Over the last few days, the United States and Iran came dangerously close to going to war. Thankfully, both sides backed down. The event which precipitated this latest crisis was the decision by the Trump Administration to unilaterally and illegally assassinate Iranian general and IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani. In a stunning and historically meaningful event, Iran directly targeted and attacked United States bases and equipment in Iraq. Nevertheless, the Trump administration decided, in the end, to back down from further escalating the crisis.
The question on everyone’s mind – those who still even care now that things have appeared to calm down – is why in the world would the Trump Administration be so reckless that they would order this assassination in the first place?
This situation is far from over. Iran’s attack was designed to be just limited enough (officially no US casualties, rumors of advanced warnings) to represent a proportional response to Soleimani’s assassination and no more. Now, both sides have given each other face-saving excuses to back off. There is of course the concern that each side is merely positioning itself as the victim when the next round of escalations occurs. The fate of the world order is at stake.
China’s tide of influence is rising in the Middle East. Iraq’s broken infrastructure is being held hostage by the US. Trump is demanding oil concessions in exchange for fixing the infrastructure (which was wrecked by US bombs in the first place). China has stepped in and offered to help without the same concessions being demanded. Just as in Ukraine prior to the Maidan coup, the American hegemonic bully is being undercut by better offers from weaker competitors. The fundamental premise of US hegemony seems to be that no concession should ever have to be made. Whatever terms of any deal most favor the US, other countries have to take it or leave – and more often or not take it, no matter the consequences. Iraq isn’t the only country in the Middle East warming up to China.
Why is the US so intent on giving no ground? It promotes (falsely and hypocritically) a rules-based world order. What’s the harm of making concessions sometimes? Game theory teaches us that whoever has more “added value” in a game has more power – but not all of it. Whoever is more indispensable can gain the lion’s share of concessions. The US has clear advantages in the soft power of finance, technology and commercial acumen. It has a longer history of working with the governments of the Middle East. Its military power, though perhaps not unlimited, dwarfs any other competitor. The US has all the power in any game. All it has to do is let other players win “a little” and it will always dominate. Nevertheless, US policy seems to think that all wins must be total and absolute. Another lesson of game theory is that if competitors are left no concessions at all, then their choice is extinction or else the most insane, risky and desperate measures to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (at great loss). Is there some reason why US policy makers are too stupid to realize this?
A fascinating Twitter thread emerged a few days ago, which sheds light on why Soleimani might have been assassinated. The information, without a doubt, must be taken with the biggest grain of salt. There are many theories about the assassination ranging from Trump’s advisors’ miscalculations about how stupid Trump could be, to some conspiracy theory involving Khamenei intentionally orchestrating the death of Soleimani (who in this case should be thought of as an internal political rival). I’m confident half of these theories come out of the CIA. That’s a joke (sort of).
The Twitter thread is by Reza Marashi, a correspondent on Iranian affairs. In addition to offering an interesting theory on the reason for Soleimani’s assassination, it also brings attention to an awful truth about US policy, and why it is the way it is.
“THREAD: Over the past few days, I’ve spoken extensively with career U.S. government officials as they’ve worked around the clock to try and mitigate the damage from Trump’s ineptitude on Iran. With their permission, I’m sharing a small taste from our lengthy conversations. Enjoy.”
“We have no functional national security decision-making process in place. We have no plan for what comes next. They are woefully unprepared for what’s about to pop off, and they’re too stupid to realize it. People here are freaking out, and rightfully so.” …
“When did most of us find out about killing Soleimani? After it already happened. Since then, we’ve been trying to cobble together contingency planning on the fly, but these charlatans ignore most of it, and then Trump does more stupid shit that puts us back at square one.”
“All Trump cares about is shitting on Obama’s legacy, sucking up to donors, and distracting from impeachment. None of this is about American interests or security. He’s surrounded by ideological lunatic sycophants like Pence and Pompeo. But they’re far from the only ones.”
“So many of Trump’s top advisors on Iran are military vets who served multiple tours of duty in our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. They believe to their core that Iran is the reason why they lost those wars, and they’re dead set on payback – no matter what it takes.”
“They’ve been pushing to kill Soleimani for years, and they finally baited Trump into it. They think war with Iran is long overdue, so for them, this was a means to an end. When Iran responds, they’ll tell Trump to hit the Iranians harder. You see where this could go.”
“They know the Iraqis are gonna kick them out now, so they’re gonna try to kill as many as possible on their way out. Iranians, Iraqis, whoever. Some of them are advising Trump to tell the Iraqi government to fuck off and dare them to make us leave. I shit you not. Insanity.” …
“The scariest part is that they’re just making shit up to justify their preferred course of action. When we point out inaccuracies or question logic, we’re at best yelled at or at worst cut out of the process. Most of the political appointees are paranoid, unqualified, or both.”
