Category Archives: Featured

Float like a starfish, sting like a spider

Army Starfish Program

“The Army’s Starfish Program” seeks to promote decentralization as yet another tool to counter decentralized and networked threats.

The day someone becomes CEO of a large corporation, it is classic to warn them about the dangers of hierarchy by saying “yesterday was the last day that anyone will tell you what is actually going on in the company”.  Conventional thinking is that the military is even more hierarchical.  In reality, however, it is impressive how the Army is at the cutting edge of non-hierarchical thinking.

A good example comes from an article in POLITICO about the book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”.

The title is based on the contrasting biology of spiders, which die when their heads are chopped off, and starfish, which can multiply when any given piece is severed — a trait the book’s authors posit is shared by decentralized entities ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Al Qaeda to Wikipedia.
“This book is about what happens when there’s no one in charge,” write the authors of “The Starfish and the Spider,” Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. “It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.”
What caught my eye about the article was that Brafman was asked about his political ideology, but declined to discuss that because “he is doing consulting work with the U.S. Army trying to help it “become more starfish-like.”

A New York Times article describes another way the military is exploring non-hierarchical thinking, by working with Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea“.  Word of Mortenson’s book spread among military wives, including one who sent the book to her husband, LTC Christopher Kolenda.  Kolenda read about Mortenson’s private initiative that built more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly for girls, and he and Mortenson began cooperating.  Soon, Deborah Mullen and Holly Petraeus were urging their husbands to read the book.

As Colonel Kolenda tells it, Mr. Mortenson and his Afghan partner on the ground, Wakil Karimi, became the American high command’s primary conduits for reaching out to elders outside the “Kabul bubble”.
The military has found ways to avoid being like the CEO who doesn’t know what is going on.  But they have been careful to ensure that flattening the hierarchy of collecting information doesn’t compromise the hierarchy of command.  Gen. David Petraeus stressed this theme in an April 2009 talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“You have to be careful   . . .   it is great to flatten [the organization] for information, but there does need to be a hierarchy when it comes to people pushing recommendations up, pushing policy decisions up . . . you can’t shove aside a subordinate organization and just take it over.
He also described the importance of taking initiative, citing a sign he saw at an outpost:
In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what they should have been and execute aggressively!”
When I first met Petraeus in 2006 at an MIT ROTC event, he told me how impressed he was with some of the ROTC graduates who had served with him.  He described how he would give out his card to those who particularly impressed him, urging them to email him if they had something interesting to tell him.  What is even more impressive than this flattening of the information hierarchy is the way he does so, conveying the impression that he has 5 different ideas as to what is important, and making people feel comfortable bouncing a 6th off him, even if they think he’ll disagree.
It is impressive how the military is learning to have a flat information hierarchy, and doing so without compromising the hierarchy of command.  Boxer Muhammad Ali might sum it up as “float like a starfish, sting like a spider”.

This sophisticated understanding of information flows is a real asset, and it will not be surprising if many in the next generation of CEOs are chosen from people who have absorbed these lessons.  Many will have learned the lessons best in the military.  The United States may become more like Israel, where prospective employers care as much about what you did in the military as what you did in university.

Posted on 2 Aug 2010


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Military Regulations Shouldn’t Stop at the Golden Arches’ Front Door

