10 May 2009

“Tarnished Brass”--Thoughts

Small Wars Journal's council posted a link to an article in World Affairs Journal entitled "Tarnished Brass", which bears many similartities to Lt. Col. Paul Yingling's article in Armed Forces Journal entitled "A Failure of Generalship", posted two years ago. Like "Generalship", "Tarnished Brass" talks about many of the shortfalls in military leadership that have arisen and manifested themselves in recent years. Many of the complaints have been voiced before, so I'll praeiterate them. However, there's three which I would like to discuss.

The first point that the author brings up is that there is a lack of strategic thought in military leadership. While I admit that strategic thought is experiencing a renaissance in many communities, it is still not permeating many areas of the Army (i.e., the Army aviation community) as readily as it is reaching those in other areas (i.e., the infantry community).

Here's a little story from my time in Latin America—one which has, unfortunately, repeated itself more than once in Iraq (with only the names really changing).

In 2006, I was assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Airbase in Honduras, then commanded by Colonel Christopher Hughes (author of "A War on Two Fronts"). In early September of that year, we were alerted to the fact that there was a massive humanitarian crisis in the city of Leon, in western Nicaragua—an incident of alcohol poisoning had sent hundreds of Nicaraguans to the hospital, many of whom were dying. Colonel Hughes responded to this by sending a number of medical support personnel in MEDEVAC Black Hawks and CH-47D Chinooks to the city of Leon in order to render support to this tragedy.

We rushed into action quickly. Medical supplies were being loaded on the Chinook the next morning. The pilots and crew members were gathered in a small briefing room for an air crew mission briefing. Pilots were hurriedly scribbling down notes about the details of the missions—frequencies, refuel points, aircraft formations, and emergency actions.

When it was the intelligence officer's turn to speak, he began by noting the political situation in Nicaragua. The US and Nicaragua had had quite a bit of history with one another, and it was critical to ensure that our actions carried the right message in terms of information operations. This was particularly important, since the city of Leon had recently seen an upsurge in support for the Sandanista party, a leftist political organization who held power in Nicaragua during the 1980s and who fought to suppress the US-backed Contra rebels during that era. Even though I tried to stay abreast with Latin American history and politics, I wasn't particularly familiar with the situation in Nicaragua during the 1980s. This is largely due to the fact that, during the 1980s, the only thing I really knew about Latin America was the little "Uno, Dos, Tres" song from Sesame Street. I figured this would be a good time to take some notes.

But others were not so interested in the ideology of the Sandanistas. The intelligence officer had barely discussed the history of the Sandanista party for two minute when a bored aviator raised his hand and remarked, "I just need to know this: do they have MANPADs or not?", referring to the Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, such as the Stinger missile, which have been the bane of helicopter aviators since the Vietnam War.

Colonel Hughes quickly put a stop to the aviator quickly, informing us that it was critical to know the history and the political situation of the country in order to put the entire humanitarian mission in context. He also made it clear how important it was to incorporate public affairs and information operations into every mission—because if we didn't put our message out, reporters who worked for leaders like Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers surely would.

This scene has repeated itself a number of times in the aviation community. To be certain, it is critical to get aviation-related intelligence. Unfortunately, it's rare that I hear a great amount of strategic discussion and thought within the aviation community—I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard aviators use terms like "sectarian conflict", "information operations", "counter-insurgency", or "hybrid warfare". Indeed, while it is important that aviators remain proficient in the cockpit, we should also realize that we are a vital part of a combined arms team, and we should start keeping pace with our fellow officers in the brigade combat teams in terms of strategic thought and warfighting theory.