“Last year, if you would’ve asked me whether American institutions are durable enough to prevent a Trump-led war with Iran, I would’ve said absolutely. Today, I’m not so sure. For as bad as it looks to you all on the outside, it’s even worse when you see it from the inside.” …
“In conclusion: Yes, folks. It really is that bad. I am but a humble messenger of truth. The voice of the voiceless. That is all. You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.”
The revelation of this theory is that the Soleimani policy fumble could be attributed in large part to arrogant, angry military insiders of a certain personality type. The theory that Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran officers would push for “payback” against Soleimani, purely for personal reasons, is interesting. It’s consistent with other theories, such as the theory that Mike Pompeo is a lunatic warmonger. In this case, the military types added their voices to the choir which pushed unstable Trump over the edge. The idea that US grand policy is formulated by men whose view of the world is shaped by their toxic personalities, rather than their intellectual prowess, offers a tremendously well-fitting explanation for many of the bad US policies of the past half-century.
Bad US policy
Two doctrines of current US policy exemplify the brand of dangerous arrogance currently under discussion. The first is called “full spectrum dominance”. In essence, US policy seeks to eradicate the ability of any rival to operate in the world in any way against US interests. Leverage zero.
When we see nations such as Japan or those in Europe exercise sovereign rights as US allies, we should also perceive an asterisk next to the word “sovereign”. These nations’ and America’s financial, commercial, media, intelligence and defense establishments are highly integrated. After all, these nations were defeated in war then occupied by the United States. Their infrastructure was built up by the United States in its own image. In the case of the financial system, these countries are quite literally dependent on the American system.
Recently in Iraq, the government has more or less officially expressed a desire for American troops to leave. This is an exercise of sovereignty. In response, the United States has declared that if the troops are compelled to leave, then Iraq will not be allowed to access accounts at the New York Fed which are necessary for engaging in the international oil trade. This would impoverish the nation even further. Other nations such as Germany, Japan or France, for example, are just as compelled as Iraq to abide by this system. Sovereign, yes, with an “asterisk.”
The second doctrine worthy of mention in this light is that of “first-strike nuclear capability.” This doctrine presumes that, with a “first-strike” capability, a country can “win” a nuclear war so long as they strike first. In traditional nuclear war doctrine, the governing principle is mutually assured destruction. Any war would result in losses of 99%+ and 99%+. First-strike capability means that the first-striking nation would take out a meaningful chunk of the other nation’s nuclear capability before a response is possible. In this case “meaningful” could represent losses of 66%+ compared to 99%+. Only 200 million immediate American deaths – oh, and that nuclear winter thing later. This is a “win,” according to this doctrine. The entire premise is one grounded in arrogance.
In Russia, America’s nuclear competitor, their doctrine is simple: if the existential survival of Russia is threatened, they will use nukes. Even if conventional American tanks roll in Moscow, this is enough for Russia to decided to initiate a nuclear exchange. This means that Russia is “unconquerable”. The attitude of US policy is that competitors should have leverage=zero. Russia being unconquerable is unacceptable. This is where first-strike comes in. First-strike is a dare, “Go ahead and launch your last-ditched nuke volley. We’ll beat you anyway, we’re not afraid.” The goal isn’t to “win” the nuclear exchange, only prove to Russia that the US can win “enough” that we’ll risk the possibility of nuclear war. Therefore, if America is winning a conventional land war, Russia will be forced to just give up and lose, and not launch nukes.
Nukes have prevented major confrontations between world powers since WWII. US policy is sick of not being able to always win all the time. Everything going on in foreign policy can be explained by understanding that the current multi-decade goal of the military establishment is to achieve “full-spectrum dominance.” Everything according to the terms of the Empire. Why is this so outcome considered to be so important to policy makers?
If you ask military officers who have been socialized into the ideology of the Pentagon, they believe it’s all about world peace. In their view, there is no such thing as a rules or trust based international order. Everything is back-stabbing, brutality, war, cheating, lying, killing and conquest. Might makes right just because it does. It’s axiomatic. Always, there is a sort of concession, “If it has to be somebody, it’s better if it’s us.” Yes, they do believe that the US system is substantially fairer than whatever anyone else would impose. However, military leaders also understand that the system is self-serving and therefore hypocritical. The self-serving nature is upheld as a necessary price to pay. The same attitude is applied all over again, “Every system has leeches and scammers, so it might as well be us.” This ideology believes that if there’s ever any doubt about who has all the power, it will invite war and death. Without full spectrum dominance, it’s the rise of new Hitlers on every continent, every generation.
Is this attitude correct? Assuming the attitude is totally wrong, and some measure of relative peace is attainable through rules and fairness based on a balance of power and multi-polarity, how do we explain the existence of this attitude?
