A few thoughts on cynicism

I recently lamented on not having read the piece on SOF cynicism sooner.

From Small Wars Journal:

After 20 years of teaching SOF O3s and O4s at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), what struck me hardest was that students weren’t just willing to openly acknowledge that they were cynical, but their cynicism didn’t seem to faze them.  Instead, they were quite accepting of it. 

CYNICISM: A brief look at a troubling topic | Small Wars Journal

There are articles that show up in Small Wars Journal from time to time that strike a chord. They’re a slow burn, seeping through the force. This happened much more frequently a decade ago when we were mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intelligent and dedicated men and women were looking for a way – any way – to win.

There’s so much more content out there these days – great articles can easily be over-looked or lost.

The SOF cynicsm article was posted in the middle of February, and as readers of my newsletter will know, I was otherwise occupied, so I initially missed this.

I finally read it over the weekend and was thoroughly pleased. It captures, I think, a real trend – a growing cynicism, especially among SOF officers making the move into the field grade ranks.

It is something I’ve noticed, and tried my best not to fall victim to. Until I read the article, I chalked up most of the cynicism to generational differences. And I still think that may be the case, but not so much due to just age – but to military experiences.

The thing that strikes me, though, is that the author shows a lot of data for even more senior officers (O5 and above) demonstrating a similar cynicism.

I don’t have too much to add to the piece – the author does a good job weaving experience and data together and laying it out in a compelling way.

However, I was struck by the cross-over between cynicism and toxic mentorship.

What is stoking this cynicism?

If, meanwhile, you were to ask defense intellectuals and others familiar with the military for their take on what has stoked cynicism recently, most would likely cite: the ‘forever’ nature of today’s wars; the lack of consistent policy; the lack of an overall strategy; the ground hog day nature of deployments; and/or time away from family.  I do not want to minimize any of these, since they have been among officers’ concerns, too, but I would now say that what overarches everything else is loss of faith in senior leaders.  Senior leaders’ inability to change – or to seem to want to change – how (and for whom) systems internal to the military work is corrosively demoralizing.

First, it is always easy to blame the “forever wars” on whatever administrative “garrison” problem we face. This same thing happened in the late 2000s as the Army was studying what was causing the rise in military suicides. The common line and working hypothesis was that it must be the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all of the trauma and separation that comes with repeat deployments. The studies, however, showed a different picture. The majority of suicides (that were included in the study) were from soldiers who had never deployed or had a single deployment. Despite the data, this myth persists. And in fairness, one of the findings was that “perhaps it’s not being deployed so much as being in a war during a high-stress period.” That is, being in the military during the “forever wars” might be the grinder – not so much the deployments.

I commend the author for not falling for that old myth and going deeper. The crux of her article is precisely that – it may be the unique and ever-present demands on SOF that drives some of this cynicism.

“Isn’t cynicism being a realist?”

A response from an interviewed officer

No. Perhaps the most grating thing about modern cynicism is couching it as some kind of elevated expertise.

“There is no measure of accuracy for what is reported.” To which someone added, “maybe that’s why it is called a storyboard.”

A short back and forth on “metrics”

I loved the portion of the essay that featured snippets from interviews. I feel like I’m in that room, where one officer is lamenting at the seeming absurdity and inaccuracy of the modern storyboard, a snapshot of an event or mission that is often used to inform higher headquarters of what is going on. The other officer snaps back with a snarky – but true – reply. It’s easy to grow cynical about storyboards – and any military reporting, really. There’s a purpose for most of the things that are done, and part of the problem is a growing belief – as inidicated through the article – that those that are closer to the fight always know better than higher headquarters. See below.

In fact, as one widely revered (now retired) O6 and former CJSOTF commander put it: “As COs we’re allowed to push just beyond the bounds, but we’re not given the trust to push those bounds and reconfigure the strategy on the ground.”  Yet, he wondered, who was better positioned to understand what was required on the ground than someone who was on his fifth or sixth deployment, someone who has been interacting with the same local, regional, and now national leaders for years?

We’ve fallen for that folly before. Experience is important, but it is often mistaken for expertise. And in a culture that lionizes experience – especially combat experience – that can be dangerous.

I love this section below on what the author calls “happy warriors.”

‘Happy Warriors’ is my term for those who loyally help keep the system functioning.  Happy Warriors are individuals who may be cynical, but don’t feel disaffected enough to exit.  They include many O6s who are genuinely grateful to have made it as high as O6.  Maybe getting to be a company or battalion commander sufficed; maybe something happened along the way to make rising above O6 impossible; alternatively, other priorities (e.g. family) might have surfaced midway through someone’s career.  Regardless, all Happy Warriors (as I am using the term) remain dedicated patriots.  They are smart, highly capable problem-solvers, and while they haven’t lost their competitive edge, they just aren’t as driven to have to (still) be #1 as others are.  Two other features that distinguish Happy Warriors are that few seem to fall into the trap of regarding themselves as strategic thinkers or visionaries when they are not, and most prize loyalty.  Sometimes they are overly loyal to their bosses; more often their allegiance is to the enterprise.

