Archives For Life & Leadership

Heading to SAASS

December 30, 2012 — 2 Comments

Gandalf in Library

Well, folks, I have a new assignment.  If AFPC doesn’t change my orders again, I’ll soon be neck-deep in books about strategy and airpower.  I’ve been selected to attend SAASS, the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, starting in July.  The school’s mission is to “produce strategists through advanced education in the art and science of air, space, and cyberspace power to defend the United States and protect its interests.”

The SAASS recruiters try to scare prospective candidates by telling them they will spend an entire year reading a book a day.  My reaction: you mean you will pay me to read a book a day?

So come July, I expect to be crashing Goodreads‘ servers and sharing a fascinating new chapter of my education with you all.

A Kind of Glory: Part III
In part I of this series, I quoted John Steinbeck’s beautiful essay from East of Eden celebrating the majesty of the individual human mind and its creative power.  In part III considered why it is hard for those in large bureaucratic organizations like the U.S. government to “find the glory.”  Modern economies depend on the division of labor; bureaucracies can undertake epic projects by distributing the load across a vast workforce, but the downside is that most employees will only ever deal with a tiny fragment of the finished project.  That can make job satisfaction elusive.  Employees must also suffer with all the bureaucratic minutiae that large organizations inevitably spawn.  Both these factors are all too present within the U.S. military and government.  They drive a lot of good people away, and create endless frustration for the good people who stay.

In part III of this series, I want to speculate about whether or not it needs to be this way.  Can we make it easier to “find the glory” for those serving in a large bureaucracy like the U.S. military?  Is it possible to bring the work and the glory closer together, even to put the glory to work for us?

Most people have passions in life, activities they wish they could do for a living.  The problem is that our passions seldom completely align with our jobs.  We don’t know how to make money off of them, or we think it’s not possible to make money, so at some point in our lives we make the decision to “grow up” and study something useful.  The passions are still there, pleading for expression, but they suffocate under the demands of tomorrow’s staff meeting and the next mortgage payment and finding a good health care package.  Nearly every artist in the world knows what I’m talking about.  Many people wither away in jobs they despise, then die filled with regrets.

Every once in a while, we find those who miraculously reinvent themselves midway through their lives.  They quit the secure job, forsake the regular paycheck, and take a daring plunge into doing that one thing they’ve always dreamed of.  Stunned relatives think they’re crazy, and for a while they’re living in an apartment again and burning through their life savings, but they do it: they find their footing, and in a few years they’re making money at something they love.  They write inspirational books and give motivational speeches, and we love these people, because we wish we had the courage to make that same plunge.

My dad did this.  He gave up a comfortable job managing a successful boat store because every evening after he work he built models and R/C submarines and boats and cars, and he’d always dreamed of opening a hobby store.  After a near-fatal car accident led him to do some deep thinking, he acted.  Eleven years later, he sold what had become the most successful hobby store on the West Coast and he was nationally known in the hobby retail community.  Now he does decidedly ungrown-up things like building completely functional replicas of R2-D2 and doing occasional contracts with Lucasfilm.  Wow.

If there is one thing that drives dissatisfaction with work, it is this gap between our work and our passion.  Smart companies nowadays are trying to close that gap.  Google popularized the idea of the “20% project.”  Employees are only expected to work on their primary project 80% of the time; they can commit the remaining 20% of their time to pet projects.  This policy lets a bunch of software geeks do the thrilling, Red Bull-pounding, frenzy of coding that they did in their garages as teenagers–in other words, fulfill their passion.  But more importantly, it has brought huge dividends to the company.  Many of Google’s leading technologies like gmail and Google Talk are a result of 20% projects.  The policy has helped Google employees find a little bit of glory, and simultaneously put that glory to work.

So let’s bring this back to government service and the military.  We aren’t a company; our work is quite different, and compared to the corporate world, it can be pretty exciting.  I’m fortunate to do something that is a passion, something that is a dream for many young Americans: being an Air Force pilot.  I’m certainly not complaining.  The problem, though, is that being an Air Force officer entails a whole lot more than flying airplanes, and just like in corporate America, the passion and the work can diverge.

