Leadership: The Lessons Of Vietnam Forgotten

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January 27, 2016: Micromanagement, first seen during the Vietnam War when advances in communications allowed someone in Washington to communicate directly with commanders in combat, has reached new heights and is causing major headaches for another generation of battlefield commanders. The latest disaster is a combination of still better communications in addition to growth of White House staffs. In particular an advisory group like the NSC (National Security Council) has been overwhelmed many additional personnel, most of whom have only opinions to offer, not advice based on long experience. In the beginning, when the NSC was created in 1947, it consisted of senior military and State Department officials based in Washington. These original NSC members all had long experience in their fields and the president used the NSC for advice and to test new ideas. But over the next fifty years more support staff were added to the NSC and after the end of conscription in the 1970s fewer of these staffers had any military experience and even less understanding of how diplomacy actually worked. When the NSC got so large (about fifty members) that the staff seemed to be getting in the way some directors sought to reduce the size. But after 2001 NSC growth got out of control and is currently about 400 people. As a result the experienced people are so outnumbered that they are often considered “the enemy” by the inexperienced (in national security and diplomacy matters) “support staff”. The tail was truly wagging the dog. This type of NSC has become an embarrassment and seemingly invulnerable to reform. This mutant NSC is one reason U.S. military and diplomatic policy seems so random and aimless. No one in the government can muster sufficient support to change the situation and return the NSC to its original usefulness.

Meanwhile the ability of the bad advice to quickly make life miserable for the troops (and diplomats abroad) became really noticeable in 2004 when the U.S. Department of Defense decided to provide the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) with a real time combat command capability. This meant that the JCS, led by its chairman, now had a combat command center in the Pentagon where they use satellite communications to directly observe, and sometimes control, combat forces anywhere on the planet. This should not have been a problem because most of these senior officers learned, early on in their military training, the importance of giving subordinates their mission and leaving it to these lower ranking officers to figure out a way to do it. But now, with a generation of senior commanders with no experience of being micromanaged platoon leaders in Vietnam, the insidious and crippling micromanagement disease is creeping back into the White House and Pentagon. Field commanders are being second guessed by nervous superiors half way around the world. These same superiors are now calling in lawyers to help them make the right (for the guy in Washington) decision while the troops are under fire and waiting for permission to proceed. It wasn't always this way.

It was since the mid-19th century that a government could exercise any control at all over armed forces far from the capital. This was first done with the introduction of overland and undersea telegraph lines in the 19th century and world-wide radio broadcasting equipment early in the 20th century. Before that an admiral or general was sent off with orders to accomplish a mission and pretty much allowed to get it done as they saw fit. The generals and admirals rather liked this approach, as their job was hard enough without a bunch of politicians looking over their shoulder and second guessing their every decision. Even with the radio messages from back home, the combat commanders were still left to sort things out on their own. The radio was used mainly to report progress, or lack of it, not ask permission for every move.

But by the 1960s it was possible to patch through a telephone call from the White House to an infantry battalion commander deep in the Vietnamese bush. And it wasn't just the dreaded phone call from the president you had to worry about. The beleaguered battalion commander might have brigade, division, and corps commanders circling overhead in helicopters, all of them observing and offering advice or giving orders. This "micromanagement" was much disliked by the guys on the ground, trying to run a battle they were right in the middle of.

After Vietnam the Department of Defense tried to deal with this problem by establishing regional commands to cover the entire planet and then appointing four star generals or admirals to command all American forces in that region if there were a war. The rest of the time they would keep an eye on things and get ready for any possible war. These commanders in chief (or CINCs as they are still called, unofficially) were sometimes guilty of micromanagement, although all experienced combat commanders recognized that it was best to leave the commanders of the fighting units alone. This was the lesson of history. Micromanagement was bad but it persisted. Why?

Blame it on the media. Just as military communications had improved so had the ability of the media to get the story back to their audience (of voters, pundits, and unfriendly politicians). In the past the commander on the spot might do things that did not look good in the media but it took so long to get the story back that the operation was over by the time it did. If the battle was won many sins would be forgiven. That no longer works. Communications now allow reporters to deliver color commentary while a battle is in progress. The American president, the ultimate (by law and in fact) commander in chief, is held responsible for whatever the troops do. It is not possible, politically, to wait for the combat commanders to finish their job before the president, or his aides, issues new orders.

Examples of micromanagement were abundant in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Washington often had to be consulted before sensitive attacks were made (like having a Predator UAV launch a Hellfire missile at some guy on the ground who might be Osama bin Laden, or some tall Afghan with a beard, a new SUV, and a commanding manner). The JCS Command Post was an attempt to deal with this problem. The JCS and the Secretary of Defense are the president's senior, and most frequent, military advisors. Ultimately, the buck stops with the JCS. So by plugging the JCS into a world-wide command system, politically sensitive decisions can be resolved quickly (in minutes, or at least in less than an hour). The more frequent contact between the president, the Secretary of Defense, and the JSC with combat commanders might build up a degree of trust that would enable sensitive decisions to be made more quickly. This would happen, in a best case situation, because the JCS Command Post had developed confidence in the judgment of the commanders out there.

But the JCS Command Post has just become another layer of management that slows down decision making without improving the ability of the troops to get the job done. The expanding NSC staff often put itself between JCS and the president. Another side effect was a proposal that the CINC be reduced to the status of a staff officer. The CINC and his people (several hundred staff officers and support troops) would be the repository of knowledge about the local situation and would take care of all those logistical and support details that enable the combat operations to happen. So far, the CINCs have successfully resisted this, but it's happening anyway whenever the folks back in Washington want to throw their considerable weight around.

Speaking of staff work, one thing combat staffs are increasingly concerned with is how to deal with politically delicate situations that the media could run with (often in uncomfortable directions). This sort of thing has been seen frequently since 2001. For example, when sandstorms seemed to have "stalled" the American advance on Baghdad in 2003, the president, or at least the Secretary of Defense, had to be in touch with the commanders inside the sand storm and then say something to the press that would defuse the story and wouldn't blow up later if it proved to be false. For those who didn't catch the follow up on the sand storm, the troops were delayed by the need to resupply (especially fuel for their very thirsty M-1 tanks) and the storm actually helped because the Iraqis thought they could safely move Republican Guard divisions under cover of it. They couldn't, as there were American satellites, UAVs, and sensors on the ground that could see right through the sand. Iraqi tanks and troops got shot up on a massive scale before they realized that the swirling sand blinded them more than the Americans.

The ability to quickly communicate between the battlefield and the Pentagon came in handy after Baghdad fell in 2003and the Baath party diehards continued to resist with ambushes. But all of this communication was improvised. That experience naturally led to the idea that better preparation for that situation would have improved communications and decision making. The Pentagon and White House already expected to see real time UAV video coverage of critical events. But there are often dozens of video feeds running through Department of Defense satellites, and the JCS Command Post tries to sort it all out and have the most important videos marked for the attention of the president, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the JCS, or for release to the media.

Micromanagement originally appeared because the technology was there to make it possible. New technology keeps showing up, making more mischief, or benefits, possible. As always, it's up to the people using the technology to make things happen or screw things up. Turns out that you can usually depend on the tech to be more reliable than some of the people using it.

 


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