The Reform the Military Is Already Undertaking: Chickenhawk, No. 19

"We need junior officers willing to stick their necks out and write." On the military's internal efforts to learn from its recent distress

Slide from the documentary 'Bridging the Gap' (Stomoway Productions)

The theme in this installment is a number of worthwhile (in my view), powerful links and posts on the general question of self-criticism within the military, and joint civilian and military efforts to direct real attention to the chickenhawk pathology.

1) "Stick Your Neck Out," by two junior naval officers, LT Roger Misso and LTJG Chris O'Keefe, on the US Naval Institute site. They are arguing for creative ferment among the young officer class:

We need junior officers willing to stick their necks out and write. Our service and our country are dealing with serious challenges, many of which may have non-traditional solutions. This generation of junior officers will be judged for our courage to stand up and work to solve those problems. The nation can no longer afford our silence.

2) Stay in and fight. Also from a junior naval officer, in response to episode No. 18 in the chickenhawk saga, in which young Captain X and Captain Y explained why they had decided to resign:

Nothing will ever change if these officers leave the service. These are exactly the kind of people who should stay IN the service! The young men and women who can clearly identify that there is a problem, and an impediment to the solution.  Yet, rather than risking it by continuing to push for the solution, or teach others how to push for a solution and later achieve critical mass, they leave the service.

I want 2015 to be the year we change all that. Despite the pressure that says junior officers can't write about contentious issues, this must be the year we "get each other's backs." Our Navy—our military—is strongest when we engage in respectful, open, well-informed debates about our most important issues. The theme of "Stick Your Neck Out" is that it doesn't matter if writing or expressing a respectful, serious opinion gets you fired—but if you fail to do this because you are worried about your career, then you are actually hurting the service.

Too many junior officers [JOs]will read your piece from Capt X and Capt Y and think "there is no way I can change this" and then leave the service.  But the message we want to spread is: this HAS to change.  And the only way it can change is well-informed, courageous JOs willing to do the right thing by speaking out or writing on a better way forward.  So what if we get fired by the wrong kind of senior officers along the way?

3) "The Army's Other Crisis," by Andrew Tilghman in The Washington Monthly eight years ago on this exact issue of leaving versus staying and fighting. "The problem isn't one of numbers alone: The Army also appears to be losing its most gifted young officers."

4) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, by Albert O. Hirschman, the absolute-bedrock treatment of issues #1, #2, and #3 on this list.

5) "Bridging the Gap: The Civilian-Military Divide." I am so sorry I hadn't seen this film before I wrote the article! I have now seen it via a preview reel. You should ask you PBS station to show it sometime soon. Here's a preview:

6) The challenges of irregular war. From a reader with extensive government-service experience:

If you've never read the article "Less is More: The Problematic Future of Irregular Warfare in an Era of Collapsing States" by Hy Rothstein, I highly recommend it.  The article appeared in the February, 2007 edition of Third World Quarterly. [JF note: a paywalled version is here.]

The core of Rothstein's argument cuts to the heart of why the U.S. military keeps losing wars.  An extended excerpt:

"The American strategic culture is not so flexible.  As a result, irregular threats are handled quantitatively, based on the level of importance or threat posed to U.S. interests, even if a quantitative approach undermines the accomplishment of strategic outcomes.  Threrefore it seems that, for irregular threats, particularly those where local government legitimacy is in question, U.S. success is inversely related to the priority senior U.S. officials (civilian and military) attach to the effort.  Only when the issue at stake is of secondary importance can the U.S. response result in a thoughtful, tailored approach to a non-standard threat."  

Another good excerpt:

"But, there are features of both the USA's 'small wars' and its 'big wars' that are troubling and limiting.  Both reveal the USA's military imperative for quantitatively oriented solutions and both are more a way of battle than a way of war, since they fall short of serious thinking about turning military victory into successful policy outcomes."  

Rothstein goes on to look at three relative U.S. successes - El Salvador, 1980-1994; the Philippines, 2001-2005; and the early phases of the current fight in Afghanistan.  In each case, Rothstein argues that limited resources and autonomy for local commanders (vs. micromanagement from DC and a massive influx of money and troops and civilians) made the difference between success and failure.

I find Rothstein's argument very compelling.  I work for [an executive-branch department]  and I see here too how once Big Washington takes over an issue it can quickly destroy it by demanding short-term results, beating the nuance out of any policy, and valuing domestic political considerations over any optimal policy outcome.

