Follow the Yellow Brick Wall: The Reasons Why Military Officers Do Not Write

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Why don’t military officers write? I recently suggested that more professional wordsmithing would be a positive development, and found myself derided in response by another officer who dismissed the opinion as “publicationism.” But as professionals holding an arsenal of ideas and equipped with experience – shouldn’t we want to be Publicationists? Warfare is ever changing, and so it is the military professional’s obligation to share novel and useful ideas about war. Indeed, the quality of the professional hinges on this point – would you willingly choose a doctor or lawyer who doesn’t regularly, personally engage with cutting edge, expert knowledge? Equally, officers who do not meaningfully participate in this idea-exchanging process fail the spirit of their military commission.

And, let’s be clear: Writing matters. It is still the best way to share ideas, orders of magnitude beyond the limitedness of Power[less&]Point[less]: Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster accurately calls overreliance on PowerPoint “dangerous” because the world’s problems “are not bullet-izable.” Real writing, thoughtful words coherently splashed across paragraphs and pages, is crucial to the rapid spread of military ideas (i.e. the Army’s 2006 counterinsurgency manual release). Novelist Stephen King describes this as a sort of “telepathy,” ideal for the “meeting of the minds.” Wider ranging than the most powerful radio, T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1920, “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.” Words are weapons.

The power of the written word is considerable, yet it cannot smash through three bricks in the wall that too often separate new ideas from the Profession of Arms. These yellow bricks happen to mirror Dorothy’s three traveling companions from L. Frank Baum’s tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – representing three characteristics that effectively stop experience-writing and idea-sharing. What follows will briefly sketch these out, their typologies, tendencies, and the thought process that drives the shirking of professional responsibility in three ways: the failure to wield the pen, the failure to wield the mind, and the failure to wield the heart.

Real writing, thoughtful words coherently splashed across paragraphs and pages, is crucial to the rapid spread of military ideas (i.e. the Army’s 2006 counterinsurgency manual release).

Scarecrow: As Oz’s Scarecrow wants for a brain, our first yellow brick obstacle is a lack of competence, meaning the ability to communicate using the written word. When commissioning an officer, our army certifies a basic writing ability, which is typically re-tested over the course of a career. Occasionally outliers squirt through, such as the retired lieutenant general I recently met who proudly proclaimed he paid $500 for someone to write his 70’s-era Command and General Staff College Monograph (essentially a mid-career, written essay exam). I didn’t know how to react: disillusionment with the Profession of Arms or astonishment at such post-career brazenness. Either way, it is regrettable but understandable that some will not possess composition competency. However, this should, this must, be weeded out through promotion boards. If you cannot write, you cannot communicate. If you cannot communicate, you cannot be a successful military officer. So: Shoooooo, Scarecrow, off with you and your yellow brick!

Tin Man: The Tin Man wants a heart for passionate inspiration, and so our second yellow brick obstacle represents the absence of ideas: No spark, no revelation, an inability to see the adjacent possible as Cupid’s strike is and always will be off target. Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, has called the military profession a “sea of inspiration” full of “worthy experiences and ideas” for writing and sharing. Good officers put this muse to work for the profession’s advancement and this navy guy gets it – dead men tell no tales and neither do poor professionals. An officer like this, lacking vision and ideas, is apt to adopt the mottoRow well, and live,” because they will only ever be able to handle a single environment and monotonous task. When war comes, this officer will be defeated by the enemy riding a pale horse – the Single Trick Stallion. The Tin Man’s limited labor is moderately useful, yet such inspirational emptiness counsels it is time to go away, and to take that second yellow brick along for the journey.

Cowardly Lion: The last and largest yellow brick obstacle is a lack of courage. This one is the hardest for the military profession’s gastrointestinal system to take, because these officers possess the ability and spark to write – they are neither Scarecrow nor made of Tin – yet they are too timid to put their ideas and experiences out for professional display. These officers pull off a neat feat, sporting shiny uniforms covered in heroic exploits and battlefield initiative – yet this narrow heroism fails to take similarly courageous action to scribble and share for the profession’s future benefit. Such martial impotence results from a self-inflicted decapitation strike which renders the pen dry, the page blank, and the profession poorer than it might have been.

These three yellow bricks wall off the professional from the Profession of Arms. To unleash these voices and unlock a better military profession, we ought to swing the hammer and frighten off the brick-wielding Scarecrows, Tin Men, and Cowardly Lions in our midst.

 

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.

10 thoughts on “Follow the Yellow Brick Wall: The Reasons Why Military Officers Do Not Write”

  1. There’s another argument for why officer should write. The continued lament that we do not promote those “with greatest intellectual capacity” is often centered around academic ability vs anything valuable out in the field. The intellectual curiosity required not only to study our profession but to share these ideas may be a better marker of intellectual capacity and capability as an officer than focusing on GPA, which measures ability in the classroom. It demonstrates not only capability but passion about our chosen profession – qualities one would think we’d want to encourage.

