Last month’s issue of The Atlantic had a fascinating and disturbing article which examined the gulf between American veneration of the military and the general and pervading incompetence of its general staff (General Failure by Thomas Ricks).
Ricks discussed the decreasing phenonmenon of the relief of general staff, that is, removing those deemed and proved to be incompentent from their post. During World War Two general staff were removed from command regularly and suddenly: the removal of Generals Jay MacKelvie and Eugene Landrum from command of the 90th Infantry Division allowed the 90th to become an effective force.
Those days are long gone, now “a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war” says Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling of his experiences in the Iraq War. Of the hundreds of generals deployed to combat operations in the wars of the last decade, not one has been relieved of duty, and yet, we have good evidence that the wars might not have been wholly successful and without cost: politically, economically, strategically, tactically. Why is this?
Ricks suggests two reasons: first, wars are inevitably political creatures. The wars since the World War Two have been “small, ambiguous, increasingly unpopular wars, ” in which success is a harder thing to define than in WW2. It is hard to relieve a general of his commands, because in the face of the lack of any definition of success, a fired general tells the public that “the war was going poorly.”
The second reason is sociological: armies and generals are part of the wider changes in North Atlantic society: we became “corporate”, believing that the business is the best model for any and every form of social endeavour: a corporate society, like a corporate army becomes “less tolerant of the maverick and more likely to favor conformist ‘organization men.'” Those who become successful in such organizations do so by submitting their loyalties and abilities to the service of the organization. In Riches’s words, generals “began acting less like stewards of a profession, responsible to the public at large, and more like members of a guild, looking out primarily for their own interests.”
What is the purpose of being a general? It is no longer to “save and take lives; to advise presidents on our most fundamental national issues; to shape their own institution by deciding how to select and groom their successors… [through a] hard-nosed but flexible system [which allowed] the most competent to rise quickly” and swiftly culled the ineffective or incompetent. Rather, to be a general is to protect the rights, privileges and powers or being a general, and you don’t do that by firing or disciplining other generals. Once you are in the star-club, you remain in the star-club. The mystique of the military in a corporate society requires that.
As Ricks’s says:
Instead of weeding out bad officers, senior leaders tended to closely supervise them, encouraging habits of micromanagement that plague the Army to this day. Mediocrity also led to mendacity…
A parish priest may allow the wrong type of material to be placed on his church roof. A bishop may lead a diocese which is wholly dysfunctional in its Child Protection. Which one will be disciplined?
I was talking yesterday with a friend of mine, a senior priest in a diocese outside the Church of England. He wondered how he could make a stand against the creeping corporatization of his church’s culture. Bishops are terrified of letting parish’s slip (financial Armageddon is looming just around the corner): the only solution seems to be to import ideas, structures assumptions from the business world1. Key Performance Indicators, Professional Development Dashboard, SMART Targets, Accountability Reviews. The bishops will now closely supervise, they will micromanage, and, whenever people are micromanaged mendacity will be the result: “look at how every indicator in my parish in up-lifting into the black, bishop!”
And yet corporatization is no guarantor of success or longevity: in the 1920s the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of US companies was 67 years. Today it is 15 years. According Richard Foster of Yale University, by 2020 75% of the S&P 500 index will no longer be in existence.
As a Church what lessons do we have to learn from business?
Anything other than how to fail faster?
As a Church what lesson do we have to learn from the military?
Anything other than how to protect the generals better?
- because we all know how successful those are! [↩]