I went to work as a very small cog in our uncle’s great green machine in January 2003. America’s war in Afghanistan was already more than a year old by then. I worked every day from then until now as part of an organization “at war,” even if the rest of the country wasn’t. Even on days when it didn’t seem to be, Afghanistan was always in the background of everything.
I’m not a grand strategist and don’t intend to pass myself off as anything other than someone who has done some reading and existed, tangentially, on the far extremity of the fight for the last two decades. There are too many people whose real world experience and voices should be rightly amplified as we come to terms with the debacle that ends our benighted involvement in Afghanistan.
Having grown up seeing the grainy images of the fall of Saigon – taken three years before I was born – I never imagined I’d see an echo of that moment played out live on the weekend news. How we could so badly bungle this “final act” of the long war, how we could have squandered so much blood and treasure, and how it went to shit so very quickly can and should haunt this generation of bureaucrats, soldiers, and statesmen as an example of what happens when we get it exactly wrong.
These last couple of days have got me feeling some kind of way. I don’t recommend it.
1. Tucker Carlson. Tucker staked out a patently absurd position on his Fox evening entertainment program last week. I know, I know. I should be more specific because most of his positions come across somewhere on the absurdity spectrum. I know it was absurd because some of the most serious thinkers in DoD responded more or less instantly to rebut Tucker’s asshattery. They’re not generally people who feel compelled to stake out public positions, except in this case, ol’ Tuck decided to opine about things that are, by definition, these particular leader’s area of expertise. No one “attacked” Tucker. They simply had the audacity to tell him that he’s a moron and explain why that’s the case. No one violated the damned Hatch Act. Having a professional opinion doesn’t undermine civilian control of the military. Differing opinions are only dangerous when you’re so thin skinned or your position is so badly placed that you can’t defend it rationally. In this case, it seems Tuck and his supporters fall into both categories. As usual, the “leading lights” of right wing kook media have left me embarrassed to be an actual, practicing conservative.
2. Higher taxes. They say Joe is working on a new tax bill and it’s likely to be the largest tax increase since 1993. I see lots of people saying they don’t mind paying more taxes. Good on them. With or without a higher tax rate imposed by the government, they’re free to send as big a check as they want over to the treasury. They can do that. No one would stop them. But it seems what people mean when they say they don’t mind paying more tax is they don’t mind so you should pay more too. “But,” they’ll argue, “it only applies to people who make more than $400,000 a year – the ‘absurdly rich.’” Right, I think, because every tax that ever was started out as a tax on “just the wealthy” until our political machine needed a few more dollars over time and the “absurdly wealthy” became most every working sucker in the country. So, please, write as big a check to Uncle as you’d like. Feel free to give of your own income until it hurts. That’s your right and privilege. I’ll be over here fighting tooth and nail to keep every penny I’ve earned and distribute it how I see fit.
3. I spent today doing exactly the same things that I did yesterday. I answered emails, entered information in a fancy database, and generally moved electrons around from Point A to Point B as needed. The only difference between today and yesterday was where I was physically sitting when I did those things. Yesterday I was parked in the sun room with two dogs snoring in the background and today I was in my designated cube with seven or eight conversations humming in the background. Plus, today added an extra 80 minutes to the day since I had to drive to my cube and back to do exactly the same things I did yesterday from the comfort of my home office. “But we need to have a presence in the building,” is the most patently farcical reason I can think of to justify the construction, maintenance, and daily running cost associated with a modern office building. The argument against remote working forever is effectively that we need to have people in a special geographic spot because we happen to have a special geographic spot. As far as I can tell it has absolutely nothing to do with productivity or whether the work in any way depends on unique geographic positioning.
I’ve spent the last year living with the ghost of George C. Marshall in the form of Forrest Pogue’s 4 four-part biography. I’ve read a lot of dense history on a host of obscure topics over the years, but this was likely some of the hardest reading I’ve done since diving into the rich esoterica of imperial Russian history about 20 years ago when I thought history was going to be a legitimate way to make a living. There are a dozen respectable biographies of Marshall that would have been far more accessible, but Pogue’s was a master class that truly offered a “one over the world” view.
Weighing in at 1,882 pages taking up a third of a shelf, I don’t supposed you dive in to this biography unless you have more than a casual interest. I picked it up, set it down, let weeks pass between volumes, and faced names, places, and events that sent me down dozes of separate rabbit holes of additional research and reading. I should be happy that I managed to get through it in 1/24th the time it took Pogue to write and publish the set in the first place. The thing really is a monument to the historian’s art.
