zenpundit.com » USMC

Archive for the ‘USMC’ Category

American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980’s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.

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

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Since the original post of “No one is really listening, they are just pretending,” there are indications that pretending may actually be doing institutional harm.

The US Naval Institue recently sponsored the Joint Warfighting Conference 2012, and my friend Lucien Gauthier (YN2/SW) wrote a very good recap of the event. In his post, Lucien remarked on the comments of retired USMC General James “Hoss” Cartwright. Cartwright’s comments have been described by others around the blogosphere as “unleashed,” and indeed his comments may have raised a few eyebrows. But this sentence of Lucien’s post, while perhaps stating the obvious may reveal one challenge the Navy and DOD face in the credibility and trust department:

“Gen Cartwright had the luxury of no longer being in uniform and so his candor was particularly poignant.”

Now I don’t know General Cartwright, but I know people who do and they report he is a fine officer, and my remarks aren’t about him, but the implications of Lucien’s observation. The suggestion “…the luxury of no longer being in uniform and so his candor…”  struck me, for what is the reverse? “…in uniform, no candor?” If our highest ranking officers wait until they are retired to be candid, what does that say for those remaining in uniform, and what does it say about the environment? Does the environment inspire pretending? How many serving “pretend” daily just to get by, or worse, to get promoted?

A few months ago in a conversation with a young naval officer, one of the brightest I know, I was talking about “to be or to do” and the value of honesty always. The officer remarked, “Well sometimes you have to let the boss think the idea was his…” or something to that effect. I made the point that this is part of the problem: if these leaders are so uptight they need to be handled, then they are part of the problem. Trust can grow only where honesty is ubiquitous.

Recently, the Navy Times published a short query entitled, “Tell us what you think: Faith in Navy Brass?” One of the questions surprised me: “Do you trust the Navy’s leadership and still take them at their word?” If those who responded (be sure to read the comments) are to be believed, the answer is a resounding, “no.” Curiosity piqued, I conducted an informal poll among a small group of naval officers (active duty and retired) asking the same question. The answer: “no.” Since my Navy days, I’ve heard the old saw, “A bitching Sailor is a happy Sailor,” but this seems different.

At least ten commanding officers have been relieved of command eight months into 2012. Two were relieved due to unfavorable command climate surveys, so one could conclude the Navy is listening and taking action in some quarters. The recent decision by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to require breathalyzers of Sailors and Marines reporting for duty introduces evidence of distrust, and his decision is nothing short of institutional micromanagement. At their core, a micromanager does not trust their subordinates.

When the folks on the pointy-end of the spear aren’t trusted, leaders should not be surprised when those folks return the favor. So to leaders, while you may think some of your subordinates agree with you, they may pretending, and are you ok with that? Are you ok with that if you learn you are the cause? Less pretending, more honesty.

Postscript: For more evidence, check out his post at the USNI Blog, The Wisdom of a King. Another fine example of the importance of trust can be found in a September 2012 Proceedings article by LCDR B.J.Armstrong, Leadership & Command (both come highly recommended).

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

Turning Away From Strategy

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

It appears that the Pentagon no longer intends to educate the most talented members of the officer corps to think strategically.

I say this because the status of the premier professional military education institutions – the war colleges and NDU – have been devalued, their leadership slots demoted and their educational mission degraded. As a guest columnist for Tom Ricks noted back in June:

….The new uniformed leadership of the Armed Forces, i.e., General Dempsey and his staff, apparently intend to prune NDU back to where it was a few decades ago. There will be some modest resource savings, but since the entire university budget doesn’t amount to the cost of a single joint strike fighter, one has to wonder what is motivating all of what is happening here. In the cuts that have been discussed, Dempsey’s deputy, Marine Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn has wielded the meat axe, often with the aid of micromanaging action officers. No one here in the rank-and-file is sure if the urbane chairman is on board with the details of all of this. (Ironically, both the chairman and J-7 are NDU graduates with advanced degrees.)

