Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Problem of Centralization

Max Boot - Los Angeles Times: "Among the more surrealistic moments of my travels was pausing at a base near Baqubah - a far-from-pacified Iraqi city that was Abu Musab Zarqawi's last base of operations - to enjoy a fresh-brewed iced latte at a Green Beans coffee shop. It hit the spot, but when I later told a Marine captain about the experience, he took away some of my enjoyment by asking, 'I wonder how many men had to die to get those coffee beans to Baqubah?'.... Most of our resources aren't going to fight terrorists but to maintain a smattering of mini-Americas in the Middle East. As one Special Forces officer pungently put it to me: "The only function that thousands of people are performing out here is to turn food into [excrement]."

I have never read anything by Max Boot before. I read the article above because it was included as part of the opinion section of the Army's Early Bird news. Sometimes I am amazed when the Army includes some of the truth in the news it provides in that service. Whatever may or may not be wrong with Boot and his neoconservatism he was right on the mark with this article.

Now his purpose in making these observations is vastly different than the conclusions I will draw from them. I will merely use the facts he presents to highlight a larger problem. The picture that Boot paints is of a military machine that is centralized, non-adaptive and heavily reliant on doing what it is good at. In this case that is building a large organizational structure with enormous logistical trains and well organized bases. Essentially the military is doing nothing more in Iraq than painting rocks.

During my last tour in Iraq I became convinced that that the last sentence quoted above was aboslutley correct. My team would roll into various FOB's and see all sorts of silly nonsense and people that served no purpose but to just breathe air. Of the 130 thousand or so coalition troops (mostly American) 70-90% of them did (and do) nothing to actually take the fight to the enemy. The differential in the 70-90% mark depends upon just how much weight and utility one attaches to staff sections at the division level and below. There is a lot of duplicitous effort there, personally I would place the effective number at 20%; that being nothing more than 26,000 troops actually outside the wire really making a difference.

Now, if the cause was just, the political will in place and if the military was really capable of transformation I am convinced that if I were in charge I could win the fight in Iraq. Heck, I would not even need anything more than the 130 thousand troops already on the ground. Of course there are two caveats to that. First, of those 130 thousand troops very few of them would be drinking lattes or eating Burger King inside concetina wired FOB's, they would be trigger pullers, engineers and civil affairs types out working in the country - outside the wire. Second, if I were to win that fight the outcome would look very different than what the neoconservatives have in mind as the ideal victory. But enough of that, my point is something different entirely.

What I took from Boot's observation is a microcosmic statement of all that is really wrong with centralization in the first place. Centralization breeds inefficiency, the greater the centralization the greater the inefficiency. Centralizers simply refuse to admit this. Sure it is easier to buy in bulk if you standardize your supply chain. It is easier to move equipment that is standardized. Reports make more sense at higher levels when the data collected is exactly the same and conceivably it is possible to standardize training across an organization to develop like individuals across the spectrum of a large organization.

The problem with all of this centralization is that is it truly is the antithesis of the natural human state. Sure we are social creatures; we enjoy belonging to a group. When that group becomes to large the constraints on individuality become too great.

In the case of the Army as a microcosm of what is wrong with centralization and standardization the Army's own Strategic Studies Institute published a study by Dr. Leonard Wong in 2000 that highlighted several critical data points. For all of the investment in time and resources devoted to scientific management systems and information technology the Army has lost something significant, that being primarily the capacity to develop innovative leaders. Many of the young captains serving today will advance in rank to become highly ineffective generals. In 2004 Wong published another article that dealt with the dilemma that the Army faces with many of these captains that have gone to war, operated independently to a large degree and exercises innovation because they had to and then return to an Army that stifles them and shuts them down.

There are two things relevant I think to take from Wong's 2000 article. First, his discussion of the Millennial generation is telling. He describes them as a generation that has been raised to do what they are told and accept authority. He uses the example of school uniforms and other changes in the public education system as causes of this. I accept his observation of the generation of youngsters that have and will come of age on or around the turn of the century. I am also very concerned that possibly their acceptance to authority and love of state is not accidental. The government has very possibly grew a generation of drones, incapable and unwilling to resist the final assault on liberty here at home.

Second, Wong reinforces my position that centralization is simply bad when taken too far. Standardization in many areas is ok, it is efficient. Standardization and centralization across the board is inefficient and ineffective. Wong makes as strong case for that equation in his disection of the Army.

This also applies to everything the Federal government does; education, law enforcement, social systems, disaster relief etc, etc. This is why it is important to allow for things like states' rights. This is why the North American Union is a bad idea; it is why the UN is worthless. Consolidation and centralization lead to mediocrity. In Iraq the legions of the empire busy themselves 'painting rocks' because that is what they are good at, that is what centralization has reduced them too. Do we really need any more centralization in the rest of our lives?

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