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Is there any such thing as military expertise?

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed

You can hardly turn on the TV nowadays without seeing some general or some former military officer in a black turtleneck pontificating on what the military ought to be doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, or wherever.

Anti-war activists and politicians exalt every word of any current or former military person who supports their position. They criticize President Bush for “not listening to his generals.”

Do these current and former military people really have any expertise in winning modern wars?

No less an authority on the subject than Prussian Carl von Clausewitz, author of one of the most respected books ever written on warfare—On War (complete free copy is available at—said of military expertise,

In war as in art there exist no general rules; in neither can talent be replaced by precept.

Napoleon said he preferred a lucky general to a good one.

I see no evidence of expertise in winning wars. (For details of my limited military background click here.) For starters, exactly what war did the current active-duty or retired military leaders win?

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of the best-selling books Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. He also wrote an excellent article on being unconventional is combat and other types of competitions in the 5/11/09 New Yorker magazine. Militarily, it talks about David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia, and a naval war game contest repeatedly won easily by a computer with no preconceived notions about how to fight a war. It also talks about a girls youth basketball team coached by a guy who never played basketball that made it to the national championship final where a ref local to the opponent called a zillion fouls against the underdogs so they lost.

The basic point of the article is that conventional expertise in many competitive areas, especially war where there are few rules, is too inside the box and that outside-the-box commanders have won spectacularly over much bigger or stronger opponents opponents.

Desert Storm victory
Most people would say Desert Storm. That was the 100-hour “war” that the U.N. fought against Iraq’s forces that invaded Kuwait in 1990-1991.

I am not sure that really counts as a war. The Iraqi military personnel surrendered by the tens of thousands. Some tried to surrender to members of the media. Others tried to surrender to U.S. drones that were the size of model airplanes.

We killed so many Iraqi soldiers so easily that it was embarrassing to us. Video of the so-called Highway of Death made us look too bloodthirsty. There was no video of other locations where the dead Iraqi soldiers were so numerous that we bulldozed them underground quickly to avoid any photos being taken.

Did our military take casualties, too? Yes, but General Norman Schwarzkopf’s U.S. military subordinates killed more of his American and allied soldiers by accident in that “war” than the Iraqis did on purpose. That makes it sound more like a very-badly-run training exercise than a war.

‘Hail Mary’
Allied commander General Norman Schwarzkopf claimed we were outnumbered and had to throw a “Hail Mary” pass to win. Bull! Wikipedia says we had 660,000 troops and the Iraqis had 360,000. Numbers didn’t matter anyway because we were so much better equipped in terms of aircraft, tanks, artillery, smart bombs, ships, etc. I don’t know why we used ground forces at all other than to let Schwarzkopf’s Army subordinates and the Marines play war and get some combat glory. Air power alone seemed like it would have won the war if we had let it.

If we are going to make a football analogy it would be that Desert Storm was the equivalent of the New England Patriots NFL team defeating the Natick, Massachusetts Pop Warner team. Against such a disastrously weak opponent, it would not have mattered if Schwarzkopf had used a Hail Mary, a Bloody Mary, a Typhoid Mary, or a Mary Had a Little Lamb play.

Air supremacy
We had total air supremacy in Desert Storm. Iraqi Air Force fighters fled to Iran, their recent, former enemy, to hide from us infidels. One of our helicopters shot down an Iraqi fighter jet—the first time that ever happened in military history.

Smart bombs
The star of Desert Storm was the smart bombs, although Army General Schwarzkopf did such a brilliant job of taking credit for the performance of the smart bombs that most regard him as the hero of the Gulf War. Our soldiers were brave and competent in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991, but it wasn’t Omaha Beach.

The main credit for the smart bombs goes to the civilian geeks who designed them. Secondary credit goes to the Air Force and Navy pilots and support personnel who delivered them to the vicinities of the targets. Tertiary credit goes to the military and civilians in the Air Force and Navy—snail-like bureaucrats who finally managed to make use of this 1970s technology in the 1990s. (Smart bombs were used a little in Vietnam, but few noticed.)

How an Army general managed to take credit for Air Force and Navy weapons whose performance was mainly the result of civilian engineers is no doubt now being studied in the spin courses in the public relations academies around the world. I doubt any non-superpower military academy is studying Schwarzkopf’s tactics or strategy.

How much can you learn in 100 hours?
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Desert Storm does qualify as a war. How much expertise did the current experts derive from it? How much could they have derived from it? Since it only lasted 100 hours, the would-be experts would have had to take furious notes. Since they did not expect it to be over so fast, I doubt that they did.

There is also the question of exactly where were they during the 100 hours and what were they doing? Other than retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, none of them had the big-picture perspective. Desert Storm was 16 years ago. Today’s officers were generally low-ranking lieutenants and captains back then, if they were even in the military at all during Desert Storm. They saw Desert Storm through a keyhole of platoon or company command or from some battalion staff position.

Too different
Then there is the issue of whether Desert Storm was similar to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The answer is, not really. The desert terrain is similar or even identical in Iraq, but the enemy got rid of their military uniforms and now pretend to be the innocent civilians among whom they blend. The main weapon is Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which were unknown during Desert Storm. Whatever military lessons we learned in Desert Storm are essentially irrelevant in the two Freedom operations now under way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Murtha and Hagel
Some of the veterans who are pontificating about the Middle East wars are Vietnam veterans like Democrat Congressman John Murtha and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel. That’s real helpful. Vietnam was a jungle war against uniformed North Vietnamese Army soldiers backed by the then super power Soviet Union and the most populous country in the world, Communist China.

In spite of the many differences between the Vietnam and current Middle East wars, anti-war people are seizing on the words of these Vietnam vets and claiming they were in combat, therefore they are experts on Iraq and Afghanistan. Bull!

Hagel was a squad (about ten soldiers) leader in Vietnam in 1968. He reportedly walked point. That’s very brave work, but it is hardly a graduate education in theater-wide military and geo-political strategy which is the level at which he is currently holding forth on the matter. And even if being a squad leader in Vietnam was a graduate education on military strategy, it would be too different from the current Middle East wars in terms of terrain, vegetation, climate, weapons, enemy tactics, battle sizes, and strategy, etc. to make him an expert on the current wars.

Congressman John Murtha was a Marine enlisted man and drill instructor in the 1950s. He later became an officer and was a battalion staff officer in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.