I walked away from my experience with the general a little sad that he’s been so constatly overshadowed in popular memory of the war years by more glamorous subordinates – Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur even now 70 years later are names recognized by the average household. Outside of those who study the Army, a few professional historians and soldiers, Marshall fades into the background. It’s a shame, though it strikes me as what the man himself would have probably wanted.
So what am I left with after spending a year with General Marshall? Aside from a really great looking bookshelf trophy, I’m left with the determined opinion that George C. Marshall was only the second truly indispensable man in the history of the republic.
PowerPoint is a tool of the devil. This is apparently obvious to the casual observer after a long week of slogging through slides changing “happy” to “glad” and making sure that every bullet is lined up within +/- one micron. Apparently there’s nothing that makes a senior manager feistier than an ever-so-slightly misaligned bullet. Better for key content to be left out than to risk it violating the sanctity of the holy format. I’ve been doing this a long time now and I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the hours of obsession that some men can pour into finessing their slides so they’re juuuusssssssst right. I remember reading somewhere that perfect is the enemy of the good. In an imperfect world, I’ve always been happy when I find myself in the neighborhood of good. Apparently that is a very lonesome neighborhood.
I like to think that if we lived in some bizarro universe and I were a senior leader, I’d be more concerned with the content over how it happens to be displayed as long as it was in some semblance of logical order. Then again, maybe that’s the part of the brain you give up upon being elevated to echelons above reality. There’s not much chance of my ever finding out for myself, so I’m left once again to ponder the importance of issues of style over substance.
I’m reminded of the Army colonel who was relieved because of this epic rant against PowerPoint. As it turns out, the Army would probably have been better served to promote the guy rather than tossing him out.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.
1. Superfluous email. I’ve been keeping a rough track of emails I receive – specifically those in my inbox at the start of the day or after I’ve been away from my desk for a few hours. Though not purely scientific, I’ve found that only one out of every four emails is something I actually need to see. One in six are messages resulting in my needing to actually do something. Might I recommend not cc-ing everyone who you’ve ever tangentially met on your email messages? If feels like it would save us all hours every year of time we currently spend reading and then deleting email that has absolutely nothing to do with us.
2. Being a watched pot. I’ve got the assignment. I’ve told you when I’ll have it finished. I’ve gotten awfully good at estimating things like this over the last fourteen years. What I don’t need you to do is call and email me every 7 minutes asking if it’s finished. All that serves to do is 1) annoy me and 2) slow down the process making final delivery later than it would be otherwise. I do good work and good work takes time. Believe me when I tell you know one wants a project off my desk more than I do.
3. Syria. Two or three years ago, I actively advocated for putting American troops in harm’s way to try to bring order to that chaos. The Syrian war in 2017 is a far cry from what it was in 2015, though. Back then there was still a fighting chance for the sides opposing Assad to win the day without the direct assistance of an overwhelming number of American and allied personnel. Back then a nudge – in the form of material support and “advisory” personnel – could have made the difference and toppled a tyrant who was busy killing his own populace. The battlespace has changed and it increasingly looking like Syrian government forces will be the “last man standing” after a long and bloody fight. Landing American troops, on a mission with no clear objective and even less prospect of an exit strategy, would be a mistake – and those calling loudest for it today would be among the very first to denounce it as “Mr. Trump’s War” and a “foreign policy disaster” when the butcher’s bill came due.
1. Fall foliage. I live in the woods… but not the deep woods. That’s a plan for the future. After a couple of days of wind and rain I’m reminded that I have neighbors. For the first time since mid-May I’m starting to see them again. Well, not “them” exactly, but certainly their houses. I’m deeply happy with my little plot of land, but at this time of year I’d be ok with another hundred yards – or maybe a few more miles – of trees between me and the next guy.
2. Rain is the new snow. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve seen any rain to speak of. I know it must be a frightening and unnatural experience for everyone. I know this because for the last two days everyone has driven like there was eight inches of new-fallen snow on the roads. If nothing else, it has served to reinforce my long-held belief that most people are idiots. As usual, though, it’s probably all my fault for having even the lowest of expectations of my the average man on the street.
3. Draftees. As the American Army, the most decisive fighting force ever fielded in history, is drawing itself down to the pre-World War II levels, the Russian president is drafting an extra 150,000 of his citizens into military service. Let that sink in for a minute. In terms of troops in active service, that will put Russia within spitting distance of parity in manpower. Figure in their increased pace of modernization and the simple fact that they don’t have to move their personnel across an ocean to get at many of the world’s current “areas of interest,” and in my humble opinion, this brave new world of our is going to look very familiar… almost like the one we left in the early 1990s. Talk about back to the future.
