Most people are familiar with the story of ancient Sparta, not least of all through the popular movie "300" which dramatizes the story of the 300 Spartans who held off Xerxes' Persian army against overwhelming odds.
Sparta has throughout history been synonymous with military fidelity. Every Spartan soldier and officer knew without the slightest doubt that every other Spartan soldier and officer - from the least to the greatest - would accept the responsibility of fidelity without hesitation, without a moment's consideration to the consequences to themselves.
This level of fidelity is what is necessary to command people in battle. The soldier who goes into harm's way knows little else than that he or she is not aware of the greater complexities of the situation and must carry the complete faith that those responsible for him or her are simultaneously responsible to him or her.
At least this is what the Spartans believed. This is what great military historians and strategists believe. This is what Colonel Charles F. Kriete (Ret'd), Distinguished Fellow, US Army War College believes.
Colonel Kriete and I have been discussing this for some time. We agree that the current administration has failed to provide that fidelity. We agree that Senator McCain's adherence to the philosophy of Total War - the philosophy that the current administration has followed and which has lead to both the macro failures of Iraq and Afghanistan and specific failures such as Abhu Graib - indicates that he will also be unable to restore that lost fidelity.
We also agree that Senator Barack Obama is the only person available who can restore that fidelity to the office of Commander In Chief.
The conversation started with a piece the Colonel had written on the necessity of miltary fidelity.
When civilians hear the word "commander" they mostly think of someone giving an order to subordiates. And, of course, commanders do give orders. But "command" as a concept has far greater meanings and implications than ordering folks around. It is in fact the basis of the claim that military service is a profession. The military's real purpose is "to control the violence of war in a way that permits the outcome to be some useful social outcome" (Morris Janowitz).
The key sentence in the army regulation which defines command says: "The commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do". This statement forms the basis not only for the operation of units, both in combat and peacetime, but also the ways those units are organized, and how they relate to one another and the enemy. It is that legal structure which creates a purposeful organization out of an uncontrollable, destructive mob.
When the trial of one of the offenders began, a subpoena was issued to Maj Gen Geoffrey Miller (who was in charge of the interrogation of the prisoners) by the legal counsel of one of the Warrant Officers conducting the investigations who was the defendant at the trial. This General Officer took the Fifth Amendment (against self-incrimination) rather than testify, on the grounds that if he told the truth in his testimony he would be incriminating himself. There is no record that he ever did or said anything to acknowledge any of his responsibility for their behavior. This Major General had also supervised the interrogation of inmates at our prison in Guantanamo.
Maj Gen Miller's refusal to take any responsibility for the outcome of his instructions he may have given at Abhu Graib is just one of the instances in which the army doctrine of command responsibility has been flouted in our invasion of Iraq. What is at stake here is not the relatively trivial problem of actions which violate both the letter and the spirit of the Army Regulation governing the performance of the command function. Not one senior officer connected with our invasion has stood up to take responsibility for any of the reprehensible activities so far disclosed. And those who planned and executed that invasion, failing to anticipate what chaos would develop there after the Iraqi army was disbanded, have been completely silent. None has stood up to take responsibility for the plans they prepared and the orders given to execute their provisions.
They have been completely silent.
This is about as egregious a breach of honor as one could find. Loyalty up starts with loyalty down, and if that is not the case, the army is falling apart at its seams.
I have many concerns about the lack of integrity (honor, honesty, forthrightness, saying what you really think instead of pleasing the Sec Def) at the three and four star level of the army. Gen Shinseki (Army Chief of Staff when Rumsfeld took office) said publicly when asked about Iraq that it would take over 400,000 troops for the invasion. Rumsfeld thereafter neatly bypassed him by naming his successor. This was about a year before his term was up, and all the brown-noser Generals now had to please the named successor, who had the power to move them around to more and less influential positions, which he did. The 400,000 figure was not accidental - the size of the army in total at that time was, if memory serves well, 467,000. He was actually telling Rumsfeld that the invasion was folly, but politely.
Those of us who love the army, and respect the command structure, and who have given it our best efforts in Vietnam and elsewhere, are ashamed at what its commanders have now done and refuse to take responsibility for, in and after our invasion of Iraq. That invasion, condemned by Pope John Paul II in an encyclical issued before that invasion took place, was based on lies and false intelligence. "We, the People", now need to hold them accountable for their lack of honor.
