- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense military culture correspondent
If there is one cult classic film that has contributed to the military’s language of inside jokes over the years, it’s Mike Judge’s "Office Space." The structure and culture of fictional company Initech could have been drawn directly from that of any higher headquarters staff. The movie has all but supplanted Catch-22 for the modern military in characterizing the monotonous absurdity of how the professional organization is managed. But maybe after 13 years of botchery in military leadership, it’s time to dispatch with the endless Congressional hearings on the litany of malfeasance in military leadership and invoke one of the film’s more prominent but less-referenced characters — "the Bobs."
"The Bobs" are two consultants hired by Initech to fire employees based on their relative uselessness to the company. Their catch phrase was "what is it you’d say you do here?"
This seems a perfect moment to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff exactly that question. At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq. Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces. The cost of the war alone accounts for 10% of the current U.S. national debt, and cost 176,000 lives by conservative estimates. Throughout, the military has repeatedly bungled the care of its service members and their families, wounded and otherwise. Psychological care failed to meet the need of service members, and progress was delayed predominantly by stigmas among leadership all the way to the top ranks. And even after the Walter Reed scandal we now learn that problems within the military health care system not only persisted, but also extended to service members’ families across the entire force. Attitudes among service leadership have also been noticeable in their backward resistance to accepting changes in and adapting to the views of the society it represents and protects. Our top leaders opposed changing the rules on gay service members even as it became obvious the majority of society and even active duty personnel supported openly gay service members. As if they deliberately meant to top their tone-deaf response to that issue, the entire gang assembled before Congress to deliver, as Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) told the assembled military leaders, a "stunningly bad" round of answers on the issue of sexual assault in the ranks. For an encore, they gave us the Jeff Sinclair trial.
But even worse than the military’s management of employee healthcare and human relations is its budgeting. The only thing the military seems to do well when it comes to money is ask for more. After losing billions of contract dollars in Iraq and squandering millions on the most comedic fashion show in history, the military continues to run headlong into some of the most disastrous-looking acquisitions projects in all of military history, and at a time when the premium is placed on fiscal conservatism. The Navy seems to be purchasing the littoral combat ship in the belief that it will stop adversaries with shock and confusion. Likewise, the Air Force has entrenched itself so deep around the F-35 that one wonders if they can even see the sky anymore, which is just as well since the plane itself can’t reliably get off the ground after years of development and "fixes." And even as we saddle ourselves with technological albatrosses, we find that the defense department is perhaps one of the least competitive organizations in the United States for attracting new employees.
So let’s recap. Our leadership can’t figure out how to win a war. It can’t responsibly manage or supervise the application of people or money in the conduct of war. It cannot adequately meet its promises to care for its employees or their family members. Its strategy for maintaining technological parity with its global competitors is questionable. The current morale among its employees has never been lower since 9/11. Its ability to maintain an edge in human capital is in peril of disaster in the very near future. Fighting and winning our wars while maintaining the health of our armed forces is the responsibility of its leadership. We have fought poorly, lost, and our health is in decline.
So, top military leaders: What is it you’d say you do here?