I’m a week late sharing the link here, but if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my new piece at War on the Rocks: How to Discover Defense Innovation. In this article, several coauthors and I discuss how our involvement in the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 2013 conference led to unforeseen successes that directly benefit the Department of Defense. How? “Discovery activities” are the raw material of innovation–activities that broaden our horizons, relationships, and experiences, even if we have no idea how they will serve us later. DEF is a change to engage in three straight days of discovery with a group of fantastic people. That’s why I’m so excited to board a plane in a few hours for DEF2014. I’ll see many of you there! And for those of you who can’t make it, I’m coming out of my social media hibernation to participate on Twitter. Look for us at #DEF2014.
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This year I have no New Year’s resolutions. Here’s why.
The very idea of making resolutions implies that we aren’t living the life we want; we are slaves to destructive vices that we need to break free from, or we are failing to invest our time and energy in the good and noble things that we want in the depths of our soul. New Year’s resolutions are discontinuities. They are our declaration to ourselves and to the world that on January 1st we will cease to be the person we were the day before, and become somebody else. That’s why we usually fail to keep them. Few of us are capable of such heroics; for the mortals among us, change is slow and difficult.
Self-improvement is both desirable and achievable, but it is a continual process that requires unwavering commitment, hard work, and constant monitoring. Life change isn’t a surgical airstrike; it’s World War II. It is a long hard slog through the rain and the mud, and if you stop fighting for a moment, you will be overrun. The good news is that if you do have the grit to fight every day, you really can gain ground. As victories accumulate, you can change yourself and your world. Victory becomes a habit. And if you are striving every day to live the life that you want, New Year’s resolutions become redundant.
The past few years have been a time of incredible life change for me, largely by necessity. I had to finally confront weaknesses within myself that were threatening to ruin my entire life; the resulting change has been tremendous. My time in Jordan forced me to alter parts of my personality by sheer force of will, because I could only thrive as an Olmsted scholar if I overcame my deep natural introversion. The birth of my three closely-spaced children brought me the greatest joys and blessings of my life, but has also put incredible demands on my time and energy. As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about my values and priorities and strategizing how to pursue and invest in the people and projects I am sincerely passionate about. Once a year or so my wife and I have a “Navigator’s Council” to deeply reflect on where the ship is sailing, and we make plenty of mid-course corrections along the way.
So when it came time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions, I realized I didn’t have anything new to commit to. In so many ways, my family and I genuinely are living the lives we want. Of course, that doesn’t mean we have it all together; each night when my wife and I collapse onto the sofa after putting the last child in bed, we are just grateful to have survived the day–and we hope we didn’t make an impossible wreck out of everything. We often feel like failures as spouses, as parents, as friends, as Christians and as professionals. But if we look past the daily grind at the big picture, we’re mostly living the lives we want, and we’re constantly striving to improve in those areas we’re not. We prioritize each other and our kids, undertake many adventures together as a family, and are constantly experimenting with different routines so we can better educate our kids or work out more or have more time to read. My wife is regularly learning new, healthier ways to feed our family. For my part, I’m always paying attention to my family-work balance, cutting out inefficiencies and wasted time, and improving my time management so I can complete the projects I’m passionate about while still dedicating abundant time to my family.
In other words, we don’t have discontinuities; we are committed to a constant process of growth and change. We are always striving to improve ourselves as individuals and as a family, and improve the ways we interact with and give back to the world.
This isn’t to disparage resolutions or the people who make them. I have plenty of resolutions–whole notebooks are filled with them and their outworkings–but I would never achieve any of them if I confined them to the start of the new year; I’m way too failure-prone to stand a chance. To succeed, resolutions must be so much more than annual pledges; they must be seared into the core of our being, guiding us as we fight the new battles that each and every day brings.
That is why I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; they wouldn’t do me a bit of good. Instead, my constant goal is to be a person of resolve. To never settle, but to always be striving for the greater good in my life and the lives of others.
I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my productivity, so a couple months ago I finally tried something I never expected to like: audio books. I have to keep my mind engaged twenty-four hours a day to be happy, so I’ve always listened to interesting material like NPR or Arabic news when I’m in the car or working out, but I never thought audio books would be a satisfactory substitute for reading. That, and audiobooks are expensive.
But on a whim, I checked out Audible and realized that their subscription prices actually made audiobooks affordable. I downloaded a book that I had begun reading in print, but hadn’t had time to finish: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I was blown away. The performance quality was excellent. Frank Muller, the narrator, has a mesmerizing style and a range of voices that brought each character to life without ever sounding contrived or cheesy.
I’d listened for less than two minutes when I realized something profound that I probably should have understood years ago: stories are meant to be shared aloud. Long before our ancestors invented written language, they gathered in caves or beside fires to regale one another with epic tales from life and from their imaginations. Something of that is still in our blood. After work each day, I rushed to my car and spent my twenty-minute commute completely absorbed in the austere frontier world of McCarthy’s creation. Hearing the language brought it to life, endowing it with power and beauty it didn’t have on the page. It helped me to better appreciate the book, and I have no doubt that hearing the music of language is making me a better writer.
Now, at the recommendation of a friend, I am listening to Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power. The performance quality equals that of All the Pretty Horses; I can listen to narrator Jon Meachem for hours without tiring. With this book, I also discovered a neat little trick of Audible that is a godsend for those of us who never have enough time: you can listen to a book at 2x or 3x speed. With this particular book, I found that 2x matched my need for time efficiency with audio quality; the book goes fast, but not so fast that the narrator’s wonderful voice degrades.
In short, I’m sold. Next on deck is that literary masterpiece that was unquestionably meant to be performed out loud: The Iliad.
I am still working out some kinks with the transition to WordPress. I thought the RSS feed was fixed, and that subscriptions would be seamless for my readers, but just discovered that Feedburner is reporting my total number of subscribers has plummeted to 7. Something has obviously gone wrong.
If you have been following Building Peace by RSS, I would love to hear your feedback. Are you still receiving new posts in your feed? Did you need to resubscribe? Does anything seem broken?
In the meantime, you can help me out by spreading the word that readers should check in at www.buildingpeace.net to ensure they are receiving my most recent posts; if not, they should resubscribe to the feed. Thank you!
The migration is going better than expected, but there are still a few hiccups. The new WordPress site will hopefully be up today.
The first problem is that my RSS feed seems to be completely out of order, at least in Google Reader. Rather than displaying posts in the order I wrote them, it is displaying them based on when they were last updated–and there were plenty of random updates during the migration. I’m not sure if I can retroactively clean this up, but the feed should look better over time with new posts.
The second problem is that when I imported by Blogger posts into WordPress, the latter published all my draft posts–which were rough and incomplete, and a few of which I had stopped working on because I decided they weren’t appropriate. The main culprit was one about the management of the AfPak Hands program. I promptly deleted these, but Feedburner tells me that 19 of you read the AfPak Hands post. If you did, please understand that this a half-complete draft post that I had decided not to publish.
I don’t expect this to be easy, so please bear with any technical difficulties. If you are an RSS subscriber, your feed should still work after the migration–but if you don’t see any new posts within the next couple days, I encourage you to visit www.buildingpeace.net and re-subscribe. You can follow me on Twitter for updates during the migration.
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.
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.
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.