The myth of “military efficiency”

‘The way we taught people in occupied Europe to sabotage the Nazi regime has now become the way our militaries do business’

Martial Arts

I’m sitting in a room with a group of private sector managers for whom I’ve been asked to offer a small part of my experience. As usual, I hear one of them say that their plan will be executed “with military efficiency”. It doesn’t even make me laugh any more. But my response remains the same: “So you’re telling me it’s going to be fucked up.”

I encourage my private sector colleagues to read the Simple Sabotage Manual of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Available on the CIA website, it has become a tome of dark humour for many in the world of special operations. Of particular interest is  “General Interference with Organisations and Production.” Gems include:

Advocate “caution”.  Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

Insist on doing everything through “channels”. Never allow short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those that have the least flaw.

And my personal favourite: “Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.”

In addition to being entertaining, these quotes underscore a tragic truth. The way we taught people in occupied Europe to sabotage the Nazi regime has now become the way our militaries do business. 

In the Second World War, armies which had a greater percentage of support personnel (Britain, the USA) to combat soldiers were more successful than those who did not (Germany, Italy). But we wrongly extrapolated the need for robust enablers (logistics, signals, intelligence) into the need for an army of superfluous managers who hinder rather than enable the swift, efficient execution of operations.

Moreover, wartime management was created explicitly to administer a worldwide logistical network developed by General George Marshall, a brilliant man tasked by FDR to oversee and sustain the global deployment of millions of soldiers. That need no longer exists—but the bloat remains. 

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast . . . ” So goes an American special operations aphorism. The dictum is meant to calm nervous trainees who suffer from sensory overload during their first iterations in a live ammunition shoot-house, for in truth, close quarters combat is anything but slow. Years of training and rehearsal make it remarkably fast. Seasoned jihadis would rather detonate their suicide vests. Such was the fate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and much of his ilk. Vae victis (woe to the conquered).

Woe also to these brave men and women for the layers of bureaucracy they are forced to navigate on a daily basis. At the tactical level, military operations can indeed be fast, efficient, and deadly. But the management strata which turn those tactics into components of an operational plan meant to serve a strategic end are ineffective, lethargic, and mediocre.

The often-forgotten truth is that the detailed planning required for military operations is simply the price of admission. An analogy is the physical side of special operations training. We remember how the arduous selection processes tested our muscles; only later do we remember the hordes of doctors and psychologists who outnumbered our trainers, and realise that factors other than our biceps led to our selection.

No such selection process exists for staff officers. Their mediocre performance reflects the neglect of General George Patton’s rule: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” We all know that no plan ever survives first contact; it is tactical commanders’ ingenuity that wins the day once the first round has been fired.

Consider these diametrically opposed types of military management strata as fast- and slow-twitch muscle systems. The fast-twitch muscles are the kind of military operations you see performed such as the al-Baghdadi raid: brilliantly planned but inevitably short bursts executed by small, effective special operations commands. The slow-twitch muscles are what make up the majority of the Allied military bureaucracy: designed to manage combat operations against millions of German, Japanese, or Soviet soldiers who have long since disappeared from the battlefield. 

On today’s battlefield, where technology continues to shorten response times and increase the risk of inaction, the slow-twitch systems have become an anachronism. And for those who cite the potential of another major war, remember this: the size of our own armies has also decreased dramatically since the Second World War, but the girth of our middle management has not. It has become an impediment to progress.

A maxim consistently validated during my career has been this: to get anything done, bypass the mediocrity of the operational level and go straight to the generals. This is the sign of a dysfunctional organisation.

After seeing the conflicts in Algeria and Indochina, the French writer Jean Lartéguy predicted this state of affairs.  He wrote in his classic novel Les Centurions:

I’d like to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements . . . an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded . . . that’s the army in which I should like to fight.

What Lartéguy could not foresee is that the first army—the one with doddering generals and staff officers worried about their bowel movements—would end up costing Western taxpayers an exponentially greater amount of money than the second. In the private sector, shareholders can intervene, sack management and avoid bankruptcy. Free citizens of liberal democracies should remind their elected leaders that they, and their armed forces, deserve better too.