Leadership (VI) - A British Officer Helps the
Cretans to Understand Themselves

November 6, 1998

Comment: #211

Discussion Thread:  #s 206, 207, 208, 209, 210


[1]Lieutenant Colonel D. T. Eccles Royal Tank Regiment, "RISK AVERSION AND THE ZERO DEFECTS CULTURE," Published in The British Army Review #114 (Date Unk). Attached.

What can be said about the veracity of the Cretan's statement, when she said "All Cretans are liars"?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing!

If she is trying to tell the truth, then there is at least one Cretan who tells the truth, and therefore, the statement is false. On the other hand, if she is trying to lie, then the statement could be true, but it becomes false because she is not lying.

This ancient linguistic trick is known as the fallacy of self-referencing. Authoritarian bureaucracies, like the Defense Department, are culturally prone to act according to the "logic" of the Cretan, and when that happens, we call the result "drinking your own bath water."

Careful readers of this series on leadership will recognize that the central focus of our evolving discussion has been the squishy subject of military CULTURE. We have used Dr. Faris Kirkland's historical research [#206, Atch 1] as well as Maj XXX's comments on leadership [#s206, 208] and Lt Col ZZZ's description of the opposition to the COHORT experiments [#s207, 209] as vehicles to better understand how the cultural pathologies in the personnel management system creates weak leadership and a bloated Army's officer corps that reduces readiness.

It would be a mistake to think, however, that the Defense Department's leadership problems are concentrated in the Army's culture. For discussions of the Navy's cultural problems, particularly the destructive effects of a culture that rewards deception, readers should examine the novel, "Bishop at Sea" by the Reverend Andrew Greeley, a book that was endorsed as capturing the Navy's culture by the former Commander of Naval Air Forces Pacific, Vice Admiral Robert Spane. Other books on this subject include the history of the F/A-18 portrayed in the "Pentagon Paradox" by James P. Stevenson or "Fall From Glory" by Greg Vistica. Doubters should also review Comment #169, "The Constitution, Situational Ethics, & the Phony Debate Over More Defense Spending," where we saw how senior decision makers in the Pentagon used phony readiness considerations to rationalize a continued violation of their sacred oath to uphold the Constitution, specifically, the reporting requirements of the Accountability Clause in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 as well as those of the derivative laws, like the Anti-Deficiency Act and the Chief Financial Officer Act.

At the heart of these cultural problems lies an evolutionary process wherein the aesthetic moral codes of soldierly conduct, like the spirit of self-sacrifice, duty, honor, and country, have mutated insensibly into the materialistic corporate values of self-interest, careerism, political correctness, and mindless conformity to a perceived need to protect institutional power at all costs.

In his classic treatise on cultural anthropology, "Beyond Culture," the Edward T. Hall argued that "…Everything man is and does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable. But once learned, these behavior patterns, these habitual responses, these ways of interacting gradually sink below the surface of the mind and, like the admiral of a submerged submarine fleet, control from the depths. The hidden controls are usually experienced as though they were INNATE [emphasis added] simply because they are not only ubiquitous but habitual as well …. The only time one is aware of the control system is when things don't follow the hidden program. This is most frequent in intercultural encounters. Therefore, the great gift that the members of the human race have for each other is not exotic experiences but an opportunity to achieve awareness of the structure of their own system, which can be accomplished only by interacting with others who do NOT SHARE [emphasis added] that system …."

This passage, which was first brought to my attention by the late American strategist, Col John Boyd [see bio in Comment #199], echoes the findings of the Austrian mathematician, Kurt Godel, who, in a remarkable, but remarkably unwelcome proof, showed that it is logically impossible to demonstrate the internal consistency or completeness of a mathematical system as simple as the arithmetic of whole numbers by appealing solely to axioms WITHIN that system. By implication, one must go OUTSIDE that system to determine its internal consistency (or its state of order or disorder). Boyd also showed how this conclusion relates to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, namely that all closed systems naturally generate entropy (confusion, disorder, and the paralysis of statistical equilibrium).

In other words, Hall's anthropological research into human culture led him to conclusions that are very similar to and perhaps consistent with basic knowledge evolved in the hard sciences. This smacks of something fundamental.

Also, in case you haven't noticed, we are getting closer the Cretan than is comfortable.

Hall is saying that outsiders, with different cultural heritages and different sets of personal experiences, can see things about ourselves that are invisible to us because we can not see beyond the institutional blinders imposed by our doctrines, beliefs, and habitual institutional practices. With this thought in mind, the attached essay by Lt Col Eccles of the British Army is a scathing indictment of our military's cultural problems.

Lt Col Eccles describes how four overlapping trends in the American army's culture are affecting its performance in Bosnia. Eccles does this for the express purpose of building a better understanding of the British army. He clearly echoes Hall's point when he says … "it is easier to identify in others characteristics which may be all too present but unnoticed in ourselves, the intention is to sound a warning note in respect of our own [military] culture."