In both Hagel and Murtha’s cases, their combat experience was about 40 years ago. My service in Vietnam was also 40 years ago in 1969 and 1970, but unlike Murtha and Hagel, I am not claiming to know for certain what the correct strategy or tactics are in the current Middle East wars. I think our deference to avoiding civilian casualties and to pleasing Iraqi and Afghan civilian politicians are probably ill-advised and preventing us from winning, but I am not as certain of anything about the Middle East as politicians like Hagel and Murtha claim to be about everything. I guess politicians are like baseball umpires: often wrong, but never uncertain. That would be funny if national security and lives were not at stake.

Our military’s win-loss record since 1950

Korea 1950-1953: tie
Vietnam 1959-1975: loss
Lebanon 1983: we cut and ran after a suicide bomber killed hundreds of U.N. soldiers, mostly U.S. Marines
Grenada 1983: victory but not much resistance
Panama 1989: victory but not much resistance
Kuwait 1990-1991: U.N. coalition victory
Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992-1995: NATO mission to stop civil war successful using air power only; current ongoing presence to prevent resumption of civil war
Haiti 1994-1995: U.S. led invasion to stop civil war; ambiguous result. Haiti has been a mess forever and still is.
Afghanistan 2001-present: ousted Taliban government from Kabul but situation still unsatisfactory now
Iraq 2003-present: Ousted Baath party from power, killed or captured many high-ranking Baathists and al Qaeda; now fighting a thus-far unsuccessful battle to stop sectarian civil war and continued al Qaeda violence

Our military performed well in World Wars I and II, which were great victories against powerful opponents. Since then, however, our military leaders have not provided much evidence that they are experts at winning modern wars against determined opponents.

Army leaders were heard to complain during Vietnam that they were not going to change a perfectly good Army just for one lousy little war. They then proceeded to lose that war, America’s first, but not last, defeat in war, thereby proving W.H. Auden’s point when he said in 1948 in The Age of Anxiety,

We would rather be ruined than changed.

Obviously, the United States cannot allow such idiots to run or even influence our national defense.

‘Hard to look smart with bad numbers’
Here’s a pertinent quote from the 5/12/08 Fortune on “The Best Advice I Ever Got.”

An NCR executive was giving a presentation [at their Dayton headquarters in 1988]; he had great slides and an even better delivery. At the conclusion...the CEO, Charles Exley...nodded and said something brief but profound: “Good story, but it’s hard to look smart with bad numbers.” You have to focus on the underlying substance. There’s just no way to disguise poor performance.

The comment fits the U.S. military since World War II even better. But the U.S. military officer corps is bound and determined to look smart with bad numbers via their uniforms, medals, spin, fawning documentaries on the History Channel and the Military Channel, fawning support on Fox News, evidence of small progress, and the reluctance of almost everyone to criticize the military no matter how lousy their war-winning performance because they risk their lives and because most of the potential critics are draft dodgers.

Not much practice
Other than Korea and Vietnam, they have at least one good excuse. They hardly ever get any practice.

Civilian businesspeople and professionals practice every day. They get better and better every day as a result.

The Israeli military gets lots of practice. Unlike the U.S. military, they cannot come anywhere close to assuming they will have massive manpower and resource advantages when they go to war. They have to win the hard way with superior tactics and strategy against enemies who outnumber them. Because of their greater experience and various handicaps, I suspect that they are, man for man, the best army in the world.

The British military also gets a lot of practice for various technical reasons relating to their former empire. Like the Israelis and unlike the U.S., they also have never been able to assume massive manpower and resource advantages and have had to finesse their victories with alliances and clever tactics. I briefly was around some British SAS soldiers when I was in U.S. Army Ranger School and I thought they were better than we were.

Our military, in contrast, only gets to practice on rare occasions. If you look at the list of post-1950 “wars” above, you see that most of those 57 years have been warless. It’s hard to get good at something if you rarely do it.

If you look at the curriculum vitae of a career Army officer, it looks like he was a temp for 30 years. For example, after graduation from West Point in 1973, John Abizaid appears to have had about 15 different jobs and attended nine different schools. Dividing his 34 years in the Army by those 24 assignments you get an average of 17 months at each location. Location-wise, he appears to have been stationed in three continents and in a dozen states. His resume looks like an Eagle Scout’s merit badge sash. His addresses look like a travelogue.

The phrase that often comes to my mind when thinking about military people again arises: jack of all trades and master of none. Abizaid retired as Centcom commander, the job made famous by Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks, in 2007.

Contrast that with successful accomplished civilian leaders like Steve Jobs of Apple computer or Donald Trump. Roughly speaking, Steve Jobs had two jobs in his career: founder and CEO of Apple and founder and CEO of Pixar. Not counting his recent TV program, Trump has had one job. Here are two guys I think are more lucky than smart, but many consider them great successes: Bill Gates, founder and CEO of Microsoft Corp. and Warren Buffett, founder and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. One job for Gates. Two for Buffett.

There is no hint of the nomadic, eclectic career paths that are gospel in the military in the careers of these highly successful civilians. Nor is their much of the chronic failure that the U.S. military has suffered since World War II in the focused careers of the civilians. You would think the military might take notice. Not a chance.

Abizaid impresses people but what has he ever done?
I recently had a sort of email argument with a recent West Point graduate about Abizaid. He said Abizaid was extremely impressive. I said that was irrelevant and asked what has Abizaid ever done other than impress people he met or worked with.

I am the leading critic of the get-rich-quick TV real estate gurus. Often, someone calls me about one I recommend against and says, “...but he seemed so trustworthy.” 

Of course they seem trustworthy! They’re con men. Seeming trustworthy is the definition of a con man!

Similarly, of course Abizaid is impressive in person. That’s how he got so many choice assignments and promotions in the Army. Reading people and making them like them in one-on-one situations is what successful career bureaucrats do. Unfortunately, it may be all they do well.

Saying a successful bureaucrat is impressive is equivalent to saying a con man seems trustworthy. The two juxtapositions are redundant. It is what they do. It is the definition of who and what they are. They are masters of talking a good game and looking the part.

Objective versus subjective subjects
I generally got good grades in the objectively-graded “hard”subjects like math, science, and foreign language. I made dean’s list at West Point plebe year because of it. But my grades in the soft subjects like English and social studies were all over the map. At one point at the end of the year in which I made dean’s list, I was briefly in last section English at West Point. In other words, I was in about the bottom 60 guys in the class in that subject.