This set of changes took place in stages. First, while very few general or flag officer slots were cut in the armed forces, the three-star president of the university slot was downgraded to two, and the school commandants, downgraded from two to one star. No big deal, one might say, but one would be wrong, very wrong. A three star in Washington can go head-to-head with a principal on the joint staff or a senior OSD bureaucrat to protect the university. To compound the problem, the last three star president was retired in the spring and the university was left for a few months under the command of a senior foreign service officer, a former ambassador, a woman of great diplomatic talent and experience with no clout in the Pentagon. The new commandant — a highly regarded Army two-star — will not report until deep into June, when all or most of the cuts have been set in concrete. (Interesting question: can an employee of the State Department legally or even virtually assume command of a DoD organization?)

….A new “charter” was subsequently published by the Chairman. It focused the university on joint professional military education and training, which in itself, is a good thing. Immediately, however, the research and outreach activities of the university, often more focused on national strategy than military affairs, came under intense scrutiny. These outfits had grown way beyond their original charters and had become effective and highly regarded servants of a wider interagency community. Much of their work was not done for the joint staff but for OSD Policy, and some of that in conjunction with civilian think-tanks. The research arm of the university was productive, even if not always useful in a practical way to the joint staff. It also was helpful to the colleges in a much more proximate and direct fashion than other think tanks, like RAND.

….The research, gaming, and publications arms of the university — a major part of the big-think, future concepts and policy business here — will be cut to somewhere between half and a third of their original sizes. To make things worse, many of the specific cuts appear to have been crafted in the Pentagon, and nasty emails have come down from on high, about how the university is bankrupt and going into receivership, which was never the judgment of the military and civilian accrediting officials, who inspect us regularly and have generally given the university high marks.

If it would be impressive if some of our senior generals had been as effective on the battlefield as they are in the bureaucracy.

Uncreative destruction of intellectual seed corn is a bureaucrat’s way of telling everyone to shut up, don’t question and get in line. There’s nothing wrong with having excellence at joint operations as an educational goal for most future brigadiers and major generals but our future theater commanders, combatant commanders, service chiefs and their respective staff officers need something more – they need strategy.  More importantly, the Secretary of Defense, the President, the Congress and the American people need the DoD to have an in-house capacity to generate deeply thought strategic alternatives, question assumptions and red-team any self-aggrandizing options the services or bureaucracy feel like offering up in a crisis.

The motivation here is simple, really. If you put out all the strategic eyes of the Pentagon, then the one-eyed men can be King. Or he can always contract out his strategic thinking to highly paid friends to tell him what he wishes to hear.

Naturally, this will have bad effects downstream in a superpower whose civilian leadership seldom has as good a grasp of geopolitics and the fundamentals of classical strategy as they do of law or the partisan politics of running for office. They will be in need of sound strategic advice from uniformed military leaders and they will be much less likely to get it. Instead, they will have senior officers who are less likely to balk when the President’s back-home fixer turned “adviser” or superstar academic with delusions of grandeur pushes a half-baked plan at an NSC meeting to “do something”. When that happens, the jackasses kicking down this particular barn will have long-since retired and cashed out with consultancies and sinecures on boards of directors.

While a lack of strategic thinking can undermine even a lavishly funded and well-trained military, the reverse is also true; strategic leadership can revive an army that is but a half-dead corpse.

A brief illustration:


After WWI the two states that made the most extreme cuts in military power were defeated Germany and the victorious United States. Germany was forced to do so by Versailles, but responded by opting under General von Seeckt to reduce to 100,000 men by making the Reichswehr a qualitatively superior nucleus of a future expanded German Army. Prohibited from having mass, the Germans opted for class with every long-serving recruit being considered officer material and being superbly trained (even to the extent of covert training and weapons testing jointly with the Red Army deep inside the Soviet Union to evade Allied inspections). Von Seeckt also instituted a shadow general staff office that thought deeply about tactical lessons, operations and strategy for the next war. Without the Reichswehr being what it was it is highly dubious that Hitler could have so rapidly expanded the Wehrmacht into a world-class land fighting force in so few years time.


In contrast, the United States radically reduced the size of the regular Army and starved it of weapons, ammunition, gasoline, training and basic supplies. Promotions slowed to a crawl where ancient colonels and elderly majors lingered on active duty and future four and five star generals like Eisenhower, Patton, and Marshall all despaired and contemplated leaving the service. The Army’s – and to extent, America’s – salvation was in the fact that George Marshall persevered as a major and colonel in keeping a little black book of talented, forward thinking, officers and thought deeply and reflectively about building armies, helping enact “the Fort Benning Revolution” in military training. When FDR placed the power in Marshall’s hands as Chief of Staff he knew exactly what to do because he had a well-conceived vision of where the US Army needed to go to meet the national emergency of WWII. He was the American von Seeckt, except that Marshall was an infinite improvement morally, strategically and politically on his German counterpart. We were extremely fortunate to have had him.
We may not be as lucky next time.

