Publishing “How to Think”


I learned yesterday that the Naval Institute Press has accepted for publication “How to Think Like an Officer: A Guide for Officers and Others”!  My thanks to the editors and friends who have helped with this project.   I have a month or so to get the manuscript into shape, so I’m still looking for input if anybody has any bright ideas on the subject. You can read earlier posts on this blog as well as articles on The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks to get an idea of how my thoughts have been tending.

Briefly, the book breaks down into two main parts on getting  ready to think and thought in action. I spend a lot of time talking about reading in the first part. The second part is in three chapters on the organizer, warfighter, and visionary.  The last chapter deals mostly with life after the uniform: dreams and aspirations, continuing to serve. I think that bit might be my best and favorite, maybe because I’m retired myself, but also since I think the role of officers after we leave the service has been neglected.

Semper Fi, Reed


Strategic Thought and the Military Officer in”Fail-Safe” (1964)


Historically, military organizations have had to find occasions for ethical renewal. This arguably happened in the 17th century during what had become known as the “Military Revolution.” in the nineteenth century with written international rules on armed conflict, and following World War II and Nuremberg, with the advent of UN Forces and peacekeeping operations. (See my Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence (Annapolis: USNI Press, 2017.) In a recent New York Times article (“Rebooting the Ethical Soldier,” NYT 16 July), retired Air Force Major General Robert H. Latiff argues that the rise of new warfare technologies calls for such a renewal, lest killing become too easy and automatic.

The other night, while my wife was at book club, I ran a recording of the movie Fail-Safe that was shown on TCM a few nights ago. The film has worn well. The acting by the likes of Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and a very young Larry Hagman is excellent, as are the direction by Sidney Lumet and a script that follows the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler closely.   Its themes of brinksmanship and over-reliance on technology have renewed relevance in the era of AI and other technologies.

For me, the character of Brigadier General “Blackie” Black, played by distinguished actor Dan O’Herlihy, is one of the most unforgettable parts of the film. His may not be the star role (that likely goes to Fonda) but the film begins and ends with him, and it is his sensibility and thoughts that give the film its main gravitas. Fail-Safe begins with his dream of a bull being flayed in an arena while he watches helpless and horrified from the stands. He wakes in his New York apartment and wakes his sleeping wife, telling her that he is worried about the work he is doing, and even considering resigning from the service, in part to make his recurring dream go away.

At a meeting later that day with the new Defense Secretary and a roomful of other generals and officials, Black is a dissenting voice. He’s obviously worried about the normalizing of nuclear war, arguing against the glib abstractions of the defense intellectual played by Matthau and the rather unimaginative pragmatism of some of the senior generals.  Suddenly, the electronic board on the wall of the room depicts an American bomber squadron that has erroneously proceeded beyond its Fail-Safe point and is now on its way to bomb Moscow.   This has been caused by a failure of the technology that was not caught in time by the human chain of command. Many efforts to prevent this attack, some finally undertaken in uneasy cooperation with the Russians, are tried without success, and the president, played by Fonda, is forced to make a tragic decision. (I’ll try not to give the ending away, in case anyone, maybe younger readers, is unfamiliar with the plot.) Black, an old schoolmate of the president’s, is the man selected to carry out his order, after which Black commits suicide.

Black embodies some of the traits of the ideal (or idealized) officer-as-strategist I’ve outlined in recent writings.  It is interesting that he is a one-star general among the four-stars and their equivalents in the Washington War Room. This suggests that he is closer  to the realities of armed conflict of which some of the higher-ups have lost sight. He still flies, and in fact it is his ability as a flier that earns him his final, tragic mission. A picture of a WWII flight crew in his bedroom indicates that he is a combat veteran. Black’s understanding of the the nature of war, and his imaginative ability to grasp the awfulness of nuclear war are terrible burdens. Matthau’s Professor Groteschele says the he is a “political scientist, not a poet.” He appears to have insulated himself from the consequences of nuclear war, and reduced it to a game of numbers and political abstractions, but he has also fallen for the dark fascination of mass destruction. Another character says, “No one is responsible,” but Black has assumed the responsibility  for war on himself. He bears responsibility even for a conflict he has done his professional, personal best to avoid.

