More on “Last Wishes”

March 6, 2013 — 5 Comments

Only a few minutes after I commented sympathetically on Last Wishes of a Dying General, I read Crispin Burke’s devastating takedown.  The subsequent online discussion about both these pieces has given me a lot to think about.  Although Carr’s essay was received quite well among his readers and colleagues, Crispin’s critique resonated with many other officers, who see Carr’s piece as an arrogant, angry rant.

Because I know Carr and what he stands for, I didn’t read his piece that way.  I think a lot of his frustrations are legitimate, and believe he speaks for a lot of Air Force officers.

But as the discussion has continued, and I’ve had more time to reflect on it, it looks to me like Carr’s piece–and the reaction to it–exactly fits the unproductive cycle that I described in Finding Common Ground.

The essay violates several of the principles I suggest for disruptive officers who want to make a difference.  Its biggest fault is that it’s too personal, severely undermining its legitimate points.  It focuses on problems without proposing specific, actionable solutions.  Finally, it is written in a tone and manner that is not likely to persuade senior leaders.

On the other hand, I haven’t been impressed by some of the reactions from older, more senior officers.  I have seen little engagement with Carr’s concerns, or acknowledgement that these concerns are widespread in the Air Force.  Instead, I’ve seen assaults on Carr’s character, statements of good riddance, and dismissals of his critique on the basis that the private sector is worse.

All of this is quite disappointing, so once again, I point to the suggestions for both junior and senior officers in my essay.  These debates need to move forward in positive, constructive ways and I see responsibilities on both sides.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

5 responses to More on “Last Wishes”

  1. Mark, I appreciate your engagement with this piece. It’s been my aspiration all day today, in fact, to communicate with you and thank you for digesting and reacting to the message, which in the end is all we can hope for when we offer our thoughts for popular consumption.

    I’ve found the response to this piece fascinating. It was never intended as an academic paper or even a complete thought. It was, quite simply, my thoughts about what I see to be some deep-seated organizational pathologies that have taken root in the Air Force in the past few years, and that can’t be approached for solution because they can’t be openly acknowledged. I offered my thoughts sincerely and openly, and accept that they’re uncomfortable and even inconvenient for some. I accept that such inconvenience and discomfort drives some of the more petty among us to issue ad hominem barbs in response, rather than acknowledge the kernel of accuracy lying within and catalyzing them to behave in ways far beneath their dignity or mine. Of course, what’s amusing to me is that these brave souls who call themselves senior leaders dare not issue their “good riddance” calls to me directly. Such candor is not the coin of the realm at the moment. But it should be. No matter what anyone feels about the words I chose in conveying my closing argument to the USAF, I served it honorably for my entire adult life until just a few days ago. In my humble opinion, continuing to think aloud about the things within it that need to be remedied is a continuation of that service.

    As for the scathing reply from Starbuck, well … what else should I expect? I gave him an easy target and he took his shot. What’s interesting about his post is how little issue he took with the substance … he was more interested in a humorous immature stylistic critique than a serious discussion. Who knows, maybe I can still bring him around. Until then, my skin is more than thick enough to sustain his assaults, and I’m more than a little amused by his lack of humility at the same moment he invokes it as a Holy principle.

    Go back to your first post. Remember how you felt when you read those words. If they rang true, they rang true. That’s good enough for me … good enough in fact that I can more than easily accept your fair criticism that I could have been more constructive in my method. But we’ll save that exchange for the round. I appreciate you and what you do in this space.

    TC

    • Thanks for the comments, Tony. Don’t take this post as a retraction of my earlier one; I have a great deal of respect for you, and think many of your critiques are right-on. I stand by everything I wrote this morning.

      However, I’m very interested in how we can collectively be more effective in creating meaningful change. This post contains some of my honest reflections and feedback on how your article fits into that ongoing process, and where there might be opportunity for improvement. The stakes here are so important that we need vigorous, honest discussion and debate. I know you understand that, but I still want to say it.

  2. Sam Sundquist March 8, 2013 at 6:46 am

    I have read articles like Mr. Burke’s before; in fact, I have written them – my vituperation of the humiliating Lindsay Lohan movie ‘Liz & Dick,’ for example. That snarky, supercilious tone, that impudent mockery, is typically directed toward targets for which one has utter contempt. I have no personal stake in the outcome of this debate, and I must defer to Mr. Jacobsen’s assessment of whether Mr. Carr’s piece was ultimately productive or not. However, if I were to make a judgment regarding to competence and reputability of the players in this drama based simply upon their writings, I would have to regard Burke as the least reliable, if only because of his dismissiveness and derisiveness in the face of a serious challenge.

  3. Sam–This is an interesting (and painful) debate for me to watch, because I’ve personally known both individuals for a long and time and respect their ideas. So I was able to look past the tone of both articles on my first reading. But many other readers who don’t know them found the tone of both articles offensive. It is interesting hearing your perspective, because I know you are coming in “cold” and don’t know either individual.

    Perhaps this illustrates a point in my essay: that having a proven track record is essential if you want your ideas to be received. Tony’s article has been well-received in his own community, because he has such a stellar record there and his peers know his character. Outside of that community, his essay has largely fallen flat. In Crispin’s case, he is well-known in the military blogosphere and has a proven track record there, so despite its needlessly savage tone, it was well-recieved there.

    • Sam Sundquist March 8, 2013 at 8:48 pm

      If a “cold” perspective interests you, I will offer some more of my unsolicited take on this debate. Burke’s rejoinder has made it as much about rhetoric as substance, so I will offer my response to that aspect of their respective pieces.

      CARR
      His main device: that venerable trope of offering an intentionally vague narrative, than clarifying it in a manner contrary to reader expectation.

      What he is saying by it: “You should accept my arguments, not merely on their own strength, but because I am the one who’s making them.”

      My take: An appeal to authority is an informal fallacy, but Carr’s credentials – and his restrained tone – do make me weight his arguments more heavily than I would weight those of a typical commentator or critic. If anything, given the magnitude of his decision to leave the Force, I see his criticisms as relatively muted.

      BURKE:
      His main device: a veritable cornucopia of informal fallacies by which he attacks Burke, his vocabulary, and the originality of his ideas, but relegates any thoughtful consideration of them to an afterthought.

      What he is saying by it: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Me!”

      My take: Burke feels disinclined to dignify Carr’s ideas with a response, but feels somehow duty-bound to do so – either because he presumes it is expected of him, or in order to prevent the less conversant from succumbing to his persuasive powers. He’s not happy about it, and his tone makes me less inclined to accept his arguments.

      ***

      Concluding impressions:
      1. Carr may be wrong, but he is not obviously wrong – to me, anyway. His ideas deserve, at the least, a more thoughtful rebuttal.

      2. I don’t see Carr as a disruptive thinker. Technology, politics, and money are the main disrupters. The debate is about how to manage these disruptive forces and where to channel “counterdisruptive” efforts.

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