Also, once Big Washington takes over, people in the field spend more time reporting back to Washington than they do focusing on solutions to the problem at hand.  Finally, Washington has a tendency to micromanage operations in the field, but how well can anyone in Washington truly understand something as complex as Helmand Province or Anbar?  Instead, once the Washington bureaucracy seizes hold of an issue, it throws money, B-52s and civilian contractors at it until the issue goes away.

For this reason, I'm actually somewhat hopeful about the U.S. effort against ISIS.  The limited U.S. approach is causing endless handwringing among chickenhawks in the U.S. who continue to argue for boots on the ground, but I find it hard to believe that U.S. combat troops would do any better than the current approach.  More than anything this is a battle for legitimacy in the Sunni parts of Iraq, and only the Iraqi government can win that battle.  

7) An expanded reading list. From another young officer, on ferment underway:

I would like to bring your attention to some works and venues used by JO's and not-so-JO's. I really do hope that, perhaps, folks like you and Tom Ricks who want to do good work don't fall to the temptation of the our most... fed up.

You'll excuse the prolific list here, but I think it important for you to see at least the very slim edge of what is available out there.

Most close to home to your recent topics, almost ALL "The Bridge" (run y Army and AF J(ish)O's) material recently has been JO/not-so-JO discussions on the nature of "profession" as military personnel:

You should look in to LT Ben Kohlmann's "Defense Entrepreneurs Forum" with two highly successful conferences and an innovation competition under it's belt:

CIMSEC is another instution run by a mess of JO's (and civilians):

John Paris's series on comparing and reforming the Navy's surface community:

CDR Snodgrass build his own, independent 3rd Party retention study:

On our lack of tactical training: (note, this is a specific issue brought up by many has actually been talken up by a three-star)
And some... impassioned responses to the recent disregard to the reality of our rich, debating culture:

There are many out there: Rich Ganske, Dave Blair, Nic Dileonardo, Roger Misso, Chris O'keefe, BJ Armstrong, Scott Cheney-Peters, Claude Berube, Nathan Finney, Ben Kohlmann, and - really - hundreds more with their own personal blogs, one-off articles, and encouragement they give aspiring JO's with an inkling to think, write, and dare.
From our foreign policy on China, to our organizational culture, to tactics in the field, to technical innovations - it seems that, too often, our journalists and academics seek out the well meaning but bitter, "this sucks, I'm out" JO's who make a dramatic splash. They are not where you are going to find the reality of the troubles, and opportunities, of our armed forces.
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Here is the running index of previous installments:

"The Tragedy of the American Military," my article in the Jan-Feb issue. A C-Span interview is here; an NPR "All Things Considered" interview is here; a PBS News Hour interview and segment is here. I will be doing the Bill Maher show tomorrow.

1) Initial responses, including an argument for the draft.

2) Whether Israel comes closer to a civil-military connection than the U.S. does.

3) "Quiet Gratitude, or Dangerous Contempt?" How veterans respond to "thank you for your service."

4) "Actually We Keep Winning." An argument that things are better than I claim.

5) "Get the Hell Back in Your Foxhole." More on the meaning of "thanks."

6) "Showing Gratitude in a Way that Matters." What civilians could do that counts.

7) "Winning Battles, Losing Wars." A response to #4.

8) "The Economic Realities of a Trillion Dollar Budget." What we could, or should, learn from the Soviet Union.

9) "Meanwhile, the Realities." Fancy weapons are sexy. Boring weapons save troops' lives.

10) "Chickenhawks in the News." The 2012 presidential campaign avoided foreign-policy and military issues. What about 2016?

11) "A Failure of Grand Strategy." Half a league, half a league, half a league onward ...

12) "Careerism and Competence," including the testimony of an A-10 pilot who decided to resign.

13) "Vandergriff as Yoda." A modest proposal for shaking things up.

14) "Lions Led by Lambs." On a possible generation gap among military officers.

15) "Is it all up to the vets?" Whether correcting the civil-military divide is primarily the responsibility of recent veterans.

16) "We Are Not Chickenhawks." A critique (of me) from the left.

17) "Genuinely Bad News About the F-35 and A-10." Whether new weapons are being assessed honestly.

18) "Two Young Officers," with the laments of Captain X and Captain Y.

19) The one you are reading now.