Best Defense

Just when you thought the Army had its shit together, it puts out a paper like this

I really wanted to like this new Army white paper on "The Human Dimension: A Framework for Optimizing Human Performance." I had hoped, following the recent statement on the Army’s operating concept, that the Army was getting on the right track. But as I read this white paper, with every page my heart sank more and more.


Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on November 4, 2014.

I really wanted to like this new Army white paper on “The Human Dimension: A Framework for Optimizing Human Performance.” I had hoped, following the recent statement on the Army’s operating concept, that the Army was getting on the right track. But as I read this white paper, with every page my heart sank more and more.

It is just badly done. It is poorly written — as in, “Education forms the bedrock of the Army’s investment in the future force.” (I know what they mean, but how does one invest in bedrock?) The writers almost always choose the longer, Latinate word over of the shorter, stronger Anglo-Saxon alternative. They are repetitive. And they appear at times to be punch-drunk on jargon.

The low point for me was the phrase “rapid curricular responsiveness.” This is from the section where the paper gets into PME issues. The answers provided here on PME are just about the opposite of what I would recommend. We don’t need an agile curriculum, we need agile thinkers in both faculty and student body. You want that? Teach the tough stuff — Thucydides, Clausewitz, some of the history listed here.

By contrast, rapidly changing the curriculum exhausts the faculty and diverts their attention from the classroom. They spend time working on redoing the curriculum and arguing with each other about that instead of teaching. Frankly, I would be happy to subject today’s students to the curriculum that Eisenhower, Bradley, and their peers studied in the interwar period. Combined with the academic rigor and writing standards of the time, it would produce officers adaptive enough for the 21st century.

The paper’s solution, instead, is to centralize “all TRADOC education programs under Army University…to build a holistic approach.” This runs directly contrary to one of the key trends of the new  century, which is decentralization of information and so of decision-making. But when in doubt, the Army centralizes and adds a layer of bureaucracy to enforce compliance. This is a doomed approach. It is like trying to make a hundred flowers bloom simultaneously — and then march around the greenhouse.

Speaking of academic rigor, the paper begins with a statement by Lt. Gen. Robert B. Brown that “the rate of . . . change is accelerating.” When I was in school, we called that an “unexamined assumption.” As a teacher, I circled those in red ink and subtracted a few points from the grade. And upon examination, I don’t think the assertion of unprecedented or accelerating change is correct. Rather, I suspect the rate of change in the 19th century was far greater. Everything changed then — industrialization changed how wealth was created, and led to urbanization with a huge population shift from country to city. Information moved many magnitudes faster as the telegraph replaced the sailboat as the means of getting information overseas. (The Internet is just a faster, more colorful telegraph.) Goods and people moved faster as the railroad replaced the horse as the means of movement on land.

The shame is that there was a real opportunity in creating this document. If the authors of this white paper really wanted to optimize human performance in the Army, their point of departure probably would be something like, “We need to transfer decision-making power from the organization to the individual. The information revolution has made possible that fundamental change in how the Army is run.” Instead, they offer a variety of small ways to help perpetuate into the 21st century the current industrial age approach to personnel. Again, this is precisely the opposite of what they should be doing.

My conclusion: I give the paper an F, with a note to the Army’s leaders that this paper is a roadmap for disaster. As a taxpayer, I wonder if my hard-earned money has been wasted by many officers working on this for weeks, perhaps even months. Finally, I sentence the authors to a mandatory reading of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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