Recommended Reading: Five Notable Posts

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Recently, several notable posts have continued, or amplified the ideas introduced by Lt. Benjamin Kohlman’s post at Small Wars Journal calling on “disruptive thinkers.” I’ll be sharing five posts: three are serialized and offer a historical example of disruptive thinking in the U.S. Navy and the resultant lessons. The fourth is written by LTG Walter F. Ulmer, Jr. (USA, Ret) and defines a major obstacle to the disruptive thinker, namely, “toxic leaders.” The fifth is an current example of a young active duty officer, Richard Allain (USMC) thinking deeply about his profession and offering ideas on adaptability and innovation.

VADM William Sims

Navy Lieutenant Commander Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong wrote a three installment post at the US Naval Institute blog, and his topic was an example of not only disruptive thinking, but of courage, persistence, and what LCDR Armstrong calls (correctly) “grit.” Here is an excerpt from the first installment describing then-Lt. William Sims:

In 1900 he was a Lieutenant, fresh off staff duty in Europe as an intelligence officer.  He had orders to China Station to join the U.S. Navy’s newest and most powerful battleship, the USS KENTUCKY.  He arrived aboard the battleship having studied the early Dreadnaught battleships of Europe and the gunnery practices of both potential allies and potential adversaries alike.

Sims checked onboard and discovered that the Navy’s “newest and most powerful” may have been new, but it certainly wasn’t powerful.  There were a number of problems with the ship.  The hull was armored under the waterline, but the sides and gun turrets were open and un-protected.  The gundecks were so low to the waterline that when the ship was fully loaded and took heavy seas water would pour into the turrets.  And there was no separation of the magazines and the weatherdecks and gundecks, so a hit from an enemy shell could directly access the magazines.

Sims was incensed.  He set about recording the deficiencies.  In a letter to a friend he wrote: “The Kentucky is not a battleship at all.  She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race.” 

In the second installment, Lt. Armstrong describes then-Lt. Sims “grit:”

Sims had submitted 13 reports in all, over the span of two years, each one continually improving his method and technique.  When he heard that the Bureau of Ordnance had completed a test and proved that what he claimed was impossible, he finally had enough.  He knew that if the United States Navy went up against a force that was using continuous aim fire it would be decimated.  Destruction of the fleet would open up the U.S. coast to invasion, as the Brits had done in the War of 1812 (a war that was roughly as distant to him as World War I is to us).  He believed that the nation’s security depended on his success.

Lieutenant William Sims did something that he later characterized as “the rankest kind of insubordination.”  He wrote a letter to the President.

Writing the President is is pretty disruptive, and the President read the letter and acted.

LCDR Armstrong, in his final installment called, Voice, Grit, and Listening…A Look at the Possible:

Finally, we all need to learn to listen.  This is especially true as we become more senior.  Today we may be the junior leaders, but that means tomorrow some of us will be the mid-grade leaders, and in the future some of us will be the senior leaders of the Navy.  Sims is proof that when you remember it’s not about you but instead it’s about the idea and about the Service, you can continue to innovate as you are promoted.

These three posts are exceptionally relevant, and highly recommended.

LTG Ulmer’s essay in Army magazine, June 2012 issue, is titled: Toxic Leadership, What Are We Talking About? General Ulmer defines toxic leadership:

Defining toxic leader is the first priority before addressing numbers, impact, cause and solution. Webster’s defines toxic as poisonous, not far from destructive or harmful.

Toxic leaders are a major obstacle, and according to General Ulmer’s essay, make up almost 10% of the Army’s officer corps. General Ulmer goes on to define precisely toxic leaders in the military context, explain how they continue to survive, and offer solutions. His analysis is lucid and spot-on. The other services could learn from the Army’s lesson, and take positive action to separate toxic leaders using indigenous resources—essentially using the personnel system to weed these folks out:

A very good soldier and scientist, LTC Larry Ingraham, now deceased, commented on the dramatic differences among subordinate reputations of senior officers, saying that the personnel system that cannot distinguish between the revered and the despised must have a fundamental flaw.