Professor Karl Popper said we need to downgrade “soft” academic disciplines like history and social science to a level slightly above aesthetics and entertainment (page 171 of The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb). It’s not that history and social sciences are not important. The problem is that we do not understand them very well so the teachers of such subjects are charlatans and you get good grades in such subjects by mimicking the charlatan who grades you. (Here is the beginning of the Wikipedia write-up on Popper: Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH, FRS, FBA, (July 28, 1902 – September 17, 1994), was an Austrian and British[1] philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics. He is counted among the most influential philosophers of science of the 20th century, and also wrote extensively on social and political philosophy. Popper is perhaps best known for repudiating the classical observationalist-inductivist account of scientific method by advancing empirical falsifiability as the criterion for distinguishing scientific theory from non-science...)

Similarly, we do not understand war very well. That means the higher ranking officers who pretend they’ve got war all figured out are charlatans and the way to get promoted in the military is to mimic the charlatan who will write your next efficiency report.

My oldest son Dan and my youngest son Mike have the exact same experience with academic grades. Mike was on dean’s list at Arizona. He recently took a summer school humanities course at a college here in CA while he was on summer vacation from Arizona. He got a B- on a soft-subject test in which he rejected all of the professor’s suggested essay topics and wrote on a topic of his own choosing. He suspects he was the only student in the class to do that and about half the class got higher grades than he did on that test according to the prof.

On the next paper he had to turn in, he reluctantly chose one of the professor’s topics and simply regurgitated his class notes of what the professor said into the paper. He hated every minute of writing the paper because the topic sucked and so did the professor’s views. He got an A on that paper. Welcome to the world of guys like John Abizaid.

My son Mike does not plan to stay in that world. He just went there briefly as a “tourist” on that one paper to see if his theory about what was going on there was correct. Q.E.D.

In the 2009 book Lost in the Meritocracy, author Walter Kirn confesses to being a lifelong suck-up with regard to teachers and professors. He reveals all the tricks of paying extremely close attention to what the teacher or professor wants to hear then spouting that back to them to get As. He is a caucasian Princeton grad—a measure of his high grades in this affirmative-action era.

Attended an Abizaid speech
On 3/8/08, I attended a speech that Abizaid gave. After what the young West Point graduate told me about how impressive Abizaid was, I was surprised at how unimpressive he was.

Although the young graduate never said so, I interpolated that Abizaid was the picture of the West Point self image—tall, dark, and handsome, lean and fit, ramrod up his back, and a polished speaker.

No. He was around 5'7", about 20 pounds overweight, and needs to work on his posture. His speech, while natural, occasionally humorous, and unaffected, offered zero new insights into the Iraq and Afghan wars, which he commanded for four years. Indeed, his successor as CentCom commander is the current CentCom commander who replaced Abizaid in that job on 3/16/07.

Some readers may say, “Well, see how lean and fit you are when you get to be Abizaid’s age!” Abizaid graduated from West Point in 1973; I, in 1968. We were both 18 years old when we were plebes.

I am 5'11", 170 pounds, and have the same 32-inch waist I had when I was a cadet—although I would need “relaxed fit” white trou now as opposed to the “straight cut” we wore back then. 61-year-olds require a “skosh more room in the seat and thigh” as the Levi’s commercials used to say. (You can see a photo of cadets those wearing white trousers at I work out seven days a week and watch what I eat for health and personal pride reasons. I would have thought that Abizaid had the enormous additional motivation to stay in shape of setting the example for the hundreds of thousands of troops he commanded. That is how they taught us to conduct ourselves at West Point. General Westmoreland, our Vietnam commander, did not need to lose even a single pound of fat when he was Vietnam commander or Chief of Staff of the Army. That did not prevent him from leading us to defeat in that war, but he did live up to the West Point ideal of setting the example for the troops in many ways including physical fitness.

The two other speakers at the Founders Day dinner (annual dinner for West Point graduates) were worse. The tradition of Founders Day is that the oldest and youngest graduates present speak. The most memorable part of the oldest grad’s talk was his bragging about how many women who were married to someone else that he committed adultery with (13). He thought he was funny and studly. The audience was creeped out and embarrassed. The youngest grad, an active-duty second lieutenant less than a year out of West Point, who looked like he did not meet the minimum height requirement of the 1960s (5'6"); read his speech word for word; eyes down on the speech transcript; speaking in nervous, slurred bursts that were hard to understand. It reminded me of the teenage football players at our local high school awards ceremony making their brief speeches as they give tokens of appreciation to each member of the coaching staff.

When you make a speech, you do not write it out word for word. Rather, you jot down just enough words or phrases to remind you of the various subjects you want to cover. You try to make eye contact with every member of the audience as you speak, sweeping your eyes slowly from side to side to do so. You speak a little more slowly than normal conversation with a friend and enunciate your words to overcome the public address system’s deficiencies and the fading hearing of old grads. You also rehearse the speech at least three times in front of a live audience. The youngest grad violated each and every one of those rules throughout his speech.

Where did I learn all that? I am a West Point graduate. They taught us that there and made us do it repeatedly in classes and summer training. I was terrified of public speaking when I arrived at West Point, but a confident speaker by the time I graduated. When I took the Dale Carnegie public speaking course a few years later, the other students said, “Why are you here? You don’t need this.” In other words, had I pulled the youngest-graduate-present-speech duty in 1969, I would have given a talk that complied with the rules I stated above. Although I must note that I consciously avoided Founder’s Day dinners for a few years right after graduation until I felt confident I would not be the youngest grad there. Being prepared is nice. Being smart is nicer.

Finding symbolism
My son Dan was never in trouble in school except that one high school English teacher sent Dan to detention and suspended him from the class. Why? The teacher spent most class sessions having the students find the symbolism in old B horror movies. Dan asked me about symbolism. My response was approximately what is in my Web article on symbolism in literature. That is, symbolism is a crock. Dan agreed and argued with the teacher about it in class. Dan ended up getting a C in the course—before he went on to graduate from Ivy League Columbia. The teacher was a graduate of Podunk State or some such.