In the military’s archaic personnel system, we are largely viewed as interchangeable parts and can be reduced to a handful of numbers on a single-sheet career summary.  The system can barely account for our actual skills, let alone the things we care about, are passionate about, and want to do for the rest of our lives. Our careers move on rails, and the system is so rigid and centrally-directed that it is ill-equipped to handle the unique contributions that talented individuals can make.  It can’t harness the glory.

I’ll share a few examples of missed opportunities:

1. Plenty of my fellow pilots have no interest in commanding a squadron, and are content to let the all-stars have the job.  They really want to do just one thing for the rest of their careers: fly airplanes.  But in an up-or-out promotion system, that is the one thing they can’t do.  In fact, there is only one place where they can do that and still wear a uniform: the Reserves.  So shortly after they hit Major, many of our most talented instructors and evaluators “cross the street” to the reserve squadrons.  The Air Force spends a vast amount of money on signing bonuses to staunch the flow.

2. I have another colleague who is a strong pilot and excellent leader, who dreams of being a squadron commander.  Serving commanders recognize that he is a natural pick, but his paper record probably isn’t strong enough because he missed opportunities as a lieutenant and young captain.  To cite a hypothetical but typical example, his record is weaker than a guy who got a #1 stratification as a Lieutenant for planning the squadron Christmas party, and whose record snowballed from there.

3. A colleague of mine is skilled at mobile programming, and was working on iPhone apps for our Wing.  He got a by-name request by a general officer to do software projects, but was denied by his assignment team because they needed a body to fill a modest staff job that required no special talents.

4. At a time when fuel cost savings is a top priority for Air Mobility Command, our pilots rage at inefficiencies in the U.S. global logistics system.  We routinely fly empty or half-empty jets from place to place.  I have friends who earned Master’s degrees in subjects like Logistics Management and Operational Research, who could offer so much in this area, but our personnel system is blind to the content of degrees and is not equipped to capitalize on their experience.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  The rigid, centrally-directed, up-or-out promotion system limits how much officers can maneuver within their careers.  It makes it very difficult for officers to do that one thing that they really dream of doing with their lives, or are uniquely suited to do.  How many opportunities are we missing?  How much stronger would our squadrons be, if we let our best instructor pilots fly out their remaining years instead of driving them to the reserves?  How much innovation could we harness by recognizing bright officers who have great ideas, and letting them work in environments where they could bring those ideas to life?  How much better would our staff work be if we could actually look at what officers studied in their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and let them work–to whatever extent possible–in related staff jobs?

I’m also intrigued by the idea of offering sabbaticals.  We have an all-volunteer force, but after a decade of continuous war we have burned out and ground down too many of our volunteers.  We also expect our volunteers to serve in one non-stop burst, from the day they show up to basic training to the day they separate.  During that time we push them relentlessly, which has a perverse side effect: our professional military education (PME) assignments, those times when we are supposed to be learning and stretching ourselves to prepare for higher-level service, are often viewed as our only chance to rest. That doesn’t help our collective performance in these schools.

Is it possible to give service members voluntary sabbaticals, in ways that wouldn’t hurt their chances for promotion?  Imagine what it would do for retention, if tired mid-career officers could take a year to find the glory… whether that’s working on a doctorate, traveling the world, or just spending a quiet season with their families.  And imagine the potential payoff to the military and government, from officers who choose to broaden themselves through more study or civilian work during these periods.  I know exactly what I would do, if I had a year sabbatical; I would move right back to the Middle East, and spend a year immersed in the countries I was never allowed to visit because of the DOD’s ludicrous travel restrictions.  I can guarantee the government would benefit when I got back.

They two keys to these various suggestions are flexibility and choice: enough flexibility in the career ladder that jumping the rails doesn’t guarantee the stagnation or end of your career, and enough choice that passion and job requirements have a fair chance at aligning.  That means letting individuals seek out the jobs that excite them, and giving supervisors the freedom to hire uniquely talented individuals who bring more to the job than a good stratification.

