On War #160
The Fourth Plague
By William S. Lind
In Exodus, the Fourth Plague sent upon the Egyptians was a plague of flies. A similar plague of flies has settled on the U.S. military, in the form of a swarm of retired senior officers working as contractors. Not satisfied with their generous pensions, they wheedle six-figure contracts out of senior officer “buddies” still on active duty. In return for steam shovel loads of the taxpayers’ money, they offer “advice” that is, overwhelmingly, flyspeck.
The problem is that these contractors are businessmen, and business is a whore. The goal of business is profit, not truth. Profit requires getting the next contract. Getting the next contract means telling whomever gave you the current contract what he wants to hear. If what he wants to hear isn’t true, so what? Just start the “study” by writing the desired conclusion, then bugger the evidence to fit. The result is endless intellectual corruption, billions of dollars wasted and military services that, as institutions, can no longer think.
The plague of senior officer contractors has effectively pushed those still in the military out of the thought process. Meeting after meeting on issues of doctrine or concepts are dominated by contractors. The officers in the room know that if they wave the BS flag at the contractors, they risk angering the serving senior officers who have given their “buddies” the contract. Junior officers, who have the most direct experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are completely excluded. They have no chance of being heard in meetings dominated by retired generals and colonels.
Not only does contracting out thinking bring intellectual corruption, it adds a whole new layer of dinosaurism to the thought process. Most retired senior officers’ minds froze in the Fulda Gap many years ago, and that remains their vision of war. Further, any change is automatically an attack on their “legacies,” which they are quick to defend. Twenty years ago, once the dinosaur retired, you could push him into the tar pit and move on. Now he is back the next day in a suit, with a six-figure contract.
The plague of contractors reinforces one of the military’s (and other bureaucracies’) worst habits, formalizing thinking. Concepts and doctrine are now developed through layer after layer of formal, structured meetings, invariably organized around PowerPoint briefings. Most attendees are there as representatives of one or another bureaucratic interest, and their job is to defend their turf. PowerPoint briefings not only disguise a lack of intellectual substance with glitzy gimmicks, they inherently work against the concept of Schwerpunkt. Slides usually present umpteen bulletized “points,” all co-equal in (lack of) importance. In the end, what is important is the briefing itself: the medium is the message.
One of the great intellectual successes of the American military, the Marine Corps’ development of maneuver warfare doctrine from the 1970s through the early 1990s, offers an interesting contrast. The process was almost all informal. The key people were mostly junior officers. Meetings were after-hours, in someone’s living room over beer and pizza. Many outsiders were involved, but none of them were paid. In the end, most of the new manuals were written by a Marine captain, who took them directly to the Commandant for approval. Tellingly, since that time the Marine Corps has formalized its doctrine development process, and the quality of its manuals has declined.
Of course, contractors hate informal processes, because they have no role in them. There is no money to be had. In contrast, the current formal process gives them what they seek most, opportunities to kiss the backsides of bigwigs with bucks to obtain still more contracts.
As I told one senior Marine Corps general last fall, the present system is terminally constipated by too many people and too much money. The money draws contractors the way an outhouse draws other kinds of flies. If the U.S. military wants to start thinking again, it needs to can the senior officer contractors, outlaw PowerPoint and give younger officers time and encouragement to meet in informal seminars, write and publish.
Scharnhorst’s Militaerische Gesellschaft, from the time of Napoleon, remains the right model. The problem is that it doesn’t cost very much.
William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.
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