All posts by alicemg2013

“Inside the Five-Sided Box – Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon” by Ash Carter, PART 2. Reflections, and a RANT.

Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon

I spent so long reading this book (5 weeks?) that I forgot my INITIAL reaction… I was browsing around, uncertain if this was a “start at the beginning and read every page” book for me. I ran into something that almost caused me to throw the book across the room.

I turned to the last chapter, entitled “The Troops Deserve the Truth”, and turned to the next to last section, “Addressing the Consequences”. Carter describes his heart rending visits to injured soldiers, and ends with this:

The head of medicine at BAMC (Brooke Army Medical Center) once told me that when he first arrived…he would try to provice precise answers to questions like, “Will I be able to run again?…to hunt?…to surf?” But now, he told me, he’d witnessed so many instances of fearless courage and odds-defying recoveries that he’s simple answer, “You will if you want to.”

This makes me furious. If an injured person doesn’t heal, does that mean he or she didn’t want it enough? Really? Would you have said this to FDR?

Stricken by polio is 1921, the 32nd President of the United States had every advantage in his battle to walk again – strength, (overall) health, the best available medical care and rehabilitation, determination, and, yes, hope. But he didn’t walk.

My frame of reference on this terrible subject is based on personal experience with brain injury. I watched a family member claw his way back after a severe head injury. Recovery after a brain injury is never certain.

I’m all for positivity, both in patient and supporters, but reality can get in your way.

Today my Facebook feed, which was heavy on Veteran’s Day posts and links, brought me to an article in New York magazine about Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger injured in October of 2009, ten years ago. His life has been irreparably changed. His parents act as his full time caregivers. He has seizures and balance problems and suffers from disinhibition, which means his judgement is impaired. He has PTSD. He self medicates with alcohol and is emotionally unstable.

The official, widely publicized and well intentioned story of “slow, steady progress” has unraveled. Cory Remsburg is at high risk for suicide and dementia. He still cannot accomplish routine hygiene unassisted.

Is any of this because he “didn’t want to”? The fact that Cory Remsburg is hanging onto life, and regards himself as a “work in progress” is a great tribute to HIM. He deserves respect, and the dismissive remark about “wanting to” quoted above is unfair and unkind.

The rest of Ash Carter’s book seems to be thoughtful and nuanced, but I hope he doesn’t mean what he said on page 418.

End of RANT.

“Inside the Five-Sided Box – Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon” by Ash Carter

434 pages, published 2019. Includes notes and index.

Today is Veterans Day, a good time to think about the American armed forces, the Pentagon, and the military veterans among our friends and family.

Why did I choose this book from the recent arrivals shelf? And why did I keep reading, given its length and density?

  • First, I thought of it as an opportunity to understand war and militarism, facets of American life and culture which disturb me terribly. I am deeply opposed to war, and can only gain from understanding it better.
  • Second, I’m a citizen and a taxpayer, so the Pentagon acts in my name and spends my tax dollar. Again, I want to know what’s going on.
  • Finally, I’m curious about leadership. It’s a term so freely bandied about. Who is a good leader? How should leaders be selected? Trained? Deployed? I feel that I’ve witnessed and experienced both good and bad leadership, but sometimes I’m not sure who belongs in which category. I have only attempted leadership in very small settings…what’s it like in the major leagues?

As Secretary of Defense (2015 to 2017) under President Obama, Carter presided over the world’s largest organization, the United States of America Department of Defense. The Pentagon oversees both the armed forces and all the civilians that support them, and also provides advice to the President about all aspects of national security.

At Yale University, Carter studied physics and medieval history. The connection between physics and military science (in the nuclear age) is fairly obvious, but what about medieval history? Carter said he was simply following his own curiosity when he studied it, but he feels that it explains how Europe worked its way through the creation of “civilization”, finding ways so its population could live in relative comfort and order.

Carter is a clear and careful (and prolific) writer , and this is a thoughtful book. Carter divides leadership into two categories.

  • One, which he calls “reinforcement”, is finding the best in your underlings and supporting them with training, encouragement and responsibility.
  • The second, more challenging aspect is leading an organization in a new direction which is unfamiliar and unpopular. Consider the following:

Carter will be remembered as the Secretary of Defense who opened all military jobs to all service members, female as well as male.

  • First, he did his homework. He argues strenuously that his decision was based on data, research and the overwhelming importance military preparedness, NOT on political correctness or a desire for social experimentation.
  • He developed extensive plans for implementation of the new policy before it was announced, attempting to consider every possible problem and concern that could be raised.
  • He was open about the fact that the Marine Corps had wanted to maintain “male only” status for certain certain jobs, but asserted his larger responsibility to the President to chart the best possible course for the military.
  • Ultimately, his announcement was crafted and timed to minimize unproductive “second guessing”.

The process isn’t finished, but Carter set it onto a clear path.

Carter placed a high value on oral, written and media based communication, giving it an entire chapter in his book. He discusses “message” and “story” and the value of consistent repetition. He has used social media to communicate with American soldiers, and poses for selfies with soldiers in combat zones.

In his chapter about the defeat of ISIS, Carter uses a very obscure word, “deconfliction”. He uses it to describe our interactions with Russia during the fight against ISIS. Russia was not an ally, hence we were not “cooperating” with them. But both sides knew it was important to prevent accidental armed contact from leading to hostilities between the US and Russia. Hence, “deconfliction” provided patterns of unofficial communication to meet that goal. The word can be found at dictionary.com and its first reported use is listed as 1970. (Upon first reading, I thought Carter made it up!)