The final essay comes from today’s Small Wars Journal. The title is Innovation in a Small War, and is truly an exercise in deep thinking on how the Marine Corps plans, adapts, innovates, and fights. On creativity, Allain says:

Current theories of creativity support a process consisting of four key themes.  Creativity results from the invention and bounding of a problem, deconstruction of existing mental concepts, synthesis of these concepts in a new way, and test and development of the novelty to become valuable.

Allain recognizes the institutional obstacles to innovation:

It is clear that we need both innovators and adaptors within the Marine Corps to execute our doctrine.  Without a balance we can stagnate or fluctuate wildly, rapidly finding ourselves unable to cope with structured or unstructured situations.  While Marines are elite, they still have a spread in distribution of natural talents and attributes and exercise a spectrum of adaptive and innovative thought processes.

He concludes:

The field of military innovation studies must expand its orientation and re-examine the interconnectedness of adaptability and innovation, appreciation and leadership, and military effectiveness.  Specific focus should be given to the aforementioned instances of resistance to innovation.  It created stagnation and inhibited learning, a sign of ineffectiveness under this theory, and deserving of analysis.

Allain’s essay, along with the other posts, should be required reading for all are instructive, and all offer examples and solutions—and I would offer, an inspiration to those members on the fence about wading into the debate.

Well done to all!

ADDENDUM to original: Mark Tempest over at EaglesSpeak links to some insightful posts (duplicating a few above), and makes a good point about age (us old guys), illustrating you can teach an old dog new tricks—if the dog is paying attention…

Cross posted at tobeortodo.com

Book Review: The Snake Eaters by Owen West

Friday, June 8th, 2012

The Snake Eaters by Owen West 

Owen West, commodities trader, novelist and USMC Major in the Reserves has written a remarkable book in his war story of counterinsurgency in Khalidiya, a decaying rural town in the deadly Anbar province, heartland of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. A success story for COIN, but also a very cautionary tale of the transformation of the Iraqi Brigade 3-1, from a dispirited, ill-equipped, poorly led unit distrusted and ignored by it’s American “partner” battalion and under siege by a hostile population into a self-confident, elite, combat force, “the Snake-Eaters”, feared by insurgents and respected by townspeople – and of their American advisors of Team Outcast who struggled to broker this transformation.

After reading The Snake-Eaters and reflecting, the book speaks to readers at different levels.

For the casual reader,  West has a narrative with no shortage of colorful characters – the inexperienced jundis, “Hater”, the grim Major Roberson, Colonel Troster, “Captain Bomb”, “Private Crazy”,  the treacherous police chief Shalal, the Superfriends, the beloved Doc Blakley, the indomitible Major Mohammed, Sheikh Abbas, the no-nonsense Huss, “Ogre” McCarthy, the Sadiqiya Sniper and some advisors who were “strange by any measure”.

The chronically undermanned, underesourced handful of  Team Outcast advisors in might resemble a Middle-eastern version of The Magnificent Seven, except that unlike Yul Brynner, Colonel Troster arrived in Khalidiya only to find Calvera and his bandits in control of the town, completely invisible and supported by a community that was implacably hostile:

….To protect a fellow Sunni was the duty of every Khalidiyan. Even if they didn’t love AQI, they were socially connected to and literally enriched by, the local insurgency. In the same way small Texas towns follow their football teams, everybody in Khalidiya knew an active resistance fighter and kept score. The Americans promised security but had brought a hurricane of damage. They passed through Khalidiya in their armored trucks like tourists on glass bottomed boats admiring exotic fish.

The Khalidiya sheikhs, a title loosely used in Anbar for any man with influence, implored the AQI fighters to remain cautious. If they paraded in their black balaclavas too prominently in town, mugging for pictures on al Jazeera, they would draw the attention of Marine headquarters in nearby Fallujah. It was best to inflict some casualties on each American unit that rotated through the area – enough to keep Americans on the defensive but not so many that the Marines would mass their forces and crush the city, as they had done to Fallujah in 2004.

