The Distance between Knowledge and Authority

Right Shoulder by Eastern Washington UniversityReader Bob Hawkins left a really excellent comment that I’m going to quote in full:

There’s also the fact that the civilian departments don’t take their war responsibilities seriously. The military ends up doing jobs that are theoretically the responsibility of State, Justice, etc., because if they don’t the jobs won’t get done. The civilian departments don’t staff for it, don’t budget for it, and don’t organize for it. What little they do is ad hoc.

The fact that State doesn’t hire enough ex-military so they maintain their own pool of expertise, is another way they don’t take their responsibilities seriously.

I want to be clear that the point of my last post is not an anti-military one. When our elected officials decide to go to war, it’s important that we have smart, competent officers who can carry out the military objectives chosen by our civilian leaders. Men like Gen. McChrystal and Gen. Taylor are focused on winning the wars their civilian leadership have told them to win.

Moreover, as Bob says here, effectively carrying out a long-term project like a war in a fickle bureaucracy requires commanders to play politics to some degree. If our troops in the field get attacked, the military can’t afford to sit around while bureaucrats at State or in the White House debate how to respond. A good commander learns quickly that to do his job, he sometimes has to play bureaucratic games to get the resources and the authority he needs to keep his troops alive and complete the mission. And Bob is absolutely right that people outside the chain of command—who don’t have the lives of thousands of troops resting on their shoulders—often don’t appreciate the magnitude and complexity of the task the military is asked to perform.

But once you’ve started a military engagement, it becomes difficult to separate the question of how to employ military force from the question of whether to apply military force. The military’s job is to kill people and destroy things. They do this very effectively. Sometimes, as in World War II, that’s exactly what we want and we’re grateful we have a military that does it so effectively. But in other cases, killing people and destroying things is not the best solution to the problem at hand. And it’s vitally important that in those cases we avoid killing people and breaking things unnecessarily.

The question of whether to go to war, and the related questions about strategic objectives, are not questions that the military brass are uniquely qualified to answer. In fact, in most cases it’s not a question you even want your military officials to be thinking about very much. It wouldn’t have been helpful for Gen. Eisenhower, say, to spend his nights wondering if the D-Day invasion was really a good idea.

The problem in Vietnam was that the methods of the military were a poor fit to the job at hand. The military did the job it does in every war: it destroyed things and killed people it believed were supporting the enemy. But killing people and destroying things didn’t actually help the Vietnamese people or slow the spread of communism. To the contrary, every innocent Vietnamese person we killed (and there were a lot of them) helped the Viet Cong with recruiting.

It wasn’t the military’s job to decide that we’re pursuing the wrong high-level strategy. That was the job of the civilian leaders. The fundamental problem was the huge distance—both geographic and bureaucratic—between the people making the decisions and the people carrying them out. The people who knew the policy was working poorly didn’t have the authority to change it. And the people who changed the policy didn’t know how badly the current policy was working. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but my goal isn’t to apportion blame. Rather, my broader point is that this kind of disconnect is a near-inevitable consequence of bureaucratic management.

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