Carter makes clear the high value he places on diplomacy, including what he calls “coercive diplomacy”. It’s the “carrot and stick” approach, with high stakes. He feels that President Trump should have refused to meet the North Korean President Kim Jong-un until North Korea took very substantial, verifiable steps toward de-nuclearization. Kim Jong-un was “rewarded” without making any measurable change in support of American interests.  Carter recognizes the high value of symbolic gestures, like a visit from the President of the United States.

Speaking about current unstable geopolitical “hot spots”, Carter says the US will never invade and occupy Iran, as it would be ungovernable. He does not say the same about North Korea, though he states that war in the Korean peninsula would bring calamitous suffering to our South Korean allies.

This book is well worth reading. Even re-reading, but right now I’m looking for something lighter.

Death Cafe and reflections on attitude

I attended a Death Cafe at Stockton University last week, and was lucky enough to be seated with four students and another community member. Here are some thoughts…

Dear Students,

I was so happy join you at Stockton’s Death Café! Your willingness to do something different on a Friday afternoon warmed my heart. I feel worried, however, about some of the advice you were getting, namely all the messages about the importance of attitude and your ability to accomplish ANYTHING.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for determination, a good attitude and hard work. But how are you going to feel, ten years down the road, if things aren’t going so well? Are you going to blame…yourself? Not constructive, and IMHO, not correct.

Some barriers you will face are outside of your control. Some are institutional and deeply entrenched. Certain aspects of American life are getting worse, due to institutional changes. Consider the student loan system, coupled with the very rapid increase in the cost of higher education.

Here’s a book I recommend:

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

What about our discussion of death? I hope the freedom to talk about it helped you to feel less anxious. Life is full of mysteries, but we’re all in this together. I wish each of you a healthy life and a satisfying career!

The Synge Festival – Quintessence Theatre Group, October 2019

John Millington Synge.jpg

Last weekend I attended The Synge Festival at Quintessence Theatre Group. In one day, I saw all of John Millington Synge’s plays, with the exception of the unfinished Diedre of the Sorrows. Synge died at age 37, having published five plays and some poetry. Synge was so controversial that riots broke out after some early performances. In Philadelphia, authorities arrested actors and served an injunction against Playboy of the Western World in 1912, after Synge was dead.

Why was Synge controversial? Many of his characters are immoral or at least conniving, but Synge portrays them as comical and often sympathetic, not necessarily detestable. And Synge was wildly anti-clerical. His priests are clownish. Catholics and others found this offensive.

Synge’s best known work is Playboy of the Western World. It’s a sardonic comedy. The young farmer Christopher Mahon assaults his father and leaves him for dead. After more than a week on the run, he stops in a tavern, begging for shelter. The locals (especially the young women) are impressed and begin to compete for Christopher’s attention. Suddenly, his father turns up, unexpectedly alive, complicating the action. Soon father and son flee the outraged community.

The other plays were also comedy, except for Riders to the Sea, one of his first dramas. It is a snapshot of loss and grief, as if someone had told Synge to write the saddest play he could imagine. An old woman loses her last surviving son to the violent ocean. It’s a brief one-act play. Perhaps it would have engaged me more if we learned more about the characters, especially the sons.

Synge set his works in rural Ireland and wrote in an old fashioned rural northern Irish dialect which is almost incomprehensible to the modern, English speaking ear. The theatre program contained an extensive glossary of terms, but it’s helpful to follow a printed script if possible or to see each play more than once.

Synge loved the unrefined language of rural Ireland. In the theatre program he is quoted as follows:

When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen…I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.

Listening to Synge is a challenge, but, like listening to Shakespear, it’s well worth the effort.

QUINTESSENCE Theatre Group

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The Quintessence theatre Group operates in the lively Germantown section of Philadelphia. Their specialty is classical theatrical texts, which they define as works over one hundred years old. They are housed in the 90 year old Sedgewick Theatre, a giant art deco movie palace. The current performance space occupies only a small part of the sprawling building (there’s a warehouse to the rear). Architecturally, I’m glad at least part of the building can be maintained and used for entertainment purposes. The neighborhood provides convenient restaurants and bars (and a thrift shop). Check it out, friends! Live theater is such a treat! Accessible by SEPTA. Free parking.

“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth

This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.

The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.

Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.

Having just read  Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”.  East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.

The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.

Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.

In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.

This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.

“The Ice at the End of the World – An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future” by Jon Gertner, Part One

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

300 pages plus notes, sources, bibliography and index. Some photos and maps.

Part One (Explorations) of this excellent and highly readable book covers the years 1888 to 1931, when wanderlust and scientific curiosity led a handful of explorers to climb up onto the Greenland ice sheet. It was a land so little known that people fantasized about finding an ice free tropical oasis in the middle. Greenland had a small indigenous population that had been there fewer than 1000 years, and was visited by the occasional trader seeking furs and tusks. The first “explorer” was Fridtjof Nansen. Looking at his photo, you see either an intense intellect or a totally fanatic lunatic. Both those attributes were necessary in an explorer of the far arctic.

The indigenous Greenlanders lived around the edges of the island, successfully exploiting natural resources including those of the ocean. Others (outsiders) went there at their peril, learned from the indigenous residents only slowly, and often died, even if they stayed off the mighty ice sheet.

Part 1 of this book ends with the Wegener expedition of 1931. The intention was to establish a research base on the ice, in a central location. The project was dogged by misfortune and ended in the deaths of two scientists. Amazingly, data collected was used to estimate how much worldwide sea levels would rise if the Greenland ice sheet should melt entirely. The answer turned out to be remarkably close to what contemporary scientists now conclude – around 24 feet.

After 1931, the Great Depression and World War II shut down scientific exploration almost entirely, except for strategic military concerns.

Part 1 is the easy part. Part 2, entitled “Investigations”, covers the years 1949 to 2018. I expect this to be frightening. Much as I love science, I think it’s going to be difficult for me to read.