Our Debating Military: Here, If You’re Looking

“Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change.”

-William S. Lind, “An Officer Corps That Can’t Score”

Will, “hello,” suffice? William S. Lind’s suggestion at The American Conservative Magazine that the Officer Corps is in a blind, intellectual death spiral is weighty indeed, but ignores the vast body of debate going on in the junior and senior ranks of our nation’s military. Rather than our officer corps living in a bubble, perhaps some of those discussing the internal debate of the military writ-large need to reach out of their bubble to see the rich discussion happening -right now-.

“Even junior officers inhabit a world where they hear only endless, hyperbolic praise of “the world’s greatest military ever.” They feed this swill to each other and expect it from everyone else. If they don’t get it, they become angry.”

-William S. Lind, “An Officer Corps That Can’t Score”

Mr. Lind accuses our Officer Corps of a hollow, cavalier attitude that would suggest they neither recognize nor wrestle with the threats of tomorrow or the mistakes of today. Ask any moderately informed officer on their thoughts about cyber-war, the F-35, LCS, insurgency, the utility of carriers, the proliferation of anti-ship cruise-missiles, etc.. and the opinions will be heated and varied. The Center for International Maritime Security has featured an entire week debating the merits of the Navy’s,“Air Sea Battle,” concept. The United States Naval Institute archives decades of articles relating to the debate over carriers. Small Wars Journal is a running testament to the continued debate over insurgency and irregular ground conflicts. There are also sometimes-anonymous outlets, like the Sailor Bob forum, Information Dissemination, or the wild wonderful world of Commander Salamander’s blog; they are quite popular in -light- of the often unique and critical perspective taken by writers.

The self-hate created by my blog's criticism is overwhelming me!
The self-hate generated by my awareness of challenges to US might is overwhelming me!

The majority of these articles are written by officers, with the approval or non-interference of their leadership. Of course, not all military leadership is necessarily embracing criticism, but that is natural to any top-down organization. We’ve made great strides. The Navy released the Balisle Report on its critical issues with maintenance. CDR Snodgrass’ 24 page study on retention is now a topic of wide debate encouraged by VADM Moran, Chief of Naval Personnel. If, as Mr.Lind describes, our officer corps had a comical “hulk-smash” reaction to suggestions of US Military weaknesses or institutional flaws, we’d have long ago beaten ourselves to rubble in the haze of an insatiable rage.

“What defines a professional—historically there were only three professions, law, medicine, and theology—is that he has read, studied, and knows the literature of his field. The vast majority of our officers read no serious military history or theory.”

-William S. Lind, “An Officer Corps That Can’t Score”

Gen. Mattis says we should have a 2000 year old brain... so we can shred triple-neck guitars.
Gen. Mattis says we should have a 2000 year old brain… so we can shred triple-neck guitars.

Mr.Lind suggests that our modern-day officers live in a historical desert, in which the lessons of yester-year are lost. I would suggest those doubters of the military’s historical memory look to the USS PONCE and the Navy’s re-embrace of sea-basing. Thomas J Cutler’s “Brown Water, Black Beret” is an excellent primer on the historical lessons the Navy is re-applying. Perhaps we might highlight the Navy and Marine Corps’ dual scholar-heroes of ADM Stavridis (ret) and Gen Mattis (ret): admired for both their acumen in the field and their rarely equaled study of the history of conflict

Mahan, ideating before it was cool. Photo-shop Credit: Matt Hipple

Perhaps Mr.Lind is disappointed in our lack of engagement with Mahan, in which case I would direct him to LCDR Benjamin Armstrong’s book, “21st Century Mahan.” Perhaps Clausewitz is our flaw? The Army and Air Force officers writing at “The Bridge” would likely demolish THAT center of gravity, if the snarky Doctrine Man doesn’t get there first. Perhaps we have not learned the importance of innovation from history! The military’s 3-D printing labs located around the country would likely raise their eyebrows in bemusement.

