The terrifying vulnerability of the U.S. military
Whenever a military crisis breaks out, American hawks talk about sending in the troops, and doves sputter about imperialism. But the key role of the U.S. military is usually far away from these hot spots, and instead in Eastern Europe, the Taiwan straits, the Korean peninsula, and the world's shipping lanes.
Like it or not, in a world where the U.S. spends more on its military than every other country put together, and where the only plausible contenders with the U.S. for global predominance are unsavory regimes like Putin's Russia and authoritarian China, the U.S. military is the unseen guarantor of most of the peace and prosperity on the planet.
But all of that depends on the U.S. military being, you know, good.
The main reason why the U.S. military can promote global peace is because of the aura of invincibility it gained in World War II, because of the end of the Cold War, and because of its overwhelming military spending and technological advantage. But an aura of invincibility is a dangerous thing. And unfortunately, there are signs of rot.
I define a bureaucracy as an organization that does not understand itself to be under competitive pressure. This applies to most government departments, as well as many large companies, and other organizations, like many parts of my own Catholic Church. The reason why militaries often have a reputation for efficiency that other government departments don't is because they tend to get competitive pressure in the form of people who try to kill them.
But being a government body, a military's "natural" status is of a bureaucracy: lumbering, impervious to change, inefficient. Efficiency is still the exception to the rule. Napoleon was able to conquer most of Europe because Europe's militaries had become bureaucracies due to their feudal structure, which in France had been cut off (often literally) in the French Revolution.
As strange as it may seem today, in 1940, the French military had a similar aura of invincibility; it was the military that had led the Allied forces to victory in World War I, then the greatest war anybody had ever seen. Part of the impetus for appeasement in the 1930s came from the notion that Germany couldn't do anything too crazy because then the French would crush them. But the French did not understand that they were competing, they got complacent and lazy, and got crushed by Germans who understood very well that they were competing.
Today, the U.S. military has fallen under the Bureaucracy Rule. The U.S. has no great power rivals, and thank God for that. Iraq and Afghanistan have not caused an identity crisis for the U.S. military because many senior commanders view these as "freakshow" wars — counterinsurgency wars, not the kind of "real" wars that militaries fight.
What are the signs that an organization has become a bureaucracy?
The first is excessive PowerPoint. Every organization should ban PowerPoint. But it has become particularly endemic in the military. The fact that the new Defense secretary has banned PowerPoint from some senior briefings is a step in the right direction.
Another issue is endless red tape. Red tape is bad not just in itself, but because it quickly breeds a culture of corruption and sloppiness. Unchecked, the Red Tape Machine produces so many rules that it becomes simply impossible to comply with all of them. But the real problem comes then: Once everyone gets into the habit of not following the rules, no matter how justifiably, the culture changes. Once people are able to rationalize not following the rules — at first, very justifiably, they only stop following the bad rules, but then they are on a slippery slope — they grow to internalize an attitude of contempt for all rules. "Everyone else is doing it."
Is this going on in the U.S. military? The signs are increasingly there, as a damning study by Army War College professors reveals.
Officers have so many bureaucratic requirements that they end up fudging forms — in other words, lying — and then have to justify it to themselves. For example, one captain reports skipping quarterly sexual harassment training for his troops. Even more damning: "Enemy contacts in Afghanistan and Iraq would go unreported because they required a PowerPoint description after the fact." That is not a good thing.
These are all the classic signs of an organization that looks great on the outside but is rotting from the inside because of bureaucratization. Something needs to be done. Military history books are full of organizations that looked just as good on paper, but were just as complacent, and then toppled over when given a good shove. And that's something none of us should wish for.