Red Ideas: In Praise of Divergent Thinking

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

To best serve the nation, the Profession of Arms must nurture a culture of candor that enables good ideas and adaptation in order to successfully adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of the modern world. To achieve this, we should practice moral courage by occasionally, respectfully expressing Divergent and “Red” Ideas.

The truth can be difficult to express and infinitely more challenging than a lie.  As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel notes in his recent book, “Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.” There are fewer Sam Damon‘s than we might wish.

Moral courage is in short supply due to social pressures (not wanting to rock the boat amongst peers) as well as a strong sense of positional inferiority (i.e. “he’s a Colonel so he must know something I do not know”), both of which serve to clam up well-meaning individuals.  The Profession of Arms, in particular, is uniquely susceptible to this lack of candor owing to two reasons: the high punishment in lives and resources for military mistakes and a relatively rigid senior-subordinate hierarchical structure.

To address this gap, the Army War College has published studies on “closing the culture chasm,” largely based on business reports on developing a working “culture of candor.”  The Profession of Arms feels as though it must instill this characteristic somewhere in the arc of development as a reservoir of moral courage to safeguard against applying old solutions to new challenges.  But we can look beyond the narrower Profession of Arms to the wider world to find support for this value. 

There are some excellent personal codes on offer from three titans of our world. Marc Andreesson, the fantastically successful entrepreneur is known for his mantra: “strong opinions, weakly held.”  Tony Judt, the essayist, once famously stated, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” And, the one appropriately held in highest esteem amongst members of the Profession of Arms, Sir Michael Howard wrote in his 1982 book, The Causes of Wars (p. 6): “I make no apology for any contradictions or inconsistencies that may be found in [these essays and lectures]. Those who do not change their minds in the course of a decade have probably stopped thinking altogether.”  Andreesson, Judt, and Howard are instructive in that they give us cover to adjust our thinking as paradigms shift.  Members of the Profession of Arms must recognize that warfare and our world is constantly changing and so should our estimates and appraisals.

To best serve the nation, the Profession of Arms must nurture a culture of candor that enables good ideas and adaptation in order to successfully adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of the modern world. To achieve this, we should practice moral courage by occasionally, respectfully expressing Divergent and “Red” Ideas.

The truth can be difficult to express and infinitely more challenging than a lie.  As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel notes in his recent book, “Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.” There are fewer Sam Damon‘s than we might wish.

Moral courage is in short supply due to social pressures (not wanting to rock the boat amongst peers) as well as a strong sense of positional inferiority (i.e. “he’s a Colonel so he must know something I do not know”), both of which serve to clam up well-meaning individuals.  The Profession of Arms, in particular, is uniquely susceptible to this lack of candor owing to two reasons: the high punishment in lives and resources for military mistakes and a relatively rigid senior-subordinate hierarchical structure.

To address this gap, the Army War College has published studies on “closing the culture chasm,” largely based on business reports on developing a working “culture of candor.”  The Profession of Arms feels as though it must instill this characteristic somewhere in the arc of development as a reservoir of moral courage to safeguard against applying old solutions to new challenges.  But we can look beyond the narrower Profession of Arms to the wider world to find support for this value.

There are some excellent personal codes on offer from three titans of our world. Marc Andreesson, the fantastically successful entrepreneur is known for his mantra: “strong opinions, weakly held.”  Tony Judt, the essayist, once famously stated, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” And, the one appropriately held in highest esteem amongst members of the Profession of Arms, Sir Michael Howard wrote in his 1982 book, The Causes of Wars (p. 6): “I make no apology for any contradictions or inconsistencies that may be found in [these essays and lectures]. Those who do not change their minds in the course of a decade have probably stopped thinking altogether.”  Andreesson, Judt, and Howard are instructive in that they give us cover to adjust our thinking as paradigms shift.  Members of the Profession of Arms must recognize that warfare and our world is constantly changing and so should our estimates and appraisals.

So how do we support divergent thinking in the Profession of Arms?

The ultimate challenge is to express these divergent and dissenting ideas in such a way as to respect and remain steadfastly loyal to the organization. There are basically two ways of doing this, one formal and informal.  In the US State Department, their formal method is to use the Dissent Channel, which is:

“a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures.”

Most famously, the Dissent Channel was used in the 1971 Blood Telegram, written by a Foreign Service Officer named Archer Blood, in condemnation of American tacit support for West Pakistan’s alleged genocidal treatment of East Pakistani’s (in today’s Bangladesh).

The Dissent Channel is, of course, incredibly formal.  In the US military, our preferred method is the Red Team, a small sub-group within a larger staff organization that provides constructive criticism and often approaches problems from an adversary or competitor’s perspective. [*Note, for interested parties, there’s even a Red Team Journal]  Both of these formal organizations and structures are useful in the way that they provide pipelines for divergent thinking when the moment of decision arises (i.e. staff planning for D-Day).

But one doesn’t just wake up one day in the run-up to D-Day with a strong sense of moral courage, sufficient to override social and positional fears when a particular decision really matters.  We should practice this skill by occasionally, respectfully expressing “Red” Ideas, which I define as informal, minority opinions that diverge from conventional wisdom. 

Some thoughts on expressing Red Ideas: first, you can’t do it all the time, otherwise you’ll come off as a crank, contrarian, or conspiracy theorist. Second, they must be done respectfully, or they won’t be listened to and the speaker loses credibility with each obnoxious overbearing objection. Third, they are incredibly valuable. They are the iron that sharpens wisdom’s blade. Without gravity as an opposing force, astronauts lose muscle mass and bone density. Similarly, ideas without resistance become flabby, weak, and susceptible to enemy strengths.

Now, how do we develop moral courage through the informal skill of expressing a red idea?

One profound way is by considering a paraphrase of Peter Thiel’s interview question:

“What important truth about strategic affairs do very few people agree with you on?” 

Thiel says he gets lots of bad answers to his version of the question, specifically that a lot of people pontificate about America being “exceptional” or that others respond: “There is no God.”  But even if Thiel has to sort through a lot of thoughtless babble, the exercise is still useful because we know two things about the future: “it’s going to be different, and it must be rooted in today’s world” and that “Most answers to the contrarian question are different ways of seeing the present; good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future.”

In many ways this website is my forum for expressing Divergent & Red Ideas.  I’ll follow this essay in the coming week with another that is (one of) my answers to Thiel’s question.  My Divergent & Red Idea: the US could cut defense spending in half and it would have no net impact on security.

But I’m not just interested in my own: what are your Divergent & Red Ideas?  Send them my way at warcouncileditor (at) gmail (dot) com, and, as long as they’re respectful and non-partisan, I’ll consider them for WarCouncil.org’s growing collection of Divergent & Red Ideas.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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