Recently I wrote on the U.S. military’s experimentation with “non-traditional” exercise plans in order to stem the tide of rising obesity within the ranks.  However, many have suggested that changes in fitness programs are only half the battle, and that what the military sorely needs is to stop supplying soldiers with nutritionally deficient meal options.
Most people are well aware that the military is an excellent option for those looking to serve their country and learn leadership in a demanding and structured environment.  Most people are unaware that the military is also the obvious option for those looking to serve their bodies with high calorie and fat laden meal choices.
Take for example, the variety of meal options available to members of the U.S. Army and Air Force.  The Army & Air Force Exchange Service or AAFES, an agency of the Department of Defense, operates the Post Exchange or PX which carries department store type goods and merchandise for soldiers and airmen.  AAFES has signed franchise contracts with such meal providers as A&W Restaurants, Burger King, McDonalds, Cinnabon, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut just to name a few.   Fort Hood, Texas is one of our nation’s largest military posts, and it’s “Mega Food Court,” boasts the following; Charley’s Steakery, Captain D’s, Burger King, and Baskin Robbins.   If a soldier can’t make his way to the Mega Food Court there are several Burger King and Charley’s Steakery locations throughout the post.  There’s also an Einstein Bagel located at Fort Hood for those soldiers who would like to keep their caloric meal intake for one meal to below 700 calories.  This type of disparity in menu options is seemingly uniform throughout the military.  The main PX at Fort Stewart, GA offers its own Cinnabon, as well as a Robin Hood, Anthony’s Pizza, Taco John’s, and Charley’s Steakery.  In other locations on post soldiers can dine at a Godfather’s Pizza, Popeye’s, or Burger King.
What alternatives to soldiers have? Well there is the dependable dining facility.  Army regulations mandate that these facilities “apply nutrition principles” and “provide both healthy choices and highly acceptable food items” for each meal.  Specifically, the facilities must include choices from each food group from the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, and the caloric value of each menu item must be posted in order to promote healthy food choices.
Military members could choose these healthier options instead of the junk food prevalent on military posts and bases worldwide, but they often choose not too for a few reasons.  For one, dining facilities are open only at traditional meal times; breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and even then only for ninety minutes.  Due to work and other responsibilities many soldiers are inevitably going to miss these times.  Second, most soldiers did not grow up eating food in a dining facility type atmosphere and would rather sit in the restaurant style setting they are accustomed to versus the “head-count”  and predetermined meal setting from basic training.  Military life is regimented and soldiers will often opt for any break from the routine.
The military can solve this problem by continuing its commitment to nutrition in dining facilities, and at the same contracting with companies that provide meal options that do not devastate waist lines.  Compare the caloric content and meals offered by Burger King, McDonalds, and Charley’s Steakery with offerings from Panera Bread, Jason’s Deli, Au Bon Pain, and Chipotle.   Are these companies not willing to operate on military installations, or are we not asking them?
These changes must occur if the military is going to deal with its growing obesity problem.  Soldiers may complain about the loss of fatty food, but the military should treat this issue no different than any other dealing with health and safety.  The military, and to a larger extent the Department of Defense, regulates every detail of a soldiers life and this should include the vendors allowed to operate in the soldier’s “neighborhood.”
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Petraeus takes command and the dust settles, now what was McChrystal thinking?

We may never know what drove Gen. Stanley McChrystal to say the things he did to Rolling Stone.  But now that the dust has settled we should closely analyze McChrystal’s misstep for hints or suggestions as to what he was really trying to tell us.
By now everyone knows that McChrystal made the fatal mistake of criticizing the civilian chain of command, and for that President Obama accepted his resignation.  McChrystal clearly erred in sharing that he felt that the President was intimidated by his own generals and implying that the Vice-President didn’t have a handle on the Afghan war, and he undoubtedly knows this.  But were his comments regarding senior civilians not in his chain of command meant as a warning?
Military officers are taught from day one to place the care of the men and women under their command first.  McChrystal’s comments hint of man who personally felt that the civilian apparatus was too broken to adequate address the task at hand.  McChrystal is a smart man, and one who spent his career under the radar.  In this highly unorthodox move he broadcast his frustration publicly and openly. Only the General really knows why, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that he chose to make a statement that things are not going quite right in Afghanistan.  Perhaps he felt his strategy did not receive adequate support at home, or that even the best military and civilian minds are struggling to frame a policy to fit the conditions.
There is no real evidence to support the idea that McChrystal purposely ended his career.  Some have even suggested that he and his staff didn’t realize the comments were on the record.
But because it looks increasingly likely that these comments were on the record, and because of his commitment and sacrifice for the country, I don’t think it is a waste to continue the conversation as to why his career ended the way it did.
Posted on 29 Jul 2010

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Wikileaks leak an opportunity for frank discussion

President Obama is justified in brushing aside the classified war documents posted on Wikileaks as less than a revelation for the nation’s political discussion, while also deploring their boon to the enemy and the increased danger to our soldiers and allies. Most experts who have reviewed the documents agree with the President.

The trove of classified war documents, however, is impossible-to-ignore authoritative evidence. But of what? The implications are open to interpretation, and eager opponents of the Afghanistan mission are already spinning the data to press their case for hasty American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. For much the same reason that Afghanistan’s opponents tout the leak as game-changing, Wikileaks has given President Obama the opportunity to hold a long-overdue frank discussion with the American people about Afghanistan and the War on Terror.

The President, like his predecessor, has opted to deflect the most disturbing parts of the Afghanistan mission from the American people. Doing so perhaps has protected the mission from reaching a tipping point of popular opposition, but it has also undermined popular understanding of the war and its stakes. As a result, as some war veterans have commented sarcastically, the military has been at war since 9/11, while the country has been at the mall.