In this, Black is embracing an old-fashioned code of honor and personal responsibility that distinguishes him from the “organization men” the technocrats and bureaucrats. He is also showing the way for an updated professional code, one as concerned with the preservation of peace as with the successful application of armed force.

Fail-Safe  is a great old movie. The 1962 novel and the 2000 film version with Harvey Keitel as General Black aren’t bad either. It may be time to press them into service for the training of cadets and officers.  They could make fine texts for discussion, of which I have likely only scratched the surface.  A soul as well as a brain is required for strategic thought, and advanced technology isn’t the only contemporary challenge. The strategic challenges of out time are surely exacerbated by a chief executive of uncertain judgment, limited understanding,and doubtful soul.



On the Psychology of Military Incompetence: Revisited, Or Why Some Veterans Support 45

 IN 1976, British psychologist Norman F. Dixon published a book titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.[i] The book may be said to have spawned subsequent writings on the subject but, despite a new edition in 2016, it seems to be but little read today, and that may be a pity. Aside from addressing the important and timeless subject of why bad military decisions are made, the book offers a clue to a divide which affects both armed forces veterans and the nation as a whole.

Like other veterans, I have sometimes wondered why it is that we can seem to draw such different conclusions from our service. Like most veterans of my own acquaintance, I came back from deployment with an awakened sense of a common humanity. War, it seemed, in its paradoxical way, had done more than any other experience to convince me that all people were brethren, that America had a role to fill in the community of nations, that we need allies and friends, and that to ignore or shut out the rest of the world was both morally wrong and impractical. This is why, like other veterans and many of our fellow citizens, I find the current U.S. policy and practices with respect to immigrants and refugees so painful. I feel that I know in my heart and in my head that this is wrong, both for the suffering it causes and for the long-term effects of a new isolationism.  That this spirit of isolation is fueled by terrible rhetoric of xenophobia and racism, some of it coming from the current administration, makes it even worse. And that’s not all. The chief executive’s contempt for the truth, his bullying and delight in other people’s discomfiture, typified recently by a gleeful reference to “gently” throwing immigrant children back to their countries of origin, seem to me to strike at the heart of personal integrity and good leadership, maybe the two common pillars of military service throughout the armed forces. His failure to condemn the racists and fascists who see themselves as acting under his banner, as in the wake of Charlottesville, has been a terrible blunder. More than this, it has been the sign of a lack of concern for ethical matters that unfits him as a leader of any kind.

Still, we veterans who find this appalling and contemptible know that not all veterans share our opinion of the President, his words and policies. This presents something of a mystery. I once said that I thought I knew veterans who would let you rip off an ear before they told a deliberate lie, but who now supported a man who lies all the time, in matters big and small. A tactical leader trains herself to face facts, to proceed empirically. The President often seems delusional, perhaps in keeping with his contempt for science and other forms of expertise.  Most of all, most veterans have learned that leadership is a matter of caring for people and bringing out their best. A real leader literally encourages, sharing courage and not preying on fears. We’ve all seen and suffered under the wrong kind, the “toxic” leader, but thankfully they are in the minority, and usually forgotten for the nonentities that they are.

The loyalty of those still serving in the reserves or on active duty presents less of a mystery. Absent a clear case of illegality, military members must by oath obey the orders of the President. There is the option of a refusal to obey or of resignation based on principle, but the path to these courses of action is murky and mostly untrodden.

The allegiance of veterans is a greater mystery and a greater problem, but Dixon’s book and some polling conducted over the last couple of years provide some clues and insight.  According to Dixon, the great besetting reason for military incompetence is that the armed forces tend to attract and cultivate people with authoritarian tendencies. Self-selection is at work to ensure that most people entering the armed forces are comfortable with giving and taking orders. This tendency becomes habitual in the hierarchical military culture. Subordinates tend to refrain from questioning the orders and views of their superiors, and senior officers too often do no brook objections to their plans and instructions.

