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.