The 3-1 of the New Iraqi Army in Khalidiya bore scant resemblance to a unit of the mighty, Soviet equipped, legions with which Saddam Hussein had daunted his neighbors, held off Iran for ten years of bloody combat or sacked and pillaged Kuwait. Or even the shadow version of Saddam’s Army, decimated by American arms  and hollowed out by a decade of UN sanctions after the Gulf War. West describes the Iraqi soldiers initially as a mendicant mob of ill-fed, untrained, Shia jundis without heavy arms, patrolling as seldom as possible, with beat-up Nissan junkers and a pray and spray shooting reaction to the frequent IED blasts that injured and killed them with regularity.

Like any underdog story, with much suffering and lessons learned counted in the lives of men, the American advisors bond with their Iraqi charges through a herculean effort at non-stop  patrolling of  Khalidiya’s bomb and sniper-ridden streets. Training Iraqis in aggressive tactics while learning Iraqi mores from them, the 3-1 evolves up into the Snake-Eaters, winning over the townspeople of Khalidiya and demoralizing, defeating and driving away the insurgents and gaining the respect of their American mentors. This is the level at which most readers will enjoy and be impressed with The Snake -Eaters.

A second level of reading will be for defense intellectuals, policy wonks, COIN and CT theorists, military historians and other academics. Despite West writing with tactful restraint, avoiding directly criticizing senior brass or national civilian leadership by name, The Snake-Eaters is, in it’s own way, an incredibly damning indictment by virtue of empirical observations of the conditions and restrictions under which Team Outcast labored, driving home the disconnect between leaders, indifferent bureaucrats or FOBbits and the men waging COIN on the ground.  Only in the last chapters, when West himself appears in the narrative, does the author permit himself something approaching real and embittered criticism of the Alice-in-Wonderland myopia that sometimes prevailed during the Iraq War:

“If he does this again, I will end his life! Dhafer threatened. “I will burn his house down!”

It was an empty threat. Every day in Iraq, troops encountered suspected insurgents who had previously been arrested. When I first joined the team, I had read Troster’s after-action report excoriating the “ridiculous evidentiary justice system” that “had no place in a wartime environment”. Most detainees were let go because their crimes could not be proved to the satisfaction of corrupt Iraqi judges, or to US military lawyers. We didn’t have prisoners of war in Iraq, only criminal suspects entitled to many of the same rights as in the States. Most detainees were set free within a few months. The advisors called it “catch and release”.

That’s an excellent of example of policy sabotaging strategy and undoing tactical success for transient to nonexistent political benefits for those in comfortable, clean offices far, far away from the crack of rifle fire and the cries of wounded men.

In his Epilogue, West is even more frank regarding counterinsurgency and respect for his efforts in Khalidiya and in the writing of this book require excerpting it here:

While writing this book over the past four years, I’ve tried to figure out how much influence an advisor team really has on it’s unit., and whether institutional expectations match those limitations. I have again read the field manuals taught in our Army and Marine schools where we train advisors. The manuals have an upbeat, culturally correct tone, suggesting that our soldiers and Marines will succeed as advisors based on their tact and sensitivity. The manuals need drastic revision: they are misleading a generation of advisors.

That the recent conference at Leavenworth on the COIN rewrite has been an insular affair may not bode well for the acceptance of critical, empirically-based, views of COIN being offered by Major West.

The final level of reading is one to which West alludes several times in the text, but one in which I cannot share, is that of the soldier or marine who was “outside the wire”. For those men, there is a poignancy in the stories of the figures portrayed in The Snake Eaters that goes beyond mere words, which West bluntly states comes with a sense of despair at the lack of comprehension in the civilian world. Perhaps these feelings of isolation are also shared by veterans of earlier wars, when they speak of Kasserine Pass, the Bulge,  Chosin or Khe Sanh; or perhaps not, as every war is horrible in it’s own way. But if we cannot understand these shades of grief and meaning that West indicates are harbored in our veterans, the rest of us can at least acknowledge them and respect it.

The Snake-Eaters is an important book that delivers a microcosm of the COIN war in Iraq, gritty and unromanticized, as experienced by jundis, marines, soldiers and Iraqis in sweltering and crumbling Khalidiya. It is a success story but it is where the phrase “winning ugly” comes to mind; dedication and valor, stubborness and cunning, pitted against dolorous bureaucracy and savage insurgency.

Strongly recommended.

Switch to our mobile site