Thursday, June 16, 2011

Focus and Commitment, For War and Peace

I have found a delightful 2011 book by economist Tim Harford called Adapt subtitled Why Success Always Starts with Failure. It includes some striking pages on how, in Iraq, the U.S. army finally achieved a state of "responsibility" ... although the "civil organs of U.S. society" in Iraq did not. Because civilian efforts at nation building, and teaching democracy, were non responsible they were inevitably non functional.
By non responsible I mean non accountable: As far I know the citizenry stayed on their couches and, in vivid contrast to the world war and the cold war, lay down as potatoes without eyes, letting the White House have a free hand.

I remain fascinated by the challenge of nurturing responsibility in citizens within large institutions.

Focus and Commitment
I dimly recall as a boy reading about the "executive stride" and the "firm executive jaw." It wasn't clear to me whether this was for executives to show leadership to others or if it was to psych themselves up to be leaders... Now that I'm an adult I "get it" that life for executives is not like on the factory floor where everyone can see the machines and see what needs to be done. No, the execs have lots to do, not enough time, and no clear path. So they hurry.

My west coast friend Brian Gregory, who owns a small insurance business, told me that he burst out laughing the first few minutes he ever stood on a sidewalk out east. In a big city he watched people with brief cases running past him, running while wearing suits that would need to be dry cleaned.

I once had a girl friend from out east. She didn't have a firm jaw but I wondered if, for easterners, "executive-ness" was contagious. In a shopping mall, on the escalator, she wanted us to stand to one side so people could squeeze past. Very few ever did so. I was perplexed. Can't a busy executive learn to separate work life from leisure? For the rest of us shopping is a leisure activity. If you ever see me marching down the mall with an executive stride it's only because I need to go put more dimes in the parking meter. Either that or I forgot to cut down and simplify my life for that day. We all forget how to live sometimes.

I've often read some one described as a "successful businessman." How nice. I've yet to find someone described as a successful plumber.


I've known more businessmen than entertainers. I once spent an evening mingling with young men and women from the youth group and traveling show Up With People. They had been touring South America. I was there because my friend of the evening was an alumnae of the group. I shook a good many hands that night: natural gentle handclasps. At the end of the night it hit me: no one had ever told these young artists to use an extra firm "I'm successful" grip. I realized, too, that a businessman with no clear path, lining up promoters and suppliers and guaranteeing deliveries and so on, needs all the credibility he can get. Hence his firm handshake. And hence how they all wear their suits: boring is best.

It was nice to see those young people on their first rung of getting into the real working world. I suppose the same lads who, back in high school, had displayed their lazy lack of integrity in group projects, will now be acquiring a work ethic. As Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem The Recruit," (They will be finally be) getting shut of doing things rather more or less."

A work ethic, for executives, is only the starting point. Since WWII, since management became a "practice," as in the practice of medicine, there has been much attention paid to the nurturing of managers. One of the reasons highly educated trainees start out down in the corporate mailroom is to give them a broad overview of the company. That, and to learn to be humble. During an executive's career there will be things that can taught swiftly, such as an equation for measuring return on inventory, and things that can only be learned over time such as concepts like humbleness, commitment and focus.

A colleague of mine, a lady of slight frame and slim ankles, tells of a business training course where she actually learned to karate punch a board in half. There was a zen to it. You had to focus. If you held back from fear or uncertainty then, instead of fracturing the board, you'd hurt your knuckle. You had to be committed to breaking your board. And -crash!- you could do it.

I've noticed how in a bookstore's business section, ever since James Clavel managed to finally get the ancient Art of War published in the western world, there have been various books about swords and rings and samurais. Not to mention several new translations of Art of War. (Incidentaly, tonight, April 2010, at the big box bookstore, I've counted 11 versions of Art of War, but none of them are poor Clavels!) The concept being taught is not to "work hard long hours," which anyone can do, but to have "Focus and Commitment," as only successful people do. And this pair of concepts is what executives may learn with great profit during their career. For me it's still exciting, still empowering after all these years. Show me a "board" and I will smash it!

As a child we took a poem that used the awesome Roman roads as a metaphor. You will recall they dug their roads a long ways down, rammed the earth, filled them with various layers of various grades of smashed rock, topped them off with paving stones, and ran them straight as arrows right through swamps and hills. Their roads, once built, endured for generations. The poetic refrain was, "He says with Roman fortitude I'll find a way or make one." As a young boy I read it but I didn't truly get it.

