The Question of Values

November 13, 1999

Comment: #332
Discussion Thread:  #s 169, 199, and the three reports posted at web site


[1] Andrea Stone, "A Question Of Honors," USA Today, November 11, 1999. Excerpt: "The military services are giving out more awards to soldiers, sailors and airmen than at any other time in the nation's history, including during wartime. Fewer are related to combat, courage or valor; more are just for showing up for work and staying out of trouble."

In the words of the strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF Ret), "Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds." [see Comment #199]

A systemic failure to recognize Boyd's fundamental point lies at the core of the Defense Death Spiral (a modernization program that can not modernize the force, declining readiness, and a corrupt accounting system that makes it impossible the fix the first two). This failure is evident in a DOMESTICALLY FOCUSED, POLITICALLY MOTIVATED, CORRUPT VALUE SYSTEM that values technology and its political benefits more than the people who make up the military, notwithstanding volumes of empty rhetoric to the contrary.

The warped sense of priorities is now so pervasive that, for the last four years, the Pentagon proudly exhibited official posters commemorating Armed Forces Day that hyped weapons and technology but DID NOT include people.

New readers can find the current poster at the following URL: 

But as Boyd suggested, a living military is much more than inanimate technology. It is an amalgam of:


  • LIVE PEOPLE (the ideals of character, , moral strength, honor, the spirit of self-sacrifice, patriotism, etc.)

  • LIVE IDEAS (professional education, doctrine, training cohesion, etc.), and

  • INANIMATE HARDWARE (weapons, logistics, technology, etc.)

How should these three components be properly valued in relation to each other? Which is more important: live matter or dead matter?

More to the point, what is truly important to the effectiveness of a military, and does it match the actual priorities of decision makers as they make the hard choices and tradeoffs that shape our nation's defense policies?

Seasoned soldiers with heavy combat experience are in no doubt about the relative importance of these three factors. They will answer these questions by saying something like - get the people issues right and good ideas and the right hardware will follow.

Napoleon, for example, said the moral is to the material as three to one.

Over 150 years later, General Bruce Clarke, considered by some to be the finest brigade-level armored commander in the finest Armored Division (4th Armored) the US fielded in World War II, echoed Napoleon's sentiments in testimony to Congress, when he asked rhetorically, "What constitutes the effectiveness of the armed forces our country produces? I believe there are three factors: First, their strength, arms, equipment, supplies, and transportation. Second, their morale, esprit, training, leadership, information, motivation, command, and confidence in their mission. Third, the ability for their government to employ them wisely and effectively. The second and third factors are far more important that the first."

These values were thrust in my face rather unpleasantly in the late 1970's, when I asked General Hermann Balck what he valued in a tank. The 80+ year old soldier looked at me with flashing eyes as if I had insulted him and said, "I am not a technician. I don't know anything about tanks." Balck's disdain for technology and hardware came from a man who fought on the eastern front in World War I and World War II, often with inferior equipment. It came from a man who may have fought in more tank battles as a senior officer than any man in history. Balck was Germany's most highly decorated general officer in WWII and was considered by many German officers to be one of the finest armored commanders in history. As commander of the recce battalion, Balck led Guderian's Army across the Meuse in 1940; as a brigade commander he unraveled the allies in Greece by leading a column through the "impassable" Tempe Gorge; as a tank division commander in December 1942, Balck successfully defeated the offensive thrusts of at least two Russian tank armies during mobile defense on the Chir River, destroying several Russian tank corps in the process. (This amazing series of battles occurred during the futile struggle to relieve the 6th Army encircled in Stalingrad Balck's mission was to work in concert with two clapped out infantry divisions to shield the vulnerable northern flank of the 4th Panzer army as it attempted a deep narrow relief thrust from the southwest).

Napoleon's experience was in pre-industrial war (1st Generation War), Clarke and Balck fought in technology-intensive maneuver warfare (3rd Generation War), yet despite their temporal and cultural differences, they held similar values..

Moreover, when Balck said he didn't know anything about tanks, when Clarke laid out his values, when Napoleon emphasized moral effects, they were expounding unchanging soldierly virtues that go back to the time of Alexander the Great and Sun Tzu.

Real soldiers know that good people with good ideas can figure out what works on the battlefield, and perhaps more importantly, will be able to take what they have been given and make it work when conditions are different from those predicted.

Their views are very different from those portrayed by America's most recent Armed Forces Day Posters, not to mention the Pentagon's obsession with technology and its sterile scholastic hypothecating about future visions of techno-revolutions in military affairs (which do have the obvious benefit of helping to spread defense contracts to congressional districts all over the country).

On the other hand, the contempt for people so evident in the succession of Posters and the techno-visions is consistent with the values described in the disturbing report by Andrea Stone [Reference].

Ms. Stone paints a horrifying portrait of another consequence of the sterile thinking that holds people and soldierly virtues in contempt: namely, the predilection to view decorations as primitive Pavlovian manpower management tools aimed a solving problems created by mismanagement and poor leadership. She describes a phenomenon of decoration "inflation" that would be more at home in a tin pot dictator's army in Central America and in Bruce Clarke's citizen-army of World War II, a phenomenon that is evidently now seen as a mockery by our most important allies.

Ms. Stone provides more evidence that Courtney Massengale is winning and Sam Damon is losing.

Read her report and weep.

Chuck Spinney

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