The View From Olympus: Puffery

A naive article in the August 26th New York Times raised the question of whether U.S. military headquarters were overstating the results of our campaign against ISIS. Of course they were, and are. How do I know? Because such puffery is standard operating procedure all the way up the chain of command.

The Times reported breathlessly that

The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials have skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress…

The investigation began after at least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst told the authorities that he had evidence that officials at United States Central Command…were improperly reworking the conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama.

Yawn. The only surprise here is that the Times is, or acts, surprised. It may actually be surprised, because the quality of reporting on military affairs has gone to hell in the last three or four decades. One hopes President Obama and those close to him know most if not all intelligence estimates they are given are puffed to favor whatever the military bureaucracy wants to be true. That means whatever makes it look good and supports the case for more money.

Americans who know the system may think it has to be this way; it is simply how military and intelligence bureaucracies work. It’s no different in other countries. But here’s the surprise: there was an exception.

In a brilliant article published several decades ago, I don’t remember where, Professor Williamson Murray told the story of a military that did the opposite. Titled “The German Response to Victory in Poland,” it detailed how the Wehrmacht reacted to a stunning victory, in the first test of what is popularly known as Blitzkrieg, not by crowing on its dunghill as we do (Grenada, Panama, the First Gulf War, the initial stages of the Second Gulf War [“Mission Accomplished”]), but with intense self-criticism. The higher the headquarters, the more insistent were the demands for the bad news: what had not worked, which units and commanders performed poorly, where pre-war training had proved deficient. More, the German chain of command was able to meet those demands with honest reports and assessments. The result was a far-reaching program of reforms, implemented under forced draft, without which the 1940 campaign in France might have had a different outcome.

Why was the German chain of command able to do what ours cannot? The answer lies in the characteristics the German Army looked for in its officers. First, it demanded complete honesty at all times. Not only was active dishonesty not tolerated, neither was passive dishonesty: keeping your mouth shut and letting something you knew was wrong go through. The sin of omission was considered worse than the sin of commission.

Second, it despised careerism. The surest way to guarantee you would not get promoted was to show you cared about it. Of course, like any army that does not want to institutionalize moral cowardice and the Peter Principle, it did not have a rule of “up or out.”

Third, the characteristic the Wehrmacht valued most highly in an officer was strength of character, which it defined as an eagerness to make decisions, take responsibility, and get the result the situation required, regardless of orders, procedures, or obstacles.

That yielded a chain of command that could both require and provide honest reporting.

What about us? The picture is a diametric opposite. Trapped in our up-or-out personnel system, officers quickly learn to tell those above them what they want to hear. Doing otherwise could endanger their promotion. Lying is not only tolerated, it is expected. The Army recently did a study confirming this, which I referenced in an earlier column. It is no different in the other services.

Second, obviously, with up-or-out everyone is compelled to be a careerist, and most general officers have become general officers by being careerists from day one.

Third, consistent with its inward-focused, Second Generation culture, the U.S. military is frightened by officers who take initiative, violate procedures, and get results. Strong character upsets apple carts. Officers who show it are weeded out at every level of promotion, so few make it to or near the top. The percentage of military competent captains is a lot higher than the percentage of militarily competent generals.

So we have a system that lies to the public, lies to the president, and lies to itself. The last may be the most dangerous. favicon

6 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: Puffery”

  1. Thank you for providing the Wehrmacht example. One who did not know of it might argue that yes, this is a weakness of the U.S. military, but it is a universal weakness inherent to all military organizations and hence, what can we really do to change human nature?

    But clearly, that isn’t true: there are better ways to do things, and they have been done before.

  2. I was always taught that the German General Staff had a lot to do with their success. They selected staff on rational grounds and promoted from within. Other western militaries believed in a more generalist approach to army officers.

  3. Based on my experience in the US Army, this cuts close to the bone. You’d probably not be surprised by the amount of decent officers (from my perspective as a former NCO) who got out rather than be promoted to staff level to avoid the politics and check the box BS required for advancement. When you’re losing junior NCOs and company grade officers at that rate, something is wrong. Thus, we’re left with the type I, as a soldier, would absolutely not trust to have either my nor my fellow Soldiers’ best interest in mind. It’ll probably take a major disaster for that to change, I don’t hold much hope.

  4. That is of course a major part of it, if senior leadership fosters the junior leaders towards that end. If you read about the interpersonal relationships of US officers up to WWII you’ll see what we’ve lost. Too many officers act as career gatekeepers these days, you could have decent general staff, but a BN commander that wants things done his way, and enforces that down through his command.

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