These aren’t easy issues, and no doubt any change to our personnel system would invite a rash of second and third-order consequences.  Perhaps that is why no one has dared to try to change it.  Choice can only go so far, in a profession filled with undesirable billets that absolutely must be filled.  A commitment to duty and service before self will always matter.  And it makes sense that an organization like the Air Force wants its commanders to have a certain breadth of experience before taking the job.  I have no background in organizational management, and am not qualified to put forward specific suggestions.  This post is about speculations, not concrete proposals.  However, it is clear to me that the military’s personnel system is showing its age and is increasingly out of synch with the approaches taken by modern companies.  I do think there is a place here for real reform, and I think the biggest winner of all would be the organization itself.  If the organization can harness the glory, it will be that much stronger.


A Kind of Glory: Part II
In my previous post I shared one of my all-time favorite passages from literature, an essay embedded in Steinbeck’s East of Edenthat celebrates the glory and the creative power of the human mind.  If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to read it now.

Today I will consider the challenges faced by public servants who equally cherish the glory of the individual mind.  If Steinbeck’s words mean as much to you as they did to me, if they awake something deep within you and make you yearn for the glory about which he writes, then I’m talking to you.

Steinbeck praises the boundless energy, dynamism, and creativity of the individual human mind.  He worries what will happen when the logic of mass production enters our economics, our politics, and religion.  Then he writes lines that should sound grimly familiar to anyone who has experienced Basic Training: “And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man.  By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged.”

Steinbeck closes with a rousing affirmation of the individual human soul: “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.  And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.  And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government that limits or destroys the individual.  This is what I am and what I am about.”  If the glory can be killed, he writes in closing, we are lost.

Military service–and really, employment in any large bureaucracy–requires conformity and the subservience of the individual to the organization as a whole.  No surprises there.  Organizations need to steer the efforts of their diverse employees in the same direction and for the same purpose, and militaries in particular need to ensure obedience to orders in the most stressful conditions imaginable.  Basic training and subsequent courses are designed to reinforce group loyalty and conformity to organizational culture.  These are not bad things.  Fortunately, the “repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning” fade after our first weeks of Basic Training, and we discover that we are still individuals.  Our hair grows back, we dress how we want on the weekends, and we gradually reclaim the time to pursue the relationships, interests, and hobbies that we’re passionate about.

Still, there is a deeper level of soul-crushing “mass production” at work in any large bureaucracy, and I think this is what Steinbeck has in mind: the simple logic of division of labor.  When I was a cadet at USAFA, I studied astronautical engineering because I dreamed of the future.  I grew up reading and writing science fiction, living half my life in imagined worlds.  I built robots in the garage with my dad.    I wrote software, turning abstract visions into concrete products.  So it only seemed natural to study a subject that would allow me to design spacecraft that would sweep future pioneers to new worlds.  But I came to a sad realization along the way: an engineer in today’s world doesn’t design a spacecraft.  He designs a particular circuit in a particular computer that communicates with five other computers to provide the inertial guidance for the spacecraft.  If he is an engineer in the Air Force, he likely manages contracts for the civilians who design those circuits.  That is how engineering now works; thousands of individuals, each crafting tiny fragments that will eventually add up to a reality far removed from their personal experience.

It’s no different in any other profession.  Few Americans plant their own crops and see them through to a harvest; our food reaches us via a production and distribution chain so large we can hardly envision it.  We have lost something, which is why it’s so satisfying for me to eat an orange from my backyard tree or build something with my own hands.  One summer I slaved over a new backyard patio.  I’m terrible at home projects, and nearly wrecked the entire thing on more than one occasion, but eventually I got there.  I still savor the memory of sitting in a lawn chair on that newly finished patio, wiping sweat from my eyes and downing a beer in the warm afternoon sun.  A small glory, but a glory nonetheless.

Which brings us to those who serve in the military or government, who are tasked with addressing problems on a global scale.  We are a vast bureaucracy, as vast as the world we inhabit.  The meaningful work–winning wars, negotiating alliances, developing nations, tackling diseases, growing economies–is sliced and diced into so many little fragments that the whole disappears almost entirely.

If we’re lucky, we can at least glimpse how our piece fits into that whole.  I’m fortunate to be a C-17 pilot, because our missions enable and respond to world events; you can guess what’s on our scheduling board by reading the news.  But not everyone is so lucky, and in my field, flying is only a small part of what we do.

