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Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

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Ayatollah Khameini: Crony Capitalist and Slumlord

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Reuters has begun a remarkable series on the economic dealings of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini who controls a staggering fortune of $ 95 billion dollars through a secretive fund Setad that expropriates the property of poor Iranians and religious minorities. This would put the venerable theocrat in the same superclass as Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Warren Buffet and the Sultan of Brunei .

Up until now, former Iranian president Rafsanjani has always been the face of financial corruption in Iran’s clerical hierarchy, but to paraphrase John D. Rockefeller’s comment about J.P. Morgan, compared to Khameini ” he’s not even a rich man”:

Khamenei controls massive financial empire built on property seizures 

The 82-year-old Iranian woman keeps the documents that upended her life in an old suitcase near her bed. She removes them carefully and peers at the tiny Persian script.

There’s the court order authorizing the takeover of her children’s three Tehran apartments in a multi-story building the family had owned for years. There’s the letter announcing the sale of one of the units. And there’s the notice demanding she pay rent on her own apartment on the top floor.

Pari Vahdat-e-Hagh ultimately lost her property. It was taken by an organization that is controlled by the most powerful man in Iran: Supreme LeaderAyatollah Ali Khamenei. She now lives alone in a cramped, three-room apartment in Europe, thousands of miles from Tehran.

….But Setad has empowered him. Through Setad,Khamenei has at his disposal financial resources whose value rivals the holdings of the shah, the Western-backed monarch who was overthrown in 1979.

How Setad came into those assets also mirrors how the deposed monarchy obtained much of its fortune – by confiscating real estate. A six-month Reuters investigation has found that Setad built its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians: members of religious minorities like Vahdat-e-Hagh, who is Baha’i, as well as Shi’ite Muslims, business people and Iranians living abroad.

Setad has amassed a giant portfolio of real estate by claiming in Iranian courts, sometimes falsely, that the properties are abandoned. The organization now holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners.

The supreme leader also oversaw the creation of a body of legal rulings and executive orders that enabled and safeguarded Setad’s asset acquisitions. “No supervisory organization can question its property,” said Naghi Mahmoudi, an Iranian lawyer who left Iran in 2010 and now lives in Germany.

The Persian name of the organization that hounded her for years is “Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam” – Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam. The name refers to an edict signed by the Islamic Republic’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death in 1989. His order spawned a new entity to manage and sell properties abandoned in the chaotic years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It used to be said back in the 70′s by Western intellectuals of the tweedy, social democratic, Left variety that the future would be a merging of Communism and Capitalism into a “Third Way”, perhaps, it was optimistically suggested, of the gentle Scandinavian variety with, democracy, universal free child care and quaint, bicycle-riding, constitutional monarchs. I doubt anyone thinks that today. If there is any emerging universal model at all it is that of nasty authoritarian governments being run, sometimes under a facade of elections, by a bareknuckle, crony capitalist Oligarchy that hollowed out the state.

Sometimes,the crony capitalists are merely the junior partners to the mandarins, siloviki and mullahs and at other times you could look “….from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again” and be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Khamenei’s conglomerate thrived as sanctions squeezed Iran 

….The ayatollah’s organization would go on to acquire stakes in a major bank by 2007 and in Iran’s largest telecommunications company in 2009. Among dozens of other investments, it took over a giant holding company in 2010.

An organizational chart labeled “SETAD at a Glance,” prepared in 2010 by one of Setad’s companies and seen by Reuters, illustrates how big it had grown. The document shows holdings in major banks, a brokerage, an insurance company, power plants, energy and construction firms, a refinery, a cement company and soft drinks manufacturing.

Today, Setad’s vast operations provide an independent source of revenue and patronage for Supreme Leader Khamenei, even as the West squeezes the Iranian economy harder with sanctions in an attempt to end the nuclear-development program he controls.

“He has a huge sum at his disposal that he can spend,” says Mohsen Sazegara, a co-founder of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military force, who is now living in exile in the United States. “When you have this much money, that’s power itself.” 

Indeed. It insulates Khameini’s core supporters from external financial pressure and allows Khameini to have an arsenal of carrots, not just sticks in dealing with other members of the Iranian ruling elite.

It is often overlooked how frequently dictators, even those who were known for ruling through terror like Hitler, Stalin and Mao, could be lavishly generous with gifts and financial rewards or indulged the blatant corruption of powerful subordinates like Goering, Abukumov or Kang Sheng. Every Grand Ayatollah and Marja in Shia Islam maintains a charitable trust to which their pious followers donate. I would be extremely surprised if Khameini, whose scholarly credentials share similarities with Leonid Brezhnev’s military decorations, had not made arrangements for substantial contributions over the years from Setad to the trusts of Iran’s most respected senior clerics.

Baksheesh is an older faith in Iran than is Islam.

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“No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

but it’s got electrolytes…

We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and an on-going concern of the Institute is relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

“To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

“The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: ”No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

This is cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

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America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer, a review

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer (1870-1955)

Thanks to our blog friend Joseph Fouche, I discovered Brigadier General Palmer’s excellent history of how America has organized the army both in peacetime and in times of war. Fouche introduced Palmer in an excellent piece called, How Did We Get Here.

