Saturday, February 7, 2015

Why good men and women say nothing

First off, Brian Williams….you are a douchebag of the highest magnitude.  But through his self-immolation, we may learn some things about the state of American culture and how it may be accelerating violence in Syria and Iraq (with the potential for North Korea and China to jump in at any time).

In the last 6 months to a year, a new theme has been taking shape in the "post-war" era.  More and more writers are testing the waters, seeing if they can publish pieces questioning the hero-status many Americans attribute to military troops without the authors being targeted for airstrikes.  The articles started out tepid, mild reflections on American glorification of military service and how it blinds one to any flawed military decision.  As time went on, the criticisms of the troops became stronger as these writers felt safer in their challenges of the troops being considered real heroes.  It his a crescendo when "American Sniper" debuted and to the horror of these writers, the movie not glorified military service it set box office records.

There was a part of me that naturally wanted to rebuke the authors who almost inevitably never served in uniform.  Not because their philosophizing in some way attacked my military service but how cavalierly they treated the service of anyone other than a frontline combat troop (who they then equated to a poor, brainwashed sap programmed to kill without regard).  However, there is merit in questioning the decisions of military leaders who too often are isolated from the front lines (even in today's real-time cyber world).  I've seen too many stories of how airmen feel their bosses don't have their best interests at heart and have been meaning to address what I think causes that problem.  It is something that needs to be addressed before we have to get serious with Daesh, Iran, North Korea, Russia or China.

The First World War is a perfect example of military leaders being distanced from their troops and the disastrous consequences it has.  While soldiers on all sides were dying wholesale in trench warfare, the generals and their staffs were miles away from any fighting, relaxing in chateaus.  These embarrassments to military leadership therefore had no qualms with continuing to send company after company into battle with no hope of gaining even one foot of ground.

But today with drones, satellites and all manner of communication one would conclude that such atrocities could not happen again.  Today's military leaders are not sitting in luxury miles away from the battlefield but in a very different way, they are almost as cut off from reality as their World War I counterparts.

The reason for this separation is rooted in how officers, especially in the Air Force, are promoted.  I don't claim to know the promotion system of the other branches but there are certain components that render the effects the same.  Think of a pyramid for a moment.  Junior officers make up the bottom with the highest numbers.  Field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels in the Army, USAF and USMC, lieutenants, lieutenant commanders, and commanders in the USN) make up most of the middle to top and at the very top are flag officers (generals and admirals).  Just like in the pyramid, there is a lot of room at the base and hardly any room at the crown.  Officer promotions are supposed to insure only the best and brightest reach the top in theory but in practice a much different phenomena arises.

In the USAF, somewhere around 90 percent or more of the officers (there are no warrant officers in the USAF) have bachelor's degrees in engineering.  That means 90 percent or more of your brand new 2nd lieutenants are already pre-disposed to systemically solving problems and since most graduated from prestigious engineering programs, they are pretty damn good at it.  Now compound that mentality with being a rated officer who flies a multi-million dollar aircraft which in-turn is support by every wing function, you begin to see why pilots in the Air Force are ready to solve the world's problems.

Very quickly though the USAF officer, rated as well as non-rated, faces promotion boards.  Up to captain, promotions in the USAF are fairly automatic.  But getting promoted to major is the first separating of chaff from the wheat.  It's where the hot shot 7 year captains tend to get their reality checks.

The USAF promotion system has always been based on a particular glide-slope.  Get promoted on-time and stay on the glide-slope.  Fall behind on promotions and not only do you fall off the glide-slope, you may find yourself out of the USAF.  This "up or out" mentality is supposed to insure only the fast-burners (those truly gifted, big-brained officers) make it to the top ranks.  But what the system really does is stifle your forward thinking, young problem solvers.

Keep in mind that glide slope, you have to hit very discreet marks each year such as professional military education (Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College), around which you have to plan your assignments (squadron command, staff assignment, joint assignment with another branch), throw in a master's degree for good measure (not officially required but officially encouraged).  If your timing is just off a little and your promotion may not be on-time.  An "above-the-zone" promotion (which actually means a late promotion) creates a cascading effect for all future promotions and assignments.

Now compound this overt system with the subversive world of the "officer performance report" or OPR.  This is supposed to be an objective look at an officer's performance but it too often turns into subjective critique heavily influenced by; a) how much your rater likes or dislikes you and b) how good your rater is at the "promotion-speak" that needs to be in your performance report.  In turn, the rater is also rated on how well the officers assigned to them do in promotions.  The promotion system does not create a system for those who think outside the box to thrive, rather it creates a group-think culture.