Your average military officer does not spend his days “fighting the war”; he adjusts the font colors on slide 8 to satisfy his commander, so the commander can brief the data to his own boss at tomorrow’s meeting–even though it’s redundant with three other Excel and PowerPoint products, and the boss doesn’t especially care anyway.  Then he gets called for random drug trusting the fourth time this year and goes to pee in a cup, and after that he stays late writing award citations for decorations that are given automatically to soldiers who have valiantly served their country by having a pulse.  Even on his best days, the days when he does his most exciting work, the kind of work he signed up for, it’s often less than he once imagined it would be.

We all know what I’m talking about.  We’ve all been there.  It’s Dilbert in a uniform and a reflective belt, and it’s almost worse for us because we naively had visions and ambitions of international proportions.

Such work robs the soul and kills the glory.  It eats at us night and day, and it drives many of us out the service entirely.  Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of veterans separate because they are frustrated by military bureaucracy.  They hate the risk-aversion that stifles free thought, critical thinking, and experiments in change.  They resent a conveyor belt promotion system, which decouples talent from advancement.  In my own service, we bemoan a system in which fighting the war always seems to be the lowest priority; who has time for that, when there are parties to plan and airshows to host and ASEVs and SAVs and ORIs and OREs and a hundred other inspections to prepare for?  I don’t even need to comment on PowerPoint culture, which is derided in a new essay every 3 or 4 months and unfailingly provokes a flurry of passionate commentary in the blogosphere.

The officers who remain in aren’t staying because they disagree with these critiques; they stay despite their frustrations.  The soul-crushing bureaucracy drives them mad.  Even the best leaders, who are truly devoted to public service, agonize with friends behind closed doors about whether or not they really want to stay in and for how long.  This is as true of civilian leaders as it is of military members.  As much as they love serving, let there be no doubt: for most of them, continuing to serve entails much sacrifice, and a lot of that sacrifice is imposed by our own organizational culture.

That is why, when I first read them, Steinbeck’s words flashed from the page like a lightning bolt.

Here are my questions: does it have to be like this?  Is there a better way to work?  Can we find ways to nurture individual minds and souls within the context of a large organization like the US government, and put all that glory to work for us?  These are questions I will consider in Part III of this series.  Finally, in Part IV I’ll reflect on how we can seek the glory and find the richness in our work, even when the hammerblows are falling.

A kind of glory

November 20, 2012 — Leave a comment
This is one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Chapter 13 of Steinbeck’s magnificent East of Eden.  I share it now because I am going to be writing about it in a series of coming posts.  It deserves to be read in its entirety, not skimmed.  When the day comes that I get out of the Air Force, this will be why.

SOMETIMES A KIND OF GLORY lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men. 

I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused. 

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man. 

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken. And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. 

And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

My previous post Recovering our leaders as human beings apparently struck a chord, so I would like to follow up with some more thoughts on America’s relationship with its heroes–this time on a more personal scale.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Gunpowder & Lead  wrote an excellent response to my post, in which he discussed something he called “schadenfreude”–a big word I had to look up, which apparently means “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.”

If the last ten years of history was a novel, and the titans of the counterinsurgency debate were the characters, what is the narrative arc we would find?  Schadenfreude is it; a tragic story of epic heroes who rose to history’s call, only to find themselves ultimately outmatched by the harsh and unforgiving outworking of history.  They tottered, they fell, and then the same cheering masses who elevated them to power turned on them like wolves; they tore them limb from limb and desecrated their very memory.  This is tragedy in its most classic sense, a tale as old as human storytelling.

I have spent a great deal of time pondering this, and it began well before General Petraeus’ recent fall from grace.  For me, the tale of schadenfreude began with John Nagl.  Back in 2008, I wrote a post called Warrior Intellectuals that was reposted on Small Wars Journal.  I heaped praise on Nagl and his book, and on the other names now associated with the cult of COINdistas.  The post seems quaint when I read it now, in light of the schadenfreude of the past four years.  No doubt others would read this post today in far harsher terms; I drank the koolaid, I was a true believer, I was dangerously naive and trusting.  Perhaps, perhaps not.