Many theories of why US policy is so bad seem to be accurate. The influence of the Israeli lobby is considered by many to be toxic. US corporate lobbying is another example cited. This is especially true for a defense industry which only seeks excuses to sell weapons and couldn’t really care less about policy outcomes. If stopping twelve new Hitlers also means retiring to a huge mansion in Colorado or Virginia, then why not believe it? There are dozens of explanations like this, some reducing to banal maxims such as the “iron law of bureaucracy,” which says that when government agencies become powerful and important they simply go rotten. Most of these theories are consistent with one another. However, there is an additional explanation for bad policy which might have an outsized influence.
What if the military bureaucracy incentivizes the promotion of people with toxic personality types?
The profession of arms
I was formerly an officer in the United States Air Force. During officer training, all United States armed services officers are taught about the so-called “profession of arms.” This requirement comes from Congress and is written into the law. The theoretical framework of war is introduced, in the form of Clausewitz, though very little depth of study occurs. United States officers are taught that we take oaths to a Constitution. We serve a rule-of-law system with democratic elements and a separation of powers. We take an oath to our society and to protecting its diverse values. Officer trainees, cadets and candidates are also taught about the oaths of office of other societies. Nazi officers, for example, swore an oath to the Fuhrer. How barbaric! United States officers are said to be professionals who serve a just cause.
One key lesson derived from the concept of the profession of arms is the concept of professionalism itself. US officers don’t serve for reasons of personal gain. They do not serve to advance personal beliefs or ideologies. They follow rules. Hardship and emotional stress do not cause the professional warrior to deviate from their legal mission. One can imagine the Spartan stoicism of such a professional. True warriors live in the mind, not in the heart. Yes, the will to win gains strength from the heart and soul, but the iron commitment in the mind to seeing the mission through is the path to victory, according to Clausewitz.
In my opinion, the pure professionalism of Clausewitz’s ideals does not hold very strongly within the top officer ranks. Certainly, the “face” associated with this concept is an important political element within the bureaucracy. In my opinion, it is little more than face.
Take the example of Colonel John Boyd, an Air Force pilot active from 1945-1975. He was a fighter pilot and flight instructor, teaching at the Air Force’s version of “Top Gun”. He developed theories of strategy which became highly influential. For example, he is the mind behind the concept of the “OODA Loop” which is even taught to business professionals. Despite this, he wasn’t very popular. His style was intense, and his lifestyle was spartan. His nicknames included “The Mad Major,” “Genghis John” and the “Ghetto Colonel.”
In a certain sense, Boyd was the ideal professional warrior. His other theories defined the military’s understanding of aerial combat. He is credited with playing a major role (as a consultant) in the Gulf War’s “left hook” doctrine. He also worked with the Marine Corps to develop its doctrine of maneuver warfare. If there’s a consistent pattern to his work, it’s that he took outdated and wasteful practices of war and refined them down into a Clausewitzian ideal. It almost seems that a major portion of the actually useful and effective military innovations of the latter 20th century in the US military came from this one man’s mind.
Peace lovers have no reason to like John Boyd, but they can learn a lot from the Pentagon’s attitude toward him. Boyd was unpopular. Despite his stunningly important role, many of his ideas were ignored, and he was never promoted to general. The militarily magnificent maneuver warfare doctrine he helped develop for the Marine Corps is a consequence of him being more or less booted from the Air Force and having to find work somewhere else. It’s true that he was considered to have a horrible personality, but in turn he considered the military-industry-congressional system to have many flaws which prevented its bureaucratic layers from perceiving the value of his ideas. Based on the record of his accomplishments, and what we know about the Pentagon, its possible that both perspectives are equally true. As far as my research has shown, Boyd was never known to question US policy itself, only the means by which that policy is executed. He appears as the quintessential professional warrior.
John Boyd’s style was intense and unique, and one would not expect an entire military establishment to be build around it. Nevertheless, a professionally minded military establishment would prioritize the ideas of men like Boyd. They would honor the ethos and lifestyle of such a man. Men like John Boyd would become the focal points of a truly Clausewitzian force, whose sole purpose is to take whatever objectives result from the policy outcomes of the political process, and execute them quickly, efficiently and with a certain cold detachment. In contrast to this ideal, what is culture of the Pentagon – the true profession of arms – really like?
The goal of every career officer is to become a general, to wear a few stars on your shoulders. This carrot is the driving motivation for young officers to work extra hours and endure bad assignments. Stupid ribbons and medals are critically important for career fighting men. For example, Iraq was important to the Army and Marine Corps because it was a chance to hand out combat awards to officers who would need them later on to compete for general officer positions. The military, in my experience, is very much like a brotherhood. People want to help each other out – if they can. The problem is that there are only so many “desks” set aside by Congress for general officers. The bureaucracy’s self-serving incentive is to advocate for more such “desks”. That means more activity, more departments and so forth.
