your troops are being jerked around are caused by your superiors and, in those situations, taking care of your troops requires a career-ending confrontation with your boss. I did it many times. I never saw or heard of any other officer do it.

MBA ‘leadership evaluation’

I had an amusing repercussion of the “fight for your troops” ethos I learned at West Point at Harvard Business School. During your first year there, you spend all day every day in the same amphitheater as your 84 section mates. So you get to know those 84 people very well.

Once, when I arrived late, my section mates told me I had missed a discussion about which member of our section the section members would most want to work for. They said I was voted the one most would want to work for. I was stunned and asked, “Based on what?” They said it was because they thought I would fight for them whenever necessary. “That’s true, I would, but how the hell would you guys know that? You never worked for me or even with me.”

They said that during the hundreds of case discussions that year, I would occasionally and passionately point out the need to protect or take care of subordinates in the case as part of how to manage the situation. I guess I did. I learned that at West Point, but as I said above, it appears to be lesson that was interpreted far more narrowly, e.g., checking for blisters, by others than my comprehensively broad get-in-the-boss’s-face approach.

‘Movie extras’

In Vietnam once, my company was supposed to be teaching a class in something thought up by an empty brass hat up the chain of command. The company commander was not complying with that order, but reported that he was. Then the empty brass hat in question showed up and wanted to watch the class which was to be in session in fifteen minutes. The company commander quickly got an officer or sergeant to teach it and needed troops to play the role of students. He woke up my night shift guys for that purpose.

They had worked all night running the corps commander’s radios, and were sleeping in a special building with air-conditioning and blacked-out windows. When I heard about it, I went straight to the company commander’s office and asked him if it was true. He said it was. I told him if he ever pulled another stunt like that I would climb the chain of command to the President if necessary until I found someone who agreed he needed his ass chewed. I was a first lieutenant. He was a captain—one rank higher than I. He never did it again. He was probably too busy giving me a 40 on my efficiency report—at a time when anything below 97 meant your career was over. The efficiency report did not mention his using my men as “movie extras” in his phony class. Just another day at the office using the leadership skills I learned at West Point and being “rewarded” appropriately by the Army that so treasures the leadership skills they teach.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the Army taught us to take care of our troops at West Point, then drove out of the Army every officer who applied that lesson to situations where it meant standing up to his superiors. Most of the protection the troops need is from their leader’s own superiors.

‘Command performance’ parties

On Friday and Saturday nights, I was usually on a date and the last damned place I would ever taken a date was to a party of Army officers who were either sucking up to the brass or hitting on my date or getting drunk or most likely, all of the above. I have never taken a drink of alcohol. (See my article on O.V.U.M., that is, stuff that is Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory)

In contrast to my superiors relieving me, my subordinates in Bravo Company (my last command) circulated and signed three petitions demanding that my superiors reinstate me. They hated my successor who immediately announced he was reinstating the savings bond purchases with their Unit Fund money. Did I lead my men successfully? Close enough. Did I suck up to my superiors? Absolutely not. So does the Army produce leaders or followers? When it comes to training and many job descriptions, they do offer leadership training and experience. But when it comes to incentives, which ultimately trump training and experience as far as the resulting behavior is concerned, the U.S. military hates and discourages or even bans leadership. They talk about leadership. They teach leadership—such as their knowledge of the subject is. But they reward followership, or more accurately, ass kissing, and punish any leadership that bothers the boss, which is to say, most leadership.

Name the great current American leaders that the military has produced

To hear the military tell it, people who have had leadership training and who been in leadership positions in the military are the best leaders in America.

Oh, really? So where are they?

Since 1992, each of our presidential elections has featured a former military guy against a former draft dodger. The draft dodger always won. The one West Pointer, Wes Clark, lost early. As I write this, on 10/11/08, never-served-in-the-military (or in any other real job) anti-war candidate Barack Obama is leading Service Academy graduate, retired Navy Captain, Vietnam P.O.W. John McCain.

Are there any former military leaders in the Senate? My namesake and former cadet platoon member Jack Reed, Senator from Rhode Island is a West Point grad, but he never served in a war. I suspect his being in the Senate stems more from his government and law degrees from Harvard than from his West Point training and experience at leadership in the military.

Another way to see how the U.S. military is doing at producing leaders is to see what leadership positions they hold in our society after they get out of the military. Most people are only in the military for two or three years. Some are in longer. And a smaller number make a career (at least 20 years) of the military. In the last 30 years or so, the number of people on active duty in the U.S. military has ranged from about 2 million during the Reagan Administration to about 1.4 million today. Let’s assume an average of 1.6 million and that their average tenure is four years. That means that in the last 30 years, about 12 million people have been on active duty in the U.S. military. Virtually all of them get out of the military when they are still young enough to have second careers in the civilian world—age 38 to about age 53.

