Summary: We pour much of our national income into the military, yet it can’t win wars. Here William Lind looks at one reason why. We should listen to him. We might need our military someday.
No tears for losing at DoD.
By William S. Lind.
From Traditional Right • 9 December 2017.
Posted with his generous permission.
One of the more curious aspects of the current U.S. military is its institutionalization of failure. We have lost four Fourth Generation conflicts: Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq (which is still very far from being a real state), and Afghanistan, where we are fighting but not winning. In response, we keep doing more of the same, more perfecting of our ability to put firepower on targets. If war could be reduced to that, we would be the greatest, military on earth. But it can’t.
The custodians of failure are our generals and admirals. The problem is not what they do but what they do not do. They preside blandly over the status quo, terribly busy all the time but changing nothing. They have half an OODA Loop. They observe and orient – then observe again. They make no decisions and take no actions, beyond those necessary to continue business as usual. Their time is spent receiving contentless briefings and going to meetings where nothing is decided. As one Marine three-star said to me, “If anyone tells you it’s fun being a general officer, it’s not.”
Editor’s note: Lawrence Sellin (Lt. Colonel, US Army Reserve) wrote a powerful account about the Army’s dysfunctional culture in “ISAF Joint Command – Power Points ‘R’ Us.” I can’t find it online; here is an article about it. He was relieved of duty and shipped back to the US. Here is his follow-up article.
How did we end up with this equivalent of the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years? As with so many of our military problems, it comes back to our personnel system, specifically to the kind of people we promote.
Years ago, one of my students, an Air Force officer, discovered something interesting while researching his dissertation. He found that the Air Force academy made all its cadets take the Meyer-Briggs Personality Inventory, and, much later in their careers, the National War College did the same. He looked at the ISTJs, who are the bureaucrats: data-oriented, risk averse, people who never color outside the lines. At the Air Force Academy, they were one personality type among many. By the War College, they were completely dominant. Why? Because one of their characteristics is that they only promote other ISTJs.
Ed’s note: ISTJ means Introversion, Sensing, Thinking, Judgment (Wikipedia). They are “life’s natural organizers.” It is one of sixteen personality types in the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). See the descriptions. ESTJs are “life’s natural administrators”, ENTJ are “life’s natural leaders”, and INTJ are “life’s independent thinkers.” The MBTI assessment was developed from psychiatrist Carl G. Jung’s book Psychological Types (1921).
The result is evident in our general officers’ OO Loop. ISTJs avoid making decisions and taking responsibility. By promoting only other ISTJs they ensure our armed services cannot reform themselves. All they can give us is more of the same, i.e., more of what has not worked.
Ed’s note: OO are the first two parts of the Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop developed by John Boyd (Colonel, USAF, dec.). See his presentation introducing the concept, “Patterns of Conflict,” and the Wikipedia entry.
The hard question is what to do about it. Giving promotion boards instructions to promote non-ISTJs will do nothing. They will nod, say “Thank you very much” and go on promoting other ISTJs. They cannot do anything else. To them, the whole creative side of war is “bullshit” and officers who are imaginative and take initiatives are threats to the culture of order ISTJs prize above all else.
Reform must come from outside. I do not have all the answers for fixing this problem, but I do see a couple starting points. First, we need Joe Stalin’s “urge to purge”. We have far more general officers than we need. Cut their number to about 10% of their current strength and use the opportunity to get rid of lots of ISTJs. We might have to use the Meyer-Briggs test to identify them, although it is a very imperfect instrument (and ISTJs will try to game the test).
Ed. note: that’s an essential part of any reform. For more about why this is needed, see reports by POGO and Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired): The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.
In the longer term, we need to make the ability to think, decide, and act militarily central to promotion (at present it counts for nothing). The best way to do that, at least for combat units, was suggested years ago by Chris Bassford in his book The Spit-Shine Syndrome: Organizational Irrationality in the American Field Army. Every year, every unit goes up against a unit of similar strength in a free play exercise. The winner gets, say, 50 promotions to divide up within itself, the loser gets five. This would reward the characteristics we need in field-grade and, later, general officers: an eagerness to decide and act, what the old German army called Verantwortungsfreudigkeit, “joy in taking responsibility”. It was the characteristic it looked for in officer promotions.
Ed. note: the Prussian, and later German, army promoted officers on the basis of knowledge and ability — as does the US military – plus requiring a strong will, a forceful character, and a joy in taking responsibility.
These reforms would not be enough in themselves. Our armed services need to look deep within and identify other ways to promote warfighters instead of bureaucrats. Of course, they will not do so under their present leadership. To them, all this is a threat, not a promise. Nor can I see a force for serious military reform either in the current Administration or in Congress.
So we will probably continue on with half an OODA Loop until the whole system collapses. That is coming, and it may be closer than our ISTJ generals and admirals think.
Discussions about military reform tend to be of two types (I am exaggerating for emphasis). First, a laundry list of recommendations to be implemented with I am King, or by a Winged Savior (i.e., given without recommendations to make them happen). Second, change the personnel system – especially training and promotion (e.g., see Don Vandergriff’s works below) – a very slow, effective, but difficult to implement process.
Lind gives us a third perspective on the problem. His description of the problem explains most of the symptoms (e.g., by the officers in the posts listed below, by the junior Marine officers who wrote The Attritionist Letters). And he gives a relatively simple methodology to break the military free from behaviors that most of its people hate. While not a magic bullet (psychological tests are in their infancy), this might improve conditions so that other reforms become possible. The result might be positive feedback cycles of reform.
About the author
William S. Lind’s director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. He has a Master’s Degree in History from Princeton University in 1971. He worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 to 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 to 1986. See his bio at Wikipedia
Mr. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook (1985), co-author with Gary Hart of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (1986), and co-author with William H. Marshner of Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda (1987).
He’s perhaps best known for his articles about the long war, now published as On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009. See his other articles about a broad range of subjects…
- Posts at TraditionalRight.
- His articles about geopolitics at The American Conservative.
- His articles about transportation at The American Conservative.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders.
- Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership — by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? — by Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
- Why the Pentagon would rather hire a jihadist like bin Laden than reformer Donald Vandergriff.
- How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
- Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. — by Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
- Overhauling The Officer Corps. — by David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
- William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.
- How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad? — by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
- Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.
- Officers can reform our military and make America stronger! – Only the will to do so is lacking.
- Admiral Rickover’s gift to us: showing that we can reform America’s military.
- A Captain describes our broken military & how to fix it.
- We can win our wars. One of our warriors explains how.
Two of the best books about the challenges of reforming our army
See these books by Donald Vandergriff, one of the leading military reformers of our time. Also see posts about his work.