The U.S. military hasn’t won a war since 1945
Current U.S. military personnel are very proud. Their leaders’ uniforms are covered with medals. They talk a great game. They have all sorts of “elite” units. But what does it all mean? Not much. They haven’t won a war since 1945.
Some would say they won Desert Storm, the war to evict Iraq from Kuwait. True, we won, but it hardly seems like a war. It lasted 100 hours. The enemy apparently spent most of their time in the war trying to surrender. They surrendered to U.S. troops, members of the media who were wandering in the desert looking for stories because they were not allowed to be with the troops, and they tried to surrender to unmanned U.S. aerial reconnaissance aircraft about the size of model airplanes. They probably tried to surrender to our B-52s and tanks, too, but those weapons kill from farther away than they can see white flags.
The “war” ended like a prize fight that gets stopped because one fighter can no longer defend himself.
One British general, Rupert Smith, who fought in the Gulf War dismissed the Iraqis as a “poor lot.”
The post-Vietnam U.S. military is quite adept at vaporizing any enemy fighters who reveal themselves to us and who are not near civilians. The Iraqi military foolishly did that in Desert Storm and were killed or wounded at a rate of about 1,000 an hour. The Taliban did it briefly at the beginning of the Afghanistan war, until they, too, were vaporized.
Generally, however, our enemies have not exposed themselves to our military since the Korean War. It is the wars against enemies who pretend to be civilians or hide in thick jungle and engage in hit-and-run tactics that we appear not to know how to win. Since that’s about the only kind of wars we are likely to have from now on, we’d better learn how to win them.
Other wars since 1945
In the other wars since 1945, we have had unsatisfactory results including Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Some would say Iraq and Afghanistan are not over yet. Yeah. That’s the problem. Not only does our military have to win our wars, but they have to do it in three years or less. Look at all our wars and you will find that we either did that or the public started getting antsy about the war. For example, the Vietnam war started in August of 1964. The anti-war movement did not get strong until the end of 1967. Before that, the public supported the war wholeheartedly. World War II in Europe ended 3 1/2 half years after it was declared, and as the movie Flags of Our Fathers showed, the public was getting antsy about even that war.
Given that we have reportedly the most powerful, best military in the world, how come we keep failing to win?
One reason is that our military is a government bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are process oriented. That’s as opposed to other groups like entrepreneurs, commissioned salesmen, trial lawyers, and coaches who are results oriented.
Jack Welch is the highly respected former CEO of GE. In his weekly column on the last page of BusinessWeek, he and his latest wife often skewer bureaucracy. In the 12/24/07 column, for example, they said this:
Question from a reader: “How do you take on the bureaucracy that damages so many organizations?”
Damages? How about deadens?
That’s a better word to describe what bureaucracy does; it sucks the life out of a business…Kafkaesque…kick bureaucracy: At every chance, poke fun at anyone who tries to install process for process’s sake; rib people who get all puffy about their positions or titles. What you want is…A business where an idea’s value has nothing to do with the stripes on the shoulder of the person behind it…
I’m doing my best, Jack.
A process-oriented person focuses on the literal instructions they have been given. For example, if you chew out a motor sergeant because 85% of his unit’s vehicles are dead lined, and he is process-oriented, he will likely point out that he filled out and turned in his replacement parts requisitions. He will further point out that it is not his job to fill those requisitions, just to submit them, and that anyone who is not happy about the state of the motor vehicles should complain elsewhere.
Will such a person be punished for taking such a narrow view of his responsibilities? Generally, no, if the organization in question is governmental. Indeed, he is likely to be unaffected or even promoted in spite of his behavior.
Here’s a quote from Michael J. Maubussin’s book More Than You Know about business bureaucrats that applies as well to military officers in the last 50 years:
While well-intentioned and hard-working, corporate executives and money managers too frequently prioritize growing the business over delivering superior results for shareholders. Increasingly, managers get paid to play, not to win.