In the long run for a long war, an inadequate understanding of the war by the American people cannot sustain the level of national commitment we need to succeed. The media is already reporting growing discontent with Obama’s Afghanistan “Surge”, despite that the execution stage of the President’s strategy has barely begun. It’s time for President Obama to put away the platitudes he inherited from President Bush. Instead, Obama should hold a Melian dialogue with the American people to explain the war’s harsh realities and complexity according to his context as our nation’s leader, so we can deliberately weigh the alternatives as he must. Now that the secrets are in the open, the President can fully make the case that the War on Terror deserves our dogged determination for the foreseeable future because of, not despite, the grim struggle.

A favorite quote of mine from Esquire writer Tom Junod explains the challenge of sustaining America’s will to win at war and the essence of the Wikileaks affair:

The moral certainty that makes war possible is certain only to unleash moral havoc, and moral havoc becomes something the nation has to rise above. We can neither win a war nor save the national soul if all we seek is to remain unsullied–pristine. Anyway, we are well beyond that now. The question is not, and has never been, whether we can fight a war without perpetrating outrages of our own. The question is whether the rightness of the American cause is sufficient not only to justify war but to withstand war’s inevitable outrages. The question is whether–if the cause is right–we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

President Bush allowed his narrative of the War on Terror to be drowned out. The Wikileaks leak has given President Obama the opportunity to convince the American people our cause in Afghanistan is still right and we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

Posted on 28 Jul 2010

Photo: wikicommons

U.S. Military Experiments with Yoga to Cure Our Most Preventable National Security Issue

Army YogaThe U.S. Military recently recruited the talents of Tony Horton, the creator of P90X, in order to confront increasing obesity among our fighting men and women.  The growing obesity problem in the United States has become a national security issue.  While the nation stands in the midst of a global “war on terror,” America finds itself too fat to fight.

In 2008 only the state of Colorado had an adult obesity rate below 20%.  Of the 49 states with adult obesity above 20% thirty-two were above 25% and six were above 30%.   These statistics translate into the startling assessment that one in five Americans age 18-34 is obese. In addition, 27 percent of 18 to 24 year olds are too overweight to join the military.

This disturbing trend has had a predictable impact on the military where the obesity rate has doubled since 2003. According to the January 2009 edition of the DoD’s Medial Surveillance Monthly Report the number of troops diagnosed as overweight or obese is twice what is was at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Tony Horton has suggested the military include yoga in traditional fitness training.  Horton stated that “the days of pushups, sit ups, and long runs in the military are over.” Instead of the usual routine that most soldiers have grown too accustomed to over the years, Horton has suggested yoga because of its ability to lubricate joints and utilize push up or other postures which magnify strength exercises.

The military should be commended for taking proactive steps to address obesity within the ranks and insulate the force from the growing disease of obesity.  However, more drastic measures may be required.  The disturbing statistics demonstrate that the routine morning PT consisting often of hundreds of “side-straddle hops,” and “release runs” is not keeping soldiers in shape.  Too often the military has adhered to the strict rule that physical training must be on a field and in a group.  Many a young military officer will tell you about trips to the gym after PT or after the work day to maintain the level of fitness their rank requires.  The obesity problem and Horton’s statements suggest that physical training must be tailored to keep soldiers fit and lean, instead of focusing on an arbitrary test of the number of pushups or sit ups that can be completed in a two-minute period.

Unless the military changes its thinking we will find ourselves booby-trapped by our own gluttony.

Posted on 25 Jul 2010



GEN PetraeusWall Street Journal does a little chicken-egg on what Petraeus has managed in the last few weeks and what was McChrystal’s work. Basically counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism, though it appears to be a fine, and disputed line. The upshot is WSJ reports a re-tooling is underway with greater emphasis on counterinsurgency, while the White House still wants to hold to its … cough ( political) hawk ptooie, excuse me … troop withdrawal deadline. WSJ figures Petraeus may manage to slow that a little, but not substantially delay halt or reverse. I thought this part was interesting:

Some in the White House advocate a pared-down approach that requires fewer troops and greater emphasis on drone attacks on insurgent leaders. These officials would like to see an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Who’s that?” That is, sounds like that’s who that is.

During the Iraq surge, Gen. Petraeus proved adept at parrying suggestions for a rapid withdrawal and won time to show his strategy could work.

Since then, of course, the surrender enthusiasts got voted into the White House. Makes it more challenging. Especially when they see their political interest, which is to say their primary strategic goal, lying mainly in exit, not success.