The same was true when I was an Army officer. Many of my West Point classmates flunked Ranger School and Signal Officers Basic. One flunked out of my Airborne class and another flunked out of my Satellite Communications officer class. I passed all those the first time and was recommended to be an instructor at Ranger School. But my Army officer efficiency reports, which are subjective, were the opposite. And so, roughly speaking, were the officer efficiency reports of the guys who flunked out of those schools. In other words, they got good OERs.

100% consistent record
The same is true in the Army of awards and decorations and promotions. (See my article on military medals.) Some are subjective; some are objective. I got the objective awards and decorations, namely Vietnam Service Medal, Ranger tab, National Defense Service Medal, promotion to 1st lieutenant (I was still in Army schools when I got promoted). The most notable and persuasive objective award I got was a West Point diploma. But because I refused to suck up, I got none of the subjective awards or decorations (e.g., Army Commendation medal, Bronze Star medal, etc.) or subjective promotions (generally captain or major and above). My record was 100% consistent: I got everything that was awarded by objective merit and absolutely nothing that was not.

The biggest suck-ups in the military are the ones with the most subjective awards and decorations and promotions, namely the top generals who have gotten all the promotions there are to get as well as almost all of the subjective medals there are to get, guys like Abizaid. If that’s what West Point wants, which it is, they should recruit all the high school kids with the A+s in English and social studies, all the kids who won the subjective awards given out by their high school faculty. All the members of their high school Apple Polisher or Future Ass Kissers Of America clubs.

In English, not one teacher in my entire life ever said I was a good writer and should consider making a living at it. Not in elementary school, junior high, high school, West Point, or Harvard. But my friends, relatives, and strangers made that comment to me repeatedly throughout my life. Since I have been making an excellent living as a writer for thirty years, am by far the most prolific published writer in my West Point class, and have zillions of testimonials about my writing at my Web site, it would appear that the English teachers were wrong and the friends and relatives were right.

Tell them what they want to hear
I have heard and read a number of comments from those who did get good grades in the soft subjects—Abizaid must have because he was a star man (top 5% of his class at West Point)—that their secret was to pay close attention to what the instructor liked and disliked, then tell them what they wanted to hear in class, homework assignments and on tests. In other words, the people who get good grades in stuff like English and social studies are cynical, Machiavellian chameleons. That also is what people who get good efficiency reports and who achieve high elective or political office do.

I find that approach to academics or career to be really creepy. I never did it. When I contributed in English and sosh, I said what I thought, not what I thought the instructor wanted to hear. I did not know or care what the instructor wanted to hear because I thought it was irrelevant. I still think it’s irrelevant. I did the same when I worked for other people in the military and elsewhere.

You say you met Abizaid or some other officer who had a highly “successful” career by Army officer standards and you were greatly impressed? Of course you were. He chameleoned you. It’s a trick, dummy.

Like most Americans who never met him one-on-one, I thought Abizaid looked more bewildered than impressive when he was confronted by Congress or multiple reporters. Sort of like a chameleon who suddenly found himself on a plaid sport coat.

Grade his accomplishments objectively
What concrete thing did Abizaid ever do? What did he make better? Where are his footprints on the places he has been? What is his legacy? When you use his name as an adjective, like the “Abizaid approach,” to what does it refer? What is the Abizaid doctrine? What are Abizaid’s proudest objective accomplishments? (winning promotions and choice Army assignments don’t count) I read his Wikipedia bio and could not find any accomplishments whatsoever other than his great skill at impressing people one-on-one.

Indeed, the main “accomplishment” celebrated in his Wikipedia bio proves my point. His professor at Harvard said Abizaid’s seminar paper (in the “soft” subject of Defense Policy for Saudi Arabia) was the best one he ever got from a student. I’ll bet it was.

Abizaid’s impressing people for thirty years got him the position of Centcom commander during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So what did he accomplish with that powerful and prominent career-culminating authority? As far as I can tell, nothing.

He came. He held the position. He presided over the deaths of thousands of U.S. military personnel with little to show for them. He retired. Even translated to Latin, I doubt it sounds as good as Veni. Vidi. Vici.

His legacy appears to be that he was one of the main U.S. commanders in what so far appears to be an unsuccessful military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the great philosopher Peggy Lee once said,

Is that all there is?

“Successful” career officers like Abizaid remind me of more polished versions of the title character in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt who sadly summed up his own life thus,

I’ve never done a single thing I wanted to in my whole life. I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along.

After the Watergate scandal, an observer sarcastically commented about the Nixon guys, using a phrase popular with Republican businessmen,

They met a payroll.

One could fairly do the same about General John Abizaid using a phrase popular with lifers,

He got his ticket punched.

Abizaid is just your standard M1A1 West Point teacher’s pet
I don’t have any particular bone to pick with Abizaid as an individual. He just happens to be the most prominent guy my email pen pal threw up at me as an impressive West Point grad. To me, Abizaid is just another M1A1 West Pointer with a “successful” career, interchangeable with Barry McCaffrey or Al Haig or a whole bunch of other guys with similar stern, stereotyped, Army officer demeanors and a long history of impressing whomever they were working for. I’m sure Abizaid’s mom is very proud of him and he will soon be dazzling them on the board of Halliburton or at the Hoover Institute or wherever his one-on-one chameleon act plays next.

Note, a couple of weeks after I wrote that, I saw in the media that Abizaid is, indeed, going to work for the Hoover Institute. So the great, highly trained and experienced commander of hundreds of thousands of soldiers will henceforth be commanding one secretary. He will not be taking over GM or Microsoft or Bechtel Corporation or even VMI. Instead, he will be a sort of professional social studies student who never gets a report card. The perfect job for the perfect West Point graduate after his perfect military career.

Once, just once, I wish one of these great career Army officer “success” stories would start his own entrepreneurial businesses—a business that actually produced a product or service that was judged by hundreds of thousands of people in the marketplace—a situation where you need real, objective skills to succeed—a situation where you could be given an unequivocal failing grade by the marketplace—as opposed to one-on-one sucking up inside a no-one’s-responsible bureaucracy.

E for effort?
My wife says our military is doing its best. I am sure that is true in many cases, but war is not kindergarten. Neither Al Qaeda nor the Mahdi Army nor the Taliban are going to give us an E for effort. Nor will the families of our dead military personnel.

In war, there is no E for effort; only an R for results. Effort is no substitute for adequacy or victory.