So if these 12 million men and women are such great leaders, where are they in our society?

The last president who served on active duty in the military was George H.W. Bush who got out of the military in 1945.

Many people who served briefly in the military are in Congress. But the question should arise are former military people disproportionately represented in Congress. If they got extraordinarily effective leadership training and experience in the military, they should be. Furthermore, those analyzing it need to figure out how to separate those who became Congressmen as a result of the benefit from leadership training in the military and those who just used military service as a resume entry and did not benefit from training or experience.

In my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?,” I contrast the top ten most prominent living West Point graduates with 13 prominent living Harvard Business School graduates. HBS does not claim to produce “leaders.” But the contrast between the two lists is stark. Of the ten most prominent living West Point grads, only three—Reed, Petraeus, and Krzyzewski—currently hold leadership positions. The others are all former this or that like Al Haig. But the Harvard list has all sorts of people who hold top leadership positions in many walks of life including the current Commander in Chief George Bush, historian Michael Beschloss, GE head Immelt, New England Patriots owner Kraft, NYC Mayor Bloomberg, and so forth. Plus I could have named far more than the 13 I named. The Wikipedia write-up on Harvard Business School has a longer, rather astonishing list.

Does Harvard Business School do a better job of training leaders than West Point? In many ways, and probably the most important ways, yes. The leadership you learn at Harvard Business is more free form and results oriented. The West Point version is more pro forma, narrow, specialized, and divorced from the reality of actually getting people to do any useful task. At West Point, you learn how to get people to perform close order drill and the manual of arms and do choreographed calisthenics in the artificial world of the military. At Harvard Business, you learn how to get people to make or sell a product or service in the real world. Probably more important is the real world management experience you get in the civilian world after Harvard compared to the nutty and largely useless, if not harmful, experience you get in SNAFU Land after West Point.


The most obvious dead giveaway that the military are poseurs with regard to leadership is their propensity to discuss it in a vacuum.

Those of us in the real world who have to get results when we are in a leadership position—as in my coaching of a high school football team in 2003, 4, and 5—are more likely to use words like “team,” “teamwork,” and “team building.” Talking about “leadership” and what great leaders we are implies that the followers are insignificant—that our great leadership is what made everything happen. In the real world, real leaders are very mindful of the feelings of their followers and of the crucial importance of the contributions of their followers to the success of the team. Military people think they take care of that by saying their troops are “outstanding” every time the subject comes up, but then they cancel that out the next time they use the word “leadership,” which puts the spotlight back on them.

Only in the military, where you can just talk a good game and look the part, and where subordinates are afraid to piss off the brass, could you pontificate endlessly on the leadership of yourself and your subordinate leaders and not catch any flack for it. In the real world, such a “leader” would hear complaints about his narcissism and taking too much credit for the success of the group pretty fast. In German, the word “leader” translates to “Führer.” Real leaders who get followers to do great things in the real world do not have a Führer complex.


Leaders and followers are opposite ends of a see-saw. The lower one end is, the higher the other must be. In other words, if you have great followers, you need little in the way of leadership to get them to do what they are supposed to do. We practiced leadership at West Point on our follow cadets—who were highly talented, motivated, and disciplined. Leading them is like playing tennis without a net—very poor preparation for leading regular Army troops.

The worse the followers, the greater the leaders need to be. As I often say in my writing about football coaching, an ounce of recruiting is worth a pound of coaching. Coaching is the football equivalent of leadership. Another coaching saying is that, “Great players make great coaches.”

The military work force is generally low quality. See my article on the need for a military draft, in part to upgrade the quality of military personnel, for details on that. For example, the military has been granting waivers to allow about 8,000 convicted criminals a year to join the Army. When I was a platoon leader and company commander in the Army, I never had any say whatsoever about the subordinates assigned to me. That has always been standard military procedure. In the civilian world, that would be considered insane and good leaders subjected to such situations would generally resign and go elsewhere.

In the real world, you do not expect your subordinate managers to exhibit such loaves-and-fishes leadership. Rather, you get the best people you can overall, including both managers and subordinates. And those best managers are well aware that they must constantly give credit to their subordinates for the group’s successes. He leads best who leads least. The smart leader makes his leading as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. Military people are very self-conscious and affected about their approach to leadership.

