Leadership: The Curse Of Competent Officers

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September11, 2008:  Eight years of efforts to create new armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq has reminded American military and civilian leaders that culture makes a big difference in determining the military capabilities of a nation. This  not a politically correct, which is why decades of U.S. Army Special Forces experience pointing this out, never took root in the Pentagon. But now the truth of this unpleasant reality has to be confronted.

As Special Forces operators have noted for decades, while they trained soldiers in foreign countries, not every culture absorbed their lessons the same way. The Special Forces are a unique organization. A large part of their training is learning all about foreign cultures. The Special Forces training services (which are eagerly sought) provides these American troops with valuable immersion in the cultures they study. What the Special Forces have learned is that military effectiveness tends to vary according to the economic success of a culture. In other words, those nations that have a thriving economy, tend to be capable of absorbing the Special Forces training and becoming very effective soldiers (if they aren't already).

The critical factor, though, is not temperament of the troops, but the abilities of the NCOs (sergeants) and officers. As the old saying goes, "there are no bad troops, only bad officers." This was demonstrated in the 18th and 19th centuries, as European nations established colonial empires in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Everywhere they went, they created local military forces. They trained the troops they same way they trained their own, but using European officers and NCOs. Eventually, they developed local NCOs and officers, but this took years. You can train an illiterate local guy to be a competent infantryman in a few months. But you can't create effective military units with these guys unless you have good NCOs and officers. Since the local leadership tended to be corrupt, obsessed with social status (rather than performance) or simply not interested in the working that hard (and long) to become a Western quality officer or NCO, the Europeans provided their own people to do the job, until some of the local worthies could be persuaded to accept the Western way of doing things.

So the Special Forces have long known that training the low level troops is easy, it's developing equally competent officers and NCOs that is really difficult. If the local leadership were as dedicated and civic minded as in the West, the local economy would be prosperous, and the government would be competent and effective. And even when effective officers and NCOs are selected and trained, you have another problem. These military leaders soon realize that they are the only competent and effective leaders in the country. Unless the rest of the culture shapes up, you start down the road of alternating military dictatorship (as the officers take over the government, "for the good of the country") and chaotic civilian rule (which screws things up and triggers another military takeover). This goes on until the civilian leaders realize that the ancient customs of tribalism, corruption and, well, you know the rest, won't work in the modern world. Even the royal family in Saudi Arabia (and several other surviving monarchies) recognize this, and are trying to reform their cultures to create a population capable of providing effective leadership for the economy, government and military. These aristocrats know that, at best, they will get a constitutional monarchy (as found in several European nations, like Britain, Spain, Sweden and many others). At worse, they will get a republic or dictatorship, and a monarchy in exile. But the alternative is falling behind economically, and eventually becoming a poverty stricken backwater.

 

 


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