Not much learning
Another reason the military is not very good at wars is that that they are not very good at learning from what few wars they participate in. The military is a government bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are biased against change and admitting mistakes.

For example, look at our weapons. Our World War II bazookas, torpedoes, and tanks, to name a few, did not work very well, if at all. Our bazooka rounds bounced off German tanks. In contrast, the equivalent German weapon, a Panzerfaust, could destroy even German tanks. This was true all the way through World War II. One American unit captured a bunch of Panzerfausts, got the instructions for them translated from German to English, and issued them to American soldiers. Our bureaucrats were not even inspired to change by American soldiers dying as a result of inferior anti-tank weapons.

For much of World War II, many of our torpedoes did not explode when they hit enemy ships. The bureaucrats refused to believe it was their torpedoes’ fault—until the Navy fired some into the Hawaiian Islands with the bureaucrats observing. Only then did they admit the submariners were not missing the target and send American submariners out to sea with effective weapons.

Early World War II American Sherman tanks were called Ronsons by both the Americans and the Germans—because they lit up first time—a Ronson advertising slogan at the time. German and Russian tanks did not do that because of superior design.

In Vietnam, our M-16 rifles jammed a lot at first. The M-16 inventor told the Army to chrome plate the barrel and chamber to prevent carbon buildup. The Army bureaucrats refused in order to save money and because it wasn’t their idea. The M-16s jammed. Some soldiers were found shot dead by the enemy next to their disassembled M-16s. After some years, the bureaucrats finally agreed to chrome plate them and the problem ended.

In recent years, the public has learned that the Osprey helicopter has numerous problems that have resulted in the deaths of many U.S. servicepeople. One officer was secretly taped telling his subordinates to falsify the maintenance records to cover up the problems. The tape was later played on TV and radio. That recording is discussed at the Wikipedia article linked to at the beginning of this paragraph.

Anyway, my point is that the military is not much of a “learning organization” to use Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s phrase. (See my review of Nagl’s book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.) Not only do bureaucrats need wars to learn from, they need very long wars to do so because they are so slow to accept unpleasant feedback about their bureaucratic fiefdoms.

In contrast, civilians learn much faster because they typically lose money, go out of business, or go bankrupt if they get it wrong and they make money, sometimes in large quantities, when they get it right. Furthermore, they get this feedback and powerful motivation to improve every day. Even politicians learn faster than the military bureaucrats because they lose elections when they don’t, but they are too intimidated by the supposed “expertise” of the military to stand up to them.

Because they are asked
If I were on a TV show like many of these military experts, and asked about various Iraq and Afghanistan military matters, I would generally have to answer, “I don’t know.” Why? Because I don’t know and I am honest.

I heard an economist once explain why economists constantly make forecasts in spite of the fact that that no one can predict the future. “We forecast because we are asked, not because we know.”

Indeed. And that is precisely why the military pundits on the various TV shows pontificate about whether what is being done in Iraq and Afghanistan is right or wrong. They have no idea. How would they? Did they ever win an urban war against civilians in Iraq? Or any kind of war in Afghanistan? But they have been asked and if they answer honestly, that is, “I don’t know,”—they will be fired. They want to keep the gig, so they fake it, make it up, pretend to know. They are imposters, phonies, charlatans.

The media people need to start demanding that they prove what they say. “How do you know that, Colonel? Where in your background did you learn that to such a certainty?” I suspect that a detailed examination of the careers of the various pundits and active-duty generals would reveal a startling lack of troop command, even in peacetime situations and mere hours or days of combat experience.

This is true even of guys with tons of medals. The public seems extremely willing to believe these officers were great military combat heroes in spite of the fact that we all know there have been no wars in which anyone could have accomplished such things during the adult lives of current military leaders. See my article on the true meaning of military medals.

Do military people know anything?
Sure. They know how to operate their equipment like machine guns, cannons, tanks, aircraft, ships, and so forth. The Military Channel, Discovery Channel, and History Channel just love to show the military’s various items of equipment including weapons, tanks, ships, and aircraft because they are generally impressive as is the competence of the troops at operating them. American military personnel are generally good marksmen because of the excellent training they all get in firing a rifle.

They also know their own artificial games like marching (called “close-order drill”), saluting, wearing the uniform correctly, saying “sir” or “ma’am” when addressing a superior, etc..

And they know how to use traditional firepower and maneuver—a la World War II—against enemy soldiers under shoot-on-sight rules of engagement.

But none of this equipment operation or World War II-reenactment activity should be mistaken for expertise in winning current-day, unconventional wars.

What they do NOT know
But what they do not know is a much larger amount and generally more important when it comes to waging Twenty-First Century wars.

For example, at West Point we studied the great tactics and strategies of all the great generals in history like Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, and so forth. But what does any of that have to do with Baghdad? Or Vietnam? Or Afghanistan?

The recent wars are guerilla wars or wars against criminal gangs of death squads. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong wore civilian clothes and pretended to be civilians. After they revealed themselves in the 1968 Tet Offensive, they were generally wiped out and replaced by North Vietnamese Army soldiers. The NVA wore uniforms, but they still hid and employed only mines, booby traps, and hit-and-run tactics like the Taliban, al Qaeda and Iraqi sects.

Blend in with civilians
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the enemy are the Taliban, al Qaeda, and religious sect gangs who always wear civilian clothes and blend in with civilians. They violate every international law of war and scream bloody murder if we come close to violating any—and the U.S. and foreign media ignore enemy transgressions and have hissy fits about ours.

The U.S. military has little, if any, useful knowledge about how to fight such enemies. Basically, they talk a good game and look the part, but they cannot point to very many successes. This is primarily the fault of the leaders of the military—colonels and generals and presidents (when they micro manage). The lower ranks just do what the colonels, etc. tell them to do.

Every time a current military leader or military pundit pontificates about how to fight the recent wars, he should be made to say how he would know whether what he is saying is correct. What wars did he win? What principles of war did he learn during his military training and/or experience that back up his claims? Who were his teachers and what wars did they win?

Few of today’s military leaders even have experience losing the Vietnam war and even if they did, how would knowing how to lose a jungle war against uniformed, atheist soldiers 40 years ago tell you how to win an urban war against religious fanatic civilians now?

