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New England’s Own

In light of our most recent military victory in the global War on Terror, we as a nation cannot forget that there is work still to be done. Members of our armed forces are deployed around the world doing exactly what they were doing yesterday: routing out terrorists wherever they may hide.  In fact, units across the nation are still mobilizing for yearlong tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Just last month, on April 15th, 2011, orders were sent to members of the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, Fort Devens, Massachusetts.  This proud US Marine Corps Reserve unit, known as “New England’s Own,” has already mustered and shipped out for training. Our nation’s best and brightest are among these hometown heroes; fire fighters, police officers, doctors, lawyers, and even a banker or two are listed among our troops. These men and women from all walks of life truly exemplify the citizen-soldier ethos.

In the wake of this latest call-to-arms, the Armed Forces Alumni Association  at Harvard Business School (HBS) presented a Blue Star Banner in honor of Daniel Gwak, a current HBS Student in the Class of 2012 who reported for duty at Fort Devens on Thursday, April 28th. His orders are scheduled to end in June, 2012.

The history surrounding the Blue Star Service Flag extends back to the First World War. Since World War II, the Service Flag has been the official banner authorized by the Department of Defense for display by families or organizations that have members serving in the Armed Forces during any period of war.  The Harvard Business School community is proud to fly the Service Flag for Lance Corporal Daniel Gwak.

After immigrating to the United States from Korea, Mr. Gwak become a naturalized citizen and graduated from Cornell University in 2005. He then spent two years in Mergers & Acquisitions at Credit Suisse and continued to hone his financial skills at the Carlyle Group. While his Wall Street career blossomed, a desire to do more and to be a part of something larger than himself, even larger than Wall Street, grew inside Gwak. Like thousands of immigrants before him, Gwak wanted to serve the country that provided so much.

In 2008, Gwak joined the world’s strongest brotherhood. He enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves, completed basic training, and returned to civilian life. Shortly after, he was accepted into the full time MBA program at Harvard Business School and began classes last September as a member of the Class of 2012. And today, one year shy of his graduation date, Lance Corporal Gwak has been called to action.

A current HBS student and military veteran commented, “Dan is a selfless American and we’re tremendously proud of his courage. Displaying this banner until he returns to his academic studies will serve as an important reminder to the entire community that one of our own is currently in harm’s way.”

Throughout the school’s long history, students have periodically received similar orders, highlighting the close relationship between HBS and the U.S. Military which began during the First World War and is steeped in mutual respect. By World War II, HBS became a virtual service academy as it prepared entire classes to support the war effort. Today, veterans, reservists and active duty personnel make up approximately 5% of each class.

Being a true citizen-soldier, Lance Corporal Gwak is an important reminder that the strength of our military stems not from high tech weapons and computers, but rather from the hearts and minds of those brave souls who wear the uniform.  Aswe enjoy Memorial Day, let us all take a moment to thank those who serve or have served in the military and commemorate those who sacrificed everything so we can enjoy the freedoms unique to this great nation.

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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Command Assumed

For all the wrong reasons, and entirely by accident, President Obama may have finally committed himself to victory in Afghanistan.

It has been a particularly bizarre time in these strange wars in which we have been engaged this past decade, as fissures between our political, diplomatic and military branches were widened into a gaping crisis by a recent Rolling Stone article. But the crisis as well as the fissures, contrary to popular misconception, were the result of the president’s failure of leadership, not Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s.

By engaging in an extended period of dithering, allowing subordinates and outside parties to excessively and publicly meddle and influence the process, and by finally settling on a three-quarter meadure with a deadline for purely political reasons, the president demonstated that he was not serious about the war in Afghanistan, nor was he in charge there. When he finally, after all that, allowed a pop-culture magazine’s hit piece to dictate his actions … responding by firing his general rather than exerting some leadership by bringing his fractious factions together, cracking heads and getting them all onside … the president inadvertantly committed himself to victory, or at least defaulted to it, appointing the one man who carries more political weight than he does, someone who is committed to winning and has done so before in the face of great military odds and political opposition.

By naming David Petraeus as the theater commander in Afghanistan, Obama effectively ceded control of the war that he had been unwilling to seize control of himself.