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  2. Thank you for shaming me into putting pen to paper. I AM the cowardly lion. I’ve always resisted for just that reason. I’ve had the idea for a leadership blog (hopefilly leading to a book) and have been talking myself out of it for years. I just wrote the initial post and messaged a Web designer friend (who already relied) to get things moving. So…thanks.

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  3. A blinding flash of the obvious: being old endows one with a long perspective. As a profession, the Army has regarded writing in a sort of cyclic fashion: “in” one decade, “out” another. From the late Sixties through the days of the hollow army, writers were regarded with skepticism (particularly, I suspect, because of the opinions they were offering in that unstable time). I wrote with some frequency for ARMOR and ARMY, but almost entirely on technical topics. My name was known, which is good and bad–I think a lot of us avoid being skylined. Note that in that period the Red Army encouraged professional writing, which was a bit of a departure from the Stalin years, but did unleash quite a few useful articles.

    I’d like to think we could do better.

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  4. Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.
    -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

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  5. I’m not an Army Officer, or in the Army, but I am enlisted in the Air Force and enjoy writing, mainly about leadership. I’m not the greatest writer, I’m not a 30 year experienced military veteran, but I feel like even writing about the little things about leadership could help others from the experience I do have. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and hope to see more writers emerge. I have yet to find many enlisted writers, but I’m sure they’re out there too.

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  6. I believe there is another component to the Cowardly Lion you overlook and that is confidence. You put forward the idea that officers are scared to write, I counter that the culture many of us grew up in is one where we are not developed as junior officers to have confidence to express our opinions and that while fear and confidence are related, their source is different. A select few have confidence in their abilities from the start, as I suspect you did, and they are willing to express themselves; others – maybe most, need encouragement from their leadership to build that same confidence and unfortunately there are barriers to doing so. I have been fortunate to have bosses who have allowed me to express my thoughts freely and by doing so I get an invite to sit at the big table for discussions but let me share a few of the things I have encountered over the past 18 years as examples that others face… a phrase many times uttered by BN and BDE LDRs – “LTs get pencils because they have erasers, CPTs get erasable pens, and MAJs get to type.” While typically uttered at a promotion ceremony in a veiled attempt to show increased responsibility – it reinforces that LTs work is full of mistakes, CPTs work needs to be fixable, and MAJs need lots of repetitions to get it right. Another is “LTs are not paid to think, they are paid to do.” This is the most damaging of all by actively discouraging and suppressing the ideas of LTs because they do not have the experience to be trusted outside their box and is counter to building confidence. Also from my experience during three years at the Pentagon “COLs brief the GOs, LTCs and MAJs make the slides and stay in their cubes.” This comment stands by itself as an example of at what level we withhold trust based on rank and encourage open discussion with our most senior leaders. While these are anecdotal examples from my past, I can say I have had some leaders who did encourage writing – but those unfortunately fall into two categories. First, “that is really good, you should write an article on that but let me (and every officer between me and you) proof it and help you with it,” or secondly, “that is really good, write an article and after I read it you can put my name on it so it will get published.” Both of those, while supporting publically the idea that officers should write undermine independent thought and intellectual freedom as well as fail to bolster confidence by either requiring reviews upon reviews making the process tedious and belaboring (often resulting in an abandoned effort) or by a senior leader blatantly wanting someone else to do the work and then take credit for it. Admittedly, I am a dinosaur of sorts. During my formative years in the Army there were not blogs and websites to post to… the only opportunity to write was for a professional journal or magazine which takes much more effort than a simple retort such as the one I am providing now so it is possible some of these barriers have been removed by technology and access not available to me “back then”. A good article and something for me to consider as I prepare to take command. Thank you.

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    1. Bam! That was right on the money, and you have identified so many issues that are the daily business reality of the average Subbie.

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  7. Great read and agree 100% with the assessment, but writing is not communicating if the receiver does not get the message. Before putting pen to paper one should first ask, “how does my target audience receive and digest information?” Maybe powerpoint is the only way to get that particular message out (most likely not). Just like one should think critically on the topic/idea they plan to write about, one should also think critically about the best medium to communicate that topic/idea. This isn’t an argument against writing, but, sadly, a commentary on the amount of time people spend digesting information through reading.

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  8. You forgot the wizard himself. The unrelenting belief by the higher ups that Lieutenants have no place writing strategy, invisibly pulling strings from behind a curtain, threatening retribution on those who would dare to question the power and wisdom of the great and mighty Oz.

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