My views have become much more sophisticated since then, but context is important.  At the time, I was in despair; Iraq was burning, and I hadn’t met a single leader in the Air Force who could articulate any understanding of the war.  All I heard where shallow platitudes, empty praise, and gruff chest-pounding that was dangerously ill-suited to the kind of wars we were actually fighting.  So the COINdistas really did seem like a light in the darkness.  Also, it wasn’t just the COINdistas I embraced; I was fascinated by the back-and-forth between these individuals and their opponents, especially Gian Gentile.  What I really appreciated wasn’t so much the particular arguments made by John Nagl, but the quality of the discourse as a whole.  The very fact that we can have sophisticated arguments today about Nagl’s treatment of Malaya illustrates for me just how intelligent the discussion has become. Perhaps it was there all along and I didn’t know where to find it.  Or perhaps these individuals really did do us a tremendous favor by forcing us to think harder than ever about counterinsurgency.

In any case, my Warrior Intellectuals post got me noticed.  John Nagl even sent me a personal e-mail, which rocked my world, and he introduced me to other names who had been legends to me.  I got an inside look at their world.  I was awed as I roamed the slopes of Olympus, feeling small and antlike while the godlike figures argued and roared and thundered war above me.

And then it happened, almost overnight: the mood changed.  CNAS was no longer the little worldchanging think tank that could; it was a malicious cancer in Washington, infecting and sickening the entire national security apparatus.  Population-centric counterinsurgency was a lie, and the American people had been duped.  Its prophets were charlatans and sorcerers, especially John Nagl.  I was shocked by the level of sheer hatred his enemies had for him.  It went beyond questions of his scholarship; in the eyes of his enemies, Nagl was one step removed from the anti-Christ.  Tom Ricks was his grand vizier.

It was sobering watching my heroes turn into villains.  There was no illicit affair, no compromise of classified information, no crime; just a war for ideas, ideas which were vital, ideas which would be written in the blood of American soldiers and would shape the future of our country.

I had dreamed of getting a high-level policy job someday, of applying whatever measure of knowledge and wisdom I have to influence U.S. policy for the better.  That is why I had applied for Olmsted, and had applied to do it in an Arabic-speaking country in the heart of the Middle East.  Watching the savage attacks on Nagl made me pause.  This is the price of high-level government service, I realized.

If you are a good man or woman (and I believe many of them are), you go into these jobs with dedication and commitment to do the best you can.  You stand up for what you believe, and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong and sometimes the issues are so complex that nobody will ever really know if you’re right or wrong.  Decades later, historians will still debate your legacy.  You can’t win; you are asked to solve unsolvable problems, to allocate limited means to address limitless threats, to choose each day between terrible alternatives that each carry a heavy price.  You will be chewed up and spit out and subjected to the most dreadful attacks on your life’s work and your character.  You will be paraded through the streets in a cage and the cursing mob will hiss and spit and throw stones.

I suppose that is how it should be, because you are responsible for charting a course for your country and for the the world.  When you have that much power, it is a good thing that you are subject to such terrible scrutiny.  But there is nothing pleasant about it; this is certainly not what aspiring policymakers dream will be their destiny.  I have gained a newfound respect for these men and women: not because they are better or smarter than the rest of us or capable of superhuman feats.  Rather, I respect them for the immense sacrifice involved in stepping into this arena at all.

It has been a sad day, watching the story of General Petraeus’ affair unfold on every glowing screen across the planet.  Whether it’s tweets waterfalling down my iPhone or e-mails frantically chiming on their way into my laptop inbox, I can’t get away.  This is a sad and tragic story on so many levels. I respect General Petraeus and his accomplishments, and I’ve traded e-mails on a few occasions with Paula Broadwell.  She has been a relentless advocate for women in the military.  It is sad watching the story reveal itself, and I am already weary from the onslaught of bitter political commentary.

Still, I can’t resist weighing in on the Petraeus affair, why it has apparently rocked the entire universe, and what we might take away from this.

Peter J. Munson had a great point in a series of tweets.  We live in a society where “megalomania is virtually inevitable”, and where people are only too happy to seek out and fawn over celebrities.  We elevate these individuals to superhuman status, and then are shocked and disappointed when they fall.  People are fallible, Munson says.  We need to stop fawning over them and recognize that they can do anything.  This isn’t just the story of General Petraeus, it’s the story of the human condition.  And it is about so much more than the “private” behavior of our leaders; it is about how we view leaders in general, and how we trust them to wisely lead our nation.

