How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.

Summary: Our military is the sword of America. As described in the other posts in this series, years of corrosion have taken their toll on the institution at its center — the Pentagon. Amazingly, most Americans remain unaware of this decay. Here’s some eyewitness testimony, and a link to one of the best books describing our dysfunctional Pentagon.

“When I started at the Pentagon, it soon became clear that it was all about courtiership. There was a style combining arrogance to inferiors and posturing to peers with slobbering sycophancy to superiors. Needless to say, I never got the hang of it.”
— A retired Colonel talking about his life in the Pentagon.

The blue pill or the red pill?

One of best known anecdotes about the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) describes the decay of our officer corps. It’s often told as a upbeat story, I hope intended as gallows humor. It’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve heard about our Versailles-on-the-Potomac. This is from Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002).

John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF)

“Tiger, one day you will come to 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 that 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 you will get good assignments.

“Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

Boyd didn’t reveal how many took the red pill. I’ll guess not many did. Perhaps if he’d given this speech to Samurai he’d have gotten more volunteers for glorious lonely defeat.

A few Lone Rangers will never reform the $550 million+, 3.2 million man (civilian and military) Department of Defense. The West’s traditions emphasize collective action, people organizing for pursuit of shared goals as leaders and followers. So how might our military reform?

Top-down reform is possible, from an Administration willing to commit great political capital to reforming it. Reform might come from below, through sustained pressure over years from field-grade officers — or over decades from junior officers. Reform might come by pressure from citizens unhappy at paying so much for so little from DoD. Reform might come by demand from everybody following a defeat with real consequences for America.

Whatever the source, it will be a new day for America when young officers seeking to serve America need not make the stark choice Boyd offered between the red pill and the blue pill.

Stories about life in DoD shows why officers choose the blue pill

Reform button

Read it in full; it gets better as it goes along: “Fat Leonard Sinks the Navy“, at the XX Committee.

To understand life in our military I also recommend reading The Attritionist Letters. It is by USMC officers describing life fighting 4th generation wars in a 2nd generation military. They are insightful and fun reading, modeled on the The Screwtape Letters.

It’s long past time to hit the reform button on our Department of Defense.

Other posts in this series

  1. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  2. Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. — By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  3. Overhauling The Officer Corps. — By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.
  5. William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about America’s military, and our national defense strategy, and especially these about the far horizons of military reform:

  1. Obama can take a bold step to begin reform of the DoD & so end our series of defeats at 4GW.
  2. Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.
  3. A step to getting an effective military. We might it need soon.
The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It
Available at Amazon.

One of the best books about our military

Highly recommended to learn about the mess that this the American defense apparatus: The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It. From the publisher…

The Pentagon Labyrinth aims to help both newcomers and seasoned observers learn how to grapple with the problems of national defense. Intended for readers who are frustrated with the superficial nature of the debate on national security, this handbook takes advantage of the insights of ten unique professionals, each with decades of experience in the armed services, the Pentagon bureaucracy, Congress, the intelligence community, military history, journalism and other disciplines.

“The short but provocative essays will help you to identify the decay moral, mental and physical in America s defenses; understand the various tribes that run bureaucratic life in the Pentagon; appreciate what too many defense journalists are not doing, but should; conduct first rate national security oversight instead of second rate theater; separate careerists from ethical professionals in senior military and civilian ranks; learn to critique strategies, distinguishing the useful from the agenda-driven; recognize the pervasive influence of money in defense decision-making; unravel the budget games the Pentagon and Congress love to play; understand how to sort good weapons from bad and avoid high cost failures, and; reform the failed defense procurement system without changing a single law.

“The handbook ends with lists of contacts, readings and Web sites carefully selected to facilitate further understanding of the above, and more.”



9 thoughts on “How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.”

  1. “reform the $550 million+”

    You surely mean $550 billion+.

    “Reform might come from …”

    You forget one: by a sudden eruption of protest and opposition from grunts, when their conditions are too degraded and their missions too blatantly pointless, i.e. when they resent being used as cannon fodder for the benefit of war profiteers and megalomaniac politicians.

    Not entirely unrealistic: the reform (good or bad is not the issue, it was a reform) of the military after the Vietnam war was in part due to seeing deployed troops drifting towards outright mutiny.

    1. Guest,

      I don’t see unusually high dissatisfaction among the career nco’s (what I assume you mean by “grunts”). The short-service privates and corporals cycle out too fast to matter, one or two terms.

      Dissatisfaction was much higher before 9-11. The combo of a strong economy and dysfunctional military was creating problems, although even then mostly with officers. See the reports in section 3:

      Higher pay from deployments, action, real foes, and the lousy civilian economy boosted morale. Now comes the hangover, with downsizing. Unlikely to produce bottoms-up pressure for change from nco’s. History suggests it takes extreme conditions to produce that.

  2. Given that we aren’t likely to be meaningfully beaten by peasants in the middle east and that our leadership appears prudent enough to only bark and never bite a potentially resourceful foe, what are the odds that we actually do have any sort of meaningful reform in the next decade?

    Orwell’s 1984 slogan, “WAR is PEACE” seems to have become truer than I ever imagined. Either that or our military has somehow reverted to a primitive form of warfare that would be better seen as the efforts of a tribal chief. Use violence and war less as a means of effective policy but instead of ensure domestic tranquility.

    While obviously highly ineffective, it does seem damn resilient to homegrown efforts to kill it.

    1. “Given that we aren’t likely to be meaningfully beaten by peasants in the middle east..”


      1. crocodile,

        “beaten by peasants”

        PF Khan means “beaten” in the sense of “taking a beating” — suffer severe damage. The Iraq gov’t booted us out of Iraq. The Taliban seems likely to re-take power in Afghanistan (or large parts of it). Neither is likely to have any noticeable effect on the US, any more than we suffered actual damage from our far greater defeat in Vietnam (following a massive investment of money and blood).

        Military reform often follows severe defeat. The classic example is the Prussian Army reforming after getting crushed by Napoleon. Hence his conclusion that no military reform seems likely in the US during the foreseeable future.

  3. “Tiger, one day you will come to 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 that way you can be somebody….”

    This is the Narrative of Life. Every man must make a major decision at a fork in the road. And if you live long enough you may get a serious second chance to make the major decision again. Actually life is composed of many micro decisions and this fork appears in micro places. too. You can spend an entire life trying to “be somebody” when actually you already “are”. What do you wish “to do” with your life?
    Military people, yes; but it’s really about Life.


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