Imagine a world where military science is so effective that stoic gentlemen officers quickly conclude military engagements efficiently, with minimized collateral damage. When one side gains the clear upper hand, the two sides meet and negotiate a cessation to hostilities. The officers then return to their respective political masters and inform that everything that could have been done militarily has been done, and that military solutions to certain problems no longer exist. A new status quo has been made, and aggressive diplomatic efforts should be relied upon to prevent further unnecessary damage.
Like hell would any political-military-industrial establishment ever accept a world like that. That’s a world where John Boyd types run the show, with periods that have vanishingly few general officer desks. It’s a world where mass production of weapons and attrition don’t matter so much, because the military geniuses have gamed out all battles to their most essential points of uncertainty. This is a world where another pure military man, Smedley Butler (Marine Corps general, author of War Is A Racket) would have preeminence. Butler concluded that a mere coastal defense was completely adequate for the American republic.
The military “profession” is not a profession of arms. It’s a profession of armchairs. Its champions are the back-scratching fraternity house brotherhood which has dominated the high halls of America’s management class professions for a century or more.
Disclaimer – As with many American management class professions, the military includes good people in leadership positions. These are cool headed, concerned managers committed to a belief in strong values, hoping to take care of their people and do their duty to the greater good. I have met many people like this in the Air Force. The problem is that they are not in charge of the show.
In my opinion, the façade of a “profession of arms,” which is a common jargon and professional demeanor, is only a medium which allows the self-serving career climbers and the good people to coexist. Everyone must pay lip service to the party line. “America is a force for good,” “The US Navy is defending capitalism,” “We liberate the oppressed,” “Unlike our adversaries, we follow laws and international norms,” “The people we kill are evil men and the world is better without them, even if the policy doesn’t make sense.” When US policy deviates from common sense, the military profession is not permitted – by law – to disagree or critique it in the slightest. The façade serves to silence the “good people” in the bureaucracy, while becoming a smokescreen for the toxic personality types.
Believing their own bullshit
When I was in the Air Force, some of my colleagues shared stories of being deployed to staff positions in Afghanistan. They conveyed an interesting story. According to them, the attitude of the Pentagon brass toward Afghanistan was that it was winnable, but that it would be a long war and it must be kept from the consciousness of the American people as much as possible. The officers who related this attitude claimed that it results from the Pentagon leadership blaming the media first, and the American public second, for the US loss in Vietnam. This is fascinating.
It makes sense why the last generation of Pentagon brass would think the loss in Vietnam was the public’s fault, and not their own profession’s. The generation of military officers which survived Vietnam, fighting there then seeing the conflict end, would have been the direct mentors of those officers leading the fight in Afghanistan. The military has a very unique perspective on Vietnam.
I recall watching training and morale videos, some of which were old enough to be from the Vietnam era. Prior to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, the American public was largely in support of the government and its military policies – other than hippie college students and the like. In these training videos (for example, on evading enemies if you were to crash an airplane in their territory), the absolute righteousness of the American cause in Vietnam is unquestioned. The very survival of freedom was at stake. Dying for Uncle Sam is as noble as dying for God or the cross. Unfortunately for this narrative, the Pentagon Papers were released.
It must be said that nowhere in all of military training is there one shred of any concession that the United States have ever done anything wrong. In a very cynical sense, there are important reasons for this. Nevertheless, you can draw a boundary. You can allow criticism to exist in a historical and intellectual level among the officer class. To be certain, I did observe something like this from time to time. However, it was limited to criticizing discrete mistakes of specific military leaders, and only for educational purposes. Policy itself is never questioned.
Even if you accept the need for blind loyalty within the military machine, the problem remains that truth can be a double-edged sword. It’s one thing to refrain from criticizing policy. It’s another to champion policy. The party line could be: “Ultimately the United States is a force of good, and it’s our job to do our professional duty in her service.” Instead, the party line is: “Everything the United States does is great and beyond reproach, ooh-rah, let’s kill some bad guys.”
The maintenance of the party line has created a perverse intellectual culture among the military brass. Officers – the professional warriors – should be smart enough to think above the party line. Instead, they seem to blame the media and the civilian public for their own mistakes. One lesson of the Pentagon Papers was that the military leadership itself engaged in systematic failures. Sure, the policy might have been bad. LBJ and McNamara made impossible demands. However, this doesn’t absolve the military of making numerous mistakes. Most telling, the Pentagon Papers reveal systematic lies told to cover up these mistakes. The “Government” lied to the people about the policy in Vietnam – for example, claiming that the synthetic US coup was actually a civil war – however the Pentagon was also lying to everyone about the progress of the war. It was a doubly bad situation.