The danger is that, in our desperation to find heroes, we gloss over faults and overemphasize virtues.  Perhaps we even endow celebrities with virtues they don’t actually posses.  We lose perspective on reality, which is why hagiography is a derogatory word among historians–and why Broadwell’s book about Petraeus has already garnered much criticism (and is certain to face even more damning criticism now).  This hagiographic accusation has long been leveled by General Petraeus’ detractors, some of whom seem quite glad to see his mythic stature shattering.  With the first cracks defacing his legacy, they are thrilled to continue the job, tearing stone from stone and demolishing everything we thought we knew about the man and his accomplishments.

When we lose perspective on reality, we establish impossible expectations, which are certain to come crashing down around us later.  It’s the same old story every time a celebrity leader self-destructs through sexual or financial impropriety, whether that’s our neighborhood pastor or an American president.  We expect moral perfection from the polished celebrities who speak to us from their lofty podiums, even though each and every one of us struggles to tame our inner demons and has–at one time or another–made a wreck of our lives because we can’t live up to our own ideals.

We also expect perfection in leadership, in job performance, in statecraft.  We expect General Petraeus to singlehandedly win wars that even Chuck Norris probably could not (I said probably); we expect the American President to turn around an economy that has been spiraling into the black hole of debt for decades; we are infuriated when our military and political leaders cannot stop terrorism, put China in its place, or deal with Iran once and for all.

In one sense, our elections are really about taking out our anger at crushed expectations.  The country collectively flip-flops every four or eight years, putting its misplaced hopes for perfection in an opposition only too happy to sell itself as the solution–and we collectively forget how things went the last time around.

This is a blog about Building Peace: about harnessing our collective effort to take small, pragmatic, and effective steps to live better lives and improve the world we live in.  That is a vision that requires a great deal of faith and optimism.  But for me, that vision has never been naive: it is absolutely grounded in the reality of the world that we find around us.  That is why the banner depicts Athenian and Spartan generals facing off over a map of the world.  For me, the Peloponnesian War stands in for the story of the human condition, and for the nature of the world that we have inherited.

Misplaced idealism is one of the most dangerous forces in the world, and has been responsible for all manner of evil.  If we want to do any good in the world, we have to understand the world as it is–and human beings as they are.  That is why some of the world’s most significant worldchangers have held somber views of the world and were haunted by private darkness.  President Lincoln was famous for his melancholy, Winston Churchill wrestled with the “black dog” of depression, and Mother Theresa lived a private life tortured by doubt and sorrow.  Such leaders presented bold and inspiring visions to others, but only because they were so thoroughly in tune with the brokenness around them.  They knew the world, they knew the hearts of men, and they knew how to battle for the higher good within those arenas.

Our founding fathers also understood this, which is why they labored so intently to create a system of government that would protect citizens from the inevitable corruption of power.  It was a system that sought great men to lead the fledgling nation, but also defended itself against them.  The system trusted no one, because no one was worthy of absolute trust.  Somehow, we have lost our moorings since then.

As the Petraeus affair forces us to reflect on the leaders we hold so dear, it’s worth recalling the wisdom that the founding fathers tried to ingrain in our system of government.  Yes, we want heroes.  Yes, there is much we can admire in great men and women, and I believe that General Petraeus fully deserves to be ranked among them.  Yes, we should seek out and empower leaders with character, wisdom, knowledge, and skill to lead our country.  But none of this should blind us to the weakness and deficiency that lies at the heart of every human life.  We should celebrate our leaders’ triumphs, but also acknowledge their shortcomings.  When they do stumble and fall, we should be gracious enough to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”–but we must also hold them accountable.  The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

In short, we must lose the hagiography and the soaring expectations.  We must recover our leaders as they actually are, as flesh-and-blood human beings: glorious and creative and bursting with limitless potential, but also ambitious and manipulative and greedy; loving and selfless and capable of the highest feats of self-sacrifice, but at other times selfish and petty; courageous and cowardly; noble and treacherous; gracious and cruel; imbued with reason but hopelessly irrational; faithful and faithless; the Imago Dei and the apex of this great wheeling universe, but tragically flawed and fully human.