I grew up in a part of Maryland where it’s possible to stand in one spot and see well into both Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Inter-state rivalries were common and a “mixed” relationship could easily mean one part of a couple was a WVU fan and one cheered for UMD. Most people are (reasonably) good natured about it.
While I was home, though, I saw something I couldn’t bring myself to reconcile – Flying side by side from someone’s shed were the West Virginia state flag and the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (or what the internet is determined to call the “Confederate Flag”).
I don’t mind state pride (even though this individual was flying the WV flag over the sovereign soil of the great state of Maryland). Flying the battle flag doesn’t bother me (even thought, again, we happened to be standing in a part of the country that was never even tangentially represented by that flag). What annoyed me to no end, of course, was that the West Virginia flag and any flag representing forces of the Confederate States of America are, historically speaking, mutually exclusive. They’re so mutually exclusive that the entire state of West Virginia was created in order to make that fact absolutely clear to everyone who may have been confused.
The voice in my head who just wants everyone to have some semblance of logic supporting what they do urged me in the strongest possible way to pull over just to ask the guy in the driveway what, exactly, was the point he thought he was making. The other part of my brain, the one given over to self preservation and not wanting to get my ass kicked by a redneck yokel told me to just keep moving… so I did… but I’m dying to know what kind of tortured logic is banging around that guy’s head.
1. Drink your Ovaltine. I had a meeting last week. That’s not unusual in that the bulk of my professional life is spent getting ready for, attending, or recovering from meetings. This one was special though, because we had a 4-star general spend twenty minutes telling us to eat right, exercise, and get eight hours of sleep a night. A full general. Eat your veggies and get lots of sleep. I have a hard time imagining Eisenhower or MacArthur or Patton spending so much time ensuring their people enjoyed a nice kale salad and got tucked in at night. So do me a favor out there and remember to drink your Ovaltine so you can grow up big and strong.
2. Our big thing. Our grandparents went from riding horses to riding rockets. Our parents built the internet. So far what our generation has done is develop faster and faster methods of sharing pictures of cats with everyone you’ve ever known. No cure for cancer. No flying cars. Just incremental improvements on stuff that’s been around since we were kids. Where’s our big thing? What is it we’re supposed to be doing to leave our mark on the world? I’m as clueless as everyone else I guess, but someone needs to figure this mess out and get working on it.
3. Only when it’s convenient. There are a slew of stories in the press this week about the meteoric rise in Baltimore’s murder rate this month. An AP story weeps that “Now West Baltimore residents worry they’ve been abandoned by the officers they once accused of harassing them.” Well shut my mouth. You treated officers like dirt, sued, and badmouthed them at every turn and suddenly the community is surprised to learn the blue line between civilization and chaos is a little more thin than they realized. I appreciate their efforts to have it both ways – to have a deep and active police presence banging heads and taking down criminals but not the “low level” criminals who are “members of the community.” Sorry folks, it’s a binary system. The law is the law – felonies or civil violations – and when you break that law you recognize that there could be consequences for your actions. For decades parts of Baltimore thought they’d be better off without law and order. Well gang, next time let’s go ahead and remember to be careful what we ask for… because unintended consequences can be a real mother.
One of the many skills I’ve learned as part of Uncle Sam’s bloated civilian workforce is the gift of reading my audience – how interested they are in what I’m saying or whether the question I want to ask is appropriate for the setting. Some people have apparently not learned that lesson, which is how you end up in an auditorium without an empty seat in the house listening to someone awkwardly accusing the General Officer corps of being inept, slow to change, and out of tune with the realities of the war around them. Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of asshats wearing stars on their shoulders, but the guy on stage doesn’t happen to be one of them. I actually have to admit he carried himself with far more patience and class than I would have under the same circumstances, but that’s not the point.
The point, dear friends, is that when you have 1000+ people in an auditorium laughing at you, an Assistant Secretary of the Army laughing at you, and a 4-star general looking at you with a mixture of pity and contempt, it’s probably best to go ahead and sit down. What you shouldn’t do is rattle on for another three minutes while reading your prepared, yet incomprehensible, statement/question while everyone else in the room stares at you in utter disbelief. It’s a good bet that someone is still the the bowels of the building getting himself a wall to wall counseling session… and probably wondering what he did to deserve it.
The thing to remember is malcontentery, like comedy, is all about timing. Clearly some people just don’t have it and should probably remember that before opening their mouths in public.