As a young man I heard that "Every good entrepreneur has a laser-like focus for his one current business. No side business. Just the one." At the time I sort of got it, thinking, "Is that correct? Are you sure?" As a middle-age man, today, I know.

(Battlestar Galactica)

To put this in terms of popular culture, I think of a music video by weird Al Yankovitch, "I'm Fat," a parody of Michael Jackson's video, "I'm Bad."
...Al wears a "tough guy" black leather jacket. Some one hassles him, saying, "You're not fat!" The would-be "tough guy," Al, responds fearfully, "J-just b-back off, man, just b-back off!"... As he speaks there is, I am sure, a hollow space in his chest.

In contrast, recently I saw a splendid scene in Battlestar Galactica. Adama has gone from the rank of Commander to Admiral but still hasn't remarried because his focus is elsewhere. He still sees certain pilots as his children; his son has died flying a viper. Adama is alone with a spinster who, come to think of it, had once regarded her now-deceased aide Billy as her son. He explains that a young couple is going to want to extract their child from enemy territory. She asks Adama, "Do you think they can do it?" He makes fixed eye contact. He has, I am sure, a hard stone of certainty in his chest, as he speaks, with focus, as one who knows: "... I will say this... If it were my child, there would be nothing, nor anyone, that could stop me."

Adama, of course, is heroically committed, against all odds, to getting the remnants of humanity to the lost 13th colony. One would certainly hope that commanders in today's U.S. armed forces would be as focused and committed as Adama. ...Uh, no... no, they haven't been so for some decades now.... At the start of the agony of Viet Nam the army asked the air force to produce WWII style slow propeller planes to provide accurate heavy ground support. However, the fly boys weren't committed to South Viet Nam.

(South Viet Nam)

They wanted only swift fighter-bombers like for fighting the next world war on the fields of Germany, fields where you can see your target a mile away. So the army resorted to the not-as-good expedient of light helicopter gun ships. But then the fly boys insisted the chopper pilots must be air force! I suspect the army's reply was not very gentlemanly. (See Backfire, which I have reviewed in an essay in Sept 2010)

The army was as uncommitted as the air force. Some one did a study, after Viet Nam, consulting the training records of many U.S. bases, to see if President Kennedy's directive, at the very start of the Nam involvement, was being followed. You may recall his rousing "We face a new enemy" speech. He wanted the army, accordingly, to train for small wars, guerilla wars, not just for a major war with the Soviets. The findings? In terms of training hours... a disgrace! No focus on small wars. The army wanted so badly to train for fighting Russians in Germany that they disregarded their president and commander-in-chief.

The British, who won their guerilla war against the communists in the Malayan jungle, were more determined. Their various armored cars, such as the Saracen and Scimitar, which saw service in West Germany, were designed to fit between the rows of rubber trees on a Malayan plantation. The British ran a prestigious jungle warfare school. Every single nation in the British Commonwealth, at the height of the Viet Nam war, that sent officers to attend, was sending senior officers ...The U.S., and only the U.S., was sending junior officers... The British weren't impressed. At the time we thought the U.S. army was merely stupid. Today, looking back, it seems as if the Americans didn't want to lose in Nam, but didn't truly want to win, either. I am sure such lack of committment was linked to the corruption at that time in the officer corps. (And no, corruption is not too strong a word)

As a Canadian, I should be quick to testify to my commonwealth friends that my yankee neighbors weren't always so pathetic. After Pearl Harbor they went into debt cranking out thousands of expensive planes. Who back then would have guessed that in 2005, years into a new war, they still would not provide enough walkie-talkies, toyotas or armored vests for their Iraqi police allies?

(Zen to fail)

Before me, from December 2005, is The Atlantic magazine with a 14 page cover story by national correspondent James Fallows about Iraq, called Why Iraq has No Army. 

