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A military specialization area: Not learning from experience

In the wake of the jihadi massacre at Fort Hood, a number of conservatives, who understandably assumed that the military has a "reality check" that the rest of the government doesn't have, have been shocked and baffled at all the ways in which Hasan's military superiors ignored warning signs and didn't get rid of him, pronto.

Even I have to say that I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was this bad. Still, it's been a long time since I had much faith in the U.S. military to be smart about things, especially when matters of liberal politics are involved.

But here is a point we need to consider, as well: Unfortunately, the military can be very dumb and very bureaucratic generally. Certainly, all the more so in a case like Hasan's where group politics are involved, but even when group politics are not involved.

With which introduction, I give you the story, which some of you may already know, of Millenium Challenge 02.

Here are links to stories about this disgraceful chapter in American military history, which occurred in 2002. The minute you start reading the story, you encounter a mind-numbing enchantment with slogans, especially slogans captured in acronyms.

It seemed to the military leadership that it ought to be possible to rein in the uncertainties of war and subject the whole matter to a rigorous, well-defined, manageable process. Toward the end of the twentieth century, it began to look as if the technology and expertise existed to do just that. The Department of Defense established the Office of Force Transformation to effect a sweeping change in the way the military conducted its operations.

JFCOM played, and still plays a major role in the transformation. They came up with the Operational Net Assessment (ONA), which they describe (in part) as follows:

The ONA process frames our understanding of a potential adversary's political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure systems. Link analysis, network analysis, and structured argumentation are used to assess the adversary's systems.

Such systems analysis:

* Reveals critical nodes and vulnerabilities that may be used in effects-based operations

* Recognizes the adversary's goals, intentions, strengths, weaknesses, and behaviors

* Generates understanding and knowledge that may be used to predict indirect and unintended effects a of diplomatic, information, military, or economic applications of national power

* Determines what the adversary values most and how to affect it decisively.

JFCOM also came up with Effects-Based Operations (EBO), a "process for obtaining a desired strategic outcome or 'effect' on the enemy, through the synergistic, multiplicative, and cumulative application of the full range of military and nonmilitary capabilities at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels." The Common Relevant Operational Picture (CROP) provides "military thinkers, inter-government agencies and joint warfighting commanders [with] the ability to review intelligence on their adversary, chart and map troop movements, gather information on an extensive database of knowledge and scenarios and also get the information to the troops in a way never before utilized by any force in the world - all at their fingertips. With the click of mouse, and through the use of their desktop computers, leaders have the power to see the battlefield and win the war in a whole new way."

What does all of that remind you of? Well, I'll tell you what it reminds me of. It makes me think that this looks like military strategy cooked up by a bunch of education majors. Or maybe university administrators. The two groups are sometimes rather similar.

The inflated promises of success, the hype, the implication that here is something all new and incredibly exciting which will solve problems that have been part of society and of the discipline in question for hundreds or even thousands of years, the starry-eyed view of technology as a magic wand, the strong whiff of pure theory abstracted from real life. This is all rather familiar, is it not? Does anyone remember "outcome-based education" (OBE) from the 1990's? That was the bit where the educators decided that teaching children facts was an outdated idea and promised to get children ready for the Brave New World by not teaching them facts.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And so it was here. Read all about it in the links provided.

And what happened when Blue Team lost stunningly, because General Van Riper showed them that they were not, in fact, very good at predicting enemy plans and movements? What happened when their own technological dependence was their undoing, because the enemy turned out to be less reliant on technology than they had assumed?

Why, just what you would expect, in our reality-challenged, affirmative action society. They stopped the exercise, revived their dead troops, refloated their sunken ships, and told Van Riper that he wasn't allowed to think outside the box and that the Red Team must make, instead, the sorts of moves the Blue Team had expected it to make. When Van Riper quit in disgust, they carried out this scripted "test" and ended up with a shining vindication of ONA, EBO, and CROP. (If my readers feel that they must come up with jokes based on the acronym "CROP"--and I admit that it's hard to resist the urge to do so--I ask only that they express such jokes delicately in line with our family-friendly policies here at W4.)

And it gets even worse. Van Riper told people about the story precisely because he was afraid that the phony "validation experiment" would be used to justify using these shiny new ideas in the real world. And that's just what happened:

Navy Capt. John Carman, Joint Forces Command spokesman, said the experiment had properly validated all the major concepts. The command already was drafting recommendations based on the experiment’s results in such areas as doctrine, training and procurement that would be forwarded to Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said.

This is exactly what Van Riper feared would happen. “My main concern was we’d see future forces trying to use these things when they’ve never been properly grounded in any sort of an experiment,” he said.

All together now:

"Careful! We don't want to learn anything from this."

What does this have to do with the Ford Hood massacre? Well, it shows that in addition to all the purely political and ideological forces that went into the mix, there was probably also a hefty dose of pure bureaucratic stupidity linked to the purely ideological and political forces. In other words, once the military gets an idea in its head, it is apparently much more difficult than some conservatives would like to admit for the military to get the idea out of its head, to stop acting on the idea, to accept a reality check. I had not heard the story of MC02 when I made my comments here in response to a question asked by commentator Tony, but the story tends to confirm what I said there. In part,

Tony, I have a partial answer to your question, but it's only partial: The virus principle.

The virus principle says that wherever there are strong structures of authority, it is necessary only to infiltrate those structures, and the entire institution will be yours for the indefinite future.