In 1999, in his first major appearance as Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Academy, then-Colonel Mark Welsh delivered a historic speech to the cadet wing. It remains the most impressive speech I’ve ever witnessed. Copies quickly circulated all over the world, and to this day my former classmates talk about it whenever Welsh’s name comes up. The speech was referenced in various news articles when Gen. Welsh was appointed the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force. In retrospect, I am quite grateful that I had the opportunity to be in the room that day.

Yesterday, at the 2012 Airlift/Tanker Association convention, I had my first opportunity to see Gen. Welsh since his time as my USAFA Commandant. Although his speech was not as epic as that first USAFA address, it was still impressive. Welsh has lost none of his talent for holding an audience captive, and for winning the devotion and affection of his subordinates.

What is Gen. Welsh’s secret? He is a natural speaker and is extremely charismatic. He seems to genuinely care about the individual people under his command. Those are powerful characteristics, but I’ve known plenty of charismatic, caring leaders who are also gifted public speakers. None cast the spell that Welsh does. So what sets him apart?

Gen. Welsh resonates because he doesn’t just deliver speeches; he is a gifted storyteller. His most powerful speeches are nothing more than masterful storytelling about memorable, sympathetic characters. It is storytelling that lets Gen. Welsh hold an audience spellbound.

Stories are vital. We are creatures who need stories, who live and breathe them and use them to make sense of our life experiences. We have been telling each other stories since our first ancestors gathered around a fire. We can pack endless quantities of information into texts or briefings, but much of that information is soon forgotten; it is stories that change our lives. That is why Jesus told stories instead of merely listing principles. That is why I take the time to read and write fiction, even as a busy military officer. I have forgotten most of the ethics lectures I’ve ever attended, but I think all the time about my fictional hero Jean val Jean. And I have read countless articles about civilian-military relations, but none of them impacted me so deeply as writing a novel about an anguished general contemplating disobeying orders.

I wish more public speakers would take to heart the importance of stories; too many don’t. Most military officers are strong, confident public speakers but I have seen few truly memorable speeches. I have forgotten thousands of statistics, lists of leadership principles, and expositions of DOD buzzwords. But I’ll tell you what: thirteen years later, I can remember General Welsh telling a story about a fellow pilot coaxing his wife through a complicated labor via a phone call from the other side of the planet, then strapping on an F-16 to go to war.


Balancing my love of writing with my military career has never been easy, and now I’m wrestling with a new dilemma: how to balance those two things online.  Readers have no doubt noticed that my blogging has been light lately, and that much of it has been oriented toward the launch of my novel.

Building Peace has always been intended for a broad audience, but I mostly move within military circles and suspect that much of my humble audience does as well.  The blog’s mission is “to multiply the impact of my education, as someone who cares about building a better world.”  I have never claimed to be an expert in much of anything, but I have been blessed with a very unusual education and have tried to take my readers along for the journey.  I hope I’ve succeeded in some small way in doing that, and plan to keep it up as best I can.

At the same time, I am now trying to take my writing career to the next level.  My novel is finally out, and I’m hard at work on another–which hopefully won’t take me nearly as long to complete.  I’m at a point where I need an online presence as a writer; I need a platform from which I can connect with readers and other writers, and can discuss my fiction and its inspiration.  For now, Building Peace is that platform.

My new challenge is maintaining an online presence that is engaging and relevant for what are, in theory, two very different audiences.  All the literature says this shouldn’t be done; a blog and its brand should be sharply focused.  Trying to target both audiences could alienate both.  I actually considered creating a totally separate website and Twitter account for my fiction writer personae–splitting myself into two online identities–but ultimately chose not to do for that, for one very simple reason: all of my work and all of my interests, fiction and nonfiction, flying and officership, foreign languages and foreign affairs, theology and philosophy, are so deeply intertwined that I can’t tear them apart.  My master’s thesis on Discourse About Islam and my novel are both products of the same mind; both draw on my passion for the world and its people.

