14 July 2007

Managing the Fight

As Senator Nancy Pelosi begins her latest campaign to remove American presence from Iraq, it is important to ask ourselves what we fight for. I mean that in general terms, not necessarily in the specifics of each conflict or, as in this seemingly splintered “war on terrorism”, the specifics of each theater. What are we defending, or more correctly put, what are we asking our young men and women to go into combat and risk their lives for? Do we wish to defend, roughly divided, entitlements or ideas?

If we fight to save our entitlements, then we fight to save our Social Security checks and big-government programs. We go to war to protect our government protected way of life – the ways and means that the government provides for us. We fight for concrete things: checks in the mail, money in the bank, bureaucracies to tend to our needs. These concrete things don’t require leaders to keep them moving forward ad infinitum. They are things to be managed. Fighting to save them, to protect these concrete things becomes an exercise in management. From this point of view, we get ideas including treating terrorists as persons to be handled by courts of law, entering into dialog with terrorists, addressing perceived grievances of terrorists, and keeping terrorism down to a “nuisance level”. These are all management problems and require little leadership.

If we fight to defend ideas, we have to address the abstract. Ideas cannot be managed well, as they defy being pigeon-holed and become quite slippery when closely examined. Bureaucracies perform badly when faced with such dynamic situations, and there’s a reason for that. Bureaucracies are not designed to be dynamic; they create a system of methods and structures which are meant to function within a certain degree of variation. Warfare easily trashes these systems and their assumptions of orderly conduct. And what’s more, this is done simply from engaging in warfare. If our enemies choose to, they can further disrupt bureaucratic systems simply by forcing them to be dynamic.

That we fight for our ideas, especially freedom, fundamental rights and basic human dignity, may be a given. Our soldiers do not have “benefits checks” in their war-cry vocabulary. But for decades there has been a focus on teaching those in charge how to be managers, on how to manage things, and disguising management as leadership. What’s more, this method has lead to the perception that everything can be boiled down to a balance sheet where being in the red (i.e. combat deaths in Iraq) is always interpreted as failure. The trees are the forest.

Leadership requires vision and calculated risk taking. Leadership requires a longer-term view than that provided by looking at balance sheets which measure the daily, or hourly, plusses and minuses of individual elements. It is rising above the trees to see the landscape surrounding the forest. And it is the only way to defend the ideas American hold dear. But embracing leadership, putting faith in real leaders, does require a leap of faith, and because of that it is very easy to bring fear into the equation, especially after the leap had been made.

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