The authoritarian tendencies of military people neatly fit the profile of Trump supporters that has emerged from some polling.[ii] According to some polls, authoritarian tendencies are a better indicator that someone has and will support the current President than gender, income, education, race, or religion.  Behind Trump’s blustering and bad manners, these people see a legitimate authority figure, someone comfortable giving orders and therefore, by that measure, fit to command.

To break out of this way of thinking requires someone to step out of personal tendency and see the requirements for leadership in its greater complexity. Leadership is a moral act as well as the exercise of authority. It involves ends as well as means, and often those most anxious to give orders are those least fit to do so, since they find the pleasures of power too attractive. There is evidence that this change is coming. A small majority of veterans now seeking elected office are Democrats. This may be said to represent a diminishing conservative consensus that had generally existed in the military, in the upper ranks especially. There may be evidence to show that even a few defections can spell the end of groupthink, by introducing the idea that conformity to a certain point of view may not be necessary for group membership.[iii]  If conservative veterans are willing to be their own devil’s advocates, perhaps more will see that he really does not represent their values.

For me, Trump’s damning deficiencies come out in stark relief when he is compared to the man who for me is the gold standard and my personal hero: George C. Marshall. Marshall’s personal courtesy and magnanimity, his scrupulous integrity, attention to and command of facts, the breadth of his humane vision which resulted in the plan for post-war European recovery that bears his name, all are a rebuke to Trump and his methods. Like other demagogues, he may enjoy some short-term success, but these are built on a rotten foundation of ignorance and preening self-regard.

Trump is almost a caricature of the bad leader: closed to the views of others, humorless except at others’ expense, more interested in perks and deference than in real achievement.  Support for him, I believe, rests on a tenuous thread of unreason, of exaggerated deference to authority. Among veterans, there may even be a note of nostalgia for a time when our lives consisted in doing as we were told.  More powerful than these impressions, I believe, is the example of integrity and genuine leadership that is the greatest benefit of military service, and the legacy of the armed forces to its own members and the rest of the nation.

[i] Norman F. Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. 1976 (New York: Perseus-Basic Books, 2016). 

[ii] Matthew MacWilliams, Politico. Online. “The Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter.” January 17, 2016.

[iii] Douglas T. Kenrick, Adam B. Cohen, Steven L. Neuberg, and Robert B. Cialdini, “The Science of Anti-Scientific Thinking,” Scientific American, July 2018, pp. 37-41.

Strategic Thought and the Military Officer (Concl.)

Last post on “Strategic Thought and the Military Officer.”

Soldiers and Civilization

A Complex Environment

Strategy provides an illustration of one of the abiding themes of modern thought, which is that the relationship among things and persons often counts as much or more than the characteristics of the things themselves. From relativity, psychiatry, and existentialist and post-modernist thought onwards, persons, political bodies, ideas and events have been seen to be defined by how they interact. The challenge of strategic thought may be expressed as the attempt to bring elements into agreement in spite of their antagonism. The paradox of military strategy is that the means are violent, inherently unsettling, as likely to inflame antagonism as to extinguish it, or to only temporarily quell antagonisms, leaving the real cause untouched and as ignitable as ever.   Not only is strategy dependent on the relationship of opposing forces to one another, of force to the geopolitical landscape and to policy, but (as we have seen)…

View original post 762 more words

Strategic Thought and the Military Officer (Concl.)