People close to Gen. Petraeus said he is unlikely to try to persuade the Obama administration to back off its promise to begin drawing down troops in July 2011. But they do expect him to privately push for troops to be removed slowly, along a timetable that keeps a large force in Afghanistan.
“I think Gen. Petraeus will talk again about putting more time on the Washington clock,” said Peter Mansoor, who served as Gen. Petraeus’s executive officer in Iraq and is now a professor at the Ohio State University. “I think we have more time than we think in Afghanistan.”
An effective counterinsurgency strategy can take years, and it remains unclear whether Gen. Petraeus’ approach will work in Afghanistan, where volatile tribal politics, a lack of infrastructure and rudimentary local security forces pose significant challenges.

I don’t know. The first challenge is to make it work in a Democratic White House, where volatile partisan politics, a lack of experience and an at-best rudimentary grasp of security issues …. If anyone can, it’s Petraeus. Obama’s default choice to squelch military insubrdination, a sort of military bigfoot who may have the ability to prevent him and the rest of the current civilian leadership from losing this thing.

NYT, meanwhile, notes that the deadline strategy is a bit of a “double-edged sword.” Goes on to note that confidence is failing, pols and allies shuffling for the door, but fails to connect the dots. A deadline strategy is less of a double edged-sword than a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the leader of the free world has indicated he doesn’t particularly give a damn whether we win this thing or not, why should anyone else?

In other Afghan news:

NYT: Six Afghan police officers beheaded.

AFP: Women in northern Afghanistan retreat behind the veil in fear of Taliban revival.

Guardian: International aid conference underwhelms a jaded Afghan blogosphere.

This one’s interesting. AP:

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban denounced this week’s international conference on Afghanistan’s future, saying the “vague and terrible agenda” shows that the U.S. and its allies intend to abandon the country and blame their ultimate defeat on the Afghan government.

In a statement posted in English on their website, the Taliban said the conference showed that the U.S. “has lost the initiatives and is unable to resolve Afghanistan issue.” The statement was distributed to news organizations by the SITE Intelligence Group that monitors extremist communications.
“Whatever actions are taken in this regard have already been doomed to a failure,” the statement said. “It is evident from the vague and terrible agenda of the conference … that America and the international community intend to pull out of Afghanistan” and blame “all the coming destruction’s, humiliation and defeat on Kabul puppet regime,” meaning the Karzai administration.

Hate to agree with the Taliban on anything, but they might have a point. It almost looks like remarkable clarity of thought on the part of the AP, but rather than any re-tooling to question the Obama admin’s commitment to Afghanistan, they’re just parroting the Islamic extremist line, per normal. (Notable lack of any references to the Taliban’s “deeply unpopular” insurgency, its rising death toll, or its responsibility for thousands of civilian deaths, the kind of boilerplate usually bolted onto any war-related statements the AP takes issue with. After noting a Taliban success in divierting some flights, the article does get around to a BTW mention of some deaths, attributing some beheadings to non-specific insurgents, and the rest of the violence to NATO actions.)

Posted on 24 Jul 2010
Crossposted on

Photo: flickr/soldiermediacenter

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What Defense Acquisition can learn from Apple

MilSpace on the iPhone

Why do people love apple?  Why do they line up around the block days in advance to buy an iPhone? Why is there a dating site set up exclusively for apple users to date other apple users?  Is there something I’m missing?  Since when does a personal computer preference say to someone of the opposite sex, “hey, I’m the one for you”? Even the military is falling in love with the company.  The Army is in talks with Apple to employ a number of its products for warfighting applications and recently launched a contest to encouraging development of military apps. Efforts by the military to better adopt mobile technologies, including Apple technologies, have been covered on this blog and elsewhere. By embracing commercial technologies, is the DoD taking advantage of a innovative opportunity or admitting that in some domains, Defense Acquisition just can’t get the job done as well?

Granted, Apple makes cool consumer electronics in contrast with the complex warplanes and ground systems of the Defense industry.  But the next frontier in technology will be driven by software, networks, and mobile devices, and the Defense industry would be foolish to not leverage existing consumer capabilities for military applications.  If Defense Acquisition is going to learn how to make these future products successfully, it might as well emulate the best in the business. Here are a few quick thoughts on why Apple has been successful in its latest endeavors and the lessons Defense Acquisition can take from those successes.

(1) User Interface is Paramount

The iPad was not the first tablet pc.  It wasn’t even Apple’s first attempt to build a tablet.  Yet, sales of the iPad reached 1 million sold in just 28 days and increased to 3 million after 80 days.  The iPad succeeded where previous tablets had failed due to its focus on user interface.  The concept for the iPad had been around for nearly a decade before Steve Jobs decided it was ready from a user interface point of view.  He knew that a truly revolutionary tablet couldn’t just have a functional keyboard; it had to have a keyboard that could be good enough to replace a traditional keyboard.  It couldn’t simply be light and flat; it had to be so light that users wouldn’t mind holding it for extended periods of time.