If the officer wants to get promoted, they will shut-up and color meaning they will do as they are told and not question the decisions of those above them.  Even if the officer (who remember, is a high functioning problem solver) does speak out, a senior officer above him or her will have to come down on them because they too are on that same glide slope.

Thus the higher up you ascend the promotion ladder, the less inclined you become to take an action that might knock you off of the glide-slope.  In effect, everyone starts talking and thinking alike for fear that if you standout too much you may risk ending your career.

When there was a spate of general officers being found of having had affairs or sexual harassment, the immediate question was how could this have happened?  Easy, their junior officers were inclined to turn a blind eye to the general's inappropriate behavior less they fall of the promotion cycle.  Guess what?  The fear is even greater when it comes to questioning military decisions.  Here is an extreme example that just hit the news;

"Afghan War Hero Stripped of Silver Star"  Army Captain Matt Golsteyn, "Under heavy fire...ran about 150 meters to the trapped MRAP to retrieve a powerful 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle, an anti-tank weapon. While moving under gunfire, he coordinated a medical evacuation for the wounded Afghan soldier and then opened fire with the Carl Gustav.”

Running through the open despite the fact that the Taliban had successfully pinned down the rest of his men, Golsteyn looked like he “was alone fighting 30 enemy fighters out in the poppy fields.” He then coordinated airstrikes from F/A-18 Hornets and a drone, silencing the enemy. The battle lasted four hours."

Captain Golsteyn was awarded the Silver Star which was certainly going to be upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor).  So why was he stripped of his Silver Star?  According to the author, CPT Golsteyn had been quoted in his book making several critical comments about the American strategy in Afghanistan.  That was enough for the Army to launch a criminal investigation into CPT Golsteyn's actions during the battle.  "The investigation, apparently, had nothing to do with the acts of bravery that earned Golsteyn his medal. Instead, according to the Washington Post, which cited officials familiar with the case, it concerned “an undisclosed violation of the military’s rules of engagement in combat for killing a known enemy fighter and bomb maker.” The investigation stretched on for nearly two years, during which time the Army effectively put Golsteyn’s career on ice. In 2014, Golsteyn and his lawyer were informed that the investigation was finally complete. No charges were filed, but Golsteyn still wasn’t released from administrative limbo." (Free Beacon)

But it gets worse, "Congressman Duncan Hunter wrote last year to John McHugh, the secretary of the Army, asking about the status of Golsteyn’s seemingly endless career freeze. Apparently the secretary did not take kindly to the inquiry, as he responded in a letter last November that not only would he not be upgrading Golsteyn’s Silver Star to a Distinguished Service Cross, but would be revoking Golsteyn’s Silver Star entirely"  Extreme, yes but hardly the only instance of a promising officer having their career stalled by being critical of their higher-ups.

I can't help but feel that whoever torpedoed CPT Golsteyn's medal and career had either never set foot in Afghanistan or was so distanced from the realities of the war that he (and I guarantee it was a he) took personal offense at the captain's remarks.  For all we know, it could have been Secretary McHugh who took exception.  Regardless, this example shows why junior officers either learn to march to the party line or get out.

My synopsis doesn't begin to cover the other huge influence on senior military leaders, no not the current post holders of Washington but the defense industry.  President Eisenhower said in his famous speech on the military-industrial complex, "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society."  Senior officers, especially generals and admirals, transition as they retire from the military to the defense industry at a rather alarming rate.  Those looking to have a post military career working for a "beltway bandit" are loathe to make decisions that are are odds with the bottom line with their future employers.

When I was a first lieutenant, I was involved with a major software development project for a classified data handling system.  I came across a request from the prime contractor to have a modification to the contract over a completely unnecessary addition.  I did my researched to prove my point and sent my proposal to nix the mod up channel.  Instead of being greeted with saving the USAF money, my second line supervisor took my to task saying I was overstepping my bounds.  Lo and behold if that same supervisor didn't end-up working for the prime contractor the after he retired.

The one-two punch of a bureaucratic promotion cycle producing a group-think environment lead by senior officers who are heavily influenced by the military-industrial complex is actually not new.  Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, identified this same phenomena in his 1933 book "War is a Racket".  The result of an all-volunteer force is it tends to stifle any questioning of decisions by its leadership.

Because of this stifled culture, it is unlikely voices such as CPT Golsteyn's are heard or even valued.  The results are tragedies such as Benghazi or the mealymouthed approached to dealing with Daesh.  First the US wanted to get rid of Assad and but only gave it a half-hearted effort.  Once the US realized the alternative to Assad was Daesh, it was already too late.  The US effort to weaken Assad created the gap Daesh needed to go international.  I'm sure there were military planners that saw it but because of career considerations either they or their superiors said nothing.

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