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

[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.

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

  1. Madhu Says:

    I can’t believe a throw away line from a comment of mine was fodder for two such thought provoking posts!!!! Wonderful food for thought.
    Anyway, I am in one of my “I hate the internet, passwords, password settings, blog, old blogs, lost blogs, Twitter, I can’t login in to this, I can’t login to that” moods because I can’t seem to login into a couple old accounts I have that I JUST ACCESSED LAST WEEK. Tried all the tricks. This keeps happening so it’s obviously on my end somehow.
    I wasn’t kidding when I said I was ready to go back to writing in spiral notebooks. It would be eccentric and retro. I would so do that, and then copy pages as backup.
    Er, sorry, JScott. The internet was not designed for an absent-minded gal like me who hates actually sitting in front of a computer and finds it annoying.  That fluorescent-ish light, the sounds of the keyboard, the ugliness of it all. OTOH, if there is a “glitch” in the system, I will figure it out somehow without meaning to, so there is that….

  2. Madhu Says:

    PS: I just like to vent. It helps somehow. Some people don’t get that.

  3. Madhu Says:

    Oh wait, back to your original point. I don’t know. I think the best I can do is volunteer my time here and there in some way.
    It just doesn’t make any difference. That is why people are hunkering down and not paying attention: no one thinks their input (I mean in terms of larger society, too) means anything so people hunker down and protect their own small worlds. That is where we are today. That is why even though there is general disgruntlement, not much will change….Feature not a bug for some.

  4. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    If we are going to have topic drift … I’ve been on warpath against passwords for a couple decades … we even have a couple dozen patents in the area. Semi-related in the recent financial cryptography rant .. basically most browser/internet security dependent on passwords (shared secret authentication)

    there is lot more recently in the linkedin financial fraud group … but it isn’t open … so no URL. lots of past blathering on the subject

  5. Madhu Says:

    My entire life consists of topic drift, Lynn….

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Lynn & Madhu,
    There is at least one more post on your “throw away line.” The problem of pretenders won’t go away anytime soon, but the least we can do is raise awareness.  

  7. Cary Kellogg Says:

    When I first came in the navy in1984, thieves and liars were not tolerated. They were caught and they were separated. Slowly over time their punishment became less and and less. The broken window theory in action. Now honesty is the exception not the norm. Sad.

  8. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Cary,
    Dealing with offenders harshly has given way to oppressive rules and regulations on everyone. With so many rules, no one can completely comply—much like the domestic federal laws. According to Harvy Silvergate, Americans commit about five felonies every day.
    To your point, the punishments diminished in large part because more behaviors were controlled/forbidden—if a command were to be strict constructionists, they’d have a hard time getting anything done for all the nonjudicial punishment (NJP)/Captain’s Mast needed. Thus, real offenses have become equated with admin violations—-and a thread of moral relativism begins to inform the culture—an “everyone does it” line of thought, hence politically correct becomes a de-facto ethos. Harvard’s Harvy Manfield said it best, “Having nothing to conform to, we conform to conformism—hence political correctness. Political correctness makes a moral principle of opposing, and excluding, those of us who believe in principles that don’t change.” (principles like honesty) That conformism is whatever each command emphasizes—and you can bet this microcosm of our meta culture detracts from the crew’s ability to fight their ship. [yes, I noticed three Harvey’s in this response:))]

  9. Lucien Gauthier Says:

    To clarify what I meant in that quote, is that a uniform encumbers senior leaders in a way that one, they arguably are always speaking on the record. Secondly, their opinion is always the official line of their organization.  And Thirdly, they speak on behalf of all those in their charge.  What’s more is that their words can be used in any way a reporter or blogger sees fit (and this is to say nothing of how words travel around an office/ship/pentagon).   

    It’s a damn mine field for senior military leadership to speak publicly, and they have to do it all the time.  I mean, what comes most to my mind (funny as it is) is the phrase ‘don’t hate the player; hate the game.’

    Don’t take me wrong, there have been actions in recent times that go well beyond having to operate in a very political atmosphere.  I won’t go into what I think what has denoted going beyond political talk. But, I do mean that the problem is well beyond the leadership itself, the organizations they’re apart of, or even the Government.  The problem is the whole way we communicate, the methods we’ve developed to bring attention to our causes, the way we expect our attention as audiences to be attracted.  All of it.  

    If you want senior leaders to be more honest, then reform in the media will be necessary.  We’ll additionally have to conceptualize what these leaders are differently.  We’ll need to be able to understand when they are giving a personal opinion vice the official opinion.  We’ll need to let them talk their mind more often–as well as the political leadership that commands them.  

    It’s a freakin’ mess working with the media.  Everything from stories they’ve invented to quotes they make fit their idea for the story, you can’t quite predict what they’ll do.  So, why should a senior leader say anything but what they think will cause the least harm?   