Few of today’s military leaders even have high-level experience blowing up Iraqi vehicles and troops in the desert in Kuwait in 1991’s 100-hour Desert Storm victory, and even if they did, how would that help them avoid being blown up by IEDs planted and detonated by civilians in the streets of Iraqi cities? The majority of today’s military were not even in the military during Desert Storm.

A lot of our current troops have experience in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last six years, but what have they learned? Where is the evidence that we have figured out how to fight successfully in those countries under the current rules of engagement?

Expert witness
In court, you cannot give your opinion unless and until the judge certifies you as an expert witness. To do that, he or she will first insist that the side that is trying to use you as an expert witness prove that you have the required expertise. That is done by the attorney having the expert state his qualifications. The opposing side is then permitted to cross examine the would-be expert witness to ascertain whether he or she is, indeed, an expert on the subject at hand.

Any decent trial lawyer could leave any current military leader or military TV pundit in shreds with regard to that leader’s or pundit’s claim to be an expert at winning Twenty-First Century wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would simply force the “expert” to admit he had never won any such war or that his war experience was so extremely brief (hours or days) as to actually be much less than that of many war correspondents or children who live in war zones. He would also force him to detail his training which would reveal that the military is still generally teaching its members to fight World War II in Europe, that is, run around in the woods or empty desert using firepower and maneuver against enemy soldiers in uniform and away from civilians.

Someone told me the military pundits on TV are the best available. Like hell they are! They seem to have been chosen for their demeanor, ability to talk in sound bites, willingness to criticize their former colleagues (a rare quality among military people), and character-actor qualities like a jutting chin or a raspy voice.

General Barry McCaffrey often appears. He at least had high-level Desert Storm experience. He graduated four years ahead of me from West Point. While I was a cadet, I used to make fun of the stereotypical Army officer who spat out his words in “crisp, clipped military tones,” ritually declared anyone associated with the U.S. military to be “outstanding,” and used quaint terms like “yarn” for story or “balderdash” for bullshit. They’re not completely averse to cursing. They say “damned fine” a lot.

This act also requires sticking your chin out as far as it will go and turning your mouth down at the corners when you speak. I did not know Barry McCaffrey, but his TV act is the quintessential version of my cadet comedy routine of the chin-thrusting, crisp-, clipped-tones, career Army officer. In other words, he consistently turns in an outstanding, damned fine TV performance of that affectation. Expect to see him cast as a military expert for a long time on TV.

Dale Dye is also prominent among them. He was a mere captain. Also, he often is cast as a military officer ACTOR in military dramas like the TV series Commander in Chief. What stronger evidence could there be that the producers who choose these “experts” do so with the criteria of casting directors of fictional or historical movies, that is, based on their physical appearance, voice, and demeanor, not their actual military expertise?

Get Israelis or Brits
The best experts on current Middle East warfare are probably Israeli and British Army veterans like General Rupert Smith author of the book Utility of Force or maybe some war correspondents with extremely high time in country and levels of experience standing next to the U.S. military during the fighting. Also military historians have done perhaps the best work at analyzing what lead to success or failure in various wars. Unlike military officers, they have no dog, or friends, in the fight and can be objective—a minimum requirement for good analysis.

I have been impressed by the understanding of various wars in certain books written by intelligent, diligent journalists and historians. (See my reviews of some of those books.) While the media as a group is clearly liberal biased, I do not believe they lie about what they see. They are human.

I have seen them on C-Span and such and they seem, if anything, to have bonded with the troops they went with just as the troops bond to each other in those circumstances. I cannot imagine that a writer would flat out lie about a unit he spent a great deal of time with in combat and I recall hearing of no such instance. More often, these writers find themselves defending the troops against leftists who want a more damning picture presented by the writer.

I would appreciate it if the media would get true experts, who have successful experience fighting wars like these and/or done far more research than some retired lieutenant colonel who happens to be mildly telegenic or fit some voice or appearance stereotype of a military commander. Hollywood is shallow with a capital S and they will cast whomever the viewers will believe is a military expert regardless of the actual qualifications of the person.

Post their bios
I call upon the the various networks to post at their Web sites the details of the qualifications of their regular military experts to comment on wars like the ones we are currently fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. I was unable to find any such biographies at the Fox News Web site to mention one network.

Ollie North
I suspect they are embarrassed about the lack of qualifications of their so-called military analysts and hoping no one will ask—with the exception of Oliver North who got a Silver Star and two purple hearts in Vietnam—one less Silver Star and Purple Heart than John Kerry to put the matter into perspective for those who measure war hero-ness by medals.

Notwithstanding his medals, I am not an Oliver North fan. Although he is three years older than I, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy the same day I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy: June 5, 1968. The two schools are archrivals which is most evident in the annual Army-Navy football game.

I find North to be the most maudlin, melodramatic celebrity in America today. I am amazed that he can not only get away with such blatant, amateurish theatricality, but even prosper as a result. He himself admitted he behaves as if he were the star of a B movie. A D movie would be more like it. A B movie would have better writers and a more authentic star.

North’s war hero-ness now seems to be so established in the public mind that he is prima facie accepted as perhaps the top military expert in America. I do not know what happened the day he won his Silver Star, but I do know that a ton of other U.S. military personnel won that same medal or the higher DSC, Navy Cross, or Congressional Medal of Honor and I do not see them on TV.

I also know that reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel in a 22-year career is not noteworthy. For example, West Point graduate Pete Dawkins was a brigadier general, two ranks above lieutenant colonel, when he retired after 24 years. That’s rapid promotion.

As far as I can tell, North’s status as America’s top military expert stems almost entirely from the phrase “war hero” being attached to his name by Republican spinmeisters a zillion times during the Iran-Contra scandal. There are probably about 100,000 people who are better qualified than Oliver North to be America’s top military analyst. (I am not one of them.)

He admitted lying to Congress in testimony under oath regarding the Iran-Contra Affair. He was convicted of three felonies, but the convictions were overturned on a technicality, namely that his right to a fair trial had been prejudiced by his being forced to testify before Congress prior to the trial.

I especially found all this lying and deception galling when his picture was on the cover of Newsweek magazine accompanied by the words, “Duty Honor Country.” Those words have long been the official motto of the U.S. Military Academy, my alma mater. The motto of North’s alma mater Annapolis is “Ex Scientia Tridens.” (From science, seapower) How Newsweek saw “honor” in his perjury and illegal Iran-Contra activities is beyond me.

