The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps. Defeat in Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers, men such as Col. John Boyd USAF, Col. Mike Wyly USMC, and Col. Huba Wass de Czege USA, each of whom led a major effort to reorient his service. Today, the landscape is barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change. Just more money, please.
Such a moral and intellectual collapse of the officer corps is one of the worst disasters that can afflict a military because it means it cannot adapt to new realities. It is on its way to history’s wastebasket. The situation brings to mind an anecdote an Air Force friend, now a military historian, liked to tell some years ago. Every military, he said, occasionally craps in its own mess kit. The Prussians did it in 1806, after which they designed and put into service a much improved new model messkit, through the Scharnhorst military reforms. The French did it in 1870, after which they took down from the shelf an old-model messkit—the mass, draft army of the First Republic—and put it back in service. The Japanese did it in 1945, after which they threw their mess kit away, swearing they would never eat again. And we did it in Korea, in Vietnam, and now in four new wars. So far, we’ve had the only military that’s just kept on eating.
Why? The reasons fall in two categories, substantive and structural. Substantively, at the moral level—Colonel Boyd’s highest and most powerful level—our officers live in a bubble. Even junior officers inhabit a world where they hear only endless, hyperbolic praise of “the world’s greatest military ever.” They feed this swill to each other and expect it from everyone else. If they don’t get it, they become angry. Senior officers’ bubbles, created by vast, sycophantic staffs, rival Xerxes’s court. Woe betide the ignorant courtier who tells the god-king something he doesn’t want to hear. (I know—I’ve done it, often.)
At Boyd’s next level, the mental, our officers are not professionals. They are merely craftsman. They have learned what they do on a monkey-see, monkey-do basis and know no more. What defines a professional—historically there were only three professions, law, medicine, and theology—is that he has read, studied, and knows the literature of his field. The vast majority of our officers read no serious military history or theory. A friend who teaches at a Marine Corps school told me the most he can now get majors to read is two pages. Another friend, teaching at an Army school, says, “We are back to drawing on the cave wall.”
As culpable as our officers are for these failings, they are not the whole story. Officers are also victims of three structural failures, each of which is enough to lay an armed service low.
The first, and possibly the worst, is an officer corps vastly too large for its organization—now augmented by an ant-army of contractors, most of whom are retired officers. A German Panzer division in World War II had about 21 officers in its headquarters. Our division headquarters are cities. Every briefing—and there are many, the American military loves briefings because they convey the illusion of content without offering any—is attended by rank-upon-rank of horse-holders and flower-strewers, all officers.
The pathologies that flow from this are endless. Command tours are too short to accomplish anything, usually about 18 months, because behind each commander is a long line of fellow officers eagerly awaiting their lick at the ice-cream cone. Decisions are pulled up the chain because the chain is laden with surplus officers looking for something to do. Decisions are committee-consensus, lowest common denominator, which Boyd warned is usually the worst of all possible alternatives. Nothing can be changed or reformed because of the vast number of players defending their “rice bowls.” The only measurable product is entropy.
The second and third structural failings are related because both work to undermine moral courage and character, which the Prussian army defined as “eagerness to make decisions and take responsibility.” They are the “up or out” promotion system and “all or nothing” vesting for retirement at 20 years. “Up or out” means an officer must constantly curry favor for promotion because if he is not steadily promoted he must leave the service. “All or nothing” says that if “up or out” pushes him out before he has served 20 years, he leaves with no pension. (Most American officers are married with children.)
It is not difficult to see how these two structural failings in the officer corps morally emasculate our officers and all too often turn them, as they rise in rank and near the magic 20 years, into ass-kissing conformists. Virtually no other military in the world has these policies, for obvious reasons.
Of these two types of failings, the structural are probably the most damaging. They are also the easiest to repair. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, the president, and Congress could quickly fix all of them. Why don’t they? Because they only look at the defense budget, and these are not directly budgetary issues. They merely determine, in large measure, whether we win or lose.
Fixing the substantive problems is harder because those fixes require changes in organizational culture. OSD cannot order our officers to come out from the closed system, fortified with hubris, that they have placed around themselves to protect the poor dears from ever hearing anything upsetting, however true. Congress cannot withhold pay from those officers who won’t read. Only our officers themselves can fix these deficiencies. Will they? The problem is circular: not until they leave their bubble.
If American military officers want to know, or even care, why we keep losing, they need only look in the mirror. They seem to do that most of the time anyway, admiring their now-tattered plumage. Behind them in the glass, figures in turbans dance and laugh.
William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.