The Pentagon’s attitude toward Afghanistan shows something sick: they are doubling down on their own bullshit. The reason doesn’t appear to be related to bureaucratic corruption, for example, seeking to make money from weapons contracts. It genuinely appears as if a substantial number of important military leaders were actually brainwashed into the culture of the Pentagon enough to believe obvious lies about its own history of failure.
Recently, the Washington Post repeated history by releasing the Afghanistan papers. These reveal a systematic cover up of failures of military policy in Afghanistan. Consider the implication of joining all this information together. On the one hand, you have Pentagon decision makers who are committed to covertly continuing a war in Afghanistan in perpetuity, because they believe that only chance for defeat comes from the American press and public. On the other hand, you have leaders who possessed evidence that defeat was a material reality, and they chose to conceal that evidence from the public.
The Pentagon’s reasons for covering up its own mistakes are clear. Consider the “night raids” policy of the early Afghanistan war. This was a policy developed by a team which overlapped with infamous names such as Mike Flynn, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. They took cutting edge information technology to create lists of adversaries in the hopes of cutting through the complex swamp that is counter-insurgency warfare. This new COIN strategy would succeed where conventional forces, in the past, have failed to fight asymmetric forces. The high-tech databases combined with aggressive night time special forces raids to nip insurgent leadership networks in the bud. You can imagine the energy in the room as these crack-minded, forward-leaning personality types developed the strategy.
Asymmetric warfare was the Achilles’ heel of world empires. Imagine the idea of these American heroes stepping up and doing what had never been done. They were at the cutting edge. History would never forget them. Their win would be fast, decisive and sexy. The politicians would praise them, the public would love them, and the system would reward them with lucrative positions. They were ambitious career climbers and this would be their big break.
Sadly, the officers’ fever dream blinded them to an awful personal truth. Their purpose wasn’t about the objective – victory, helping the Afghan people, succeeding in the war effort, establishing the common good, promoting US interests, or anything like that. They wanted to win. No, that’s wrong. They wanted to be the winners. Personal ambition. Unprofessional at its core.
The night raids were decisive, but they also alienated a substantial portion of civilians in Afghanistan. Many who might have been neutral to the US sponsored, Kabul-based regime, maybe even supportive of it over time, were now decisively against it. The “kill list” made mistakes. Cousins were humiliated as armored troops planted boots on faces (a severe insult) in the middle of the night. The dignity of wives and children was violated. Often, those who were not supposed to die were killed. From a pure John Boyd-ian military perspective, the policy was a major loss. It made achieving policy objectives more difficult. What John Boyd would have done – we can surmise – is to have thought on his feet. After a few raids he might notice that the policy was actually causing alienation, and then he would have stopped it completely. He doesn’t seem like the type who would fall under the spell of the sunk costs fallacy.
No one knows for certain what happened in those tents in Afghanistan, where Army planners oversaw the night raids and kill lists. After McChrystal came back from his daily 7 mile run, following his 4 hours-only nap, would he have been briefed that the policy was having adverse effects (yes, the timeline doesn’t match up for the anecdote, it’s a hypothetical)? Was there an opportunity, during the night raids policy to notice the mistake and cease and desist? Who knows? However, if there was such an opportunity, and the personalities involved ignored it, it would hardly be inconsistent with other arrogant behavior some of them are known to have engaged it. This was their big policy, they had created a sexy machine. Would they risk its failure, after all the work and hope put into it, merely because it wasn’t actually successful?
There is evidence that some members of the military leadership were more invested in a successful narrative concerning the night raids policy, than they were in developing a successful strategy which fulfilled US objectives. David Petraeus and his cabal of support staff lobbied the Pentagon aggressively to give them the exclusive right to write up the report summarizing the policy. They quite conspicuously neglected to mention its many failures. What do you expect from a man famous for a clumsy love affair with a cue-ball foreheaded honeypot?
What emerges from the examples of both Vietnam and Afghanistan is that the culture of the military has sometimes promoted winners over winning. The honest are forced to repeat a loathsome (for being false) party line about unimpeachable American righteousness. The dishonest are free to rewrite history to promote their own self-serving narratives over the sacred “mission” itself.
If the public can’t know about Afghanistan, in order for US policy to succeed there, then what does that say about the Constitution? If a global balance of power is unacceptable, and the only way to stop Hitler is to be Hitler, what kind of world does the Pentagon think it’s creating? When David Petraeus, as CIA director at an “Internet-of-Things” summit, lauded the idea that our dishwashers would be spying on us, what sort of world is it that he’s hoping for? All that talk in officer training about how the US military is different because we have a Constitution, did it mean anything? Where is the goddamn Constitution in the minds of this profession?