You mention orneriness, common sense, and tradition. But it is my impression that ornerines and common sense are not much valued in much of the military, that discipline and obedience are much more valued, and that _real_ tradition went out the window quite some years ago to be replaced by phony, brand-new, PC "traditions" to which everyone has been required to adhere. Dissidence tends to be squelched. [emphasis added]

I suspect General Van Riper would agree. Here is a characterization of him:

“What he’s done is he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it,” the retired officer said. “He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that as possible.

“He can be a real pain in the ass, but that’s good. But a lot of people don’t like to sign up for that sort of agitation. But he’s a great guy, and he’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons.”

Let's not forget that the military is run by the government. And the government is not known for its responsiveness to evidence that contradicts desired conclusions. We now know this old, old truth in a new and unimaginably horrifying way. What we ordinary people can possibly do about it is another question.

Comments (9)

What does all of that remind you of? Well, I'll tell you what it reminds me of. It makes me think that this looks like military strategy cooked up by a bunch of education majors. Or maybe university administrators.

What came to my mind is not the education major, but the MBA who formed his ideas about the capacity of technology and systems analysis during the 1990s tech bubble. It's the Pets.com military!

Besides the MBA mindset, this lingo is right out of the Computer Science undergraduate lounge.

A "whole new way" of doing things is a characteristic aim of both the rising business manager and the rising technologist. The military, like the rest of us internet users, is being fertilized with technology business ideology.

Good points, Kevin. I think we're in trouble, then.

Good points, Kevin. I think we're in trouble, then.

Not I. I use my computer to compute. I can't help it if it sneaks off while I'm not looking and posts at WWWtW without my knowing about it and then signs my name, to boot.

The Chicken (or am I his computer...I'm not telling)

What is also disturbing is that officers must get all 5s on their annual Efficiency Reports or lose all chance to advance. Furthermore, if a superior scores a man less than 5, it sets in motion a host of further meetings, boards, and so on the superior must attend and justify the score.

So everybody scores a 5, like the car salesman who had been a pain in the butt to me hands me a card to rate the experience and asks me to score 5 on every aspect or he'll get in trouble with the boss and with Ford.

How can you possibly evaluate talent, leadership, competence if everyone gets an "A"? And God help the man who is brilliant but a little eccentric or "different" in thinking.

My BS-o-meter wound around the dial a few times when I came to this line:

the admiral said the exercise “wasn’t about winning or losing. It was about can we better plan, better organize, and make quicker, better informed decisions,”

Of course, nobody wants to know who will win with those better plans, better organizing, better informed decisions. No, that NOT THE POINT.

Please sir, how does one define "better" if they don't lead to victory? Is there some cosmic game-judge who awards points for style as your navy is sunk and you landing force obliterated?

Exactly, Tony. They removed the objective test of "better." It was like some silly, Dewey-esque education schlock where somebody says, "It doesn't matter if you don't get the right answer to the math problem. The important thing is that you are going through a learning process." Then there was the public school I heard of that canceled the school's chess club because chess is all about winning and losing, and they felt that was bad for the self-esteem of the students.

Let's not forget that the military is run by the government. And the government is not known for its responsiveness to evidence that contradicts desired conclusions. We now know this old, old truth in a new and unimaginably horrifying way. What we ordinary people can possibly do about it is another question.

You forgot to mention that the government has this complicated kabuki that it does on everything related to "ethics" and "efficiency." In fact, it can actually make government more expensive, inefficient and unethical to go through the kabuki to get "the right result" than to merely trust the personnel to make the right decisions and punish them later if it can be shown in hindsight, it was a bad idea to begin with.

My favorite example is the fact that it takes all sorts of bidding and comparisons to get a contractor into a position as simple as the local IT guy. They'll bid out the positions and spend months evaluating it (at significant cost, I might add) rather than let a captain or major look over a set of resumes, hire the IT guy as a 1099 and fire him at will if he fails to do the job.

It is all smoke and mirrors because of the cultural ethos against "judgmentalism" and implying that common sense is not only supposed to be normal, but that people who don't have it should be punished for not displaying it when in positions of authority.

I am reminded of an ethics training session I underwent some 12 years ago, given by a high-profile training group. The focus of one segment was avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest. An executive admin assistant was given the job of setting up a large conference with a couple hundred attendees from all over the country. She set up the bid structure and put out the call. Eventually 4 realistic bids were received that met all the criteria, all from known hotels. The lowest bid of the 4 was actually from a famous, high-class resort, a ritzy place (who had lost a contract that they were depending on, and wanted to fill the week with SOMETHING that would bring in money.)

According to this training group, the right thing for this admin assistant to do was turn down the lowest bid, because it was known to be a high class resort and people would think the organization was living high on the hog.

Someone pointed out that the definition of "appearance of conflict of interest" includes the requirement that the decision would appear fishy to a normal person who has the facts of the matter before them. In fact, the trainers' suggestion is that the government spend MORE money than is needed so that it could avoid the appearance of spending more money than necessary. The trainers hummed and mumbled and lied their way out of the question.

(There is in fact an answer to this: you can't assume people will generally have the facts before them, and they will jump to conclusions. But this consideration is NOT that of an appearance of a conflict of interest as defined, it is a political decision. It may be the right decision, but only because of a consideration that simply cannot be put into a rule book. There could be other alternatives, like putting a blurb in the organization's newsletter, a story about how they got such a great price, and "arranging" to have it picked up by media. Not that this would necessarily work, either, to stem the potential criticism.)

You expect this kind of stupidity in very large government organizations, because they don't think they can hold the managers accountable without writing a rule book on what it means to be accountable, and then making everything fit the written rules even when they clearly should not. But then a civil servant's life isn't on the line when the rule is a bit of a strange fit to reality. A soldier's life is.

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