The Prologue to this excellent book begins:

When Washington became President, he had two main planks in his administration platform. His first plank called for a sound financial system; his second plank called for a sound national defense system.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, his first plank was installed before the end of his first administration. But it was not until 1920, more than one hundred and thirty years later, that Congress established a modern adaptation of his military organization. And it was not until 1940 that Congress completed the Washington structure by accepting the principle of compulsory military training and service in time of peace.

Thus begins one of the best written books I’ve read since Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy. While the authors cover different topics, both write in crisp, efficient prose and say what they mean the first time. One won’t find much fluff or nuance in either book; I like that.

Palmer traces the history of how America has organized to fight wars, and more often than not, the “how” is not pretty (we usually play catch-up in the early days of conflict). Palmer’s purpose in writing “this little book” was “to tell how Washington arrived at his military philosophy: how and why he was unable to persuade his countrymen to accept it; how their rejection of his advice affected their subsequent history; and finally how, after a century and a half their descendants have have been impelled to return to his guidance.” From the period of 1783 through 1911, Palmer’s book is history. Following 1911, Palmer provides “first-hand experience of the events described.”

Palmer begins with an early (pre-Constitution) inquiry to Washington by Congress on his views on a proper military policy for the new nation. Washington shopped the query around to Generals Steuben, Knox, Huntington, Pickering, Health, Hand and Rufus Putnam. Their responses were strikingly similar; “a well-regulated militia” would be sufficient for national defense. They agreed on a small regular army to patrol the Indian frontier and other “special duties” that could not be performed by citizen soldiers.

Palmer discovered Washington’s “Sentiment on a Peace Establishment” when researching his Washington, Lincoln, Wilson: Three War Statesmen. Washington’s treatise was pretty straightforward:

A Peace Establishment for the United States of America may in my opinion be classed under four different heads Vizt:

First. A regular and standing force, for Garrisoning West Point and such other Posts upon our Northern, Western, and Southern Frontiers, as shall be deemed necessary to awe the Indians, protect our Trade, prevent the encroachment of our Neighbours of Canada and the Florida’s, and guard us at least from surprizes; Also for security of our Magazines.

Secondly. A well organized Militia; upon a Plan that will pervade all the States, and introduce similarity in their Establishment Manoeuvres, Exercise and Arms.

Thirdly. Establishing Arsenals of all kinds of Military Stores.

Fourthly. Accademies, one or more for the Instruction of the Art Military; particularly those Branches of it which respect Engineering and Artillery, which are highly essential, and the knowledge of which, is most difficult to obtain. Also Manufactories of some kinds of Military Stores.

(Would highly recommend reading the entire piece.)

Palmer accounts for Washington’s seeming contradiction on the issue of militias, and points out that Washington was specific in his low opinion of an “ill-organized militia” (one based on short enlistments and political connections influencing the selection of leaders—a problem which endured in Lincoln’s Union Army). Washington favored a “well-organized militia” with the Swiss model ranking high in his esteem. Of the generals providing Washington with their thoughts, Palmer writes that Steuben and Knox were largely in agreement with Washington’s ideas. Both were in general agreement on the organization of small infantry divisions, or legions divided between New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South Atlantic. Under the direction of Congress, in 1786, General Knox (then Secretary of War) completed a Plan for a General Arrangement of the Militia of the United States.

The following plan is formed on these general principles.
1st.
That it is the indispensible duty of every nation to establish all necessary institutions for its own perfection and defence.
2′ndly,
That it is a capital security to a free State for the great body of the people to possess a competent knowledge of the military art.
3′dly,
That this knowledge cannot be attained in the present state of society but by establishing adequate institutions for the military education of youth— And that the knowledge acquired therein should be diffused throughout the community by the principles of rotation.
4′thly
That every man of the proper age, and ability of body is firmly bound by the social compact to perform personally his proportion of military duty for the defence of the State.
5′thly;
That all men of the legal military age should be armed, enrolled and held responsible for different degrees of military service.
And 6thly,
That agreeably to the Constitution the United States are to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

Congress did not enact the Knox plan as the United States, still under the Articles of Confederation was “insolvent” and unable to act. Palmer estimated that had Knox’s plan been adopted in 1786, “it is my estimate that the advanced corps would have numbered 60,000 men at the end of three years.” Those numbers would grow progressively as the population increased, so that at the outbreak of the Civil War, “the first line of the civilian army would have numbered about 500,000 men. ” By WWI in 1914, that number would have been about 1.8 million.

As president, Washington’s military policy was closely aligned to the Knox plan (Washington amended the original). The change involved a reduction in the required training for the advanced corp—then, as now, costs were the motivating factor for the reduction, but Washington wanted to get a national infrastructure approved. As mentioned previously, the Swiss model factored heavily among Washington and his general’s thinking—with the essential difference between the Swiss plan and Knox being the “distribution of training time.”

The first Congress was reluctant to embrace Washington’s ideas and instead passed the “notorius Militia Act of 1792.” Palmer said this Act made “our military system worse than before the bill was introduced. The old militia organization [the "ill-organized" that Washington deplored] with its phony regiments and divisions now had Federal sanction and was made uniformly bad throughout the nation.”