I disagree with the “well-intentioned” phrase. Military and civilian bureaucrats may have been well-intentioned when they began their careers, but they became cynical sell-outs when they realized how the bureaucracy really worked. These people are not stupid. In fact, in the Army, I was constantly admonished for refusing to “play the game,” that is, refusing to go along to get along.
Here’s a quote from page 49 of Tom Rick’s book The Gamble about the U.S. military in Iraq before the Surge.
[The U.S. military brass] also continued to judge their actions all too often by input, such as the number of patrols conducted, rather than by output, such as the reduction in violence.
The movie Ghost Busters starts with Professors Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler getting fired from their university jobs. In horror, Stantz (Dan Akroyd) says to Venkman (Bill Murray),
I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.
How would a results-oriented person deal with the inability to get parts for a truck situation? Let’s say he’s Joe, owner of Joe’s Plumbing, which has six trucks. If one of his trucks breaks down and needs a part, he will take it to his usual mechanic. His usual mechanic will fix it within a couple of hours. If he ever fails to do so, Joe will raise hell and if that doesn’t get it taken care of pronto, Joe will find another mechanic who will fix such things promptly. “Time is money,” Joe might explain.
Paradoxically, the motor sergeant described above as process-oriented is no doubt quite results-oriented when it comes to getting his own POV (privately-owned vehicle) repaired. Why does he go back and forth from results- to process-oriented? The late CBS newscaster Eric Sevareid once said, “When it’s everybody’s property, people treat it as if it were nobody’s property.” The military trucks are everybody’s property. Joe’s truck, on the other hand, is Joe’s property so Joe will be results-oriented with regard to it. As will the motor sergeant with regard to the vehicle he personally owns.
In other words, the sergeant and everyone else in the military know better. They behave better in their other life as a civilian. But when they put on that uniform and enter the base, they change from the competent civilian Mr. Jekyll to the incompetent, uncaring Sergeant or Lieutenant Colonel Hyde.
See also my article “Career military people think they are conservative. They are liberal.” which relates to the willingness of military personnel to claim good intentions and occasional bits of good news are 100% substitutes for results.
My exposure to both types
I spent four years as a cadet at West Point and four more years as an Army officer. For details, see my military background page.
Being an Army officer gave me exposure to process-oriented military people. West Point is a college so we were focused on studies and sports and such. Those were results orientations and the officers there generally shared that orientation.
I also worked briefly for a big corporation in the banking business, Crocker National Bank, which was process-oriented. It later got taken over by Wells Fargo Bank.
On the other side, I bought my first rental property when I was a second lieutenant in the Army, less than a year after I graduated from West Point. I continued to buy and sell rental properties for 23 years thereafter. That is an entrepreneurial, results-oriented activity.
When I got out of the Army, I became a real estate agent which was a full-commissioned position where I only got paid for results. Virtually everyone else I worked with there was also on full commission.
I spent two years at Harvard Business School getting an MBA. Most Harvard Business School graduates, including myself, are founders and owners of their own businesses. I am in regular contact with my fellow Harvard MBAs.
I have made my living from a number of different businesses including real estate ownership, real estate sales, seminars, writing and publishing newsletter articles, writing and publishing books, freelance writing, creating and selling cassettes. These are all entrepreneurial activities where I get paid nothing unless I succeed and can even lose money if I do not. I did lose $750,000 on two apartment complexes I bought in Texas.
I also worked about a year as a real estate property manager. That was a salaried position, but it was in a small company that was owned by an entrepreneur. Also, we continuously had to fill vacant apartments and commercial space and make the buildings run at a profit so the position was generally results-oriented.
I also coached 35 athletic teams, seven of which were high-school teams where I was paid for my coaching. At the high schools, I was in a result-oriented, no-job-security, coaching position. But my superiors included many non-coach, full-time, school-district administrators who were generally process oriented.
As a writer of how-to books and articles for my fellow entrepreneurs and coaches, I am in daily contact with results-oriented people and make my living teaching them how to get better results.