  10. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Lucien,
    That “damn mine field” is why they get the big bucks.
    “If you want senior leaders to be honest, then reform in the media will be necessary.” That ain’t going to happen…We react this way to the press because of fear (career and otherwise), and often ignorance—a lot of PowerPoint is needed to keep a modern flag officer fit and healthy—no way one could remember everything.
    Senior leaders should speak the truth; the military has become uniformed politics—at the 3 & 4 star levels they are indistinguishable—and not in a good way. Part of integrity is reliance on the truth, not the spin that “will cause the least amount of harm…” Our problems in this arena are so pervasive we’re having difficulty keeping our ships clean, or even building ships. Physics and math don’t lie, and can’t be “spun.” We are not being served well if this is the new normal. Truly a “to be or to do” moment, where career seems more important than anything else.

  11. Lucien Gauthier Says:

    On the parts you outline, I agree with you Scott. 
    But, to get back to normal, I think there will be a greater need for top cover from the political level. It will take choosing a generation of 3/4 stars that are inherently apolitical, and that don’t like to talk to the media.  
    An obvious outlier in this social media age is GEN Mattis.  When was the last time they guy gave an interview?  When was the last time he wrote an op-ed, blog, twitter post, or anything like that?  I can’t recall.  Yet, he is additionally the most respected Marine (any 4 star?) wearing the uniform today (IMHO), so how did he do this?  How is this possible?  It should be the contrary that is true if you listen to contemporary wisdom.
    As much as I agree with the need for 3/4 stars to communicate broadly, and consistently.  I also see the efficacy is not communicating, not making yourself apart of ‘the game’ allowing the professionals that work for you to do the talking, and save your voice for the most important topics, or the most dire need.  
    Perhaps the answer could be that our most senior military leaders should not be the spokesperson for their organizations.  Something similar to the regulations on giving and receiving gifts?  
    Lastly, since this topic strikes close to home for me, I should say that this is my personal and not professional opinion regarding this, nor does it reflect the opinion of anyone or anything I work for.  

  12. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Lucien,
    Concur on the need for political cover from politicians who aren’t afraid of the media. GEN Mattis stands out because he is rarely available and almost always has something insightful or inspiring to say. I’ve wondered how MacArthur would have social media, and the like, as he was a ham for the camera and podium—so your point about not being part of the game is well-taken.
    If the results of senior decision makers were more aligned with something approaching reality, then perhaps we could give these guys a pass. I don’t have to tell you, the “Nannie-state” is becoming writ-large in the military—-a social policy petri dish where the mission is suffering from the tinkering. 

  13. L. C. Rees Says:

    The job of senior leaders of the military is not to tell the truth. Their job is to follow the wishes of their civilian overseers.

    The American military system is tilted, intentionally, from the Constitution on down, toward producing military leaders who follow the wishes of civilian politicians and apparatchiks. The fighting prowess of senior military officers is unknown until bullets start flying. However, it’s easier to gauge their political prowess: by the time an officer is senior enough to be elevated to a rank that requires Congressional approval, they’ve demonstrated enough political prowess to climb the greasy pole of their service, their branch, their units, and their senior officers. Politicking civilian members of the executive and legislative branches is merely an continuation of this.

    If truth was a desired output of the American political system, than senior officers would be lauded for speaking the truth because that’s what their civilian superiors would encourage them to do. Since truth is not a desired output of the American political system nor, generally, of any political system in human history, truth speakers will be promoted above colonel only under exceptional (or accidental) circumstances. Things could be worse. They already have been.

  14. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi L.C.,
    We’re not talking a zero sum proposition; one can follow civilian overseers and tell the truth. My biggest problem with current Navy leadership is the literal craziness of their shipbuilding/planning process. We can still build subs, and maybe a carrier (we don’t need), but anything else is covered in pixie-dust and wishful thinking.
    Being a spectator hasn’t yet induced a level of cynicism which assumes lying is part and parcel of the profession—perhaps I may evolve, for now, I’ll stick with math and physics—which as I mentioned above, has a pesky habit of smoking out the dishonest. 

  15. L. C. Rees Says:

    A naval vessel must be versatile. Politics and war are zero-sum games: your loss is my gain and vice versa. So a naval vessel must perform multiple roles to carry out its missions:

    It must shovel enough dollars to enough people in enough states and congressional districts to get built.
    Its procurement and ongoing servicing must continually satisfy multiple power centers within DoD to keep afloat.
    It must be impressive looking enough in port that friend and foe alike think such a formidable looking vessel must be quite dangerous. 

    Hopefully it fulfills all those roles successfully. Optionally, it should help the nation win its wars without getting a lot of young Americans killed. But, given how many young Americans are killed at the beginning of our wars before the War and Navy departments pick up the slack, it must only be optional.

    Grandma told me that Grandpa, 12 other sailors, and 3 rifles were deployed to an obscure South Pacific island in early 1942 and ordered to stop the Japs. Since Grandpa was a machinist’s mate, his presence on the island was more surprising to himself than it would have been for the Japanese. If he and the other 12 had been slaughtered despite their formidable arsenal, a truthful epitaph would have been: DIED OF PROCUREMENT.

