April 22, 2008

"If you flatter him, you betray him."

Secretary Gates has been busy this week...busy reading this world-famous blog! (Clearly the source of all his best ideas.) After pistol whipping the Air Force (and assorted other services), he spoke to the Cadets at West Point yesterday and offered a inspired call for dissent, wrapped in some brilliant bedtime stories from the life of George C. Marshall and a recognition of the complexities of modern warfare.

At the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. armed forces were still organized, trained and equipped to fight large-scale conventional wars, not the long, messy, unconventional operations that proliferated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The same traditional orientation was true of our procurement procedures, military health care, and more. The current campaign has gone on longer and has been more difficult than anyone expected or prepared for at the start, and so we've had to scramble to position ourselves for success over the long haul, which I believe we're doing.

A drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is inevitable over time – the debate you hear in Washington is largely about pacing. But the kind of enemy we face today – violent jihadist networks – will not allow us to remain at peace. What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies. To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us.

How America's military and civilian leadership grapples with these transcendent issues and dilemmas will determine how, where and when you may be sent into the battle in the years ahead.

In discussing Fox Conner's three axioms, I've raised questions and provided few, if any, answers, and that's the point. It is important that you think about all this, not just at the Academy but throughout your military careers, and come to your own conclusions.

But in order to succeed in the asymmetric battlefields of the 21st century – the dominant combat environment in the decades to come, in my view – our Army will require leaders of uncommon agility, resourcefulness and imagination; leaders willing and able to think and act creatively and decisively in a different kind of world, in a different kind of conflict than we have prepared for for the last six decades.

One thing will remain the same. We will still need men and women in uniform to call things as they see them and tell their subordinates and their superiors alike what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.


More broadly, if as an officer – listen to me very carefully – if as an officer you don't tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you've done yourself and the institution a disservice. This admonition goes back beyond the roots of our own republic. Sir Francis Bacon was a 17th century jurist and philosopher as well as a confidante of the senior minister of England's King James. He gave this advice to a protégé looking to follow in his steps at court: “Remember well the great trust you have undertaken; you are as a continual sentinel, always to stand upon your watch to give [the king] true intelligence. If you flatter him, you betray him.” Remember that. If you flatter him, you betray him.

Charlie has two reactions:

1) Can we please keep Gates on through the next administration? No, seriously. Please?

2) Put your money where your mouth is, Bob. No, seriously. Please. Make the Army safe for the next Yingling.