User interface also applies to system of systems that compose Apple’s products.  The individual devices are great on their own, but what really keeps and holds customers is an understanding that different Apple products are expected to simply work well with each other.  It doesn’t matter if the user is a teenager trying to make absolutely sure she can get to her latest Miley tracks no matter whether she’s at home, in the minivan, or at school (tsk.) or if the user is a professional photographer using Apple products to manage complex, data-sensitive workflows.  It just has to work.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Support early human factors engineering and human systems integration (see chapter 6), disciplines meant to ensure the people of a system are considered when the systems is being developed.

– Focus less on technical requirements and more on detailed use cases that take into account actual human characteristics and limitations.  Require test and evaluation to use actual humans in prototype systems; avoid simulations where feasible.

– Invest in better web/software interface design.  Has anyone tried updating their TSP enrollment on MyPay?  It’s lots of fun.

(2) It’s About the Software

As a quick glance at the latest technology marketing quickly shows, the competition between mobile devices is not just about hardware – it’s about the apps. Even before iPhone and iPad, Apple distinguished itself from other computer companies by consistently producing great interfaces in its operating systems and by offering simple but powerful programs guaranteed to work with their base platforms.

Apple has made some difficult decisions in the past, most notably with regard to their exclusion of multitasking in earlier iPhone models and more recently barring flash from the iPad.  If sales are any measure, then these decisions were wise.  Apple understood that it was better to offer customers a product guaranteed to function to the high standards of their other products than to try to cram in too many capabilities.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Restrict requirements creep.  If a platform was badly planned from the beginning, kill it and forge a new path rather than band-aid hopeless technology.

– Develop more in-house software competency.  The Army’s Apps 4 Army Challenge is a great idea, but why isn’t there a permanent pool of software geniuses ready to build great software for the military?  DoD is finally getting the message that it needs to recruit crack coders to combat cybersecurity threats, but those same capabilities are needed to build more benign software for weapons and information systems.

(3) Connect Management and Leadership

Managers keeps the cogs of an organization turning; they make sure people get paid, disputes are resolved, and discipline is levied.  Leaders, on the other hand, inspire change through vision.  Apple CEO Steve Jobs gets leadership.  He is as comfortable speaking in broad, glowing terms about a new product as he is answering personal emails about technical details at 2AM in the morning. His vision permeates his company and his products (or as Simon Sinek explains, Apple employees all start off by answering “why?” before they get to the “what?” and “how?” of products).  Of course, Steve Jobs the man is not Apple; he is only the current incarnation of what the company represents.  But from that company, consumers can continually expect consistent products, delivered on time and up to the standards it sets for itself.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?

– Establish a program manager earlier during development.  Program managers are given overall responsibility for programs’ cost, schedule, and budget.  They are supposed to make critical design decisions, but they don’t take over programs until after most important requirements are set.  This structure disconnects program managers from the “why” of their programs and incentivizes them to manage only, not to lead.  Program managers should at the very least be given a seat at the table during pre-acquisition phases of development.

What Else?

Defense Secretary Gates has been repeatedly applauded for his efforts to reform Defense Acquisition.  But then again, didn’t Secretaries RumsfeldCohen, and Perry all try their hands at “reform”?  Change defines leadership, so maybe continuous attempts at reform reflect constant improvement.  But in the technology sector, Apple seems to consistently represent as close to a sure thing as has been seen in consumer electronics.  Are the two industries too different to compare, or might there be principles that apply to both?

What else can Defense Acquisition learn from others’ successes?  Leave your ideas in the comments.

Posted on 6 Jul 2010


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ROTC in New York City: An Untapped Resource

John Renehan writes in the Washington Post today about the need for more ROTC programs across the country. In light of Harvard’s policies on access to military recruiters, brought up during Senate hearings for the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, Renehan notes an increasing dearth of opportunities for military officer training, particularly in the Northeast. This raises an important point. The long-standing contention surrounding the presence of ROTC on university campuses has not been limited merely to a select number of Ivy League institutions, though they have often been the most prominent and vocal in opposing the program. Moreover, they are not solely to blame. As this WSJ data shows, the military has been slowly but surely reducing its presence in the urban Northeast in favor of institutions in the South and Midwest. Despite having a population comparable to that of entire states, for example, the resources afforded to New York City for officer training and recruitment appear paltry when compared to its corollaries in other parts of the country. The city deserves better. Here are just a few reasons why:

• New York City has a population of over 8 million people. There are over 605,000 college and graduate students going to school in New York City, the largest university student population of any city in the United States. Yet the city boasts a mere 30 to 40 ROTC graduates each year.