    Fortunately, the Japs never came.

    War has a pesky habit of smoking out the dishonest. Even if warfare is the Tao of deception, unless deception deceives, leading to military asymmetry in your favor, there is no truth in deception. Peace, for good or ill, is more forgiving than war. Since war is a continuation of politics with the admixture of other (usually violent) means, the Tao of politicking is the Tao of deception. So deceit is an integral and inescapable component of any political system just as deceit is an integral and inescapable component of any warfare complex. However, its pervasiveness waxes and wanes: sometimes the deceit used in interpolity and intrapolity conflict is ubiquitous. Sometimes it’s tampered down.

    In general, peace is more tolerant of political deceit, especially its more self-delusional flavors. In particular, contemporary American culture, a unintended byproduct of prolonged peace, is far more tolerant of deceit, especially among its self-appointed elites. Compared to the rest of the world, America is still a high trust country. However, it’s eating more and more of its stored up social seed corn to just get by.

    Recognizing that lying is part and parcel of any politically intensive profession, which being a senior officer is, and accepting it are two different things. Senior officers are not supposed to be politicians even though they are. Telling when a general or admiral is being a truthful professional and when he or she is being a calculating politician is difficult. They may say one truth in open committee, another truth in closed committee, and another truth as a “senior Pentagon official” in the New York Times. The services have their own agenda and their own politics to attend to. More often than not their truth will be conveniently congruent with their agenda and political needs and those of their sponsors.

    War can shatter the myths that peacetime tolerates and even encourages. However, even then arguments over how a particular weapon did or did not perform under wartime conditions are contested, even over millennia. I’ve seen surprisingly passionate debates over Bronze-age chariot tactics. Debates over recent wars are even more intense: were battlecruisers fundamentally flawed because they traded too much armor for speed or were they just mishandled? Were battleships truly obsolescent 10 years before the outbreak of WWII because of the onset of naval airpower or were they a valuable supplement to a combined fleet task force as shown by how many kamikaze’s were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire from Iowa class battleships at Okinawa? The fate of real power and real money is tied up in how such obscure historical arcana are resolved.

    The sanity of the shipbuilding process can be gauged by a simple metric: how many dollars are going toward building effective naval mines. Naval mines have always been an unpopular and unglamorous item for naval expenditure despite how they rival submarines as a destroyer of enemy shipping. Their even more unpopular and unglamorous in the current budget environment, especially compared with expensive, underarmored, undercrewed oversized patrol boats optimized for rapidly sinking in the littorals of Eurasia.

    Ubiquitous self-deploying undersea naval mines that can be launched from beyond the First Island Chain and into Asian littorals are the future. If the future gets built.

  16. zen Says:


  17. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi L.C.,
    Interesting comment, and your conclusion w/respect to naval mines is spot-on.
    Still, we disagree on the importance of honesty—within the institution, (I’ll conceded, in war, deception is part and parcel.), and on the construction of warships. The disconnect between what military leadership is saying and the realities on the ground is tearing at military culture. And like something else, dishonesty rolls down hill. We’re seeing the results, and several are listed in the original post.
    We’re building two ships along the lines of your suggestion, and they are probably death-traps (LCS and DDG 1000). The phenomena of building ships as a form of welfare/redistribution is one I hope can be reversed, or at least slowed, as it drives up costs.
    Mines and mine countermeasures are areas our navy always engages in a crisis; and steadfastly avoids during peacetime—a form of institutional dishonesty/refusal to deal with the real world. Once again, physics has a way or wringing-out the truth: we have a billion dollar/multi-billion dollar warship damaged/destroyed by a cheap mine(s)…this happened in the Persian Gulf not so long ago. Ignoring the threat won’t make it go away—hope is not a strategy.
    My contention is the balance of influence among too many flags is skewed dangerously to the political, to the detriment of the force they lead. Ignoring these trends won’t change the realities, and we can and must do better. 

  18. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Falsehoods have been justified as obfuscation and misdirection for adversaries & competitors. One of the downsides is when your own side is confused by the falsehoods, skewing not only the adversaries’ strategy … but your own.

    Basic to reform movement (and its beginnings with Boyd) has been the primary objective is not to best the opponent, but to make as much money for the MICC as possible … continuing forward to Spinney’s “Perpetual War” as well as the spreading “Success of Failure” culture.

    I’ve been reminded numerous times in my career that “Business Ethics” is an oxymoron.

  19. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Lynn, Well said.

  20. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    “War is a Racket” … Excerpt from a speech delivered in 1933 by General Smedley
    Butler, USMC. General Butler was one of the few Americans to be twice awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

    I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. …. Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.

    “War is a Racket” book:

    Smedley Butler
    War Is a Racket

    “War Is a Racket” wiki includes reference to:

    Perpetual war

    above also includes references to Spinney, et. al efforts.

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