The second point that the author discusses is that he feels that there is a sort of careerism, micromanagement, and avoidance of blame and responsibility that is rampant in the military. I will agree with this, but only to a point. Yes, we've all seen petty office politics among military officers. Indeed, one of the steepest learning curves I had when I was a lieutenant was not how to pick up a howitzer with the cargo hook under night vision goggles, but learning how to play office politics within the military. We've also seen leaders who will throw those with dissenting views "under the bus" (think Secretary Rumsfeld and General Shinseki). But then again, that's hardly a new phenomenon—General Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for his views on air power, which were later repudiated in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I should mention that these phenomena are not unique to the military. After extensive talks with many of my friends who wound up in many white-collar jobs in the private sector, it's safe to say that petty office politics are part of every workplace. On the whole, I would argue that the military has a much higher value set than the general population at large. However, deep down, we still have the same innate flaws as every person. The great observer of human nature, Niccolo Machiavelli, once cynically noted that although we praise many values, deep down, we still have a part of us that is selfish and petty.

Certainly, every professional organization has had its fair share of scandals and moral transgressions: hypocritical religious leaders, outrageous medical business practices, irresponsible journalists, AIG's executives—and let's not start talking about lawyers. Indeed, calls to reform petty careerism and let's-blame-someone-else-itis will fall on deaf ears, as this sort of behavior is often innate within almost any organization (a funny video about the Autobots clearly illustrates this), be it ladder-climbing in the corporate world, or the petty back-stabbing I even encountered working as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp. However, I need to also balance this by stating the obvious: we are a military filled with Type-A personalities, and every organization does, in fact, thrive on competition. Much of this is a by-product.

The focus on careerism leads me to a third point from the article: that of officer promotions to higher ranks. The rules of the promotion game may be quickly changing, and more quickly than some have realized. Since the arrival of Secretary Robert Gates, there have been numerous calls for reform in the selection of general officers. In the past year or two, General Petraeus has personally sat in on at least one selection board for promotion to general. Whereas previously, the route to promotion followed one clear path—command this, do this staff job, then command that, take this course--we now see people from many different backgrounds breaking in to the general officer ranks—many of whom didn't have the "ticket punch" jobs of previous years. The past few years have shown a preference for those with advanced degrees, language skills, foreign area expertise, and for special forces.

Not only will this potentially make our leadership that much stronger, but it will hopefully reduce aversion to particular assignments which may have initially had strong stigmas attached to them. The aviation community, in particular, has tended to be suspicious of assignments which are not in the cockpit. Indeed, most aviators look down on assignments which provide more well-rounded development opportunities, specifically assignments in Military Transition Teams (MiTT), and Brigade Aviation Elements (BAEs)--both of which remove aviators from the cockpit, despite providing a level of tactical expertise they wouldn't get otherwise.

Pentathlete might not be on the syllabus of professional military education courses just yet, but that doesn't mean it's not being accepted as the current path to success in the military.

Focus: React to the article...

Bonus focus: According to Abu Muqawama, both Gian Gentile and Thomas Ricks apparently agreed with the article. That's a first...


El Goyito said...

Oh the Sandinistas...where do I start? They were the Keystone Cops of the communist world back in the day and now are just opportunists (having jettisoned their red ideology back in the 90s). So did you guys actually end up going to Leon or not? Nicaragua is definitely the most anti-U.S. country in Latin America if not the world. Probably better for the U.S. military to steer clear no matter the circumstances.

Starbuck said...

I personally didn't go, but yeah, they did send the people down there. Truth be told, it wasn't as effective as it could have been--there was little anyone could have done. Hundreds of people were died in a 3rd World hospital.

Leon was actually one of the worst towns in Nicaragua, I hear. It's basically the Sandanista's ideological capital, kind of like a big UC-Berkley.

Starbuck said...

By the way, I've been having trouble posting replies to your blog as of late. What really freaked me out was the police in shooting matches with the Mexican Army. That is unreal.

El Goyito said...

I'm now moderating posts so try again.

There's a lot of animosity between the police and the army these days. Two weeks ago in a nearby town the army disarmed and dismissed the entire police force and are now policing the town (pop around 5,000). In March six of the officers were arrested as being part of a kidnapping ring. I'm not sure how long this arrangement will last and if the army's training a new force. It's insane!