In short, I have about five years experience with process-oriented workers and about 40 years experience as, and with, results-oriented workers. The typical career officer or NCO who will be outraged by this article spent his entire adult life in the belly of the bureaucratic, process-oriented, military beast. Many, maybe most, take a similar civilian job with the government or a utility when they retire from the military.
Notwithstanding their advanced age, such people are babes in the woods in any discussion of results-oriented people. Ironically, military people generally consider themselves superior to civilians. Ha! Ignorance is bliss.
External validation versus objective criteria
Another way to slice this point is dividing the world into those who need external validation and those who measure themselves by objective criteria. External validation is some person or committee saying you are a good person. We all need external validation when we are young. Going to a selective college like West Point is a way of obtaining that. In high school, my identity was moderately smart, quiet, slightly athletic guy. Replacing that with West Point cadet seemed like a big step up at the time.
I got a little more of that by getting a Harvard MBA, but my reason for that was more the experience and education than the external validation because I was 29 when I started there.
Now, my identity is author of over 80 books and over 5,000 articles; husband in one 41-year marriage; father of Dan, Steve, and Mike; Grandfather of Courtney and Travis; long-time successful entrepreneur. At age 69, the fact that I went to West Point and was an Army officer for four years seems ancient history and anomalous.
Career military people, including those who are the entire management of West Point, are, by definition, people who spend their entire lives seeking external validation. That is, they want committees on promotion boards and such to anoint them with higher rank, especially early promotion to higher rank as well as plum (in an everything-is-relative sense) assignments. They encourage cadets to be like them. Like hell! Instead, you should adopt objective criteria by which you set goals and measure your life. Net worth. Marriage and family goals. Recognition (broad-based objective recognition like reputation or product sales, not recognition by a subjective committee). Contribution. Spiritual rewards from a sense of accomplishment. Making an honest living. Living up to the ideals of West Point—which—ironically—requires getting away from its parent organization after graduation.
You can spot external validation addicts by the way they describe themselves in their resume or bio. If it is a list of appointments they have received from various committees, like military rank or plum positions like battalion commander in an airborne division, they are external validation addicts. Those of us who think you can shove your external validation have different self-descriptions. Ours involve straight-commission jobs and marks like top producer; successful entrepreneurial activities; successful coaching in sports; books and articles written (“Getting published” is external validation. I published almost all my books and articles myself.); marks set in athletic competition; net worth; income; discoveries made; inventions patented; and so forth.
I sometimes get a telling accusation hurled at me. “Who put you in charge of _________?” or “You’re just a self appointed _________.” These are the mating calls of the external-validation addict. When you spend a lifetime seeking external validation of your worth as a person, you lose the ability, if you ever had it, of recognizing that operating independently of the various anointing committees and bosses is possible, even preferable. Those people think you can only exert authority or even autonomy, if you are anointed by higher committees or bosses.
The profoundly disturbing thing to me about the external validation crowd is their cynical willingness to live a sleazy life in order to attain a position or rank that impresses those who are ignorant of the sleaziness that was required to attain the rank or position. In other words, they much prefer being anointed as a good person by some external committee—even when they have to be a bad person to win the committee’s approval—than to be an actual good person, but not get their good “personness” validated by an incompetent or dishonest external committee. The Army claims the motto “Be. Know. Do.” I wrote a very critical review of an article with that title by a West Point graduate. (http://www.johntreed.com/beknowdo.html) In fact, they have zero interest in any of that. They are only interested in, “Seeming to be, know, and do.”
‘Somebody would have to make a decision’
At Harvard Business School, all the the instruction is case method. The cases are actual, recent cases from real businesses. The Harvard MBA student is always put in the position of a decision maker and the professor always listens to the student lay out the various options and considerations for the particular case then the professor ends by asking, “So what’re you going to do?”
