Disruptive Thinking, Innovation, Whatever You Want to Call It is Needed for a Military in Crisis

Image(rebuttal/comments to yesterday’s post : Hit here to view comments on SWJ/please chime in with thoughts)

 By Peter J. Munson

I try to mostly stay out of the comments section of articles now that I’m editor, but I couldn’t help jumping into the epic fray over Ben Kohlmann’s piece today. I jumped in because I am passionate about this issue and because many of the comments demonstrated – in my mind – exactly the malaise Kohlmann aims to address. In think pieces like this, people love to snipe the suggestions, extrapolate suggestions far beyond their scope to make a strawman that can be knocked down, and condescend about how a junior cannot possibly understand what they are talking about. All were found here today.

First, I implore all of those who have strong opinions on this article and the issues that surround it to submit their essays to us. Even if I violently disagree with you, I will publish all submissions on the topic that are lucid and written well enough to merit our readers time. Clearly, our readers are interested in this topic. While many of the comments picked at the essay, the massive amount of pageviews and the large number of Facebook likes tell me that it resonated with many. Which is a symptom of my next point.

The U.S. military is in crisis. There is a large segment of the force that is disgusted with the bureaucracy and its failures. There are bright young minds who have been given tremendous responsibility in combat and have been far more earnest about learning at a young age because their lives seemed to depend on it. Thrust them into a stodgy, conservative bureaucracy and they are going crazy against its illogic. Some of this may be generational, but some is a combination of the continuing ossification of the organization and its culture just as a cohort with unparalleled combat experience in recent memory rises to levels where they must tread through its morass. Combine the pending withdrawl from Afghanistan, the drawdowns, and a system that doesn’t let these “young Turks” (as LtGen Neller termed us, perhaps incorrectly) exert influence to their potential, and you have a recipe for a train wreck. This is only one of numerous salvos that have been fired on this issue recently, but too often they are dismissed, poo-pooed, condescended, or attacked. In the end, the institution seems to be content to ignore them.

I’d like to address a few more issues that came up in the comments. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the military should adopt business practices wholesale or to send every officer to business school. And certainly, entrepreneurs and the business world have their share of failures, as well. But as I look at some of the comments here and on Facebook, the level of hostility toward the business world and the level of arrogance that the military is so far superior to the business world that there’s nothing we could deign to learn from them is a symptom of the self-lionization and the isolation from society that we have created in the past decade and more. Not every HBS grad was a Wall Street investment banker precipitating the recession. Many are running the industries that keep the nation and the military going. They and other business people are the ones that keep our economy going, without which there is nothing to defend or to defend it with. Military members increasingly think we are the be all, end all of American society. This is sick and ultimately dangerous thinking and it needs to stop.

Sure, business has had its disasters, but are you telling me that the people who brought you Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghainstan, plus a host of other debacles, constant acquisition nightmares, and the complaint that spending more than the next 19 nations combined on defense isn’t enough cannot learn anything from the business world? Are you telling me that since medicine and science have had fraud and failures, we should not seek to learn from them either? Yes, the military is not a business. Everyone gets that. But we should seek to learn from every field we can.

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