As you know, the U.S. never committed the state department into Iraq (It was to be the army's show) and so, in reality, the U.S. never committed to their stated goal of teaching the Iraqis how to be democratic. ... So much for that goal. (The army has much less social expertise: people in the state department had predicted the so-called "surprise" looting of the museums. See Fiasco by Thomas Ricks)

Now, for U.S. citizens, their more modest "win" will be to have the Iraqi army and police force ready and willing to secure Iraq so the U.S. forces can leave. Presumably this is the number one priority, the laser focus, for folks in the U.S. and in Iraq.... Uh, no. At least, not in the space-time of 2005.

As of 2005 the Americans don't have the commitment. As Fallows notes, "The pentagon's main weapons-building programs are the same now that they were five years ago, before the United States had suffered one attack and begun two wars. From the Pentagon's policy statements, and even more from its budgetary choices, one would never guess that insurgency was our military's main challenge ..."(page 76)

As of 2005 they don't have the focus. A source, a marine colonel, angrily said to Fallows, "You tell me who in the White House devotes full time to winning this war." Fallows could find only one person: a former scholar, now a "special assistant," a woman who, for a year, had said nothing in the public record, neither in speech nor online. (page 74)

Despite the lone efforts of General Petraeus in Iraq... As of 2005, the U.S. deserves to lose. Perhaps I can say this unsayable thing only because, as a Canadian, I can be more objective than important learned U.S. writers.

"But wait! Please!" cries a voice from the gallery. "The U.S. is going into debt for Iraq, and is straining their military. They are trying hard!" Trying, eh? I come from north of Montana, up in Alberta cattle country. We say out here the only way to ride a fierce bronco is to get on and say you will ride. If you so much as think you will "try to" ride then you are doomed... You can't safely punch a board by "trying."

Certainly I like the Montana cowboys who come up to compete in our rodeos. And yes, I like the city folks who come up here too. I regret my best knowledge of Iraq stops about 2005—hey, it isn't my war!—so I won't comment about U.S. efforts as of 2008. ...Earlier I mentioned Adama having a stone of certainty in his chest. ...I just don't know if the average man, on the average U.S. city street, has the stones to win.

Sean Crawford

Inspired in 2005, posted to my "new exciting web site" April, 2008

A few of the original footnotes:

~The U.S. army low point was 2006. (As for what anyone (or you) can easily do for the 2011 war effort see my essay of April 2011 Are Yankees Stupid?)

~I am pleased that in April 2006 U.S. officers in the army and marines were passing around an e-mail of an Australian Colonel's views on counter insurgency. Maybe today's U.S. senior officers would indeed attend a British Commonwealth counter-insugency school. You may wish to google "Kilcullen" and "twenty-eight articles."

~The classic The Ugly American, a call for committment during the cold war, was written in the desperate hope that being ugly was not hard-wired into Americans overseas. After all, they can be nice at home.

The Ugly American shows how the French in Viet Nam were ugly too: being too arrogant to read the military writings of the man who defeated two armies where the officers had been to European war colleges: both the Imperial Japanese Army and the U.S. equipped Chinese army: Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (Ze Dong)...

~Counter-insurgency is like flying on instruments: you dare not trust your instincts, no, not for another culture. Soldiers, however, are very comfortable feeling secure in their instincts. They are trained to be confident. They would regard as bizarre and alien the academic's ability to live with uncertainty and insecurity as a way of life. University, of course, is one long extended culture shock.
I was stationed in Germany as U.S. students were backpacking through Europe, while U.S. troops, avoiding any shock, were known in NATO for huddling on base.

~Update: To not be ugly means to have enough respect to listen, and therefore allowing the locals to have their Teahouse in the August Moon regardless of your own opinion. The totaly bizarre mistakes of the U.S., such as enshrining ethnic loyalties and disbanding the whole army, are possible only if the Yanks didn't listen to a single soul, not even their Iraqi interpreters, taxi drivers and barbers, or even their own humble C.I A. field agents.

~Sweet! I've just learned that one of my childhood romantic figures, British General Orde Wingate, who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, is a hero to the Israeli army!... He led WWII's largest allied special forces, the British Chindits, into the Burmese jungle behind the Japanese. The Chindits destroyed the myth of the Japanese as superior jungle fighters...
(I was a child growing up in the rainforest: I could relate.) Meanwhile, today's, uh, "Innocent American" probably thinks U.S. forces beat Japan single-handed... sheesh! No wonder Yanks avoided jungle warfare school.

~God bless America.

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