So, thanks to a colossally poor exercise in presidential wartime leadership, the soldiers who are fighting and dying to prevent Afghanistan from becoming not just a base of terrorist operations but a major victory for Islamic extremism, now face an improved prospect for success, with deft, experienced, unquestioned command. Barack Obama has, by accident, created circumstances under which the war might not ony be winnable, but under which there is little he can do with any political credibility to prevent a win.

But don’t just take my word for it. Historian Richard F. Miller, a former combat embed in Iraq and Afghanistan and a scholar of battlefield oratory who has studied the speeches of both Obama and Petraeus … among others dating well back into antiquity … parses the general’s July 4 speech in Kabul. In Assumption on the Fourth of July, Miller concludes that Petraeus has signalled he doesn’t intend to lose this one.

Miller’s scholarly works on war words include his new release, FIGHTING WORDS: Persuasive Strategies for War and Politics and In Words and Deeds: Battle Speeches in History. Previously, Miller, scathingly, on Obama’s Afghan surge speech.

Posted on 7 Jul 2010
Crossposted on

Photo: flickr/isafmedia

LTG Sorenson Discusses Apps For The Army

LTG Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the Department of the Army’s Chief Information Officer speaks about the Apps for the Army contest at the Gov 2.0 Expo:


Almost Victorious

Talladega Nights,” reportedly Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s favorite, is a crazy fun flick. Unfortunately for McChrystal, the movie he should have paid more attention to was “Almost Famous.”  He might have figured out that what Rolling Stone is all about is stripping people naked and making them appear ridiculous, even while proclaiming there is something noble and uplifting in it all. He might have figured out that, as the rock star in the movie proclaims, Rolling Stone is “The Enemy.” And he might have figured out that, because he isn’t running a rock band, Rolling Stone doesn’t offer the same kind of redemption to a military man, a breed the magazine fundamentally misunderstands and viscerally dislikes. Then he might have figured out that, unlike ”Almost Famous,” where the plane pulls out of its death spin after all the true confessions and the band achieves rock redemption, his plane and all the passengers on it might not. Which is too bad, because there is more at stake here than some rock star’s career. Maybe McChrystal would have thought twice before he allowed Rolling Stone to take control of his war.

UK Telegraph, McChrystal tenders his resignation. But it isn’t over.  ABC’s Political Punch, “McChrystal to Admin Official: ‘I’ve compromised the mission,’” adds, “McChrystal will have a legitimate opportunity to make his case to keep his job, officials said.”

Donnelly and Kristol with some advice to the president: “Don’t waste this crisis.” The likelihood any of those suggestions being taken is not great … particularly the last one:

Most of all, the commander-in-chief must take command.  Barack Obama’s commitment is famously and publicly uncertain.  No one—not his lieutenants, nor his cabinet, nor his generals, nor the American people, nor our allies, nor the Afghans, nor our enemies—can be sure whether the president wants to win the war or just to end the war.

As exemplified by the fact that we are now in danger of allowing Rolling Stone magazine to set war policy.  Speaking of which, given that Rolling Stone is already heavily influencing, if not directing war policy, it is unfortunate that the magazine and its scribbler don’t appear to understand this war. Any of it, start to finish.

The hackneyed analogies of Vietnam defeat and Afghanistan, graveyard of empires, are trotted out early and often. Counterinsurgency is presented to a readership that RS probably rightly assumes is entirely ignorant of the concept, as some novel idea that was only “beta-tested” in Iraq, as if the towering accomplishment there were some minor sideshow. In fact, Hastings’ observations about Afghanistan sound remarkably like the rampant political doom-and-gloom-mongering coming out of Congress and the media re Iraq in the summer of 2007. The Afghan surge prospects are “bleak.” I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired of people whose view of history is so skewed they can’t remember the parts they witnessed, and insist on using defeat anaologies that were shown to be meaningless the last time they trotted them out.

