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A crack in the foundation - Input Junkie
November 14th, 2012
10:48 am


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A crack in the foundation
The Generals: American Military Command from World War 2 to Today by Thomas Ricks has the premise that during the Korean war, there was a stable cultural shift away from the military firing or transferring generals for unsatisfactory military performance.

No cost for bad performance, and no rewards for good performance.

This doesn't mean that all the generals were incompetent, just there was no pressure towards good performance.

Since (to put it mildly) military history isn't my strong point, I read a bunch of comments about the book at amazon and at a substantial article about it, and no one seemed to be disagreeing with the basic premise, though there was some disagreement about the details.

What's more, moving the details of how generals were handled to the president meant that subtlety was lost. It seemed as though all the president had was ending the general's career, while the military was more apt to transfer a general-- and some of them came back to leading during combat later (time to think? different sort of battle?) and did well.

In an interview, Ricks mentioned that generals could only be fired for "zipper offenses"-- sexual impropriety-- but not for military issues. I've been meaning to post this for a couple of weeks, and any resemblance to current news is purely coincidental.

He also said that the soldiers and low-level officers are excellent, and sometimes make generals look better than they deserve.

Anyway, this is huge. Getting into wars while being unnecessarily bad at fighting them has tremendous costs of every imaginable sort. I've been jumping up and down and telling people about this, and they don't seem terribly much interested or outraged. Maybe I care more about abstract infrastructure than most.

I'm not sure what would be a good way to get out of this mess. It's been going on for some 70 years, which means that no one now alive remembers the old self-regulating culture at the top of the military.

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(7 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:November 14th, 2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
It IS huge; 'abstract infrastructure' is what 'everything else' is based on. Why do we even have generals, if they'can't do their jobs? Abraham Lincoln would spit.
[User Picture]
Date:November 14th, 2012 04:44 pm (UTC)
Interesting, as the Korean War featured one of the most famous firings of a general that ever was. But he was fired neither for military incompetence (at which he was all over the map - both incompetent and frickin' brilliant on different occasions) nor sexual impropriety, but for speaking out of place and publicly questioning his superiors, for which his firing was amply deserved.
[User Picture]
Date:November 14th, 2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
I follow Tom Ricks pretty regularly, and I was actually involved in the feedback loop that led up to his writing the book. So yeah, I know of what he speaks. The problem coincides with the creation of the Department of Defense, and the expansion of the general officer corps to hundreds of members. It can only be solved by action of the civilian leadership, by which I mean the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. But since those service secretaries are approved by the senate, and many senators like the status quo (see Military-Industrial Complex that Dwight David Eisenhower warned us about)the chance of a service secretary actually fixing this are minimal. So it's really going to take several Secretaries of Defense in a row to define and implement policies that change this.
[User Picture]
Date:November 14th, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
Would you care to expand on that?

I can see that having a lot of generals (Dunbar's number is 150) would break down the ability of generals to evaluate each other, but the other logical connections you're making are beyond my knowledge.

What's the connection between the Department of Defense and the military-industrial complex? Can't they just get lucrative contracts anyway?
[User Picture]
Date:November 14th, 2012 11:10 pm (UTC)
Anybody in uniform is under the command of somebody else. With the exception of the Combatant Commanders (who are all 4-star generals) they all report to other people in uniform. The Combatant Commanders report to the Secretary of Defense. SecDef is appointed by the President, with the approval of the Senate.

The connection between DoD and the Military-Industrial Complex is that DoD is half of it. They are the customer for all the multi-billion dollar corporations that cater to defense and they also become employees of those corporations after they retire. Or at least many of the generals and admirals do. It's quite incestuous.

The way that military procurement works is closely tied to the General officer corps. There was a time when procurements were done by lower ranking officers who still had much of their careers ahead of them, and who were kept in touch with reality. Not so much now.
[User Picture]
Date:November 15th, 2012 08:43 am (UTC)
Not just generals and admirals. When I was part of the military-industrial complex, one of the two top salesmen was a retired Sergeant Major. Being able to speak Military Bossman was clearly a big win for him.
Date:November 15th, 2012 01:33 am (UTC)
Hey, that's better than the Catholic Church. Even zipper offenses don't get them in as much trouble as it should.

But more seriously, I think this top-heavy structure is a problem in a lot of America. After all, the last people the top guys want to blame is other top guys, because they might be blamed next. They all went to academy together, too (or Ivy League or frat houses in the civilian sector), so they're all buddies wanting to help each other up. CEOs don't ship the most overpaid jobs of all overseas, because that would be their jobs.

I've been reading a book about the Napoleanic wars, and it looks like the biggest advantage he had was that the French Revolution had weeded out all the aristocratic deadbeat generals, leaving lots of young and hungry officers pushing up. Meanwhile, in Russia and Austria most of the officers were nobility who just assumed they knew what they were doing because their great grand pa won a battle once, and in England commissions were bought and sold.
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