When asked what Harvard Business School was like, one of my classmates there gave a summary of a case he had had that day in class to some grad students from “across the river.” At Harvard, the Business School is on the Boston side of the Charles River and the other schools are on the Cambridge side. The Cambridge side is Communist, essentially. The Commies were quite good at pointing out the options and considerations of the business school case. But when my classmates asked, “So what’re you gonna do?” They were stunned and looked at each other blankly before one finally said, “Well, somebody would have to make a decision on that.” My classmate said exactly what the professor at Harvard Business would. “Yeah, you! What’s your decision?”
The mind set of the Commies on the Cambridge side of the river was that they were peons and that some higher authority—external validation—ran the world and delegated authority without which one did not have authority. The mind set of the Harvard MBAs, after the first few weeks of being there, was that we were in charge. Most Harvard MBAs are founders and CEOs of their own companies. The irony of West Point is that it turns out external-validation addicts who spend their lives going hat in hand to beg committees to anoint them while claiming to be a leadership academy.
Time and materials
One of the first things I learned when I went into real estate investment is that you never agree to “time and materials” contracts with a contractor. Always get a fixed bid. Time and materials means the contractor just does the work and bills you for how much time it takes and for the materials he has to buy. The problem with agreeing to this is contractors, being human, then take forever and the job costs far more than normal.
Our first Commander in Chief, George Washington, magnanimously told the Continental Congress that he would work without a salary. He asked the Congress to just reimburse his out-of-pocket expenses. They agreed. He then submitted expense vouchers that stunned the Congress. When he became president, he again offered to work without salary. Having been burned once by that arrangement, Congress said words to the effect of “Hell no!” paid him a salary, and and made him pay his own darned personal expenses. Washington was the richest man in America at the time.
However, the U.S. military as a whole has always been on time and materials and when you take away “for the duration,” the U.S. military is far worse than any contractor about taking forever. “For the duration of the war” was the amount of time U.S. military draftees were to be in the military during the Civil War and World Wars I and II. That gives them a sense of urgency about winning it that the lifers do not have.
In March of 2008, I heard former CentCom commander John Abizaid speak. He spoke with pride and satisfaction of the languid progress that has been made in Iraq. In fact, the American people are unhappy about the cost of the Iraq war in lives and money and with how long it is taking—far longer than the U.S. Civil War or World Wars I or II.
That’s because the U.S. military is a bunch of process-oriented bureaucrats working on time and materials. Adopt a draft and tell the military it will go “over there” and “won’t come back til it’s over over there” and they damned well will wrap it up in a couple of years.
Still be in Vietnam
French prime minister Georges Clemenceau famously said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” I agree, but maybe for a different reason.
Most generals are process-oriented bureaucrats. That is to be expected given that they have spent their entire adult lives working for the government more than thirty years.
If the Vietnam war had been left to the career generals, we would still be there. The number of dead would be 450,000 instead of 58,000, and the situation there would be the same as it was in 1970 when I was there.
What is the evidence of that? There was essentially no net progress in the first twelve years and the two four-star generals in charge Westmoreland and Abrams were both promoted to Chief of Staff, the top officer in the U.S. Armyas their next assignment!
They were members of a process-oriented organization and they complied with process requirements. End of evaluation.
Victory or defeat was literally irrelevant to the U.S. military leaders during Vietnam. Civilian leaders got fired for losing that war. No military leader did.
Some results-oriented generals
Are all career generals process-oriented? No. Here are some U.S. generals who famously were results-oriented:
• Ulysses S. Grant (West Point Class of 1843)
• George H. Thomas (Subject of an article in the 3/07 Smithsonian magazine, West Point Class of 1840)
• Robert E. Lee (West Point Class of 1829)
• Stonewall Jackson (West Point Class of 1846)
• George S. Patton (West Point Class of 1909)
• Matthew B. Ridgeway (West Point Class of 1917)
Why were these guys not bureaucratized? Grant got out of the Army after West Point then came back in for the Civil War. He was in business in between stints in the Army.
The other generals apparently had such a strong results orientation that even spending a career in the Army did not eliminate it.