As others have noted, the general himself says virtually none of the things that are most damning in the article. With the exception of a mild Biden joke, they are all attributed to unnamed sources and unnamed aides. But McChrystal, in letting RS into his inner circle, gives them a gift. It’s a staff letting off steam that is decribed as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, politcal operators and outright maniacs.” Rolling Stone loves people like that, especially when they are loaded. We get to see them tying one on in Paris, basially with lampshades on their heads. RS tuts, apparently having forgotten the motto of one of its own leading lights. Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” So, we have a gonzo command to fight a gonzo war. Problem?

There are other embarrassingly bad examples of cluelessness. “The Defense Department’s budget is $600 billion a year, while the State Department’s is only $50 billion.” Someone please explain to RS that the State Department doesn’t have any carrier groups, though it benefits greatly from those and other military assets deployed around the globe. That’s the “Big Stick,” not to be confused with the “Speak Softly” part. McChrystal, meanwhile, is declared to have gotten “almost” everything he asked for in his surge. In fact, he got three-quarters, with a deadline and a non-commital comannder in chief plus meddling lesser pols. I’d suggest taking away three-quarters of Hastings’ fee, maybe three-quarters of Rolling Stone’s staff and profits; then let Reader’s Digest and Entertainment Weekly into the RS editorial and publishing offices to make helpful micromanaging policy changes; and see if that feels like “almost” everything RS wanted.

It’s beside the point. In the most fundamental policy aspect of the relationship between the president and the general, there have been no sign of daylight. McChrystal in this article doesn’t complain about the task as his president handed it to him, nor do his aides, whose criticism is leveled at those who have sought to undermine it. He has made the best of a bad deal, going ahead with the kind of determination in less than ideal circumstances we could only hope the commander-in-chief would exhibit in something as critical as national security.

Delving into some actual substance, RS highlights the ROE problems. Here, the article suggests, McChrystal is not only failing to communicate and lead effectively, but his intentions reportedly are being rendered ridiculous somewhere between utterance and executiion. This might have been a more useful area of serious exploration by Rolling Stone. However, Rolling toe isn’t in the business of examining and criticizing the effectiveness of actual policy and strategy. Rolling Stone is in the business of making and breaking stars, and that is what this article is about.

To this end, there is the other rock star in this spectacle. President Obama. McChrystal never actually disparages him in the article, though he and his aides may launch barbs at the bass player, the doo-wap singers and the roadies. McChrystal isn’t the first general to shoot his mouth off … or to preside over a staff that is guilty of making some indiscreet remarks in some unwisely unguarded moments. Many have before. The question is whether this general can still do the job and do it well. The question may also be whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the job as configured, whether the random anonymous jokes and gripes that everyone is exercised about reflect serious problems that need to be addressed.

All that means that Barack Obama will have to be something he has been publicly unwilling to be. A committed, determined and aggressive wartime leader. RS’s own remarks on that make it clear he has impressed exactly no one on that score, even if Rolling Stone doesn’t seem to think winning is possible or particularly important. Hopefully, our president will be presidential enough to figure out that it is important and even winnable, that it is his war and not Rolling Stone’s, and as Donnelly and Kristol suggest, use this crisis to fine-tune it instead of turning it into some kind of bad 1980s hair band’s pyrotechnic spectacle.

Crossposted on

Posted on 23 Jun 2010

Photo: flickr/TheWhiteHouse


More on the Courageous Restraint Award

Jules Crittenden has more to say about the Courageous Restraint Award on his blog at In particular, he notes:

Given that there is nothing to bar higher command from recognizing truly heroic acts in defense of civilians, it raises the question of why they would want to expand that as a philosophy, to the point, the underlying discussions indicate, of commending soldiers who ignored dire threats and died.

Looking at the criteria for U.S. combat awards, honorees must distinguish themselves conspicuously with acts of courage and gallantry in action against the enemy, but there is no requirement that those acts result in piles of enemy bodies or a even single shot fired. Case in point, Wikipedia notes the first female recipients were four nurses for their actions evacuating a field hospital at Anzio in 1944.

While acts of courageous restraint may indeed be heroic or valorous, there are already a sizable number of military awards that could likely fit the bill, whether it is a Bronze Star or the Soldiers Medal, which under the guidelines set forth in AR 600-8-22 is “awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.”