So I’m throwing away the rulebook about effective blog management and online branding.  I’m just going to be me; to write about the things I care about and am thinking about, whether that’s an airpower essay or ideas for my next novel.  I will do my best to make every post engaging for my readers, whether they are staff officers working 14 hour days at the Pentagon, or Science Fiction enthusiasts who simply liked my novel.

With all that said, I am always interested in feedback.  I honestly have no idea how many regular readers I have, or who you are.  If you enjoy Building Peace, I would be grateful for a quick e-mail telling me who you are and why you follow the blog, and sharing any suggestions for the blog’s future. Even a single sentence would be awesome.

Belief and action

July 12, 2012 — Leave a comment
In my most recent post about Islam, I mentioned that there is often a tremendous gap between our professed beliefs and how we actually live.  The best treatment of this I’ve ever seen comes from the pen of John Stuart Mill, in his masterpiece On Liberty.  Sometimes, this dissonance is a good thing; it tempers the worst excesses of fanaticism.  Other times it is a tragedy, when we fail to live by our most noble and cherished principles.

As I write this series of posts, it’s healthy for non-Muslims to reflect on their own belief systems as well.  That is the other side of this enormous equation, which I hope to treat eventually.   In the meantime, I’ll let Mill take it away.  If you’re not a Christian, the passage works just as well if you substitute your own most sacred moral principles.

These [Christian precepts] are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them.

Small Wars Journal has done us all a tremendous favor with its recent series on “disruptive thinking.”  Navy LT Ben Kohlmann’s original article obviously struck a nerve, because it has spawned long comment trails, response articles, and debates throughout the military blogosphere.

I appreciate the debate, because I’m one of those junior-officers-rising-into-leadership who the articles are for and about.  This quote from Peter Munson’s response article made me cry, “Yes!  He gets it!”

Today’s military is facing a significant crisis.  This crisis has several dimensions.  The rank and file of the military who have made or witnessed the massive efforts and sacrifices of the past decade, and who have seen so very little in the way of satisfying results in return, are puzzled by the self-assuredness of their leadership.  They question the slogans and the continued assurances that things are “on-track” and that we are accomplishing the mission.  They are disappointed by the failures of leadership and imagination that have yielded toxic commands, a rash of firings in some services, and a breach of trust with our most vulnerable servicemembers.  They wonder about the future of the weapons systems that support and defend them as they read tales of acquisition woe.  They question the growing focus on bureaucratic minutiae.  They question how they can be trusted so completely in a combat environment, but are treated as children in garrison.  They wonder how a military system that prides itself on justice will reward the generals that have presided over failure, whether at the operational and strategic levels on the battlefield, to the continued failures of the institution in the realms of personnel, acquisition, and budgetary policies, while at the same time eroding the autonomy and discretion of junior commanders with a creeping campaign of bureaucratic centralization.

This discussion has helpfully surpassed the usual cliches about innovative junior officers vs. stale bureaucracies and ignorant senior leaders.  It has raised prudent questions about what kinds of disruption are actually constructive and effective.  Several commentators have noted that plenty of “disruptive thinkers” are really just disruptive non-thinkers.  These individuals can be loud and immature at worst, and sadly ineffective at best.  Unfortunately, I know a thing or two about that; I’ve had a couple bruising experiences where my attempts to be a disruptive thinker backfired badly.  Sometime I will tell those stories.

That is why today’s SWJ article, The Disruptive Poets Society, is my favorite so far.  The article reads like a history of my intellectual journey as a loyal dissent within the U.S. Air Force.  I’ve gradually learned that constructive criticism and innovative ideas are not enough; ultimately, the only thing that counts is causing institutional change.  Martin writes, “It is a rare gift to find a person who can both think against the grain AND get the institution to change” and asks how the DOD can better leverage the disruptive thinkers it already has.  Martin lists ten principles for disruptive thinkers.  The first is so vitally important that I will repost it in its entirety:

Be effective. Learn to work within the system. The system won’t change any time soon, if ever. Develop informal networks, build rapport, work behind the scenes, let others take credit; find those who are gatekeepers and facilitators. In short, use UW and COIN doctrine and TTPs in getting around the bureaucracy within our own commands.

Read the rest here.