Why Fox and other networks have employed an admitted liar like North as a journalist is also beyond me. For other journalists, getting caught in a single lie has been a career-ending offense. Why does lying under oath to Congress while in uniform and on active duty make North a star rather than a disgrace? An article at tries to explain that.

Is expertise POSSIBLE with regard to asymmetrical wars?
Perhaps the most important question is whether it is possible for our military or any military to have expertise in these so-called asymmetrical wars. The Wikipedia article on asymmetric warfare is excellent. Wikipedia also has an excellent article on urban warfare and an excellent article on close-quarters battle.

Is victory ILLEGAL in urban warfare?
Developers correctly say that affordable housing is not impossible, it’s illegal. I wonder if the same can be said about victory in urban warfare against civilians under current international and U.S. laws.

According to the urban warfare article, military forces in urban areas are greatly restricted by international laws against hurting civilians. That article also says that the Israeli Army has developed a number of tactics for fighting in urban areas that sound promising and persuasive to me and that have been, according to the article, successful. They also sound like tactics that the allies in Iraq and Afghanistan have not adopted in spite of thousands of allied casualties there.

The close-quarters-battle article is detailed and interesting, but I did not find it persuasive. It may be the best ideas non-Israelis have been able to come up with, but still inadequate. Just as effort is not a substitute for adequacy, neither is “the best” a substitute for adequacy.

In typical form, the U.S. military has a name for their training on urban warfare: Military Operations on Urban Terrain and the inevitable acronym MOUT. But the fact that they have named it and acronymed it should not be mistaken for mastering it. As I said above, the military is great at talking a good game. Names and acronyms are talking. I would rather they win such battles than name them. So far, they seem only to have mastered the naming part.

Speaking from common sense, not any particular training or experience, urban warfare seems like a very bad idea for the attackers (U.S.) and a relatively good idea for the defenders (Iraqis and al Qaeda) if the attackers abide by international laws prohibiting tactics that might injure civilians. Basically, our soldiers are going around corners and charging into rooms with closed doors without knowing what’s there. I say “charging” because the close-quarters-battle article strongly advocates high-speed entry and many training videos I have seen on TV show U.S. soldiers practicing exactly that.

Obvious counter tactics
It seems obvious that the enemy would look at the details of the tactics used by the U.S. and develop counter tactics that used the U.S. tactics and habits against the U.S. soldiers. If that approach included a squad of men charging full-speed into rooms that they did not know the contents of, the enemy will inevitably lure the Americans to do just that and set a claymore mine or other explosive or incendiary device to go off after a brief delay to allow all the U.S. soldiers to enter the room before it went off.

The close-quarters-battle tactics in that article seem to assume relatively favorable conditions like surprise and lightly-armed enemies or enemies whose weapons are not being held by them at the moment of the assault.

When they do it on TV, the rooms have no furniture. But the rooms I see on TV in Iraqi or Afghani homes do have furniture.

They also never seem to practice against an enemy that is not in the room in question, but that has armored gunports that enable them to shoot into the room from an adjacent room.

I have no idea what basis there is for such assumptions. Take the element of surprise, for example. In the Blackhawk Down incident, which most certainly involved “close quarters battle” in an urban setting, Somali children alerted the target enemy that the American soldiers were coming through the use of cell phones long before the U.S. soldiers arrived at the target building. How are Caucasian, Latino, and African-American U.S. soldiers supposed to achieve the element of surprise in an urban setting in the Middle East?

Urban warfare puts us at a disadvantage
Urban warfare nullifies the advantages of the U.S. military over the Iraqi, al Qaeda, and Taliban enemies. It gives the enemy the advantage because of their civilian shields and accomplices; free and secret movement in, around, and under the buildings; protection of international laws which they themselves do not abide by, and extreme familiarity with the neighborhood versus the total unfamiliarity with the neighborhood on the part of the U.S. forces.

We fought in urban settings during World War II and won. Why? Because we did not have the restrictive rules of engagement that we now have for the purpose of avoiding civilian casualties. See my article on rules of engagement.

Seems to me, again based on common sense, not any training or experience, that our military leaders need to tell their civilian bosses, “We do not know how to fight effectively against the enemy in an urban neighborhood full of innocent civilians where the enemy pretends to be innocent civilians under the current rules of engagement.”

General Petraeus’s ascension
As I write this, Lieutenant General David H. Petraeus has become the head of our military efforts in Iraq. Reportedly, he will be the savior of our efforts there because he did a great job when he was previously in Iraq as commander of the 101st Airborne Division and he was one of the overseers of the writing of the Army’s new manual on counterinsurgency. (See my review of that manual at

First, I wish him and his men well. He graduated from West Point six years after I did. Secondly, I have not read his manual in its entirety, but then I am no expert on counterinsurgency. Of course, the point of this article is that he isn’t either—nor is anyone else.

I understand from media accounts that he is a big advocate of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. OK. I don’t disagree that that would be a good thing, but we were supposedly doing that exact same thing in Vietnam and we lost that war. I suspect the problem is that winning the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of a Third World country is extremely difficult.

Furthermore, I further suspect winning hearts and minds is a job for the Peace Corps or the U.S. Agency for International Development, not the military. For one thing, I do not recall ever seeing a military recruiting ad on TV that urged prospective recruits to join so they could win the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of some foreign country.

Vietnam hearts and minds
My impression of the Vietnamese was that they were xenophobic grade school dropouts whose culture was about as far from U.S. culture as you could get without going to another planet. I expect the only Americans who could win their hearts and minds would be long-term missionaries or career State Department people or Peace Corps volunteers. Of course, to the extent such people were there and succeeded, they would have been assassinated by the enemy.

Iraq and Afghanistan hearts and minds
My impression of the Iraqis and Afghanis, countries I have never visited, is that they are infidel-hating grade school dropouts whose world view is about as far from that of our GIs as you could get without leaving the planet.

Petraeus in Mosul
Petraeus reportedly did a good job of winning hearts and minds when he had the 101st in Mosul, Iraq. That is encouraging for his attempts to apply the same principles to the whole country. But I wonder if he can persuade his subordinate commanders to turn into clones of him and, even if they gave it their best effort, whether they can become him. I wonder if Mosul is representative of the entire country.