It should also be noted that the Union Civil War Commander in Chief, Abraham Lincoln, himself briefly a lower level military commander, but never a bureaucrat, was quick to fire generals who did not get results. Initially, he had a lot of those.
Lincoln had long been a trial lawyer, one of the professions I noted above that produces results-oriented people. Robert E. Lee played the same role in the Confederate Army which had effective generals throughout the war.
George Patton was chosen by Dwight Eisenhower (West Point ’15) because of his results-orientation. Patton’s immediate commander Omar Bradley (West Point ’15) did not want Patton.
Matthew Ridgeway got to be top commander in Korea because of the combat-zone, vehicle-accident death of Walton Walker. Walker reportedly needed to be replaced for lack of effectiveness, but may not have been had he not been killed. Prior to that point in the Korean War, Walker had apparently been an effective, results-oriented commander. He was one of Patton’s top commanders in World War II and operated, by definition, like Patton. Patton would have fired him otherwise.
Retired Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak (Annapolis Class of 1934) died 12/29/08. In his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, retired Colonel G.I. Wilson said of Krulak,
Brute was very forgiving of young Marines who made mistakes, but he was hell on senior officers who preferred careerism and bureaucracy over decisive action. He detested those who lost sight of looking after their enlisted Marines and young officers.
I do not know if this statement is true. I hope it is. A lot of nonsense appears in obituaries. I would wonder how such a guy could make it to lieutenant general. You have be a careerist bureaucrat to get to that level. Maybe the fact that World War II was a real war where one actually had to win battles. But the statement at least acknowledges that there is a lot of careerism and bureaucracy in the military which is my main point.
My review of the 2008 book The Gamble which is about The Surge and related tactics in Iraq in 2006-to 2008 lists a number of officers and civilians who showed moral courage and results orientation with regard to the Iraq war.
How do we get results-oriented generals?
Fire the ones who aren’t. Promote results-oriented generals. Demote or fire those who do not get results.
At present, there appears to be a civil-service mentality in the U.S. military. President Ronald Reagan’s Budget Director David Stockman was so incensed by the military’s single-minded devotion to preserving every penny of retirement benefits, even at the expense of the national defense, that he took the unusual step of denouncing them publicly for it. They still have them. He’s out of government.
Bureaucrats can become quite results oriented when the issue pertains to something they personally own, like retirement benefits.
20-year retirement is bad policy
At present, military personnel can retire with inflation-adjusted half pay and unlimited, $450 a year co-pay, free spouse and dependents medical care for the rest of their lives at the twenty-year point. If they retire a day before the twenty-year point, they get nothing.
The idea is that military people have risked their lives and lived away from loved ones and in miserable conditions for years so they need to be rewarded for that. Fine. But military personnel who were in for three years or seven or twelve or 18 have done the same thing. Actually, they typically spend a far higher percentage of their military time in harm’s way than career people. The notion that 19 years 11 months is nothing and 20 years is to be lavishly rewarded is obvious nonsense.
Unfortunately, it’s been the rule for so long career military people think it’s in the Constitution.
Virtually no NCO or officer will ever resign or even risk his retirement benefits once he passes about the 12-year point in his career. Why not? At that point, the present value of the 20-year retirement benefits is quite high.
But this means that just when they are moving into responsible positions like battalion commander and master sergeant or sergeant major, they become infinitely more timid about saying or doing anything that might prevent them from being promoted. Each promotion permanently increases the amount of that person’s retirement pay.
Actually, when I was in they played games like spending months trying to persuade military medical authorities that they had some physical disability to increase their retirement pay for that reason as well. These games are well known in civilian government and union employment as well.
They also become extremely timid about anything that might cause them to be forced out of the military before they are eligible for retirement benefits.
The problem is incentives matter. The compensation scheme of any organization attracts and repels various kinds of people and motivates those who stay to behave in certain ways.