The toxicity of having to “be a winner” at all costs
During the same officer training mentioned above, I had the opportunity to play a game called Flickerball. This game is very similar to basic handball, in which a small foam ball is passed between players from two teams, each trying to throw the ball into each others’ goals. What makes Flickerball different is that it features a somewhat arcane rulebook, which all players are supposed to study and carefully analyze.
It’s clear what the purpose of Flickerball is: to train officers to ignore the “game”, and instead seek victory by dominating the details. The irony is how ineffective the training actually is, in the context of the personality types which dominate the military culture. Rather than train officers, Flickerball simply indicts them. It serves as a great example of the professional deficits of this culture.
In Flickerball, it is very easy to receive a penalty. Traditional athleticism is not effective in Flickerball. Physicality, ball stealing, charging down the field and so forth are all specifically penalized by the rules. Physical contact is forbidden. After one catches the ball, three steps may be taken before a pass is required. Consider the implications.
While I attended officer training, I was required to participate in a Flickerball tournament. During preparations I realized that there was a simple strategy which could be very effective. Players could take their three free steps, then pass off the ball directly to someone on their own team with little chance of interference from the other team. If the handoffs were repeated, the ball could be moved freely down the field to the goal, where things would change a little bit. Although this strategy wouldn’t guarantee success, it was a surefire way to keep the ball near the other team’s goal. To implement the strategy, you would have to practice it a little and coordinate your movements as a team around the strategy. I explained this to our supervising officer, who like the idea and appointed me to lead one of the games. I explained the strategy to my teammates and directed them to practice it. They seemed to grasp the basic principle. However, during the game, the strategy wasn’t used even one time.
The flaw of the strategy was that it didn’t allow anyone to be a winner. When the ball fell into your hands, you had to become a boring cog in a machine. It was a mechanical process. My team followed a pathetic, predictable pattern. There were three tall guys on the team, all former collegiate athletes. When anyone else got the ball, they’d pass almost immediately to one of these three. Give the ball to the winner, that was tack. The athletic guys would swoop in, one, two or all three – it didn’t matter. They’d do as much as they could with their own physical, athletic ability; that was that. If they reached the limit of steps which the game rules allowed, they’d pass to one of the other tall guys. If there was a chance for a sexy goal, they’d take it. If another of them had such a chance, they’d risk a dangerous pass to each other, rather than the safe hand-off to a closer teammate. Frequently, they’d get caught up in their own athleticism and receive penalties. The rules were arcane, but a few basic penalties were crystal clear – yet they received these same penalties again and again.
Flickerball, as mentioned, is a game whose rules are designed to short-circuit athleticism. It’s a game which, in a very rudimentary sense, forces players to become more mechanical, and mentally focused. The lesson it provides is the purpose for playing it at officer training. If you search the internet for Flickerball, you’ll observe that many find it to be one of the least “fun” sports to actually play.
The Flickerball lesson is a simple metaphor for the toxic culture which exists to some degree within the military. My team couldn’t even execute a simple strategy one time. To the stand-out heroes on the field, the ambitious, aggressive achievers, winning meant being a winner. They had trouble seeing that the accomplishment of an objective is not the same thing as being a hero. Indeed, the culture at officer training was replete with hero aspiration. For instance, once weekend video privileges were received, Band of Brothers was the stand-out hit. Officer trainees watched the series on repeat, like a kid who has discovered a favorite Disney classic. Many of these aspiring Air Force professionals would spend entire careers behind desks. One wonders about their obsession with the physical, tactile fantasy of running through fields of fire, kicking grenades, punching Nazis and climbing over barricades.
I recall a discussion during a class about whether or not support officers should be asked to join combat duties. During the heady days of Iraq, base perimeter patrol duties were shared as evenly as possible. These patrols were potentially quite dangerous. Even Air Force engineering officers, who joined the Air Force only because of the ROTC scholarship money, would be tasked with this duty. I said that if I was in charge, hell no, I would not let the Army use my engineers to roll over IEDs. It wasn’t consistent with their training, they weren’t infantrymen, and their skills were needed in other roles. It’s one thing to send engineers in uniforms to combat environments where mortar and chemical attacks are possible. It’s another thing entirely to send them out beyond the walls to contend with the locals.
An engineering officer trainee in my group disagreed with my opinion vehemently. He believed that he was a uniformed member of the armed forces, and it was his honor and duty to contribute his share to the fight. I said it was his honor and duty to his damn job that he was hired to do, and not someone else’s. This genre of argument repeated itself many times during my officer training classes, and it didn’t make me particularly popular.
There is a clear difference between the attitude which seeks winning and that which seeks to be a winner. In my opinion, America’s military professional class is composed of many individuals which adhere to the latter perspective. I also believe that there are plenty of military officers who are wise enough to avoid this mentality. Nevertheless, given the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan, could it be the case that this toxic, type-A, arrogant, short-cited personality type is driving the culture of the Pentagon enough to effect dangerous national policy?
