Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD

Secretary of Defense Gates has received praise from some worthy analysts. It would be deserved, if speeches alone could reform DoD.  It would be heroic, if we had any signs that Gates was even trying.

The Zenpundit (25 April 2008):

On a related matter I’m very, very happy with Robert Gates. I think he just gave a ‘shape up or ship out’ warning to the senior brass. What he said the other day to the cadets regarding John Boyd was akin to a Soviet General-Secretary giving a speech to the Supreme Soviet on the virtues of Milton Friedman. Or Pope Benedict praising Martin Luther.

Fred Kaplan: “Gates Celebrates Dissent“, Slate (23 April 2008) — Opening:

Whoever the next president is, his or her secretary of defense should spend a few hours poring over the speeches of Robert M. Gates. Since he took over the Pentagon nearly a year and a half ago, Gates has delivered a series of trenchant critiques of his department’s policies and practices. This past Monday alone, he gave two speeches-at the Air War College and at West Point-that urged tomorrow’s Air Force and Army officers to overhaul the foundations of their bureaucratic cultures.

Charlie, “If you flatter him, you betray him“, posted at Abu Muqawama (22 April 2008):

After pistol whipping the Air Force (and assorted other services), he spoke to the Cadets at West Point yesterday and offered a inspired call for dissent, wrapped in some brilliant bedtime stories from the life of George C. Marshall and a recognition of the complexities of modern warfare.

… Charlie has two reactions:

  1. Can we please keep Gates on through the next administration? No, seriously. Please?
  2. Put your money where your mouth is, Bob. No, seriously. Please. Make the Army safe for the next Yingling.

The last point is the key, imo. How wonderful it would be if speeches could cure the problems at our famously reform-proof Department of Defense! How odd that near the end of this Administration we get speeches. Just speeches.

Gates invoking the spirit of the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) seems bizarre to me. In a speech at the Air War College (Maxwell, AL) on 21 April the Secretary said the following.

Let me illustrate using a historical exemplar: the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd. As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10. After retiring, he would develop the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps Commandant and a Secretary of Defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War. Boyd’s contributions will resonate today. Many of you have studied the concept he developed called the OODA loop- and I understand there is an “OODA Loop” street here at Maxwell near the B-52.

In accomplishing all these things, Boyd – a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character – had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote:

“one day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself .

.. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself … To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”

Secretary Gates invites these officers to burn their career away fighting senior officials — like himself. Kaplan notes the contradiction.

But speeches are one thing. It’s not at all clear that today’s senior officers are listening. They know that, in nine months, Gates will be gone, and they’ll still be in power. The trick, they’ve learned over the years, is to hang tight till the storm passes.

… Gates didn’t mention Yingling by name in his speeches on Monday, but he certainly had him in mind when he said at West Point,

“I have been impressed by the way the Army’s professional journals allow some of our brightest and most innovative officers to critique — sometimes bluntly — the way the service does business, to include judgments about senior leadership. … I encourage you to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it. And, agree with the articles or not, senior officers should embrace such dissent as a healthy dialogue and protect and advance those considerably more junior who are taking on that mantle.”

So, what has happened to Yingling in the past year? What lessons can the West Point cadets derive about their own future prospects should they choose to follow in Yingling’s footsteps?

Every Army officer I’ve ever spoken with — junior and senior — read Yingling’s article. But, to say the least, the senior officers did not “embrace” it as “healthy dialogue.” Nobody stepped up to “protect and advance” him for his boldness. Quite the contrary. Soon after the article was published, Yingling was put in command of the 1-21 Field Artillery battalion, but that move had been scheduled months before. The real story lay in what happened next. His battalion was assigned not, say, to fighting insurgents but rather to prison-guard detail. Yingling himself has just been redeployed to Iraq, where he will assist in rehabilitating Iraqi detainees. This could be an interesting, potentially important job, but it’s hardly in the center of things, and it’s the very opposite of a career enhancer.

Not too inspiring. It would have been inspiring if Gates dedicated himself to using his remaining months in office to insure that future Boyd’s are respected and supported by the US military. In life, not just posthumously. A follow-up announcement of the promotion of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling would have suggested that he was serious.

Of course, this would have been a declaration of war against some of the most powerful forces in America. Al Qaeda might be broken, but the institutional resistance to reform in DoD — uniformed, civilian, and the vast array of defense contractors — remain triumphant.

Let us hope than many listened to the Secretary’s closing words and work to reform their services despite the opposition of senior Defense officials — even those that make pretty speeches.

As you graduate from your respective courses and leave Maxwell, you too will eventually face Boyd’s proverbial “fork in the road.” You will have to choose: to be someone or to do something. For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services, and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism and to make decisions that will carry you closer toward – rather than further from – the officer you want to be and the thinker who advances air-power strategy in meeting the complex challenges to our national security.


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For more information from the FM site

  1. I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008
  2. An Army near the Breaking Point – an archive of links

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