In the Arena

Lessons of the Post-9/11 Military

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Earlier this week, I attended the retirement ceremony of General David Petraeus at Fort Meyer. It was a landmark moment, the closing of a chapter–the decade after 9/11. I’ve written about the transformation of the U.S. Military at length, including a column about Petraeus’ intellectual impact on the Army and a cover story about how counterinsurgency warfare has, if nothing else, produced a generation of officers with public service skills that may have a major impact on our society. Fred Kaplan, smart as always, has a very clear and concise piece about the Army’s transformation here.

I should make one thing clear, yet again: my–and Fred’s–respect for the Army’s transformation should not be construed as support for the wars our military has been sent to fight in the past decade. Iraq, in particular, seems a barely mitigated disaster; and Afghanistan, a game that wasn’t quite worth the candle. Furthermore, the results of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy are mixed, at best.

But there are important lessons to be learned from the Army’s metamorphosis from a vast, thudding bureaucracy into a smarter, more agile “learning organization” that values creativity among its officers. What Petraeus, in particular, accomplished in transforming the way soldiers are trained–and the emphasis he placed on continuing education for all, especially in critical thinking–should be studied and applied by other large bureaucracies.

Indeed, the military has created a social service model that those of us who are not Tea-mongers can only admire: universal health care, excellent schools for the children of service-members, strong support for continuing education (both in and out of the military–Petraeus has often said he’d never have gotten his Princeton PhD if the Army hadn’t paid for it) and a hierarchical structure that emphasizes economic equity. (The homes of the highest army executives, like Petraeus’s at Fort Meyer, are the sort of thing that ¬†middle managers in the private sector would live in.) There is a spirit of community in the U.S. military that no longer exists in the rest of society.

Of course, there are responsibilities that come with these benefits: you have to agree to risk your life and limb for your country; you have to agree to follow the rules; you lose significant freedoms–like wearing the clothes of your choice and, in war zones, the right to consume alcohol; you are required to be physically fit and are constantly tested on your physical, technical and mental skills. You have no continuing “right” ¬†to remain in the military. Indeed, if you’re an officer and aren’t promoted within a certain window, you have to leave, in many cases.

The two sides of the bargain, benefits and responsibilities, are inseparable in the military. The responsibilities are not replicable in civilian society; the benefits are replicable, but they can promote lethargy, a sense of entitlement (and large budget deficits) without the physical and moral discipline, and competence, required by the military. That’s one important lesson we can learn from the armed forces: the necessity of reciprocal responsibility. There are others. But, for me, the most hopeful lesson of the past decade is this: even the oldest, most hidebound, most bureaucratic institutions in our society can transform themselves in profound ways–if they’re smart about how they do it.