“No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu


As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and this group has an on-going concern: relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

“To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

“The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

This is cross-posted at Zenpundit.


4 Responses to ““No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu”

  1. Teresa Strub Molina says:

    I have difficulty knowing where to start on this topic. I am not military nor do I pretend to be an authority on the military. However, I am an authority on human behavior and the strongest impression I carry away from this post is that here the military is a microcosm of our society as a whole. We see it everyday, in our public schools, our politicians, news broadcasters (they like to call themselves journalists) and even in our friends and families. We as a people have become lazy. We no longer invest in real education. Instead, in public schools we settle for passing grades in basic literacy and in institutions of higher learning, political indoctrination and job training are accepted as an education. Our politicians no longer even make an effort to conceal their contempt for their constituents because there is no need. Our Senate has not passed, or even voted on, a budget in three years and they know full well that most Americans don’t know or don’t care. The estate that we have historically relied upon to have our backs and tell us what we need to know even when we don’t want to hear it has abandoned their responsibility to indulge their personal emotions. I submit that few readers do exist with ‘the mind and the will.’ Further I disagree with the author of this post when he refers to posts on Zenpundit as evidence that “a lot of young guys ‘get it’ and want more.” I fear that those posts are evidence only of the remaining minority who are still intellectually hungry for nourishment that their culture at large can no longer provide. I could write thousands of words on the factors that I believe have contributed to this intellectual famine but the more important issue is that too many people are content with the new normal. Our military may be wasting from neglect but it may not be long before it doesn’t matter because there won’t be much left worth protecting.

  2. Hi Teresa,

    Many thanks! I wrote the post, there is a cohort of young, veteran officers who are, indeed, rumbling and kicking about.

    Your comments are well spoken, and sadly spot-on.

    That said, I have some hope these young people will get the rudder over and begin to reverse the institutional closed-mindedness of DoD.

  3. I’ve always considered the U.S. military to be the abiding repository of American values and knowledge.
    If this is not the case, then I don’t know where to turn. In 1995 I attended college as a 50 year old freshman. I was disheartened by the general ignorance of my fellow classmates then. I’ve since become a grandfather and, today, I find the teaching standards have become worse. My 15 year old granddaughter (An Honor Society Member)
    recently told me that she had no idea just where Antarctica was located! How can a 15 year old young adult NOT know that bit of information? She was never taught it … she’d had a rudimentary education in geography and
    her curiosity was never piqued. How many other topics are being given short schrift nowadays.
    Administrators seem all too eager to stupidly enforce rules about toy soldiers and forbidding dodge ball, while allowing academic standards whither away.
    I can go on but if I continue to think about this I’ll work myself into another heart attack.

  4. Hi Mr. Welsh,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Your comment taps into my concerns as well. You ask, “How many other topics are being given short schrift nowadays?”—in mu estimation: too many. For all the talk about revolutionizing education, by and large, we’ve removed the rigor and replaced it with a path of least resistance approach—which will work for a few folks, but by and large fail among the masses.

    Don’t want you to have another heart attack, but I’ve a follow-up post that explores the implications of pretending.

    Very best regards,