If I had to, I’d count myself among these “happy warriors.” Without question, serving in the military over these past two decades prompts a lot of reflection. The advice I give to others (and myself), is you have to enjoy the life and the lifestyle, otherwise, you may find yourself growing very, very cynical. See the numerous references to “luck and timing” as well as this choice quote: “the system doesn’t care; it’ll keep using you until you’re all used up.”

As for solutions, there isn’t much offered other than better leadership. Talent management is mentioned, and I do think this will help move the dial. There is a role here also for self-awareness. My take is that a lof of the folks who were attracted to SOF in the first place want to believe that their personal contribution is or can be special/unique – and it can. But, it’s still the Army. And every individual is part of something bigger. That gets forgotten or lost somewhere, and contributes to this cynicism.

I’ve skipped a whole section on careerism and the drive to “make it.” That part makes up the crux of the author’s argument, and a lot of it isn’t wrong. It’s not very different though from what you would see in other parts of the Army or just standard careerism.

These are strange times, and cynicism is a simple defense mechanism folks can employ to get themselves through the day. While it can be discouraging to be around (it is), I’m not convinced that it means too much more than that. That is, I’m not sure most cynical officers would allow that cynicism to bleed over into anything of consequence (like carrying out orders). I could be wrong, but this may just be a passing trend.

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A House Divided: A Look at SOF Values | Small Wars Journal

A recent paper at Small Wars Journal discussing SOF ethics. The author leads off with the below:

SOF operators are selected for a willingness and aptitude to conduct traditionally immoral acts, trained to be proficient at the conduct of those acts, but then expected to refrain from those acts outside of approved operational circumstances.

A House Divided: A Look at SOF Values | Small Wars Journal

I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but there is certainly something there.

The paper is worth the read. I agree that operators need to be able to “flip the switch.”

However, I always felt that SOF imperative #1 (understand the operational environment) wrapped up everything I needed to know pretty nicely.

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Some recent articles on Chinese political warfare

I’ve been digging into the “Ministry of Truth” series from War on the Rocks discussing Chinese political warfare.

It’s a three part series, and to date, the first two have been released.

Each is packed with links and sources. You can go deep down the rabbit hole if you’re interested in building a better understanding of Chinese political warfare.

A couple of choice excerpts below.

Part I Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations.

On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:

The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business. 

On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:

Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric. 

Part II China’s ‘three warfares’ in perspective.

Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:

When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.

Influence operations are directly connected to political power:

The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.

Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:

The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.

Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.

Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).

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Are our officers “Centurions?” Tactically proficient but strategically inept?

Roman Pic 14

Over the holiday break, I read two articles anchored to the Roman era to explain current issues with the modern military.

At Small Wars Journal, John Bolton writes in the Price of Professionalism that our All-Volunteer Force dangers the American republic through separating the soldier and the citizen.

Bolton writes:

“The AVF, by disconnecting the military from society, enabled a generation of American militarism, highlighted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since the AVF, American foreign policy has become overly militarized and simultaneously devoid of public consideration. These two factors are cancerous to the functioning of the American Republic. The AVF created a military unimaginable by the Founders and unfamiliar to its people.”

In the Autumn 2015 issue of Parameters, Jason Warren compares the (successful) modern Army officer to the Roman Centurion – a tactically proficient leader of a roughly company-sized group of soldiers. That is, our officer career path selects and promotes those officers who demonstrate tactical proficiency at the company level, without ever really developing or selecting those who show promise for strategic thinking.

The “centurion” model is one that is very easy to see inside of a Brigade-sized element, but once outside of the Brigade, it is precisely those officers who performed well at the tactical level who move on to strategic positions, often without the advanced education one would expect would be necessary to perform in those roles.

Warren writes:

Army promotion soon became linked to the command of standing units, the vast majority of which operated below the strategic level. This linkage contributes to the development of an astrategic officer corps, in which some officers may disbelieve military leaders have a role in formulating military strategy. 

And…

The tactical dominion eventually became king of the realm for post-Korean War promotion, which the training revolution elevated to the throne. Summer 2004 in Iraq found Casey upon a tide of sinking strategy and he believed the war was lost before Petraeus temporarily righted the ship. Petraeus’ surge of forces was but a current of success upon an ocean of failure. Petraeus’ preference for well-educated subordinates and officer broadening soon receded with his departure to the CIA, in an Army culture hostile to non-tactical endeavors.

Both articles are worth reading in their entirety. Bolton’s article tackles a much larger issue and weaves around, while Warren’s article is much more focused on the promotion of “centurion”-like Army officers.

As an aside, I still find it odd and a little off-putting that we still lionize all things antiquity. Given our unhealthy obsession with Spartans which I think is now giving way to the Vikings, I would bet many officers nod approvingly at being associated with centurions, even though the purpose of the article was to point out how ultimately limiting that is.

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SWJ: Why Bringing Back the Draft Makes No Sense

I have an essay on the Small Wars Journal blog about why I think bringing back the draft makes no sense – for the reasons that most people want to bring it back, anyway.

I’ll concede that if people want to bring it back for the symbolic notion of reaping what you sow – a lá ‘The Chocolate War’, or ‘The Hunger Games,’ then fine. Even though the actual chances for that person to be drafted is infinitesimally small.

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