Many of us who deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq found ourselves learning important lessons on the ground, adapting to situations our training couldn’t have anticipated, and teaching new knowledge to others within our organization in any way we could–because what we learned, often through hard lessons, made us more effective at accomplishing our mission. But. Our organizations weren’t always receptive to our learning and adaptation.
I’ve personally found that even if the lessons we junior officers and NCOs learn on the ground are reflected in the directives coming from high-level commanders, it often seemed that mid-level commanders had full discretion on whether those lessons–which many of us knew as pathways to avoiding problems and achieving success–would be treated seriously or not. Maybe it was because these middle-aged commanders were steeped in an age that trained against a different enemy, a war for different times. Maybe they were too disconnected from what their junior troops were experiencing and learning on the ground. Maybe they were too proud to accept that the men and women serving under them might understand how to achieve mission success better than they do. Or maybe they were too risk-averse to give credence to anything new or unfamiliar. Whatever the case, our military organizations too often resist needed change and adaptation.
Add to this that our corps of junior officers and NCOs are the best educated and likely the most talented we’ve seen in our nation’s military history, yet too often their ability to contribute their knowledge and talent is starkly limited by their rank and a byzantine personnel management system that offers no opportunities for merit-based progression. Plus any number of areas in which our nation’s largest institution has lagged, atrophied, or become unwieldy or less effective. Is our military developing and keeping its best talent? Is it fully absorbing the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq to position itself for the unknowns of future conflicts? For all that we are spending on defense, are our military personnel fully empowered to deliver the quality of national defense needed to keep our nation and allies safe and strong?
Our military strength matters, and, like any other part of our government, it is only as good as the sincerity and creativity of the efforts we invest in it. When I first read about the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum in Thomas Ricks’s blog on Foreign Policy earlier this year, I was encouraged that others were coming together to put some serious thought and energy towards working within the system to make our military better. When a contact suggested that I attend the DEF Conference in Chicago–I realized that I couldn’t miss an opportunity to channel my frustrations toward something that may have profound, positive results.
What happens when you gather together military leaders, veterans, and defense professionals (of diverse political persuasions) who are passionate about making our military stronger and more effective? You have amazing ideas, an array of potential solutions, and enough “grit” to ensure that positive change will result. The conference is happening this weekend (October 12-14), and you can tune in live (or watch recorded sessions) by clicking HERE and following along on Twitter using the hashtag #DEF2013. Join us!