One can observe, in the actions of certain infamous military leaders, a clear commitment to self-serving career interest, a hyper-focus on face and public image, and a desire for big, bold and decisive accomplishments. One can also observe this behavior translating into consistent bureaucratic actions in the form of wishful thinking, coverups and foolish decision making. There’s no way to describe this phenomenon other that to call it what it is: unprofessionalism.
I know the Army likes to recruit Varsity lettermen for its ranks. Still, is Tom Brady the right model for the quintessential American warrior? If we include the “American” part of that description, the answer could be yes. That might be our problem.
We need to take the fat nerd obsessed with medieval sword fighting, make him lose weight, and turn people like him into our military officers. Well, you know, only if we want to win wars. Leave the Tom Brady types for football and sales.
Unprofessionalism serves corrupt interest
Smedley Butler, who saw through the corruption of American policy in the end, was nevertheless a servant of corruption for his entire military career. He deserves enormous credit for seeing the truth before he passed away, and his own self-confession of guilt is a lesson about the mentality of the American professional warrior. In War is a Racket, Butler describes some of the regime overthrows he participated in. The era of Woodrow Wilson before WWI was an era of military adventurism. Wall Street patrons of Wilson would have their lackeys appointed as Naval Undersecretaries of yadda-yadda, who would then order the Marines to go rough up Latin American regimes who didn’t want to sell America bananas – or something similarly banal. Amazingly, without oversight of Congress or the President, these Undersecretary positions had the authority to order the Marines to just about anywhere to kill just about anyone. Butler relates many of these experiences.
In one of Butler’s missions, he and his Marines helped overthrow the government of Haiti. At some point, Butler saw this for what it was – an illegal coup, a negation of democracy. It had never occurred to him that the US Marines could participate in such an action, so he raised a stink with his superior officer. He was told bluntly that orders were orders and if he wanted to have any kind of career at all he’d better just do his job and shut up.
Butler relates some of his mentality concerning why he never did or said anything about this until many years after retiring. It wasn’t so much career ambition that drove him to keep his head low as it was the feeling of being caught up in the Corps. As awful as war was, and he related many of its gory details, it was also thrilling and empowering. As a Marine officer, Butler developed a martial romanticism. Being a stoic, skilled warrior was self-actualizing. He wasn’t caught up in his own ambition so much as he was caught up in being a Marine. This was in spite of him coming from a Quaker family where some members were committed pacifists. Butler didn’t believe in US policy, he believed in being a Marine. He admits that only the passage of time allowed this mentality to wear off to the point of him seeing the folly of it all.
Butler’s lesson contrasts with the failures of the Pentagon demonstrated in the Vietnam and Afghanistan Papers. There is a paradox embedded in the concept of the professional warrior. The ideal of the profession of arms, revealed in part by the theories of Clausewitz and John Boyd, is quite different from the reality of the profession of arms. The reality of the profession of arms lies with men like Smedley Butler, whose addiction to being a warrior blinded him to the reality of his actions. It also lies with men like Mike Flynn, Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus whose obsession with looking like a warrior overshadowed, in my opinion, winning the war.
In Butler’s case, as he loudly admits, his self-obsession with being a warrior allowed him to be freely used as a tool of big business and corrupt interest in murdering and plundering the weak of the Earth. When we see the dead in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and more, what is the objective being accomplished that merits these deaths? Is democracy being built? Hell no! According to US policy, when democracy wants to kick out US troops then screw democracy! Is terrorism in America being prevented? Raise the price of booze 50% and you’d prevent more deaths than all the billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives in the War on Terror could ever claim to prevent. Lower the Speed Limit by 10 MPH. Ban swimming pools. In proportion, the objectives of these wars make no sense. Maybe there is something else behind these policies?
Pentagon culture is a Frankenstein monster
As mentioned earlier, it is plausibly the case that corrupt interest can influence policy. Certainly, unprofessionalism can foster an environment where corruption takes hold. However, in the case of the assassination of General Soleimani, we might possibly be observing a situation where unprofessionalism itself is the cause of policy errors. What if former and current generals obsessed with a “win,” bitter that they were bested, have become lost in their own desire to be winners? What if these generals have lost the plot, couldn’t care less about America, the Constitution or world peace, and just want payback against the guy that made them look like pathetic little losers for all these years? It’s certainly ironic.
I’m sure Qassem Soleimani was an arrogant, Type-A personality. Nevertheless, many commentators have claimed that Iranian culture differs substantially from American culture in that cowboy, quarterback arrogance is heavily frowned upon. Given the many military failures of the US in Syria and Afghanistan, maybe it is true that Soleimani was closer to Clausewitz than his American rivals. If this is the case, then Soleimani’s crime was much worse than preventing America from winning: he made the generals look like losers. That’s the irony, a military leadership so obsessed with being winners, they ultimately lose because they forgot to actually win.