• New York “is the nation’s largest importer of college students.” That is, of students who leave their home state to attend college, more leave for New York than any other place in the country.

• With over 8 million residents, New York City has a greater population than either the state of Virginia or North Carolina.  While both Virginia and North Carolina maintain twelve Army ROTC programs each, however, New York City hosts only two, both of which are granted the same resources and personnel as every other ROTC program in the country despite the enormous differences in population for which they are responsible.

Map of ROTC programs in New York City (green, blue, and white) and their proximity to other colleges and universities.

• Both ROTC Programs are located a significant distance away from the areas most concentrated in colleges and universities and are not easily accessible via subway, a fact that can be problematic given that the vast majority of students in the city do not own cars.

• The Air Force hosts a single ROTC program at Manhattan College in the Bronx. It is the most easily accessible via subway, though the commute is still significant for students attending school in any of the other five boroughs, particularly Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

• The Navy ROTC program, on the other hand, is located beneath the Throggs Neck Bridge and is almost completely inaccessible via public transportation. Moreover, enrollment in the program is strictly limited to students attending SUNY Maritime Academy, Fordham University, or Molloy College. Thus, out of the 600,000+ university students in New York City the Navy is limited to selecting from a collective population of less than 20,000.

• Nearly 60% of Manhattan residents are college graduates, more than twice the national average. Though the 23 SqMi island is host to over 1.6 million people and 40 colleges and universities alone, not a single school in the borough of Manhattan has an ROTC program.

• Neither is there an ROTC program in Brooklyn, which as CPT Steve Trynosky noted in 2006 is “home to a diverse population about the size of Mississippi, which has five Army ROTC units despite a much lower per capita college attendance. In 2005, two of the top five ZIP codes for Army enlistments were in Brooklyn, yet there are no commissioning opportunities in the borough. Could one imagine no ROTC programs for the population of Mississippi?”

• The City University of New York (CUNY) is the third largest public university system in the nation, ranking behind only California State and the State University of New York systems, though all of its campuses reside within a single city rather than an entire state. It provides post-secondary higher education in all five boroughs of New York.

• The CUNY system has over 450,000 students and confers nearly 3 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans in the United States. Gen. Colin Powell graduated from the ROTC program at City College, CUNY’s flagship campus. Yet today there is not a single ROTC program at any CUNY school.

• New York City also has a vast array of private universities, including Columbia University, the fifth oldest institution of higher education in the country, and New York University, the nation’s largest private, non-profit university. Yet neither university hosts a program nor do they graduate more than a handful of military officers per year.

• The recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) emphasizes the need to ensure that “officers are prepared for the full range of complex missions that the future security environment will likely demand” and that the DoD is committed to “building expertise in foreign language, regional, and cultural skills,” and “enhancing these skills in general purpose force officers during pre-accession training.” As Eric Chen noted in a previous Secure Nation post, New York City offers a breadth of resources in these areas that are unmatched elsewhere in the country. Take, for example, the latent talent and skill sets offered by the astoundingly diverse population of Queens, a New York City borough in which 138 different languages are spoken every day. West Point’s Social Sciences Department routinely takes their cadets on trips to nearby Jersey City to immerse them in the city’s large and vibrant muslim community. But why stop at immersing cadets in a cultural center when one can also recruit from it? Jersey City is just a five minute subway ride from the middle of Manhattan, but the closest Army ROTC program is located miles away at Seton Hall University. Mr. Chen goes on to note that Columbia University is particularly well suited to meet the needs espoused within the QDR, an argument which is supported by the high quality of the school’s top-ranked programs in Asian languages, anthropology, and sociology.

• The number of programs in the city correlates directly with the resources that the military departments grant towards both the recruitment and training of military officers there. As CPT Trynosky again noted “The allocation of ROTC recruiting assets in urban areas is insufficient to serve the large population assigned. Three recruiting officers are expected to canvass the more than 100 colleges and 13 million people in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County. Compare this with the 10 recruiters assigned for 4.5 million Alabamans or five for 2.5 million Mississippians.”

• The scarcity of commissioning opportunities in New York City is pronounced. With the scars of September 11th still prominently visible even today, New Yorkers have a distinctly personal stake in the military and its operations overseas. They should be afforded every opportunity to become military officers, and to serve proudly in defense of their city and the nation.