A Cleveland native myself, I understand how far Hampton Roads is from Mr.Lind’s home on the Northern Shore. However, anyone like Mr.Lind who doubts the military, officer or enlisted, is interested in tackling the issues should make every attempt to visit the June Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEFx) Conference in Norfolk. From flag officers to those who paint the flagstaff, the gamut of our service will be on location, out of uniform, debating our technical and institutional challenges in an unofficial and free forum. He may even meet some members of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC). If Norfolk is a bridge to far, I’d encourage the doubters to sign up for membership at the Center for International Maritime Security. We have weekly meetings in DC where we talk about everything from Professional Military Education to drone operations.

Courtesy of CIMSEC author, Nicolas di Leonardo.
Courtesy of CIMSEC author, Nicolas di Leonardo.

The military is by no means perfect, but such imperfection is what drives the debate that both officers and enlisted are engaging in on a daily basis. Mr.Lind suggests interesting structural reform to better cultivate leadership in our officers. However he cites the need for such reforms based on a decrepit caricature of an officer corps the US Military is not saddled with. If one hasn’t, as a USNI author once told me, “done one’s homework,” ideas fall flat. There IS a debate happening in America’s Officer Corps, an educational and engaging one. We’re not too hard to find if you look.


Matthew Hipple is an active duty officer in the United States Navy. He is the editor of the NEXTWAR blog at the Center for International Maritime Security, host of the Sea Control podcast, and a writer for USNI’s Proceedings, War on the Rocks, and other forums. He would like to also give a nod to his friends at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, The Bridge, Doctrine Man, Athena Project, CDR Salamander Blog, Information Dissemination, Small Wars Journal, CRIC, and others who did not realize that they, like he, apparently do not exist.

17 thoughts on “Our Debating Military: Here, If You’re Looking”

  1. I’ve had both a pleasure and the pain of working with active duty military officers in a major United States Army Medical Center. In a summation of that experience I have to tell you that the junior officers and even Jr NCO’s are the most savvy in the cyber war and Internet information obtained and use group of people that I have ever seen in over 40 years of contact with the military. The claim that the officers are not up to the challenge is 100% incorrect. The truth is that the NCO’S have even risen to this challenge. this person obviously hasn’t ignorant but biased opinion about the officer corps and the NCO corps.we have an expression in the fire service and its this learn or burn I suggest you apply the same principle.

  2. Interesting. I’ve found throughout my military (Army and Joint) that independent thought and debate were not only tolerated but encouraged. I seem to remember presenting our paper on the U.S. Military and diplomatic efforts “pivoting” to the Pacific back in 2010. Not overly prescient, even then we were aware that based on the new administrations desire to close out Iraq and sharply reduce our presence throughout the CENTCOM AOR that the shift would be towards our closest peer competitor, the Chinese. As early as 2008 PACOM was overhauling it’s strategic focus away from the Korean peninsula to a more flexible command and force structure even while continuing to meet ARFORGEN requirements in SWA.

  3. I read Lind’s article, and I think Lt Hipple missed the main thrust of the argument. I’m sure Lind knows there is ongoing debate among junior officers. But how many of those officers publishing in War on the Rocks and Small Wars Journal will go on to be combatant commanders and service chiefs? It is the career trajectory and education of those who end up advising SecDef and POTUS that needs to be examined.

    While I believe much of the responsibility for our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan lies with the Bush administration, I also know that our military leadership in Iraq in 2004 found themselves in a situation for which they were not prepared. A hard look at how we train, educate, promote our future leaders is absolutely warranted.

  4. William Lind was prominent in Marine Corps circles during the Commandancy of Gen. Al Gray. During this period, Lind’s writing on Maneuver Warfare and the USMC pivot to that study were a hot topic – Lind being a principle consultant to USMC strategists and training. Since then Lind has mostly been involved in the political realm and has not been as prominently revered in military circles and this may be the impetous of his current assertions. I had to opportunity to meet Mr. Lind and observe his actions and pontifications during the Solar Flare Exercise in 1987. I found him to be a pompous academic with no practical experience in military thought, exercise or leadership. He mostly strutted about in shabby camoflage (trying to approximate a version of Marine) with his pipe and shaggy beard. His attempts at elucitation on our actions and plans, during the exercise, were routinely laughable by junior and senior officers much more experienced in logistics, men, equipment and weapons capabilities. Even more egregious was his refusal to consider other’s observations or thoughts.

  5. I’m glad someone finally wrote a rebuttal. I found his entire article to be bombastic and pompous – starting with his “new” term 4G warfare and that we “lost” in Somalia and Beirut. If by “lost” you mean we realized we had no national interests in either place and thus had no political will to continue, then yes, I guess we did. Why that’s because of a bunch of “incompetent”, “moronic”, “knuckle-dragging” officers is beyond me. They could have been the most brilliant men ever assembled, and we still would have left. 4G is just his touchstone to remain relevant now that maneuver warfare faded away with AirLand battle. And his snarky comment about his friends at the various professional military schools not being able to get their students to read “past the first two pages” really made me laugh. Having been through every “professional” military education up to the War College, he should look in the mirror. They were all absolute wastes of time, with the readings completely out of date to the current threats and realities. Far from his vaunted “4G” warfare, we were fighting tank battles on the plains of Kansas. Maybe the students preferred to read something relevant instead of wasting their time with the curriculum.

  6. Thank you for this article. I am glad you were able to put into words some of the feelings I had when I read Lund’s article. Lund was completely misinformed or just wanted to stir the pot. Either way, Thank you for writing this! – N8

  7. If Mr. Lind’s remark weren’t at least partially relevent you would have never pushed back in such an immediate blather to describe website discussions and all the dialogue going on…
    I’ll make a simple observation of the officer corps in general. We have successfully created a class of professional hypocrites over the past 5-10 years who actually believe their upper CoC’s blather. Hypocrite too strong a word? Since when have you seen an 0-7 or above resign or retire for cause. My supporting argument- In 1947 there was a “Revolt of the Admirals” initiated by lesser stakes than today.
    Things may not be as bad as Lind characterizes it according to you. Start showing us we’re wrong with action.

    1. What on earth does that mean? “Show you where you’re wrong with action?” I retired in 2010 and served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and can say from the inside there was PLENTY of discussion bordering on fistfights on what or how to succeed. Everyone I knew from O1 to O8 was reading everything they could get their hands on regarding asymmetric threats. Others, like Nagl, were re-writing it. Pushing back doesn’t make Lind’s argument relevant at all. If Lind had accused the CJCS of being a pedophile, and he pushed back, does that make the accusation relevant? Hell no. As far as his assertion that the men after Vietnam thoughtfully dissected what went wrong and set about to “change” the military, I saw the exact opposite. They stuck their heads in the sand and ignored it completely, focusing on wars we like fighting such as the Israeli six day war. We spent the first five years in IZ and AFG relearning lessons we should have already assimilated, fighting an insurgency with a force completely designed for force on force tank battles. As for thinkers, there are plenty, starting with McMasters who is now in charge of Ft Benning’s Maneuver Center. To say he’s a hypocrite is ridiculous. What action would you like? Everyone to quit because Lind says so? This whole argument is just wasted breath. I’d prefer hearing from someone in the fight vice an academic with an axe to grind. And believe me, far from what Lind says, there are plenty of them to listen to.

        1. Thank you. I don’t normally comment on anything at all, but Lind’s blog really set me off. Hearing our military officer corps is a bunch of sycophantic careerists from a bloviating academic was beyond the pale. There’s one distinct difference between him and the corps he slanders: The end state of failure is death. I don’t care how much you wish to further your career, when you’re facing the end of your life, you work to prevent it. Meaning you work to solve the problem. Unlike anything an academic or any other profession, the soldier has a vested stake in the outcome. Doctors might get sued, and lawyers might lose a case, but the soldier will lose his life. More than anything else, that tends to bring out a healthy discussion. He will never understand this because his entire framework is built around debate, using words. He has never seen the debate fought with bullets. He will never understand the problem set like McMaster, Petraeus, Nagl, Mattis, McCrystal and a host of others, all of whom I suppose are just sycophants praising the party line. But he can get a rise out of people because of his supposed expertise. Aa weak as it is.

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