Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Plague

Zen master Mark from Zenpundit called my attention to an article by Bill Lind published in the DNI website. Here's an excerpt:

The problem is that these contractors are businessmen, and business is a whore. The goal of business is profit, not truth. Profit requires getting the next contract. Getting the next contract means telling whomever gave you the current contract what he wants to hear. If what he wants to hear isn’t true, so what? Just start the “study” by writing the desired conclusion, then bugger the evidence to fit. The result is endless intellectual corruption, billions of dollars wasted and military services that, as institutions, can no longer think.

The plague of senior officer contractors has effectively pushed those still in the military out of the thought process. Meeting after meeting on issues of doctrine or concepts are dominated by contractors. The officers in the room know that if they wave the BS flag at the contractors, they risk angering the serving senior officers who have given their “buddies” the contract. Junior officers, who have the most direct experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are completely excluded. They have no chance of being heard in meetings dominated by retired generals and colonels.

Not only does contracting out thinking bring intellectual corruption, it adds a whole new layer of dinosaurism to the thought process. Most retired senior officers’ minds froze in the Fulda Gap many years ago, and that remains their vision of war. Further, any change is automatically an attack on their “legacies,” which they are quick to defend. Twenty years ago, once the dinosaur retired, you could push him into the tar pit and move on. Now he is back the next day in a suit, with a six-figure contract.

My comments:

I would say that the vast majority of contractors I have dealt with are by and large well intentioned. But...they work for a company, a business. The company has to make a profit. The company has to sell its system, its software, its equipment. I always keep this in mind when I talk to a contractor. At the end of the day, many times they are trying to sell something. This gets more "interesting" when there are rival companies trying to sell the government systems that perform similar functions. Then it's a matter of them telling you how much the system from the rival company sucks and how it does not meet the warfighter requirements, and how user-unfriendly and cumbersome the rival product is. On the other hand, the product that their company produces is portrayed as almost flawless. If there are flaws, the developers are always working on them "as we speak"; just wait until version 4.1.2 comes out. The conclusion to the slick PowerPoint slides that accompany the sales is always pretty much "if you use our product, you'll win the war". Really? I wish it was that easy. The contractors claim these products have taken into account "lessons learned" from the field. It seems to me like they reviewed these "lessons learned" circa 1995. Any suggestions to incorporate improvements based on current experience might not even be taken into account. The system is locked down and we might not be able to add new features. You have to wait until 2007 or FY 08 until they are open again for suggestions. It might be me, but every time I make a suggestion (based on a year and a half experience in the Middle East and over a year in Korea, as well as countless exercises) I always get a semi-polite brush off that basically boils down to "don't bother us with the facts". Creativity is stifled. I don't know how the commercial sector works, but I suspect that if we were running a private company with these acquisition, adaptation and fielding practices we would be out of business in a less than six months.

In terms of stimulating thinking, many times I feel like my talent and what I've learned is being wasted. I have to sit down through countless mind-numbing, soul-sucking "system's integration" briefings. I am political science major. My interest in these things is minimal. Even if I had something to say, based on my experience from last year, I doubt that my input would be taken into account. We do a poor job of putting the right people in the right jobs and at the right time. Basically everything you learn while overseas gets lost because you are sitting in a brief that deals with systems and software and integration and interoperability, which is all great but a) there's very little I can do of impact due to my rank and because the fielding process is so inflexible, so rigid and b) I would rather be in a place where I can make a real impact based on my current experience. I would rather learn from somebody who has actually been there recently, than learn some outdated way of doing things taught by someone who's last foray was back in Desert Storm. I might be whining, but this is how I feel. When I first arrived in the Middle East in 2004 I was clueless. Now I know why.

I you think out of the box, you might be labeled a cowboy. Every "innovation" takes too damn long too field. You need a freaking field manual to navigate trough all the different versions of programs that need to be integrated. One piece of software might be finished today, but might not get out to the field until next year if we are lucky. You have to navigate through a Byzantine maze of middle managers and contractors to get anything done. It's frustrating. Meanwhile, we are reinventing the wheel every time we send a new rotation out to the field. But, in the military, we are supposed to "shut up and color". God forbid that a captain would know more about how to fight our current war than a retired lieutenant colonel.

On the topic of PowerPoint. The software by itself is not the cause or the root of the problem. Technology is rarely the problem. The misuse and abuse of technology is what bothers me. You might have some piss-poor analysis supported by fucked-up assumptions, but if your PP presentation looks good, and is formatted right, you are golden. If you slides look kind of crappy because you spent most of you time actually reading and analyzing the problem, you might get in trouble. "Is that Times New Roman I see in that slide? Oh no! Arial is the correct font, goddammit! This will reflect in your OPR, captain. Lack of attention to detail. You cannot lead troops in combat if you can't tell the different between fonts, colors, and formats." You have to make sure all your letters are the right size and in the right font. Having cool animation always helps. if you have a laser pointer, you are the man.

On the topic of blogs. The higher ups really don't understand the concept. A blog is something that, most often that not, needs to be quashed. You can't have JO's and NCO's (let alone two- and three-stripers) running their mouths on the Internets. My advice to the milbloggers out there:

1) Use your blog as an educational tool.

2) Keep the rabble-rousing to a minimum. There are countless sites devoted to demagoguery and you'll just be adding to the noise...we don't need more Malkin wannabes. If you are going to talk politics, be smart about it.

3) Give me some insight, give me some intellectual meat. For the most part, I don't care whether you did laundry or went to the store today, or if you walked the dogs, or had a burrito for lunch.

4) Give me cultural knowledge. Some of the best milblogs give you a sense of "you are there", a sense of place. Learn about the culture of the country you are stationed in. And tell us about it. Give us your take on the "lands of the not-quite right".

5) Talk to other milbloggers. We must learn from each other.

6) Talk to other smart non-military bloggers. Expand your horizons. Be curious. There's a lot of smart people out there. Mingle with people from different circles. Hang out with smart "freaks". Cross-pollination is the name of the game.

That's my rant for now. I got to get on the road. Again.

For more on the subject, read John Robb's post on his blog and Mark's take on Zenpundit. The Small War Council also has a dicussion forum on the subject of PowerPoint buffonery.

"if you have a laser pointer, you are the man."

My students feel the same way -LOL !

Great post ! I'll link later
Great advice for milbloggers, I'll do my best to apply it and keep it in mind when writing my posts.
I appreciate your coming by my site. Congrats on the promotion.
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