21 March 2009

Military Sports Analogies

I've written a bit for Small Wars Journal in the past few months, but nothing has generated as much debate (or, in some cases, agreement) as an article I wrote regarding the Army's concept of the "pentathlete" leader--leaders who are scholars and warriors, skilled in peace, war, civil administration, and adaptive to new forms of conflict.

I have to admit, I garnered myself a certain bit of notoriety. One captain actually approached me and asked me "Are you Small Wars Journal Captain [Starbuck]?" I have to admit that this is actually quite a high honor to be associated with SWJ. It also reminds me of the days when I was a moderator on my college's message board and people would look at me and say that they recognized me from that particular (notoroious) website. Yeah, I was social networking before it was cool.

I wound up with a lot of great responses (and with one quote in Foreign Policy magazine). Some respondants agreed, while some disagreed on certain points. Most, if not all, seemed to agree that we needed to find a new way to cultivate the leaders we need to succeed in the current operating environment. The model that we had been using for training, schooling and progressing our officers was one which was designed in the 1950s, when the US was preparing to win set-piece battles in the Fulda Gap in Europe, rather than the complex hybrid wars that the US is currently facing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the things that surprised me about the responses was the fact that there was more debate over the "pentathlete" analogy that I used than the content of the article at times. Honestly, I can't claim credit for the "pentathlete" concept, as it had been put forward by, I believe, General Schoomaker, a former Army Chief of Staff. Nevertheless, I spawned a few articles which suggested alternatives to the term "pentathlete". One captain said that he felt that officers were Triathletes, Not Pentathletes Yet. Foreign Policy magazine quipped that, after seeing the complexities of hybrid wars, military leaders would need to be decathletes.

But the best criticism came from Boss Mongo, who made some great points on the sports analogy, and actually came up with some suggestions for alternate professional education and development for military officers. Mongo compared military leaders to Boxers and those who practice Ju-Jitsu, with Boxers being the single-tracked conventional warriors, and those who practice Ju-Jitsu representing those who are skilled at conventional, unconventional and nation-building skills. Boss Mongo brings up the John Boyd-style point that the goal of ju-jitsu, much like that of any organism in life, is to increase (or retain) your own ability to act independently, while depriving your adversary of the same ability.

The strictures of boxing are immutable. The defeat of your opponent will only ever be achieved through the delivery system of your fists.

JiuJitsu opens a myriad of options. The ultimate goal is, unlike boxing, not to render your opponent insensate (although that will happen, if he's inexperienced or stubborn or some combination thereof) but to convince him to submit to your will. The analogy between the grappling arts and warfare is comprehensive and enduring enough that Clausewitz (military readers, pause to genuflect) opens up On War with it.

But the greatest advantage of the officer/judoka analogy is the employment of means and ends in both endeavors. Jiu-Jitsu is playing chess with your body. The jiujitsuka has to evaluate his opponent's strengths and weaknesses, formulate a plan to neutralize his strengths and exploit his weaknesses, and then lure him into following your plan, fighting your fight (hello, OODA loop, anyone?), until he submits--all while under physical and mental duress. The opponent's submission can be contrived by a choke, a joint-lock, a strike (Atemi-waza, for you "it's all about grappling and throws" fanatics), or by simply just exhausting him.

The similarity with an officer invested in the COIN fight is that the judoka has to choose the appropriate tactics and techniques, the appropriate amounts of force (blunt trauma), and the condition of the opponent at the endstate (dead, maimed, injured, or merely chastened).

Mongo goes on to address a number of issues facing the development and education of officers. I had initially (and still do to a certain extent) backed the higher education of officers. Many of the members of the "council of colonels" that provided much of the guidance for the Surge of 2007 were combat veterans with advanced degrees. Advanced degrees can certainly be helpful, and, by the way, offer a well-deserved break in a career after a deployment or two. However, Mongo also proposes that officers spend time working with either a governmental agency (US State) or Non-Governmental Agency (Red Cross). The organizational skills learned by military officers can prove useful to the management in these agencies, and the skills learned there prepare officers for work in areas where they may have to deal with a plethora of different actors.

Humanitarian assistance missions in other countries--or possibly even within our own country--will require that military officers be effective civil-military administrators and be able to work with non-governmental or governmental agencies to restore security. They must be able to synchronize the efforts of all actors within a theater, even when actors may range from organizations such as Doctors Without Borders to Blackwater. These are skills that typically aren't learned if our leaders move from one check-the-block job to another, where they are apt to spend more time discussing Line Item Numbers on a property book than they are discussing population security.

Whether you call it a triathlete, pentathlete, decathlete or judoka, it's obvious our promotion system, career management, and educational and development systems need a serious re-boot.

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