Extremely well said, Colonel.
It has been my fortune to provide leadership in business and other efforts in my life, and while not always the common practice, I believe that the most ethical and effective manner to perform the tasks associated is very similar to what you describe and what I understand of the military leadership methodology.
In Plato's Republic, Socrates has a debate with Thrasymachus about the focus of the art of leadership. He makes several examples, as follows:
o When a sculptor is performing the art of sculpting stone - not when he is concerned with making a profit, or advancing his career, but when he is purely and truly focusing on his art - the concerns that he deals with are what is best for the stone, not what is best for himself.
o When a doctor is performing the art of medicine - again, not concerning administrative, monetary or professional issues, but purely performing his art - what he must concern himself is what is good for the body of his patient. Any other thoughts or interests he may have fall clearly outside of the art of medicine.
o When a leader is performing the art of leadership, then, what is the focus of his art? It is clearly not in any fashion what is good for himself. Rather, it is entirely and without restriction what is good for those he is leading.
I have found in business and other efforts that this is not only philosophically correct, but functionally as well. Not only is it incorrect for a leader to allow themselves to make decisions that serve themselves and which are not purely in the best interest of those they bear responsibility for, it in fact leads to less positive outcomes by the measure of the purpose of the group (economic success, typically, in a business environment) than if he or she makes every effort to put out of mind any concern for personal interests and focus instead on what will serve the best interests of those under his or her care.
This plays out in many ways and often leads to an effective leader intentionally making choices and taking actions which seem counter-intuitive to those who take a more self-oriented view. Quite often this approach leads to greater success for the person in the leadership role, as well. When it does not, it quite often leaves that person in a better position to be successful in future efforts, so in fact the true measure of the success of this approach is in the longer term than the more self-oriented approach. In that timeframe it is quite likely that the overall effective success is greater than the more transient goal of seeking personal success in the short term.
One of the things that a Socratic leader may well find necessary is to specifically and intentionally "take a bullet" so that those he is responsible for do not. This may well be a fatal bullet. In the military sense, this obviously has greater personal implications than in realms of lesser physical risk, but in every case the team being led is more likely to go on to success with this example of fidelity even if the leader in question is not there to personally experience it.
In the less dramatic realm of business and politics, it is much simpler (and, in my opinion, less frequently seen) than the military realm. A business leader who chooses to take the fatal bullet for his/her team, knowing that this is the most likely means given the choices at hand for the team to go on to success, achieves the goal set out much more effectively than the leader who betrays one of those he carries responsibility for to save his own position.
The Abhu Graib situation was overwhelmingly such a situation. Immediately upon learning of it, I called into a talk radio show and stated that case. This was such an egregious failure of military command that there was no doubt in my mind that the responsiblity had to be personally borne by the top of that structure - Donald Rumsfeld - and moreover George Bush.
To be clear, while my own view of the Iraq war was and is complex, I was not one of those at the time who was completely and in all manners "opposed" to the conflict nor to Donald Rumfeld's leadership (which is not the same as being in "favor" of it, either, but I leave that to a separate dissertation). Despite the myriad complications and failures of the conflict - including the premise and execution of the entire thing - I had felt that Mr. Rumsfeld's apparently laudable work ethic and support for and defense of the troops showed him to be an ethical leader.
When it became apparent that not only would Mr. Rumsfled not choose to take the bullet that was his responsibility - but that he and every other person in the chain of command capable of doing so would step out of the way to allow it to pass to the least able to defend themselves - all respect I felt for the man vanished and has never returned.
This is not an act from which a leader can recover, it is a final and perpetual damnation of their fitness to lead. An honest and outspoken admission of this failure at a much later date would be perhaps enough to feel human compassion for a person who sees their own humiliation in hindsight, but there is no gaining back of the respect required of the role.
Yours is a very insightful essay on leadership - it also matchs neatly with mine. The military is in some ways unique because of its comprehensively corporate nature, and in one other way also. I worked in industry as an organization develpment manager. My experience there was that in industry there is very little corporate ethos. It is every man for himself. Loyalty to the organization is much talked of, but there is little incentive to practice it.