The military retirement benefits, which are the most generous I know of, attract people who are willing to endure military hardships and chicken manure for twenty years in order to get those retirement benefits. These are not the reasons the above-named results-oriented generals joined or remained in the military. Gold watch seekers are not likely to be the hard-charging commanders America needs. War is risky. It requires risk-takers as leaders. By emphasizing pension benefits to attract war leaders, we attract the opposite of risk takers.
At the beginning of this article, I noted four occupations whose members are generally results-oriented. How are they compensated?
• entrepreneurs—profits, if any, commensurate with business profits or losses
• trial lawyers—profits, if any, commensurate with achieving successful settlements or verdicts
• coaches—promotions, compensation, and job retention commensurate with winning percentage
• salesmen—commissions from successful sales
Also, each of these occupations has a high failure and high wash-out rate. The wash-out rate in the federal bureaucracy, including the military, is almost zero absent the occasional RIF (reduction in force for budget reasons). And then they often wash out the rompin’ stompin’ movers and shakers instead of the deadwood because their superiors feel threatened by the best subordinates.
‘...to win our wars’
And through all this welter of change and development your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable. It is to win our wars.
Who is more likely to win our wars? Commanders who have spent a lifetime in situations where they were promptly and severely punished for failure and richly rewarded for success? Or commanders who have spent their lives in an organization where “keeping your nose clean,” avoiding angering any of your superiors, “getting your ticket punched,” and trudging through the military’s red tape and chicken manure for decades were all that mattered?
Paid for breathing
When I was an Army officer, I was bemused by the fact that I was paid for keeping my heart beating. Another government employee, President and military Commander in Chief John F. Kennedy, had the same deal. And after he was assassinated at 2PM on November 22, 1963, the media reported that his widow received a paycheck for 21/30 of a month’s pay plus 14/24 of a day’s pay. That’s 21 days pay for the first 21 days of a 30-day month plus 14 hours of a 24-hour day for the 22nd of the month.
The same rules apply to active duty military personnel as far as I know. Presidents sort of are active-duty military personnel.
Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “time is money,” doesn’t it?
When you pay people for breathing, they breathe.
When you pay people for winning, they win.
When you send people to Vietnam for a one-year tour, which was the standard policy during that war, they do a year. We lost that war.
When you send men to war “for the duration,” that is, until the war is won, as was done in both World Wars, they win.
Incentives matter. See my article on the leadership and results orientation evident in the TV series Deadliest Catch.
Winning wars is important. In fact, it is crucial. We must get rid of the process-orientated military personnel and replace them with results-oriented personnel. To do that, the incentives must become results oriented.
In the U.S. Army, the hots shots are airborne rangers, of which I am one. When was the airborne ranger invented? Around 1943. I became one in 1968. So you can see what a leading-edge, state-of-the-art, “rolling stones who gather no moss” bunch Army officers are.
In medicine, the hottest hot shots are the surgeons. In business, which, for better or worse, attracts many of the best young people nowadays, the hot shots are in “private equity.” Mitt Romney founded and headed one of the first private equity firms: Bain Capital. Those are companies that invest in companies that are not, or not yet, publicly traded on the stock market. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes what private equity guys do:
Investments typically involve a transformational, value-added, active management strategy. Private equity firms generally receive a return on their investments through one of three ways: an Initial Public Offering [converting a private company to one whose stock is sold to the public], a sale or merger of the company they control, or a recapitalization [significantly increasing the amount of capital—debt and equity—of a company].
On the spectrum of management that has rompin’ stompin’ movers and shakers at one end and hidebound bureaucrats at the other, private equity guys are at the mover-and-shaker end and military officers are at the other end. Private equity guys may be the ultimate results-oriented guys and uniformed military bureaucrats the ultimate process-oriented guys.
‘Relentless focus on results’
My Harvard classmate Orit Gadiesh is the head (actually, “the chair”) of Bain & Co., Mitt Romney’s employer before he became governor of Massachusetts. She is most famous for once commenting, to dismiss another person’s comment that average people should be considered in some discussion, “The average person has one tit and one ball.”
