The culture shock of alien tribes

The transition to the Donald Trump administration is an exercise in culture shock. Trump himself is a shock to the system, of course, and it’s reasonable to expect the losing party to bitterly oppose anyone he appoints. Where the culture shock comes in is that Trump’s appointees include members of two unfamiliar tribes: military officers and business executives.

That’s scary to some folks. I’ve met people who have never worked for a competitive enterprise and believe all businessmen are greedy tyrants who exploit their workers. That’s what their politicians and college professors have told them (because the politicians and professors have never worked in the private sector, either).

Military officers are equally unfamiliar because most Americans have had no contact with the Armed Forces. Academics and politicians steeped in Vietnam War protest nostalgia would have us believe that generals will either take us to war or take over the government.

I have experience in both alien tribes. I spent 25 years in the Navy and reserves, and 30-plus years working for and with business corporations.

Business executives aren’t greedy, just competitive. Most new businesses fail. The ones that survive compete for customers, stay ahead of technology and market trends, and turn a profit in order to attract investors and raise capital. Successful companies are good at disrupting themselves to stay ahead of the competition. I saw constant change in my corporate career with reorganizations, new products, executive shakeups and more.

While I encountered a few dysfunctional managers, they generally did not last long. Successful businesses hold people accountable by rewarding good performance and weeding out the miscreants. I saw several senior executives summarily fired for misbehavior such as sexual harassment (unlike civil service executives who can appeal a dismissal for years). CEOs are accountable for everything, and are routinely kicked out if they don’t perform. Imagine a government agency running this way!

We may be seeing a new generation of dollar-a-year men, like the industrial titans Franklin Delano Roosevelt recruited to mobilize World War II wartime production. I am more comfortable with self-made billionaires running the government than with career politicians who have become multimillionaires by holding public office.

Military officers don’t love war. When I led boarding parties and stood bridge watches in the Navy, I understood that a mistake on my part could get my shipmates killed and thought about that every day. Multiply that responsibility a thousandfold and you get people like Generals Mattis, Kelly and Flynn. The military take on national security issues will be to deter war as much as possible, fight only when necessary (to win, not to send a message) and bring the troops home alive.

Military folks are rewarded for being decisive, flexible and pragmatic, from the sailor who swaps coffee for radio parts to the commander who upsets the bureaucrats but wins the battle. Commanders are accountable for results and are quickly relieved when they screw up. It will be refreshing to watch “Mad Dog” Mattis shake up the Pentagon.

I am impressed that today’s military officers increasingly function as diplomats, starting with junior officers who negotiate with village elders in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have the best-educated military in history: The Navy sent every one of my active-duty counterparts to civilian universities for masters’ degrees, and senior officers get additional graduate-level education at institutions like the Naval War College.

Military officers often take over the government in banana republics by default because they’re usually the best-organized people in a failed state. By contrast, the U.S. military has a long tradition of political neutrality and regulations that prohibit political activity by active-duty personnel. Unlike other government employees, military people do not have unions that make political contributions and campaign for candidates. If any organization is going to impose its will on the government, the teachers’ union is in a better position to do so than the Marine Corps.

So we are getting cabinet officers regulating the economy who have actually worked successfully in the economy, and national security officials who prefer deterrence to warfare. Talk about culture shock!

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2 Responses to The culture shock of alien tribes

  1. Sue Mulcahy says:

    Finding Jim’s essay so logical and thought provoking, I forwarded it to others in our family. I think that everyone, no matter his political viewpoint, will find it worth reading.

  2. Eve Fain says:

    Appreciate this post. What Trump will undoubtedly create is a nation of people that will start looking seriously at how the government is actually ran! Ah yes, finally we will have readers of the Constitution if only to figure out how to remove him from office. It had to happen sooner or later. For too long, folks have been home, watching “Dancing with the the Stars” and failing to realize what keeps good old ship, “the U S of A” afloat. I am a bit apprehensive about Trump leading our military. Yet, in my brief assignment working for the U. S. Army I noticed they just kept things running in an orderly fashion despite the lack of experience of Obama. The eye rolling was done out of sight of anyone that could permanently damage a career!

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