Friday, March 02, 2007

I'm with Carter. 
Phillip Carter, that is.

Walter Reed's problems also illustrate just how bad the Army has gotten at passing information—particularly negative information—up and down its chain of command. Typically, subordinate units submit reports on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to their headquarters. At each level of command, these reports get filtered, collated, combined, and resynthesized. Like the children's game of telephone, the message frequently changes in transmission. The result can be a terribly distorted picture of reality at the higher echelons of command...

Military bureaucracies (and their civilian brethren like the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency) also do a terrible job of reacting to crises. Large bureaucracies like the Army provide a systematic, uniform, mediocre response to chronic problems. But where time is of the essence, bureaucracies often fail spectacularly. On the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer last week, Kiley tried to deflect blame by calling the mess at Walter Reed "a very large, complex process," which required a nuanced approach to bureaucratic, medical, and contractual problems. But such a bureaucratic response misses the point when the bureaucracy itself is the enemy, as it is for the soldiers in Building 18. Bureaucracies evolve into micro-societies over time and become incapable of evaluating fundamental problems within their own ranks. Instead of receiving negative information and fixing the root problem, bureaucracies find and apply incrementalist solutions that fit their existing way of doing business. In MBA-jargon, bureaucracies rarely think or act "outside of the box." Whether the context is the Vietnam War, the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, or the current mess at Walter Reed, the problem is the same. Only decisive leadership—picture Gen. George Patton with his revolver, shooting a jackass to clear a bridge so his convoy can pass—can overcome bureaucratic inertia to fix the problem.

But, of course, there are few Pattons left in today's Army, partly because the military has moved away from the tradition of "command responsibility" toward a model of bureaucratic performance. As a lieutenant, I learned that commanders were responsible for all their unit did or failed to do, period. In peacetime, this meant I could lose my job if some soldiers got in a drunken bar fight one weekend or if a sergeant lost too much gear, because I had ultimate responsibility for my unit. In wartime, command responsibility ties in with accomplishing missions: Generals like Patton and Creighton Abrams earned their stars by winning battles, because that is the military's raison d'être.

Besides ... to paraphrase Patton, there's nothing like relieving a flag officer to cause a much needed round of promotions in the Army.

I'm still not trusting all the reporting on Walter Reed, but there doesn't seem to be any doubt that there was a failure of command there.

Splash, out


Well, they did relieve Gen. Weightman of his command at WRAMC. Hopefully, this is the first of many steps to correct the problems.
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