Best Defense

Turnabout is fair play: A Marine officer interviews Tom about military leadership

Here is an exchange I had with Lieutenant Colonel Jeannette Haynie, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, who is working on her doctoral dissertation.

Task Force Southwest Marines complete Nonlethal Weapons Training

Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on Mar. 13.

Here is an exchange I had with Lieutenant Colonel Jeannette Haynie, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, who is working on her doctoral dissertation. I am running it here with her permission. Some of this is familiar stuff to longtime readers, but I am offering it because it is a pretty good summary of what I see as the core problems of the U.S. military. Newcomers to the blog may find it helpful.

1) Are there Services, or elements within the Services, that still exercise in some ways or at some points the kind of leadership that Marshall and Eisenhower exhibited during WWII? Or more generally, is the military as a whole as far from that template as it seems to be, with no outliers, after reading the book? 

Yes, I have occasionally seen elements within the services that remind me of the U.S. military leaders of World War II. Indeed, the current defense secretary, James Mattis, seems to come from that mold. He is, as you know, a retired Marine. I think the Corps has more of these sorts of leaders than the other service, but even there, they strike me as a small minority. Anthony Zinni was another one. They are not necessarily easy to work for, but they tend to be seen as fair and rigorous, and attract subordinates who like that approach.

I also see these sorts of leaders in Special Operations. Stanley McChrystal may be one such — I have not watched him in the field, and so don’t know.

The problem here is how to make these sorts of leaders not the charismatic exception but the expected standard. I think George Marshall aimed for that in World War II. He got it a lot of the time. Not always. But he also knew that he would remove the bottom 10 percent or so of leaders. They knew it too. That helped spur laggards to do better.

2) Given the risk-averse nature of today, how can we begin to shift back to a paradigm where leaders accept more risk and allow their subordinates to take more risks and thus learn more effectively?

We get there by making risk-aversion more dangerous. Churchill understood this. He did not punish generals for taking reasonable risks, but he did punish them for inactivity or over-caution. He understood that in war when you are too cautious, you probably cede the imitative to the foe. The point is to keep trying, and to make the enemy worry more about what you are doing than you worry about what he is doing.

A good example of the unplanned benefits of that approach is the fighting in Norway in the spring of 1940. This was a defeat for Britain and in fact led to the fall of the Chamberlain government. But in the course of getting kicked out of Norway, the British inflicted enough damage on the German navy to make a German invasion of England far more difficult that year. Thus a tactical defeat was also a hidden strategic victory.

2a) How does the 24/7 nature of technology inhibit risk-taking in this sense, and what can we do to overcome it in your opinion? (This calls to mind micromanagement via internet connectivity, constant HQ presence, and the way instantly available information and communication makes leaders eager to manage every aspect. It also reflects how technology allows mistakes to be instantly broadcast around the world, deepening the damage they cause.)

I don’t know. I suspect that poor commanders tend to complain about this more than highly competent ones. It is all part of your environment. Good leaders learn how to use their environment, or at least how to live with it. Complaining about the information environment seems to me like complaining about the rain.

If higher headquarters constantly wanting information is a problem for a commander, it seems to me that he or she should do one of three things: Either become the provider of information and put a subordinate in command; or put a subordinate in charge of providing the information; or telling HQ they are getting in the way and that you will be in touch when possible.

3) What is the role of education in changing the way we as a military think and operate? To elaborate — what can/should we do to teach and enable critical thinking in a military that has overwhelmingly abandoned its practice, despite lip service to the contrary?

— Note: these are my own thoughts and words, so if you disagree with the assumptions of a question please let me know!

I agree with the question. I think what is necessary is for military education to become rigorous again. Any officer captain or above should know how to read and write with clarity. I was struck yesterday in reading a Civil War history how plainly Grant, Lincoln, and Sherman expressed themselves, all while operating at the strategic level of war.

The Army used to care about mental fitness as much as it did physical fitness. Before an officer was sent to Command and General Staff College, his unit would prepare him. Recent graduates in the unit would tutor him, and he would begin doing the readings. (This was done with young Dwight Eisenhower, for example.)

