Wednesday, November 14, 2012



I have been thinking of plans recently because mine have been disrupted by various recent events—though I am less concerned than I would have been in the past because I’ve built up enough experience to appreciate that: “Man plans and the gods laugh.”

Also, the word “unpredictable” embraces good news as well as bad—and I have recently received some good news. So we are back to the merits of equanimity. Cool is cool.

In some ways, I’m surprised the word ‘plan’ exists in the English language because it is (mostly) my experience that few plans survive contact with real people; primarily because real living people are a mass of wants, insecurities, irrationalities, ignorance, plain bloody mindedness, and panic–and most don’t think too rationally, even on a good day.

In fact, there is an old English expression to that effect: “There is nowt so daft as folks!” Unless it is generals.

Forgive my subconscious. The damn thing seems to have a mind of its own. Frankly, I am decidedly upset by recent developments because I don’t think Dave Petraeus has earned such ignominy; and I know a few other generals, who I regard as friends, who deserve better than to be caught in the fallout. On the other hand, I regard this tendency of many generals to regard themselves as rock stars—with attendant sycophants and groupies—as ridiculous; and sycophancy is virtually de rigeur in the Officer Corps. That, in many cases, is how you get promoted. You become a senior officer’s aide; gratify his every whim; agree with his every utterance; and your reward is promotion—the only that matters to the careerist.

Since it is in the nature of those with an original cast of mind to resist such toadying behavior, the result is promotion by the mediocre of the mediocre; and the filtering out of true talent. A further truth: True talent is knowledgeable, questioning, critical, generally difficult to manage—and decidedly neither “clubbable” nor conformist. In short, leading and commanding talent (especially in war) requires outstanding generalship—which, for the reasons explained—is exactly what we are missing, in all too many cases. Are there exceptions? Of course there are, because mediocrity knows full well that there is no substitute for, at least, some talent in times of crisis. But such outstanding people, generally speaking, tend to be shoved aside when the shooting stops; or when being considered for the next promotion. True talent tends to be used—and dropped.

It is a self-perpetuating system that works much better—in terms of advancement—than achievements in combat. In fact, in a world where promotion is prized so highly—because virtually all incentives are based upon it—genuine achievement in combat can work against the warrior. Why so? Because he or she makes the headquarters careerists feel uncomfortable.  To illustrate the point, despite the extraordinary courage demonstrated again and again at the sharp end by our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, note the small number of Medals of Honor that have been awarded. This is not an accident. It reflects the mindset of a culture.

And yet there is precedent for the general as celebrity—albeit significantly different where sex was involved. Consider where the Duke of Wellington was just prior to the Battle of Waterloo. He was attending a ball in Brussels given by the Duchess of Richmond—and certainly had rock star status, and aristocratic groupies to match; whom he put to much practical enjoyable physical use . However, he had the good sense, when threatened later in life to having his sexual activities exposed, to say: “Publish and be damned.” He rightly regarded an active sex life as no more than normal; and it certainly did not interfere with his fighting spirit in any way.

Could it be he might be a better role model for U.S. Army generals? He was certainly more successful in war; and, though not without faults, the man was decidedly not a hypocrite. In contrast, hypocrisy is endemic to the culture of the U.S. Army Officer Corps. It preaches one thing—Honor, Duty, Country—and its members practice another. And the Army as a whole has a disconcerting tendency to win battles, and lose wars. Yet the one and only unforgivable sin of a general, is to lose a war. Such a truth is self evident, and why we ignore it, defeats me. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us something.

But we were betrayed by the politicians and the American public did not support us is the defense. Well, if that was the case we shouldn’t have gone to war in the first place—and the more senior generals should have anticipated that. Arguing I was just following orders lost credibility as a defense during the Nuremburg trials after World War II. But, a more fundamental point is that senior generals—who inhabit the nexus of the military and the political—are supposed to be able to anticipate and communicate the consequences of their actions; and to communicate them with courage and vigor. That is their duty. Do they do that as matters stand? The evidence would suggest that not only do they not; but all too many are not competent to do so. Conclusion: We desperately need better generals—and the information that (mostly) they kept their pants zipped is really not much of a consolation because their sex lives, or the lack, are irrelevant to the real issues.

It is also worth noting that generals Pershing, Patton, Gavin and Eisenhower (to name but a few) screwed like bunny rabbits—with women other than their wives—and yet played major roles in winning World War II. In short the attempt of Uniform Code of Military Justice to regulate against a completely normal and healthy human activity is foolish in the extreme, and almost certainly undermines National Security rather than enhances it; both because it is a major distraction, and because it criminalizes aspects of sexual behavior—and thus opens the door to blackmail.

In passing, I would like to point out that the Duke was Anglo-Irish (my background, I am proud to say) and that he had a profoundly realistic view of plans. They are a worthy attempt to anticipate the future but they rarely survive contact with the enemy. When asked by his second in command, Uxbridge, for his plans as to how he intended to defeat Napoleon, he merely replied: “Why sir, to beat the French.”

Mind you, he also remarked—in relation to his Irish background—“Being born in a stable does not make one a horse.”

Frankly—where the “nowt so daft” comment is concerned, I don’t think it comes close. I think it is highly probable that we are all certifiably crazy. But, then again, “we” are doing the certifying—which makes no sense. On the other hand, if “we” are all we’ve got, perhaps it does. Besides, since when was sense the determinant?

The true irony is that despite all our manifest flaws, we also have a habit of displaying extraordinary fortitude; and of doing some really good things—and thus we stumble forward; and we call this progress.

Damnably confusing, wouldn’t you say?


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