THE SEVEN RED LINES THAT MATTERby Andy Weddington
Thursday, 03 April 2014
"No duty the executive had to perform was so trying as to put the right man in the right place." Thomas Jefferson
There's a day most every young Marine envisions Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps (HQMC), that revered place in Washington, D.C., to be something beyond wondrous. That is, a mysterious directorate staffed by all-knowing water-walking Marines - who do not make mistakes and work flows as if emitting from the gods.
After the first few days in Manpower into a three-year assignment, long ago, that dreamy mental mode was shattered for me.
Reality is HQMC is like any other duty station; almost. That is, good, capable Marines work hard to do the right things for the right reasons to make a difference for the greater good. But efforts are a constant battle because right things and right reasons in one arena do not necessarily interlock with the right things and right reasons elsewhere. And frankly, more problematic, nor with some fiefdoms and agendas.
From that HQMC experience came the logical deduction there is no wondrous place of work - especially in Washington, D.C. And that is truth. Not in the White House, Pentagon, Supreme Court - not anywhere.
Robert M. Gates, our 22nd Secretary of Defense (2006-2011), just confirmed that deduction, yet again, in his book 'Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War'. The Pentagon is not (the perceived) Oz.
A book review is not the order of business here but some focused comment warranted.
Foremost, Mr. Gates, a longtime public servant, presented his case for doing what he believed right for the right reasons for the greater good - regardless of the president. Though the scale slightly loftier, his challenges and frustrations (particularly battling entrenched fiefdoms and agendas) paralleled those of any HQMC action officer.
To his credit, Secretary Gates won, rightfully, his share of bureaucratic battles - that mattered on battlefields.
As to waging war, he said...
"We have learned through painful experience that the wars we fight are seldom the wars that we planned. As a result, the United States needs a broad portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict."
No argument. But answer(s) not easy. For no one knows where the next battlefield. No one. Warfighting think tanks, no matter how experienced and brilliant the minds, are better viewed as guess tanks. They enjoy the accuracy of ball gazers and palm and tarot card readers.
What struck me while reading, and thinking about national defense (and protecting others), is that no other creature deliberately postures itself to be weak - survival demands otherwise. To cower means one thing - to become a meal. And inevitably extinction.
Humans are complex and peculiar creatures - the only creature to contemplate its own death. And plan, deliberately or not, death, too. For all the good our cortex it's likely our doom.
With that sunny thought still rumbling around in my mind, from Mr. Gates came...
"...secretaries of defense are expendable, but presidents are not."
He made that comment in regard to recommending against President Obama visiting a FOB (Forward Operating Base), because of risk, during a trip to Afghanistan.
Is Mr. Gates correct?
Are not presidents expendable?
Of course they are. They have to be, presidents are human. And that's why there is succession to the presidency.
Leadership entails risk.
It is countries, at least in some cases, that are not expendable - especially so the United States. Imagine the global chaos were America, even a gimpy Uncle Sam, not on celestial and salt water patrol.
Which led me to mulling over President Obama's propensity for drawing hasty red lines.
What is he thinking?
The president, any president, need not draw red lines.
Already, there are seven red lines drawn (along with six white lines and an array of fifty white stars on a blue field) that matter - that make for one imposing red line.
Our flag is the red line. Show it! Stow the metaphorical red marker and rhetoric, Mr. President, and simply point to your lapel pin. And make damn sure you have the means e.g., economic; military; etc., to back it up.
The Seven Red Lines That Matter
flag lapel pin (mine, not the president's)
flag lapel pin (mine, not the president's)
Foretell friend and foe - America offers, with right hand, a firm handshake, face slap, karate chop, or a fist. Take your pick. But know one or the other assured.
So back to Mr. Gates, Secretary at War...
He turned to Iraq at length but his comment in closing - that he, et al., had no idea as to the complexity of Afghanistan, the tribes and ethnic groups; power brokers; village and provincial rivalries - was stunning.
With broad experience in government service, including CIA, why did he not know? How could he not know? And, did he, nor anyone else (in either the Bush or Obama administrations), not read Peter Hopkirk's 'The Great Game' - a solid starting point for a comprehensive nonfiction history of that troubled part of the world? (Note: A book that should be read by all elected and appointed to office and by everyone in uniform.)
Strange. No mention of Hopkirk.
Anyway, I remembered another Robert (Fulghum) wrote a bestselling book some 28 years ago. Now, with the Gates book behind me and better understanding the public servant, I suspect he did read 'All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.'
Because, 'play fair; don't hit people; put things back where you found them; clean up your own mess; say you're sorry when you hurt somebody; when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together' - among other basic lessons of civility, are a stream throughout his book and in line with his way of leading.
Fact is there is not too much that differs, between kindergarteners and politicians and appointees, as to the lessons for how to live. Mostly what comes to mind is the latter use the 'f word' with more frequency. And the elder drink more alcohol where they'd be better served following the lead of the youngsters enjoying warm cookies and cold milk and taking an afternoon nap.
Whatever anyone's disagreements about policy and personnel and criticisms thereof, Mr. Gates - who tirelessly served two presidents and fought two wars, and more, during his entire tenure - cared. He understood the seven red lines that matter. He was an effective secretary of defense.
His driving force?
Rather, allegiance to country and dogged commitment to the men and women (and their families) who volunteer(ed) and sacrifice(ed) to protect and defend country.
Mr. Gates, priorities straight, is a patriot and merits our country's respect and gratitude.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Recommend the Gates book. Easy to read. Hard to put down. And offers insight aplenty. Though he shared some fall-from-grace stories - gentlemanly, the salacious ones he did not. It's his book.
Recommend Fulghum's by-no-means-outdated book - a breath of fresh air with application to daily living, and leadership; all levels, all arenas.