She and a Bain partner have recently produced a book titled Lessons from Private Equity Any Company Can Use. If there is anyone in the U.S. military or in the civilian control of the military, who cares about the effectiveness of military leaders, they ought to read it. According to a review in the 3/08 HBS Alumni Bulletin magazine, the book says that one of the differences between private equity managers and ordinary public companies is that both use strategic due diligence, blueprints for action, and tying compensation to performance—but that private equity managers do it with far more consistency, rigor, and thoroughness and a relentless focus on results.
Don’t you love that phrase? “relentless focus on results”
Can I think of any career military officer born after about 1925 who had a relentless focus on results? No. Sorry.
Can I think of any civilian leader who has a relentless focus on results? Sure. Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, C.C. Myers, Henry Kaiser, Andrew Higgins, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Belichick, Walt Disney, Bill Walsh, Sam Walton, John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Ronald Reagan, Peter Uberroth, Burt Rutan, Craig Venter
I could go on, but you get the point. How many of these great leaders with a relentless focus on results were former military generals? Zero. How many are graduates of my “leaders-of-character”-producing alma mater, West Point? Zero—although Bobby Knight was our basketball coach when I was a cadet.
Gadiesh’s book also says leaders of organizations need to ask,
Which handful of key initiatives, either undertaken from scratch or reinvigorated, will have enormous impact three to five years down the road?
How many guys in the current U.S. military or its civilian leadership—who actually have the power to make such initiatives happen—are asking such questions? I’ll bet zero. Also, no one has the power to do anything in the U.S. military anyway. It’s a bureaucracy which means all power to do anything rises to the top, that is, the President and the Congress. Generals and admirals rarely initiate anything. Rather, they are initiated upon by the civilians above them and those civilians are vote-oriented if not process-oriented. Basically, no one’s in charge in the military. So the entire military is process, not results, oriented.
Ahead of the Curve comment
Here are some comments from the 2008 book Ahead of the Curve. That book was written by a member of the Harvard MBA Class of 2006 about being a student there.
[Carlyle Group founder David] Rubenstein looked like any other Wall Street elder statesman, in a blue pinstriped suit and owlish tortoiseshell glasses. But the moment he spoke, he revealed a droll, self-deprecating wit. The difference between corporate leaders and those who start their own businesses, I had observed, was startling. The latter come across as so much smarter and independent-minded, so much less prone to platitudes, so much more comfortable in their own skins. There seems to be an anarchic streak in anyone who has taken a real risk in his life. And even when it has to burn its way through a pinstriped suit, it shows.
The entrepreneurs who came to campus...seemed to be both enamored of their own skills and hard work and appreciative of the luck it had taken for them to succeed. Despite being dogged Darwinian types, they were more understanding of the world and its insanity, somehow more forgiving. They reminded me more of generals who had experienced war, while all the corporate stiffs and consultants and lawyers and bankers were like the politicians who sent men into battle, with no grasp of the consequences.
With regard to the “generals who had experienced war,” they are rather rare. Those generals need to have experienced war as a lieutenant or captain because those are the ranks that go into battle. Few of today’s generals in the U.S. military experienced war as lieutenants and captains because there simply were no wars at that time—25 or 30 years ago. Politicians are not the only “chickenhawks” in the U.S. military chain of command.
Promote based on success
If I were king of the country, I would promote successful commanders in combat, and demote unsuccessful ones. When there were no wars, I would keep tabs on those who were successful civilian entrepreneurs and keep on the lookout for other successful results-oriented people. If and when another war came about, I would draft or activate the successful results-oriented civilians.
What about the career NCOs and officers? I would have them get out of the military and go do something where they maintain their results-orientation and edge in the civilian world rather than that they sit around filling out forms in quintuplicate waiting for the next war or retirement, whichever came first.
Don’t they need to maintain their military knowledge and skills between wars? That could be done with a yearly continuing-education program and/or a quick refresher during mobilization.