A Complex Environment

Strategy provides an illustration of one of the abiding themes of modern thought, which is that the relationship among things and persons often counts as much or more than the characteristics of the things themselves. From relativity, psychiatry, and existentialist and post-modernist thought onwards, persons, political bodies, ideas and events have been seen to be defined by how they interact. The challenge of strategic thought may be expressed as the attempt to bring elements into agreement in spite of their antagonism. The paradox of military strategy is that the means are violent, inherently unsettling, as likely to inflame antagonism as to extinguish it, or to only temporarily quell antagonisms, leaving the real cause untouched and as ignitable as ever.   Not only is strategy dependent on the relationship of opposing forces to one another, of force to the geopolitical landscape and to policy, but (as we have seen) the production and execution of strategic thought is also based on many relationships among individuals and organizations, from small departments to nation states, non-state actors, and other international organizations. The officer-as-strategist must navigate in this complex social and political terrain in which perceptions of commitment and credibility count as much as the inherent merit of plans and ideas. Even the most brilliant plan, lacking necessary support and imaginative and determined execution will fail to be adopted or will simply fail.  To accept and execute the best strategy, there will often have to be learning, new ways of thinking, the overcoming of habits and even of allegiances.  Strategic thought often involves the overcoming of narrow or parochial loyalties and relationships in favor of a broadly national, global, humanitarian outlook.

The political and pragmatic aspects of strategy must never be confused with moral relativism.  It is a challenge for every officer, especially given the sometimes-brutal nature of her calling, not to lose sight of the precious things she serves and guards. Whatever role they occupy, the credibility and authority of officers continues to depend on their being persons of honor.



            What can be done to improve the contributions of officers to strategic thought? The solutions are both structural and cultural. On the structural level, the armed forces should consider adopting some of the non-hierarchical organization of some businesses and becoming less rigid and authoritarian. This may appear anathema to military ideas of discipline and command and control, but real discipline is more a matter of compliance than compulsion. The armed forces must do a better job harnessing its own brain power. The rigidity of military organizations is responsible for some of the “brain drain” among some of the brighter junior officers and NCOs.[i] They see weary years ahead before their ideas can have much impact, and so are seeking occupations that are not so tied to mere seniority.

The cultural changes are more numerous and important. A military culture stressing brain over brawn would help to create an atmosphere for better strategic thinking. This might include diminishing the fetishization of athletics at the service academies, for example. We should not reduce physical standards, but we should consider the evaluation and recognition of mental achievement to match. Currently, professional military education seems to be getting poor grades for the development of strategic thinkers.[ii]  A more rigorous and reflective approach to professional education is part of the solution, but the military should also consider sending more officers (and some enlisted members) to graduate school to earn degrees in fields like history and the humanities.[iii] These fields can prepare officers to think in the ways required of strategists, to grasp ends as well as means, to consider history and the future as well as the present and immediate effects.  The pursuit of strategy is a grand drama of epic and tragic proportions. It requires an historical perspective, human and ethical understanding, a poetics of war as much as doctrine. Military officers literally invest their lives in the pursuit of victory. They must also invest in the intellectual capital that make strategic success and victory attainable.



[i] There has been much writing on this subject over the last fifteen years. One of the most extensive and influential contributions to the literature of military retention is Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) by ex-Air Force officer Tim Kane.  Kane calls for radical changes in the military personnel system and military career patterns to keep and cultivate the brightest and best.

[ii] War Room. Online. “Whiteboard: How Well Does the Army Develop Strategic Leaders?” June 25 2018.

[iii]See Christopher D. Miller, “Creating the Force of the Future,” interview with Brad R. Carson, Acting Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness).  Journal of Character and Leadership Integration, Volume 3, Issue 2, Winter 2016 Special Edition, “Leading in the Profession of Arms.”  Carson laments the small and diminishing number of senior officers with advanced degrees in areas like literature and military history.  See also Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli and Major Stephen Smith, USA, “Learning From Our Modern Wars: The Imperatives of Preparing for a Dangerous Future,” Military Review, September-October 2007, pp. 2-15.  Chiarelli observes that, despite his numerous “muddy boots” assignments, “the experience that best prepared me for division and corps command in Iraq was the 5 years I spent earning a masters degree and teaching in the Social Sciences Department at the U.S. Military Academy.”