It’s certainly worth a try. But in general, I am not aware of any successful, large-scale winning of hearts and minds by any military in any similar war. The idea that the ordinary GI can become a sensitive, nuanced diplomat in a cryptic culture like Iraq or Afghanistan strikes me as preposterous. Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons from World War II seem more accurate to me as depictions of U.S. military personnel than the winning-hearts-and-minds model.

Open minds?
There is also the issue of whether Iraqi or Afghani hearts and minds are open enough to be won by us or anyone other than the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr or Taliban head Mullah Omar. These guys are only interested in power which makes them diametrically opposed to the U.S. no matter how we behave. And their followers have a religious devotion to them to the point where winning their hearts and minds essentially means converting religious fanatics to another religion. That goes beyond winning hearts and minds and more resembles deprogramming of cult followers.

While winning hearts and minds sounds politically correct and “nice,” certainly nicer than killing them, some enemies just have to be killed. What percentage of Iraqis and Afghanis fall into each of the two categories, I do not know. But surely some of the bad guys there have to be killed for us to win. Furthermore, according to media accounts, the Iraqis whose hearts and minds were probably most winnable by us—the most secular Iraqis—reportedly have fled the country or are about to, leaving only the religious nut gangs behind. Is the population even the same now as when Petraeus had success in Mosul in 2003?

Petraeus’s manual is a theory which has been put to only limited testing thus far. As such, I suspect it should be labeled a hypothesis, not a finished, this-is-the-way-that-works Army Field Manual.

I fear that Petraeus is wrong that the military can do this in any circumstances and that even if they could, that the circumstances where it would have worked in Iraq passed a year or two ago as we let the sectarian militias gain strength to the point where they drove the country’s best, most reasonable people into exile in other countries.

Can-do lie
I have seen discussion that the military’s can-do attitude prevents them from admitting that they can’t do in Iraq. I suspect that’s correct.

A can-do attitude is admirable, useful, and desirable in difficult-but-doable situations. But saying that you can do when you can’t is a damned lie and it is getting U.S. servicemen killed unnecessarily. When the stakes are not life and death, “can do” is fine. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stakes are life and death and a can-do attitude can easily turn into mindless suicide when it is misplaced.

The over 4,000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq —soldiers and Marines in the supposed best military in history—at the hands of an enemy that is only slightly better armed than a U.S. street gang—seem to me to be the direct result of a dishonest can-do attitude.

The truth is our military has not yet figured out how to fight urban enemies effectively under the current rules of engagement. Until they do, or until the rules are changed, they need to tell their bosses that this is not a military mission. The military kills enemies on sight with bullets or explosives. That capability really is not usable in urban neighborhoods full of civilians when injury to civilians must be avoided.

It seems to me that only indigenous police who are natives of the neighborhood, or soldiers unrestricted by civilian presence, can deal with the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If so, it is irresponsible for our military leaders to keep sending troops into Iraqi and Afghani urban areas. Our military leaders need to say to their civilian bosses, “Either turn us loose or pull us out.” Then they should resign their commissions if the civilian bosses refuse to select either alternative.

See my article on Petraeus’s success in Iraq—which appears to stem partly from paying protection money to the enemy.

Like Soviet refugees

Here is a fascinating email I got from a friend in response to another article on the military’s propensity to think their good intentions, occasional tiny progress, and talking a good game and looking the part are sufficient. I have redacted his name and company. The company is a large, household-name, publicly-traded corporation. He is talking about career U.S. military personnel who are convinced they are better than civilians, but who have never worked anywhere but the military since they were teenagers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name redacted on my initiative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Owen USMA ’94

Billy Mitchell’s diagnosis

Army Air Corps legend General Billy Mitchell was court martialed for speaking out about the inept top military brass. Here is a quote from a radio address Mitchell made in 1925 (page 212 of Douglas Waller’s book A Question of Loyalty about the court martial of Mitchell).

...we have been accustomed to entrust the national defense to armies and navies and sometimes to regard them more as institutions than as agencies of the people for protecting the country from all enemies, both without and within. So long have these agencies been supreme in their particular field that any change from the ancient and fixed systems of an army on the land and a fleet in the sea [has] been looked on with real alarm and misgiving by these forces. The traditional military mind is notoriously sensitive to any breath of criticism, and any attempt to tear away the veil of its mystery is apt to be greeted by cries of sacrilege.

Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military.

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

John T. Reed Publishing home page - John T. Reed military home page

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  • To be accurately classified as an “expert” on anything, you need to have extensive wisdom and experience in your field of “expertise.” Some might say that our military leaders received “extensive education” at West Point, ROTC, War College, Command & General Staff School, etc. but first-hand experience clearly displays that internalization of the education/concepts taught at these institutions and application to everyday events in the Army leads only to censure and castigation by those higher in your chain-of-command. As the only way to truly succeed in the Armed Services is by kissing the asses of the aforementioned individuals such that they award you with “1” blocks on your OER, all of the educational opportunities I mentioned are merely wastes of officers’ time and taxpayer moneys. So, we can scratch the “wisdom” qualifier I listed above.

    As for experience, the US does not engage in enough wars for anyone to gain sufficient experience at any level of command. Jack brilliantly points out in his posts that today’s General officers most certainly were not engaging in combat in their Lieutenant, Captain, and Colonel years. They may have held bureaucratic, peacetime commands, but saying that commanding a garrison Tank Company is equivalent to leading a Cavalry Troop in all-out combat is the same as saying that watching porn is equivalent to engaging in an orgy. Even more disgusting is the widespread “goal” of anyone IN combat to GET OUT OF COMBAT as soon as the opportunity presents itself, whether through self-inflicted wounds, a loved one staging a suicide attempt, last surviving son/daughter status, illness, insubordination mandating Court-Martial, etc. We can, therefore, scratch quality #2 mentioned above, thus leaving us with NO qualities of “expertise” sustained by our “military experts.” Meaning that anything that comes out of their mouths is verbal diarrhea. And anyone who believes what they say is subscribing to the erroneous, arrogant opinions formed by kiss-asses devoid of any qualities which might have, had they been nurtured from the beginning, allowed these “talking heads” to be properly classified as “experts” upon retirement.

    PS: you and I are paying trillions of dollars of our hard-earned money each year to manufacture individuals of this caliber – and to support them with benefits for the REST OF THEIR LIVES.

    Jeff on

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