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

[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.

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

  1. zen Says:

    You’ve put your finger on the symptom of a broad epistemic crisis in America, Scott. Nonsense is held on par with reason and evidence these days not just by fools but by ppl with claims to “leadership”

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Just saw the new “Dempsey Doctrine.” There is a whole lot of nonsense and ambiguity wrapped in just a few short sentences. Does DoD have a unit that writes this nonsense or is it in the drinking water? 

  3. historyguy99 Says:


    Your post reflects what I see as a generation of pretend leadership that began when our fellow “Boomers” came to power. This has infected the core values of institutions and left us a nation of pretenders who are merely treading water or flowing with the current.

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Dr. Thomas,
    You are spot-on. Thomas P.M. Barnett said something to the effect that the Boomer generation will go down in history as the worst leaders our country has had to endure. More often than not, I’m at variance with TPMB, but on this one—he is spot on.
    These folks value style over substance, and it is my hope a new generation will dispel and dispence with their madness. 

  5. MikeF Says:

    Yesterday, I read this quote in an article claiming that everything was going swarmingly in A’stan.
    “We have to sort of muddle through with this arrangement,” said Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
    I don’t think that we need disruptive thinkers.  Honestly, at this point, I think that we just need thinkers.

  6. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Mike,
    Concur. Perhaps in a turn of the phrase, we don’t have thinkers because it would be disruptive. Most of the military has been herded into groupthink and groupspeak. One of my favorite blogs is CDR Salamander’s navy blog. His mast head reads:
    Sounds impressive, but is meaningless. And we spend too much time and money we don’t have chasing this crap.

  7. L. C. Rees Says:

    Jibber about “leadership” is a leading indicator that collective orientation/asabiya/coup d’oeil/tacit knowledge/paradiggum/shared wisdom/sight beyond sight is breaking down. Since that collective OACd’OTKPSWSBS developed through highly contingent emergence and its decay is often the unintended side-effect of attempts by “thinkers” (however “disruptive”) to codify it by making it explicit knowledge, calling for more “leadership” or “thinking” is counter-productive. When you find yourself in a hole, you should first stop digging, not start digging more aggressively. Much of what passes for proposed leadership or thinking to remedy the current consensus is slash and burn Sullan reforms that end up merely recapitulating the current consensus only more so. If the side-effect of your efforts is more clear cutting of already fragile social ecology, only now more aggressively, take a chill pill and ponder effective followership discipleship instead of how you too can be a chief. Treacle on how to be a “leader” would slow to a trickle if all “leadership studies” had to operate under the banner of an unfashionable foreign loanword that captures their implicit assumptions on what the driver of human effort is: Führerprinzip.

  8. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi L.C. Rees,
    Many thanks for your thoughtful input!
    I concur with your opening statement (and learned two phrases, but must confess I could find no definition for paradiggum). One reason for the post is a trend toward groupthink in the US military, which can lead to a collective blindness to alternatives. I also agree there is an element of emergence that has advanced the military arts through the years, though only so far as members are able to apprehend and contextualize what is known from history into tacit solutions. One reason I admitted “disruptive thinking” has the smell of sloganeering is I fear it is. MikeF in his call for “thinkers,” was, I believe, calling for an intellectual depth beyond whatever fad military leadership happens to be embracing; to think and judge critically to learn what to adopt and what to ignore. If my reading of military history is accurate, this is one element of the emergent quality of military art.
    Explicit knowledge is necessary to establish a framework to transition to the tacit, and is the foundation. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like must deal with much that is by definition explicit. Another reason for the post was Sumida’s fear that “minds and wills” would not be open nor willing to build on the parts of Mahan’s explicit framework and make it their own, and thus tacit; using the parts they needed, ignoring the rest.
    With deference, the approach to “current consensus” probably won’t be “slash and burn,” but rather an attitude espoused by Gen George S. Patton, Jr., “If everybody is thinking alike, someone’s not thinking.” Further, my view of what I view as groupthink in US leadership is anything but a “fragile social ecology,” and if anything, it is quite dangerously robust (again, another reason for the concern and recommendations for action in the post).
    We are in agreement in your assessment of “leadership studies” though you lose me with Führerprinzip. I believe much of what passes for “leadership studies” to be a waste of time, both of the students and their teachers. My preference would be a deep and critical knowledge of history, the military arts, strategy, literature/classics forming an intellectual foundation.
    Your remarks on followership/discipleship is the essence of my remarks on leaders creating environments for their people to watch them practice and know thinking is expected and encouraged, and to know an on-going sense of curiosity will be met with critical, but anticipated interest. If this attitude is, “in the air,” as it were, we’re much more likely to have practitioners who can think and lead when it counts most. These attitudes happen naturally for some leaders, for others they need to learn—-and some will never learn, and may be brilliant and blessed with subordinates who are brilliant, or they may be brutal bastards (Führerprinzip—my American southern English translation) who reserve to themselves the singular authority to direct—however, these groups are often one or two thinkers away from defeat. Just a thought.
    Many thanks again for your thoughtful comments! 

  9. Madhu Says:

    J Scott:

    What a wonderful post you’ve written. It’s interesting to see how others interpret a comment and the wonderful train of thought that follows.
    “To be or to do….” I’m in a “to do” moment and writing. I am so slow. Always have been. Always wondered if I have a kind of dyslexia that has to do purely with writing and not with reading, because reading I do fine.
    At any rate, what I get from the “disruptive thinkers” debate is that a cohort of men and women who did the fighting for our nation these past ten-odd years are questioning whether the bureacracy that governs their professional life is entirely fit. I’ve been reading blogs –and now tumblrs and twitter–from that cohort coming on about 8 or 9 years now. It’s clear that some are questioning the fitness of all of it: generation of doctrine, training, promotion, the very intellectual basis of the institutional thinking.
    Not being in the military, I don’t know entirely what to think but I am sympathetic because I felt stymied, disappointed, and, then, eventually disgusted with what I jokingly call the medicine-industrial complex. I basically gave up on institutional medicine, but not medicine or healing itself (obviously).
    Wonderful post.

  10. Madhu Says:

    To clarify “institutional medicine,” I meant the way the teaching hospital and hospital group environment is developing. I’ve been searching around John Robb’s site, looking for stuff related to medicine.
    You know what? I had to read and study myself into being interested in Robb’s site. I just couldn’t be told about it without first going through the process of reading and thinking for myself. I had a terrific colleague back at ye olde Longwood-Medical Industrial Complex that once said, “medicine is a practical subject.” It is. Practice and apprenticeship is the way to learn but we spend so much time on the latest educational fad or fancy, the brick-and-morter medical school as an extension of the latest university administrator fancy. And, now, instead of shortening medical school or trying something innovative, more nursing schools are being built. That’s fantastic, PA’s and nursing practitioners can do a lot of good in our messed up system, but the schools are just the same old slow moving version of the medical schools that didn’t move fast enough. I’ve been hearing about all the same problems since THE 80s.
    Er, how did I get so off tangent? Is off tangenting a sign of creative thinking or just general ditziness? In my case, sadly, half-and-half.

  11. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Madhu,
    Many thanks for your kind words! And, thank you for helping me close the loop, as it were. Sumida’s sentence ate at me for over a week, and dinner conversations ultimately led back to the implications of a lack of “mind and will,” so your comment on pretending immediately struck a cord.
    Your assessment of what the “disruptive thinker” folks are attempting is, I believe, correct. 
    No tangent:)) Your response to “institutional medicine” sounds like a few instance in my life when I’ve had to do the same thing. Given our cultural short attention span, fads and fancies are ubiquitous and present a challenge to those who want “to know.” I believe a passion to know is the engine that drives the curious and creative—and real passion must come from within.
    BTW, my primary care doctor is a PA and she is wonderful.
    Thank you, again! 

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