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.
I’ve been blogging here at jeffreytharp.com for almost three years now. For all my other ranting and raving, the single most searched for and commented on posts were consistently focused on the 2011 Army hiring freeze. Some version of “hiring freeze” has been in the top spot for searches that bring people to the blog. Now, I love web traffic as much as any blogger, but honestly, I hoped that was a topical area that I’d be able to leave dead and buried. The hiring freeze that trapped me two years ago is long gone, but it’s been replaced by a newer, broader, and seemingly more permanent version. That doesn’t bode well for the average person working the line in an organization that has always sung the praises of personal mobility as a means to progress to reaching bigger and better opportunities.
In a world where a one-half-of-one-percent raise is a political football, the future does not look like a particularly bright, shiny place. Throw in what looks like a cross between budgetary indecision and panic at the most senior levels of leadership, the knowledge that the worse of the cuts aren’t yet here, and that there’s now open talk of across-the-board furloughs and reductions in force for the first time in a generation, and well, you’ve got yourself a workforce that shows up every day wondering when the other shoe is going to hurtle out of the sky like a dying communications satellite.
Even if the budget situation is resolved without what feels like almost inevitable bloodletting, it’s already taken its toll. Not backfilling empty positions, piling more work on those who remain, holding salaries flat as the price of everything else increases, and repeatedly telling everyone that the worst is yet to come isn’t a recipe for getting the most out of a workforce. In this one case, my hat’s off to management for trying their best to moderate the worst of the outside forces that impact all of us… but when your fates all hang on the ability of politicians to get things done in a smart and timely manner, well, you can understand my not being particularly optimistic about what the future holds.
That’s my view from my fighting position, anyway. So let’s all cross out fingers and hope that someone proves me wrong.
One of the great old saws about the Army is that it trains as it fights. That is to say that in theory, the Army likes it’s training to approximate real world environments. That helps explain why we dump million of dollars into out of the way places like Ft. Polk, Louisiana and Ft. Irwin, California. They’re some of the last places in the country where large groups of men and equipment can careen across the wilderness unhampered by complaints by decent taxpaying citizens.
I’m not sure this training ethos holds true for Uncle’s vast army of civilian employees. I’ve spent the better part of today sitting in an auditorium with 200-odd colleagues watching as a contractor navigated around the interweb teaching us how to do file management, set permissions, and covering the importance of information sharing and security. The next two days promise more of the same. This probably doesn’t qualify as training as we fight. Then again, looking around at the blank stares and acres of trees sacrificed to make PowerPoint printouts, maybe it is.
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
I’ve had nine months to think about what this post would look like, but surprisingly it’s not one that I started working on in advance. Now that the day of jubilee has arrived, I find myself at something of a loss for words. How do I sum up the experience that has been finding my eject handle? Is it defined by the statistics? 273 days on the hunt. 91 days of frozen time. 385 resumes submitted. Sometimes I felt like I could count off the hours of each one of those days. Almost a year of complete confidence tempered by false starts and rejections. And then moments of unadulterated joy. Whatever the moment is, it’s not defined by the statistics.
I’m feeling very conscious of those who made the jump before I have. Of how much I miss them and how much I’ll miss a few of those I’ll leave behind. I’m conscious now more than ever of home, of family, and of friends from whom I’ve been too long separated. They say you can’t go home again. I’ve been away long enough to know that everything has changed – and that nothing that matters has really changed. I’m coming home and I’ll take it as I find it, changes and all.
There is plenty of time to go into specifics later. For now, let it suffice to know that tonight I will sleep the sleep of the vindicated. My great experiment in Memphis is drawing to an end. I’ve survived my ride on the crazy train. And I’m coming home.
When I sat down to write, I thought this post would be a valedictory. It seems my nerves are still too raw for that kind of triumphalism. Give me a day or two for the reality to sink in, though, and it’s a fair bet that you’ll be reading posts with some serious swagger.