Washington was defeated in his efforts to develop and deploy a national militia. Washington in warning of foreign entanglements in his Farewell Adress also reminded us of the realities nations must shoulder:

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or War, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel…Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Palmer covers the efforts of Jefferson, and then, Madison to develop a cogent national military organization. The War of 1812 illustrated the the dangers of “the ill-organized militia” as it was, as organized the militias were found wanting. A new force emerged from the War of 1812 and that new force was the regular army. Palmer concludes this chapter: “The history of our modern regular army really begins with the War of 1812. Since then it has never failed to give a good account of itself. It won the pride and gratitude of the American people just when the failure of the national militia had filled them with contempt and humiliation.”

“A new military gospel” was formed after the War of 1812, and the War Department became the new headquarters of the regular army. Madison’s successors had to start over as the archives (including Washington’s Sentiments) were destroyed when the British burned the capitol in 1814. John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War under Monroe, advocated an “expansible standing army”—the antithesis of Washington’s ideas. Palmer said, this “expansible-standing-army” plan hampered American plans for preparedness for more than a century…[through 1941] and…is not quite dead.” The problem was “how” to expand this force in time of war.

As Palmer traces the military policy from Florida to Mexico, and the Civil War, the same problems recurred: the standing army was stretched thin at the outset of conflict and ill-equipped to train recruits provided by the Several States. Added to this was the problems of short enlistments, that in some cases left commanders waiting to pursue the enemy while waiting for fresh troops (Battle of the City of Mexico).

After the Civil War Congress took action to attempt a solution to the broken military organization problem. The Burnside Commission was formed with veterans of the Civil War, but without Washington’s wisdom to guide them. Palmer recounts the accident of history where General Emory Upton had just finished reviewing Washington’s military writings—but missed Sentiments (referenced in a footnote). Upton missed the “key” to Washington’s thinking on an “efficient citizen army.” It appears Upton took the Washington he had read and connected to the expansible standing army idea—and missed Washington’s true intent.

Elihu Root became Secretary of War in 1899 and traced our military faults in the Spanish American war to “defective organization.” The defective organization, in Root’s estimation was this paragraph in Army regulations: “The military establishment is under orders of the Commanding General of the army in that which pertains to its discipline and control. The fiscal affairs of the army are conducted by the Secretary of War through the several Staff Departments”—dual control. While he was resisted, in 1903 the office of the chief of staff was created. Palmer calls this the first of Root’s “great reforms.” He followed by formalizing planning and organizing “the American war army.” A General Staff college was formed to educate those who would serve in the newly reorganized Army. Root and his use of Upton’s work made an indelible mark on the army, and in many ways made the army more professional and able. On the downside, I sense Root provided the shell of what is now the massive military bureaucracy.

I’ll conclude my chronological review here, as the author enters the narrative in first person while signed to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War. Suffice it to say, Palmer’s recounting of “how” we have traditionally organized our army is a very informative read. I have seen many “reading lists” of generals and leaders, but haven’t seen this old book on any of those lists—it should be. The “tribal” disconnect between the regular army and the National Guard is explained (not in so many words, mind you), and Palmer’s recounting of the dangerous power of doctrine and dogma is worth the read. The writer of the biblical book Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” In America in Arms, military personnel and general reader will find that many of today’s challenges have been challenges since our Founding.

This book has my highest recommendation—especially if you are a serving army officer or have interest in American military organization. This is a great old book. Get a copy; Palmer has much to teach us.

Postscript: Another friend of this blog, Lexington Green, recommended Citizen and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service, by Eliot Cohen, in the comments to the same post posted at chicagoboyz.net. On Lex’s recommendation, I ordered and have Cohen’s book, but have not yet read.

Second Postscript: I purchased America in Arms from a used book dealer on abe.com, and was fortunate to get a first edition hardback (ex-library book) in excellent condition. This particular title spent time on the shelves of The Catlin Memorial Free Library, Springfield Center, NY, and was placed there by the Arthur Larned Ryerson Memorial; Mr. Ryerson perished on the Titanic. In addition, this particular edition was also published by Yale by the Foundation established in the memory of Philip Hamilton McMillan (check the wife and children entry), Yale Class of 1894. Quite a pedigree for any book; a book that will remain safely in my collection. (the photo above is a snap-shot of my copy)

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John Seely Brown: “The Power of Pull”

Monday, November 1st, 2010

John Seely Brown, who is the co-author of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion along with blogfriend John Hagel and Lang Davison, is primarily speaking about education and learning in an ecological paradigm.

Note to self: I need to read this book.

That said, “pull” is the fulcrum for all 20th century orgs that hope to adapt to the 21st, not just public education. Hierarchies, including states, can no longer completely dominate, only aspire to generally arbitrate, or concentrate their powers in an asymmetric fashion. To do this, over the long term, requires putting  attracting the allegiance of clients and allies capable of taking independent initiative in harmony with the org’s vision rather than relying primarily upon coercion to force people to mechanistically follow orders.

Not sure that too many people in our hallowed institutions “get it”.

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