Our culture generally supports that ethos. We tend to believe that each individual is responsible for his own success, and we glorify those who make lots of money. We do not ever, or hardly ever, villify those who take advantage of persons who are less capable than they, mentally or emotionally.
In this respect, the military is different, and we need to recognize that. It is a corporate culture from the first day you enlist to the last. You spend lots of time waiting in line, waiting for stuff, waiting for others to get ready, waiting to use the latrine, waiting for orders to move out, etc. You eventually come to think that the individual means nothing at all.
We are definitely in concordance.
My career in information security and life in general has brought me into contact with a large number of military people. There is a need for dealing with these philosophical issues at a very pragmatic level in military life, and the honesty and honorability of the real-world application of these ideals by military people struck me early in adulthood and has never been diminished by futher experiences and contemplation.
In the business world I have long had a "maverick" label that many who believe as you described discount. It is not with personal pride but simply as an experiential proof that I point to the fact that my approach has led to more sales of security products than any other individual in the industry. Most of the actual credit for the actual work goes to those who I have worked with who have done the real building and the real selling, but significantly the small input of philosophy I have been able to add to change the manner with which it has been handled has apparently been a core reason for the measure of success as a differential from all others in the field.
This allows me to - and moreover obligates me to - make this point publicly. Personally I am often discomfited by how I say these things since they can easily be taken as self-aggrandizement, but this is a risk I have to take because when I manage to get the point across I believe it can positively influence the manner with which others approach similar situations This is, I believe, a critical value that I can offer to my industry, business at large and ultimately to society in general.
The approach of the current administration to owning the responsibility to our military not only fails to meet the standards I set for myself but actively negates the very fundamentals of American culture. "Truth" is not "just a word", it is an actionable value that is more effective at achieving the evolution of the human condition. The intrinsic intelligence, fairness, honesty and capacity of every individual is not simply a Grand Idea set down by some dead white men to form a More Perfect Control Structure, it is the most foundational aspect of the liberation of our species from our animal roots that allows us to achieve the potential that is laid out in our most optimistic philosophies and religions.
I see in Senator Obama a belief in these same values, and I see in him the same struggle to embody them that I feel in myself. This is not simply a matter of electing a party member to a given office, it is a notably significant part of our effort to evolve as a species.
Thanks for the great post - I think I understand what you are about. I get the feeling listening to Obama that he does understand himself better than Senator McCain. McCain is a hopeless egoist - he is a typical fighter pilot. I have much experience with pilots - earned a German glider pilot license on my first tour, soloed down in the Alps at Unterweosen, where my instructor, a german fighter pilot, had 1,014 hours in FW 190's, shot down four times and survived. He was a great instructor because he knew I couldn't get the glider into any situation he couldn't correct, so there was never any back pressure on the pedals or stick. But he was, personally, a wild man, drinking and carousing every nite, not good company for a clergyman.
The lead story in yesterday's NYT was based on McCain's National War College thesis, and it basically defends the "total war" concept. This theory of war has been thoroughly discredited in a book called "The American Way of War".
The basic point of the book is that "total war" always, no matter what the political implications, defines victory as the destruction of the enemy's will to resist. This concept is not only foreign to the classical concept of war, developed by a German general officer at the Kriegsakadamie after the Napoleonic wars (he commanded a Russian Division in the siege of Moscow, which was the beginning of the end of Napoleon) - it is also counterproductive in the nuclear age. Worse, it is the dogma that the generals chosen by Rumsfeld to lead the military hold. Apparently, General Shinseki did not share that view.
It was during my tenure on the Army War College faculty that we (about four of us faculty, including Dr. Hal Deutsch, now deceased, an internationally known strategic scholar and an authority on the plot against Hitler - we were close friends) insisted on the study of Clausewitz. We prevailed, and fifteen years after I retired, was elected to the War College Hall of Fame for my part in establlishing the study of "On War" (Clausewitz's major work) as a major part of the Army War College curriculum.
It is too bad that President Bush has not read Clausewitz, or Kriete, or Weigley or Plato. It is unfortunate that John McCain agrees with President Bush and the honor-destroying philosophy of Total War.
But it is fortunate that we have the chance to restore the honor to the office of Commander In Chief that has been lacking for so long.