Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How the Other Half Lives

The ongoing soap opera involving retired general David Petraeus, his cuckolded wife Holly, his paramour Paula Broadbent, a second general named John Allen, a Miami socialite named Jill Kelley, a shirtless FBI agent, and a cast of dozens of sorry supporting actors has caught the morbid attention of a nation seeking distraction from the state of the economy and the noisy fallout of the presidential election. And that attention has not been entirely positive.

This article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe casts uncomfortable light on the lifestyles of senior military officers and - by extension - all those who occupy positions of great power and authority.  Take a minute to read it and then come back. I'll wait.

Here is a key excerpt from the article:

"... many of [the generals] work 18-hour days, six to seven days a week. They manage budgets that dwarf those of large multinational companies and are responsible for the lives of thousands of young men and women under their command."

That's a pretty significant responsibility.

Drawing on my experience of 23 years of military service and further 16 years as a contractor supporting military headquarters activities, I can tell you that the vast majority of senior officers, both men and women, are fine and decent persons who have earned their positions of authority and do not abuse them. This is not to say that they are all paragons of professional excellence worthy of emulation, just that most are good, honest, hardworking public servants who genuinely care about the nation they serve and the people they command.

This, of course, makes those who don't all the more reprehensible.

Another take on the issue comes from commentator Peggy Noonan, who recently wrote an interesting, but somewhat simplistic article titled, The I's Have It. In her view, as people - particularly generals - rise to the highest levels of authority and responsibility, they tend to become selfish egomaniacs more interested in the benefits and trappings of their position than in their responsibilities. She illustrates her point with this comparison photo of two of our most famous generals - David Petraeus and Dwight Eisenhower ...

Her point is that we have moved from a time when people were quietly satisfied with their accomplishments and less interested in self-aggrandizement to a time when some feel the need to aggressively advertise and capitalize on their success. Comparing Petraeus with the legendary Ike isn't fair to either man, but on a very basic level it does illustrate the difference between a confident and self-effacing leader and one concerned with managing his public image.

Most general officers I know live a life I would not want to live myself. While they enjoy relatively high pay and nice perks, they earn them with a crushing schedule and the knowledge that their every word and deed will be carefully studied by those beneath them* ... people whose lives may, in fact, rely on the decisions those generals make. I genuinely admire most of the colonels and generals with whom I have served over the years, but that doesn't mean they've all been first-class leaders. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of senior officers I have known that I would freely follow into danger, secure in the knowledge that they had the combination of strategic thinking, tactical agility, moral and ethical leadership, and cold, ruthless determination that would be likely to prevail in conflict and bring me home safely. 

I don't object to the perks of our senior leaders. But I do object to the mindset that grows in a small number of those leaders - both military and civilian - that they are somehow entitled, and are not bound by the same rules that govern lesser mortals.

Pride in our accomplishments is a good thing. Hubris is not. Leadership at the highest levels isn't about the number of ribbons and medals and awards dangling from your dress uniform, but about the aura of confidence, competence, and sound judgment that inspires people to risk their lives at your command.

Not everyone can be a great general and leader, but I'm glad that there are some who can rise successfully to the call while retaining their essential humility. We need more of them in these troubled times.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* I have an old college friend from our ROTC days who ultimately became a four-star general. I once commented that it was interesting that he ended up a full general while I retired as a lieutenant colonel and was now a lowly contractor ... his reply was illuminating: "I may have four stars, but you've got a life."


eViL pOp TaRt said...

The WaPo article suggests that higher-level generals are expected to have that opulent lifestyle and perks because of the political and social requirements that they have. This calls for them to display the trappings of generalship more.

But are 1- and 2-star generals that are not in the Washington also have such a large train?

Certainly, senior military officers, and soldiers, deserve their pay.

Bilbo said...

Angel - it is true that the senior (4-star) generals also have significant political/social representational responsibilities for which they need a certain amount of "trappings." Lesser generals, particularly those not located in DC, are entitled to secretaries, executive officers, and other sorts of support depending on their exact grade and position. Generally speaking (sorry) though, they tend to be pretty high-maintenance.

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

Happy Thanksgiving Bill! (and Agnes)

I was not a general by any means. However even in my low little position of a senior sales executive I enjoyed the perks of pay however i was missing out on my life. I remember thinking at age 47 that I just can't imagine doing this in my 50's. I was never home, always another time zone, working around the clock. careful what you wish for is the lesson i learned there. :-) Seriously, i miss the money but I am home at night with my loved ones and there is no money that can match that!!
good article....once again! :-)

Mike said...

Money and power. It generates a sense of entitlement.