Posted on 4 July, 2010


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More Like This, Please

Pentagon reviews the actions of a living soldier for a possible Medal of Honor. Washington Post:

The Pentagon has recommended that the White House consider awarding the Medal of Honor to a living soldier for the first time since the Vietnam War, according to U.S. officials.

The soldier, whose nomination must be reviewed by the White House, ran through a wall of enemy fire in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in fall 2007 in an attempt to push back Taliban fighters who were close to overrunning his squad. U.S. military officials said his actions saved the lives of about half a dozen men.

It is possible that the White House could honor the soldier’s heroism with a decoration other than the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. Nominations for the Medal of Honor typically include detailed accounts from witnesses and can run hundreds, if not thousands, of pages. The review has been conducted so discreetly that the soldier’s family does not know that it has reached the White House, according to U.S. officials who discussed the nomination on the condition of anonymity because a final decision is pending.

Pentagon officials requested that The Washington Post not name the soldier to avoid influencing the White House review. Administration officials declined to comment on the nomination.

Medal of HonorThe not-naming part seems a little gutless. Our admin can’t review courage above and beyond without being swayed by newspapers?

The article goes on to note that all six MOH awards in the Iraq and Afghan wars were posthumous, three for covering grenades with their bodies.* That the Pentagon and White House are willing to countenance the fact that a soldier can show extraordinary courage and live is important not only for the reality it represents but for the message it sends.

Homefront war coverage in our time has focused heavily on death, PTSD, and the poor treatment of soldiers by their own government, while the actual war front coverage has been largely about despair and failure, even when we win. For all the “support the troops,” there has been very little effort to understand and appreciate those who chose this life and have soldiered on through all the setbacks and political vitriol, or to highlight their extraordinary actions and accomplishments. If the White House wants to win the shooting war,** it needs to remember it has a homefront battle that it has been on the wrong side of. Honoring a live American hero, not least one who stood up in selflessly what is now being deemed a failed effort, could be a good start.

Because this American hero fought in what is now a strategically abandoned position. The Post goes out on this note:

There are at least three Medal of Honor nominations, including the one at the White House, working through the system. The three nominees served in sparsely populated valleys in eastern Afghanistan that U.S. troops have abandoned in recent years.

The valleys, which are within 30 miles of each other, are dominated by treacherous, mountainous terrain that frequently allowed enemy fighters to move within close range of U.S. forces before launching their attack. The remote nature of the valleys meant that troops often had to fight for an hour before attack helicopters arrived on the scene to drive back the enemy.

Senior military officials described the fighting in those valleys as some of the toughest since the Korean and Vietnam wars. “It is a very, very challenging fight,” said one military official. “It is sustained lengthy ground combat.”
The relatively large number of potential Medal of Honor nominations emerging from this remote area of Afghanistan also reflected a war strategy that asked U.S. commanders to do too much with too few resources, military analysts said. Frequently troops were overextended in hostile terrain.

“We should be stationing our troops in places where they won’t be earning the Medal of Honor because the population and terrain favor us and we have quick access to air support,” said John Nagl, one of the authors of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine and president of the Center for a New American Security, a defense think tank.

Hard to argue with trying to be smart and avoid getting killed. Nagl undoubtedly knows a lot more about warfighting and counterinsurgency than I do. But ways not to earn the Medal of Honor as a strategic and/or tactical principle starts to sound like the other side of that “Courageous Restraint” coin. A kind of “first do no harm” school of warfighting that has led to complaints that troops are being asked not to protect themselves, and to position themselves where they will not be forced to protect themselves. How about stationing our troops in places where they can effectively kill the enemy, cut off the enemy’s movements and supply lines, and protect the population, and giving them the freedom to do those things? If those happen to be places where someone at some point is called on to go beyond, and earns the Medal of Honor, so be it.

Good point on the air support, though. At last check, the troops in Afghanistan are getting tired of not being allowed to kill the enemy, and some Afghans aren’t crazy about it, either. It gets people killed when you do that.

On that subject, Gen. Petraeus, while you’re reconsidering the ROE, please reconsider that “courageous restraint” thing. Courage takes many forms, all deserving of recognition, but actively encouraging soldiers and commanders to engage in poor decision-making is a bad idea. Previously re that, The Taliban Cross.

*Not to include USMC Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was deemed to have been likely brain dead when he fell on a grenade. His Navy Cross became an issue, which may be the kind of thing the White House is now trying to avoid by keeping it under wraps, with Washington Post enablance.