Eccles argues that the (1) fear of casualties, (2) a stifling atmosphere of political correctness, (3) an inordinate fear of making mistakes, and (4) a pervasive dread of appearing to disagree with one's superiors have combined to create a risk adverse culture of intolerance, known as the "zero defects culture." He concludes that this atmosphere creates inefficiencies, stifles initiative, and breeds timidity.

I wonder how the Cretan's in our bureaucracy would rebut Eccles' analysis. It certainly would be a nice show.

I do know one thing, however: A open debate on this issue, where thoughtful officers do not feel compelled to remain anonymous, would do more to improve readiness than a phony debate over the need for more defense spending when our nation outspends all its adversaries combined by at least three to one.

One final point: The next time you hear a political wind bag or a pontificating inside-the-beltway poohbah say we are the world's indispensable superpower, ask yourself the following question: 'Would it not be better if people in other countries were using these words?'

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1


By Lieutenant Colonel D. T. Eccles Royal Tank Regiment Published in The British Army Review #114

At the time of writing I am four months into a tour of duty in Sarajevo with Headquarters Implementation Force (HQ IFOR); which in essence is a forward element of HQ AFSOUTH. This has given me the opportunity to study the military cultures of a number of countries (currently 34 different nations contribute to IFOR) and that of the United States in particular.

What follows is not an attempt to denigrate America or Americans; rather, because it is easier to identify in others characteristics which may be all too present but unnoticed in ourselves, the intention is to sound a warning note in respect of our own [military] culture.

I have been struck by four particular overlapping trends within the American military culture:

* The first is their nervousness over the issue of force protection: the physical safety of their individual soldiers. Of course, we are all anxious to minimize the risks to our troops, but it is always a fine balance between this and the imperative of the mission in hand. I would contend, and the majority of senior American officers to whom one listens would also endorse privately that they have not got it quite right in Bosnia. Every single off base journey has to be made by four vehicles, the soldiers must all wear their helmets and combat body armour and carry their rifles.

This does anything but give the local people the impression that tension is reduced and the country is returning to normality. But the American public, and hence Congress, is a victim of its own success during Operation DESERT STORM and now believes that war can be waged without incurring any casualties at all. For example, the US Centre for Naval Analysis used to plan on the "51% Solution" in the Cold War days (how to prevail, irrespective of the casualties). Today it bases its analysis on the "100% Requirement" (operations are to be so organized that there are no casualties).

* The second strand is the way in which they are tied in knots over the dictates of political correctness. This ranges from the comical, for example the title ADC (Aide de Camp) can no longer be used because of the HIV connotation, whereby a person's promotion or appointment is based, not necessarily on ability, but on racial origin or gender. This has not been helped by some well publicized scandals, such as the US Navy's Tailhook Convention, but it is widely acknowledged that the civilian obsession with political correctness has gone to far in the military.

* The third trend is the fear that officers have of the consequences of the slightest personal administrative error, such as an inaccurate travel claim. Recently the Stars and Stripes (the American forces newspaper) had splashed all over its front page the fact that SACEUR,GEN Joulwan, and his wife were accused (by one of his own junior staff officers) of having made an unauthorized journey on a US military aircraft. This story was completely unfounded but senior US officers have been dismissed for much less.

TO be fair, this attitude is simply a manifestation of a wider phenomenon throughout US public life.

* The final strand is the reluctance that some officers display to disagree with their superiors, even way in advance of the point of decision. Anecdotal examples of the effective termination of careers for displays of dissent from the opinion of senior officers present are legion. Consequently independent thought and formal debate is the exception rather than the rule and, in public, a bland and rather unhealthy consensus prevails.

These four trends have combined to produce an intolerance for mistakes or what is known as a "zero defect culture" within the American military. Consequently many decisions must now be referred to higher authority. For example, nowadays it is quite common for every soldier's leave pass to be approved personally by the Battalion Commander. A more serious consequence perhaps than the inefficiency that this imposes on the system is the creation of a culture of risk aversion. Generations of US officers are growing up without being encouraged to exercise any autonomous authority and with little instruction in how to assess and then be prepared to take risks in pursuance of a military objective.

Thus there is an erosion of the key virtue which underpins every military organization: the moral courage to take risks.

This article is not written to belittle the Americans. The shortcomings I have identified above are certainly not reflected in the performance of every officer and indeed they are all extremely competent within their own fields of expertise. Furthermore the operation in which we are currently engaged is unfamiliar to the US and their approach to it is thoroughly professional. I stress again that this is an attempt to alert us to an insidious process that may well be going on within our own Armed Services. We have all seen shades or elements of what I have described above in our own military organizations. I propose no solution: I simply raise a flag.