John T. Reed

Military Deaths under Bush

Men die unnecessarily in military training. Why? Because the military is a bureaucracy and bureaucracies make otherwise normal people behave as if they were stupid or uncaring. More people die in the military bureaucracy than in other types of bureaucracies because the military has a macho self-image and their efforts to live up to that image often mean taking imprudent chances or being biased in favor of dealing with all difficulty or danger with toughness. In many cases, no amount of toughness could have saved the military personnel in question from injury or death.

I hope that by calling attention to these stupid injuries and deaths that I will help get the military to clean up its act. But I will not hold my breath. This crap has been going on for centuries in the military. Second best result would be to save the lives of prospective military personnel who will read this and decide these clowns are too incompetent for me to trust them with my life.

Death of Army Sergeant Lawrence Sprader at Fort Hood, TX 6/8-07 from heat stroke during map-reading exercise in desert

V.I.P. Demonstration deaths

The email that circulated in March, 2008 about the number of active-duty military deaths in the last five administrations

Below is a table from a report that has been partially circulated through emails. The email version shows the totals, but not the causes of death and thereby suggests that George W. Bush had fewer military deaths per year than his four predecessors in spite of the Iraq and Afghan wars. True, but I immediately wanted to know the causes of the deaths in the non-war years. Accident is the main cause of active-duty serviceperson deaths except during the Iraq/Afghan years. The fact that there have long been too many deaths by accident in the U.S. military is the point of this article and of the two articles to which there are links above.

I read the entire report and found the table below which breaks the deaths down by cause. One interesting thing that I found was that only about 2,500 have died as a result of hostile action in Iraq and Afghanistan, not the 4,000-dead Iraq-only figure the Left loves to talk about.

Also, the main reason for the relatively high numbers of non-hostile-action deaths in the Reagan years is the relatively large size of the U.S. military back then—about 2,000,000 active duty personnel. Since the end of the Reagan Administration, the number on active duty in the U.S. military has declined gradually to the current level of approximately 1.4 million. The deaths caused by accident as well as homicide, illness, suicide have generally been proportional to the number of people in the military. A similar chart could probably be made for the U.S. Postal Service with similar numbers of deaths per thousand employees. The only meaningful columns are those for “Hostile Action” and “Terrorist Attack” (which I would have thought was a hostile attack).

By the way, in spite of urging readers to check the Web site to confirm the numbers, the email has incorrect figures for 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006.

Table 5. U.S. Active Duty Military Deaths, 1980 Through 2006,

Part II, Cause of Death



Total Deaths

Accident Hostile Action Homicide Illness Pending Self


Undetermined President
1980 2,392 1,556   174 419   231 1 1 Carter
1981 2,380 1,524   145 457   241   13 Reagan
1982 2,319 1,495   108 446   254   16 Reagan
1983 2,465 1,413 18 115 419   218 263 19 Reagan
1984 1,999 1,293 1 84 374   225 6 16 Reagan
1985 2,252 1,476   111 363   275 5 22 Reagan
1986 1,984 1,199 2 103 384   269   27 Reagan
1987 1,983 1,172 37 104 383   260 2 25 Reagan
1988 1,819 1,080   90 321   285 17 26 Reagan
1989 1,636 1,000 23 58 294   224   37 Bush I
1990 1,507 880   74 277   232 1 43 Bush I
1991 1,787 931 147 112 308   256   33 Bush I
1992 1,293 676   109 252   238 1 17 Bush I
1993 1,213 632   86 221   236 29 9 Clinton
1994 1,075 544   83 206   232   10 Clinton
1995 1,040 538   67 174   250 7 4 Clinton
1996 974 527 1 52 173   188 19 14 Clinton
1997 817 433   42 170   159   13 Clinton
1998 827 445   26 168 10 161 3 14 Clinton
1999 796 436   37 150 13 145   15 Clinton
2000 758 398   34 138   151 17 20 Clinton
2001 891 437 3 49 185 1 140 55 21 Bush II
2002 999 547 18 51 190 6 160   27 Bush II
2003 1,228 440 344 36 207 16 167   18 Bush II
2004 1,874 604 739 46 270 19 188   8 Bush II
2005 1,942 632 739 49 281 72 150   19 Bush II
2006 1,858 465 753 30 205 238 155   12 Bush II

Source: Defense Manpower Data Center, Statistical Information Analysis Division,

[], accessed on June 27, 2007.

Note: As of February 28, 2007 (reflects preliminary counts for 2006 and revised figures for 2004 and 2005).