** It’s far from certain whether the White House actually does want to win, though as some commentators have noted, by naming Gen. Petraeus to run the war, the president effected handed political control of that decision to the military, apparently, hopefully, defaulting to victory. Gutless and accidental, but hey, if it gets the job done …

Posted on 1 Jul 2010
Crossposted on

Photo: WikimediaCommons

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Capabilities and Capacity: ROTC at Columbia University and the Quadrennial Defense Review

“America’s men and women in uniform constitute the Department’s most important resource. Prevailing in today’s wars while working to prevent future conflict depends on the Department’s ability to create and sustain an all-volunteer force that is trained and resourced to succeed in the wide range of missions we ask them to execute.” (p 49)

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is the Secretary of Defense’s “capstone institutional document” that establishes the “policy and programmatic foundation that will enable the next generation to protect the American people and advance their interests.” (QDR p 97) The QDR’s guidance in reshaping the military responds to the demand “America’s Armed Forces rapidly innovate and adapt—the Department’s institutional base must do the same” (p xiv) in a “complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate.” (p 5) The QDR is clear that readying the force for the challenge requires “innovative programs to attract qualified young men and women into the Armed Forces” (p xii) and reforming how military leaders are developed.

Columbia University, with its gifted students and rich combination of first-tier university and New York City resources, offers an ideal partner for ROTC to “recruit personnel with specialized skills” (p 51) and “ensure . . . officers are prepared for the full range of complex missions” by “enhancing these skills . . . during pre-accession training.” (p 54) Recognizing officers need greater academic breadth and depth to be “better prepared to assume the responsibilities of waging war, peacekeeping, stabilization, and other critical missions carried out by our military” (H.R. 5136 p 5), the Department of Defense has already responded with the Alternative Commissioned Officer Career Track Pilot Program to facilitate their advanced education. In the same vein, cultivating an officer corps with the capabilities identified by the QDR necessitates the best possible intellectual foundation for military leaders. The Department of Defense, therefore, has a compelling interest to produce officers with greater capacity and a strong academic grounding in the formative pre-accession (cadet) stage of their development. ROTC at Columbia meets that need.

As it does today, much of the weight of future missions will fall on young officers. In the short term, Columbia-educated lieutenants and captains who developed broader capabilities and capacity as cadets will be better equipped to “rapidly innovate and adapt” to unpredictable challenges. Over the long term, their strong academic grounding will lead to commensurately greater acquisition of capabilities and capacity growth over the course of their military careers. The QDR’s forecast of politically sensitive efforts using smaller numbers of both special operations and general purpose forces (QDR pp 28-30) further emphasizes the growing need for individually exceptional officers.

Where the QDR seeks to ensure “educational institutions have the right resources and faculty that can help prepare the next generation of military leaders” (p xiii), Columbia provides “one of the world’s most important centers of research and at the same time a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields.” (Columbia University mission statement) Where the QDR describes a heightened need for a full spectrum of engineering, scientific, medical, computer, foreign language, regional, cultural, and other skills, Columbia offers excellent programs in all those areas within a full spectrum of world-class academic departments. Beyond the university’s abundant resources for cadets, Columbia “recognizes the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis.” (CU mission) For Columbia, ROTC graduates fulfill the university’s expectation of alumni “to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.” (CU mission)

ROTC will be home at Columbia. Columbia has the largest population of student-veterans in the Ivy League and alumni group Columbia Alliance for ROTC has the express purpose of supporting ROTC at Columbia. Growing calls to restore ROTC on campus have come from students, professors, alumni, campus organizations and publications, and university leaders. After years of dormancy, Columbia is reviving its long military tradition, reminded by the martial memorials spread around campus. Columbia’s famous Core Curriculum, required for College undergraduates, was designed as a classical foundation for officer education. The standard-bearer for Columbia officers is founding father Alexander Hamilton and his lifetime of visionary, innovative leadership in and out of uniform. The Alexander Hamilton Society, the campus group for cadets and officer candidates, invokes his heritage.

Columbia is New York City’s premiere university, and there would be substantial symbolic value for the military in the return of ROTC to the Columbia campus. Moreover, a ROTC program at Columbia would solve the military’s absence of ROTC within Manhattan, which has poor access to ROTC despite hosting the highest concentration of college students in the country. Near Columbia are Barnard College, a premiere women’s college, and City College, GEN Colin Powell’s alma mater and the flagship CUNY.

The QDR concludes “[t]he challenges facing the United States are immense, but so are the opportunities.” (p 97) With the establishment of a ROTC program at Columbia, the military has the opportunity to form a valuable 21st century partnership with a global flagship institution in New York City.

* Go to Part II: Needs of the Nation.

Posted on 28 Jun 2010


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