Such preparation still happens with Ranger School, but not with CGSC. An officer’s performance there is no longer a matter of unit pride. When Eisenhower graduated No. 1 in his class, the Army paid attention. Now no one cares, because a CGSC degree has been debased — that is, it is no longer a guarantee that the officer is someone special. It has lost its currency.

Yes, there are band aids that will help with critical thinking. Sending some officers to do graduate degrees at civilian institutions would help. Making West Point more than a gold-plated community college degree (with most teachers having master’s degrees) would also help. I thought the School of Advanced Military Studies would help, but I worry that all it did was make generals like Tommy R. Franks think that critical thinking is someone else’s job — when it is in fact the essence of generalship.

Bottom line: Until the U.S. military cares as much about an officer being a thinker as being a physical stud, the problem will remain.

4) At one point in your book, you describe an interaction between Marshall and British General Harold Alexander, where Marshall comments that American troops do start out making a ton of mistakes, but they learn quickly and never repeat those, whereas British troops make the same mistakes for a year. Do you think this quality of American troops is still present in some form, and if not, when do you think it disappeared?

I think that we now have a more professional army. It is far better trained than the army of World War II was. But I suspect it is less educated, especially in the officer corps. (Because a high school graduate in the 1920s probably knew about as much as most college graduates do nowadays.)

Overall, I think today’s military has lost the distinction between training and education. Training prepares for the known. (How to operate a .50 caliber machine gun.) Education prepares for the unknown. (How to assess a complex situation and discern the facts of the matter, and then develop a response.)

5) What do you suggest that we do to encourage more courageous and intelligent leadership, specifically among junior officers and enlisted? 

Make it a requirement. Promote leaders who show those qualities and remove those who don’t. Right now U.S. military culture is against this. It is seen as unfair to officers. But I think leaving dunderheads in place is unfair to their subordinates.

6) Given that we cannot expect generals to just start thinking critically after years of institutional inhibitions against critical thinking, how do we start to develop those skills from the beginning? What should we do with senior officers who have deeply ingrained habits of institutionalized thinking?

Yes. The U.S. Army did this well in the interwar period, and so leaders knew how to recognize critical thinkers. Today we have many senior leaders unable to do that.

7) Are Professional Military Education schools the best method for encouraging critical thinking among growing leaders?  Or is the tension between the need to transmit grade-appropriate institutional knowledge and the need to encourage freer thinking and learning too great for the vehicle of PME schools?  If so, what would you suggest instead?

Yes, the Professional Military Education institutions can do this well. But to do it, their teachers need to be intellectually rigorous themselves. Today many are not. Too many are retired mediocre officers themselves.

Once the teachers start improving, they can start improving the students. I would have weekly class rankings, made public. Rigor and integrity would be demanded. Command and General Staff College and war college time should not be rest stops. Plagiarism would result in immediate expulsion, and perhaps Uniform Code of Military Justice charges. The bottom 10 percent of graduates probably would be told that future promotions were unlikely. The top 10 percent of graduates would be sought after.

As I said earlier, when the military cares as much about CGSC as it does about Ranger School, the problem will be solved.

8) For lack of better words…as a whole, what should we do to change the force?  As a pilot, I remember regularly chafing at the requirement to spend two hours talking about risk assessments before every flight, the need to increasingly restrict instructor methods and freedoms in teaching new lieutenants how to fly the Cobra, and the intrusion of some commanding officers into every radio call and pattern adjustment made in the flight pattern around a deployed ship. As a PhD student, 100% of the current/retired career military officers in my cohort failed the comprehensive exams the first time around, and only three of us managed to progress successfully to candidacy. As a result I see the problem much as you describe it: we are overly risk-averse and thus micromanage our subordinates, creating more risk-averse and weak leaders; and we have institutionalized thinking to such a degree that many of us have forgotten how to think critically, if we even learned how to in the first place.  So how do we stop being risk-averse and being unaware or unable to think critically, and how do turn this ship around?

Reward success, punish failure. Ask yourself, “WWGMD?” (That is, “What would George Marshall do?”)

Btw, General John A. Lejeune was a great admirer of Marshall. He wanted Marshall to lead a Marine regiment in World War I, but Pershing wouldn’t let Marshall go. Later he tried to get Marshall to head Virginia Military Institute. I wrote about this in the Marine Corps Gazette a year or two ago.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola