Disruptive Thinking, Innovation, Whatever You Want to Call It is Needed for a Military in Crisis

I try to mostly stay out of the comments section of articles now that I'm editor, but I couldn't help jumping into the epic fray over Ben Kohlmann's piece today.  I jumped in because I am passionate about this issue and because many of the comments demonstrated - in my mind - exactly the malaise Kohlmann aims to address.  In think pieces like this, people love to snipe the suggestions, extrapolate suggestions far beyond their scope to make a strawman that can be knocked down, and condescend about how a junior cannot possibly understand what they are talking about.  All were found here today.

First, I implore all of those who have strong opinions on this article and the issues that surround it to submit their essays to us.  Even if I violently disagree with you, I will publish all submissions on the topic that are lucid and written well enough to merit our readers time.  Clearly, our readers are interested in this topic.  While many of the comments picked at the essay, the massive amount of pageviews and the large number of Facebook likes tell me that it resonated with many.  Which is a symptom of my next point.

The U.S. military is in crisis.  There is a large segment of the force that is disgusted with the bureaucracy and its failures.  There are bright young minds who have been given tremendous responsibility in combat and have been far more earnest about learning at a young age because their lives seemed to depend on it.  Thrust them into a stodgy, conservative bureaucracy and they are going crazy against its illogic.  Some of this may be generational, but some is a combination of the continuing ossification of the organization and its culture just as a cohort with unparalleled combat experience in recent memory rises to levels where they must tread through its morass.  Combine the pending withdrawl from Afghanistan, the drawdowns, and a system that doesn't let these "young Turks" (as LtGen Neller termed us, perhaps incorrectly) exert influence to their potential, and you have a recipe for a train wreck.  This is only one of numerous salvos that have been fired on this issue recently, but too often they are dismissed, poo-pooed, condescended, or attacked.  In the end, the institution seems to be content to ignore them.

I'd like to address a few more issues that came up in the comments.  I don't think anyone is suggesting that the military should adopt business practices wholesale or to send every officer to business school.  And certainly, entrepreneurs and the business world have their share of failures, as well.  But as I look at some of the comments here and on Facebook, the level of hostility toward the business world and the level of arrogance that the military is so far superior to the business world that there's nothing we could deign to learn from them is a symptom of the self-lionization and the isolation from society that we have created in the past decade and more.  Not every HBS grad was a Wall Street investment banker precipitating the recession.  Many are running the industries that keep the nation and the military going.  They and other business people are the ones that keep our economy going, without which there is nothing to defend or to defend it with.  Military members increasingly think we are the be all, end all of American society.  This is sick and ultimately dangerous thinking and it needs to stop.

Sure, business has had its disasters, but are you telling me that the people who brought you Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghainstan, plus a host of other debacles, constant acquisition nightmares, and the complaint that spending more than the next 19 nations combined on defense isn't enough cannot learn anything from the business world?  Are you telling me that since medicine and science have had fraud and failures, we should not seek to learn from them either?  Yes, the military is not a business.  Everyone gets that.  But we should seek to learn from every field we can.

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Comments

We've been here before. The military borrowed B-school methods during the 1950s and 1960s (the Air Force in particular was quite fascinated with them, and remains so to this day), and we had the same sort of backlash, wringing of hands, and general fussing after Vietnam. The military at that time (as it has before) also turned inward. Look back to the writing that appeared in the Army and Navy Journal between the end of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and you'll see the same ideas...the Army was the pillar of all that was good in American society and business was Bad.

The key is to actually LEARN, not just blindly adapt. Sadly, the military has a poor track record when it comes to learning. Some of that is the responsibility of the political masters, but there's enough blame/responsibility to go around. How often does business and the military alike cast stones at academia? Some are earned, but not all. Can the Army actually LEARN this time around? I hope so, but the track record is not good.

Some comments for your consideration, Peter.

"The U.S. military is in crisis. There is a large segment of the force that is disgusted with the bureaucracy and its failures."

I know that could have been -- was -- written in 1949, 1955 and 1975. I suspect it was a thought in 1785 and 1866 as well. We lurch from crisis to crisis due to our enforced lack of continuity. That enforcement comes from a hackneyed, obsolete Personnel system which owes many of its flaws to a well intentioned but parochial Congress and that has been true since the Revolution. It's gotten worse each succeeding year...

" Military members increasingly think we are the be all, end all of American society. This is sick and ultimately dangerous thinking and it needs to stop."

I agree it's poor thinking but it too has long been prevalent in the services. Yet again, that personnel system and its training and education offshoots would seem to be at fault.

"...the people who brought you Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghainstan, plus a host of other debacles, constant acquisition nightmares, and the complaint that spending more than the next 19 nations combined on defense isn't enough..."

The people who brought and bring us those things were and are politicians and their ilk. You can fault the services for a 'go along and get along' mentality and certainly for poor performance in those things but those services and their senior people are in totality a creature of those politicians. Democratic societies are distrustful of armed forces and Legislatures are prone to tinker to little good effect with those forces for many reasons, few involving better performance. Armed services are reflective of the societies from which they spring. A 'few good men' is catchy but hard to achieve and any ideas of getting to that nirvana must account for society and for legislative fiats. IOW, to improve a situation, the right targets have to be attacked -- not serviced, that's part of the problem -- but attacked. Flanking attacks are generally better...

"Yes, the military is not a business. Everyone gets that. But we should seek to learn from every field we can."

Agreed. Be really nice if we had as few constraints as business has (noting that they have a good many, also from that Congress).

Still, what if we could just fire incompetents? What if we didn't have to hire them in the first place? What if the services didn't have to buy aircraft they don't want? What if we didn't have to keep open a Tank Plant the Army wants to close due to Congressional and job pressure? What if we able to improve training instead of having Congress force us to try to substitute job producing technology that works poorly for that training which produces few jobs for voters...