We would probably need some size force continuously for quick response. That force should engage in continuous realistic war games in which success and failure in the games determined who got promoted and who got demoted.
Civilians probably think the military is already doing that. Maybe. But I doubt it. They sure as heck were not when I was in.
I am not addressing compensation and post-active-duty benefits in this article except to say that they should be designed to:
• care appropriately for the wounded and the families of those killed in the line of duty
• compensate time on active duty fairly and well enough to attract the quality personnel we need
• avoid rewarding or even retaining military leaders, namely NCOs and officers, merely for hanging around regardless of effectiveness
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 18...so the tragedy is that "they don't know that they don't know", like a catholic priest giving marital advice.
At [redacted company name], I worked alongside a few smart qualified Russian immigrant professionals who had grown-up in the Soviet system, and then emigrated here. They were good, smart, and tough workers, but occasionally they would say and do strange things, and come to absolutely bizarre conclusions about how to respond to a given interpersonal or organizational situation.
Everybody commented on it. They never made it to management. It was because their formative adult experiences were the "alternative reality" of the Soviet Union, and they could never get past their early imprinting...like ducklings.
And here is the kicker: I noticed the EXACT SAME PHENOMENON 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 miniature 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 good....so 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-coffee 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 life.....like 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
Email from a young (I assume) reader—and my answer
Dear John T Reed,
I recently read your military articles, in which you explored the difference in culture between the private and public sector. My questions are the following:
1. What are the advantages of the private sector career-wise compared to the public sector.
2. What is the best way to decide whether to enter the private or public sector in terms of a career?
I would greatly appreciate any thoughts or advice.
I am stunned by the profound ignorance in the questions.
You assume there are advantages to each—probably because you use bureaucratic spin and terminology in the way you phrase the questions—“private sector and public sector.” Gee. They’re both “sectors.” They even both start with the letter “p” and have two syllables. How different can they be?
The question falls on my ears like, “What are the advantages of having versus not having cancer?” Well, one advantage of having cancer is you don’t have to make long-term plans. Of course, an advantage of not having cancer is that you can make such plans. If you have cancer, you can get others to feel sorry for you. Cancer may get you access to some painkillers with recreational benefits like “medicinal” marijuana. (I put medicinal in quotes because there is no such thing as a medicine that is delivered by smoking. Smoke of various types generally delivers about 250 chemicals to the lungs—almost all of them damaging.)
But seriously, folks.
“Public sector” is a euphemism. The correct word is “bureaucracy.”
If you research the words “bureaucracy” and “bureaucrat” in the largest dictionaries, you will always find at least one or two definitions that are disparaging.
The “private sector” is more accurately and neutrally known as business. Even the biggest dictionaries do not offer negative definitions of the word “business,” although some leftist political dictionaries might.
Are there some bad business people? Yes. But most are good. You see them every day all around you.
Are there any good bureaucracies? No. Zero.
How can that be? Human nature and economic laws. Incentives matter.
If UPS gives better value for their shipping charges than FedEx, they will prosper and FedEx allows that to continue at their peril. Those incentives filter down through the organizations to the lowest employees. They must be efficient and all the other things customers want. Go to a FedEx office and do some business and you will see.
In bureaucracy, rank and tenure matter. So bureaucrats seek rank and tenure, period. Now go to your local Department of Motor Vehicles and do some business with them. Roughly speaking, the DMV is what all government or non-profit organizations are like. Again, I say “roughly.”
When you’re in FedEx and the DMV, notice not only the service you get, but also the dress, posture, demeanor, and attitude of the employees. You will see that the DMV people are sort of downtrodden, frumpy, sullen, numb to the inefficiency all around them, and unhappy. The FedEx people will be normal.
The best way to pick between them is to work for a combination of such organizations, although I warn you that after bureaucratic employment, business will be less interested in you.
If you find that you prefer bureaucracy, choose that career path—and shame on you.
John T. Reed
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