The Twitter thread by Reza Marashi is not proof that the Soleimani strike is a result of Pentagon type personalities pushing Trump over the threshold. However, the prospect is believable and terrifying, given the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers. There is enough evidence of unprofessionalism in the Pentagon to provoke an outcry. Professional warriors don’t seek revenge, they don’t fight for self-actualization or pride, they seek only to win, and only in the time and place which is honorable and appropriate. Being a warrior means being a cold, calculating killer. It’s not suitable for the charming quarterback; war is for the dangerous, detached nerd.
The Pentagon is like a Frankenstein monster. The military leadership is a class apart, separate culturally and legally from the civilian population. They exist to defend the country, and yet they sometimes act in a way which serves their idiosyncratic and bureaucratic needs alone. They initiate policy which in turn blows back into their own professional culture, causing it to lobby for more foolish policy, which in turn blows back again. The irony is tragic. Vietnam resulted in both the Pentagon Papers, and the Pentagon culture which singlehandedly pushed for the policy which resulted in the mistakes recorded in the Afghanistan Papers. It’s like the child of abuse growing up to be the abuser.
What should be done about this?
For one, no republic can endure being an empire. The “America can do no wrong” culture of the Pentagon, which in my opinion facilitates unprofessional warrior culture, is a consequence of trying to jam an imperial military into a republican system. A pure empire can make mistakes, but these mistakes would not be moral mistakes. Thus, a well-functioning imperial military can self-reflect and self-improve. In contrast republic can suffer from moral mistakes; republics aren’t supposed to conquer vassals. Thus, a republican military serving an imperial role must lie to itself. This promotes a culture of face-saving dishonesty, which in turn promotes unprofessional warrior culture over professional warrior culture. America has to get back to defending just its borders and spheres of influence, at a minimum.
I doubt anyone will heed this recommendation.
Even within a republican military, only the seasoned, senior NCOs should be full-time lifers. They maintain the core skill sets. Meantime, professional non-uniformed academics maintain the high-level knowledge of military strategy. Tom Brady shouldn’t be doing this. Officers should be compensated only for basic needs, and serving your time should be seen as a major lifestyle downgrade done for the good of the country. Those with any experience are put into reserves, and the goal is to cycle people in and out so they have time for a real and normal life, and also so the reserve is large enough for a full scale defense of the nation.
The War Department needs to go back to being in the basement of the State Department.
Until anything like this happens, the public should be extremely skeptical about US military policy. What is the cost of “being a winner” at all costs? A nuclear first-strike and the death of all life on Earth?
In the military, commanders have a saying which is often repeated to the young – officers and enlisted alike. This is, “If you’re about to do something that starts with the phrase, ‘hold my beer,’ don’t do that thing!” It’s good advice, and I think the logic extends even to situations where everyone is sober.
If you’re in sight of a goal, and you’re about to do something that starts with you saying, “I’m gonna go for it,” don’t do that thing. Only do the things which you’ve already worked out ahead of time. Never “go for it.”
John Boyd’s military philosophy involved a repetitive thought process which was designed to help someone arrive at decisions faster than an adversary. The speed of the process was key. As such, the process involves stopping thoughts before they become complete, starting them over again if the situation has become obsolete. Thoughts are only completed if they remain a step ahead of the adversary by the time of action, in which case the action is executed. Speed is valuable, but only when it facilitates a clear thought process. Action always results from thought.
In my military experience, many of my colleagues concluded that I was more thoughtful about things than the average military man. Type-A personalities generally loathe people like me. If you wait around thinking, you miss opportunities to act. I can agree with this criticism of myself, and I’m sensitive about the idea of hesitating too much. However, John Boyd’s philosophy proves that you must think as a prelude to action. You avoid missing opportunities by having a faster thought process than your adversary. You don’t win by acting before they do, you win by engaging in thoughtful action faster than they can. If you act without thinking, then your adversary just gained their advantage. See: Soleimani assassination.
There is such a thing as taking too long to think, but incorrect action is even worse. The art of war lies with speeding up your thought process, and knowing exactly how much time a thought should take. Never “go for it.”
America’s free society is more than sufficient to create a strategic advantage in defense. Historically, our dynamic and productive culture thinks much more quickly than anyone else’s. As long as our sword remains sharpened (i.e.: maneuver warfare and officers who get the lesson of Flickerball) and our military can act efficiently and effectively, we have the strength to deter aggression. We can, through our soft power and benevolence, win whatever favor we need from the world.
There is no need for full-spectrum dominance, and it is a lunatic ideology which has led to insane consequences like this recent, very public assassination. God forbid what might come next.