Joe Klein’s call for President Obama to fire someone over the rollout, because the army routinely relieved commanders in World War II, is a case study in mythinformation. (More)

Yesterday Time’s Joe Klein joined the chorus calling for the scalp of – well, someone – over the buggy opening of the website. He begins by citing military historian journalist Tom Ricks on the U.S. Army in World War II:

I’ve been reading Tom Ricks’ excellent book about military leadership since World War II, The Generals. In it, Ricks argues that one of the reasons we were able to win World War II was that Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower were absolutely brutal when it came to relieving field commanders who were not up to the job – and also discerning enough to leave politically incorrect, but brilliant, leaders like George Patton in their positions. He also argues that in the subsequent, cold-war bureaucratization of the military, this rigorous practice has been largely abandoned.

Yes, the U.S. Army replaced many field commanders after failures during World War II. But that process was hardly “rigorous.” Some commanders were relieved because they were unarguably poor combat leaders. Others were relieved for no better reason than to settle personal scores.

“Even his name swaggered”

So wrote an admirer of Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in North Africa and Sicily. His nickname was “Terrible Terry,” in part because he made no secret about his loathing for “chickensh*t” regulations. Allen and his assistant commander, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., made “The Big Red One” a larger-than-life legend both on the battlefield and in the rear areas. Allen’s motto was “Fight hard and drink much,” and his division did both.

Allen and Roosevelt were exactly the kind of “politically incorrect, but brilliant” leaders that Klein says should have been left in command. But George Patton resented their media-acknowledged successes, and Omar Bradley simply didn’t like them. So on August 7, 1943 – after the First Division had struggled to capture the Sicilian town of Triona, following a plan approved by Bradley, based on faulty intelligence from Bradley’s II Corps staff – both Allen and Roosevelt were dismissed.

Both were later returned to command. Allen was assigned to lead the 104th Infantry Division, which fought with distinction for 195 consecutive days in France, Holland, and on into Germany. Roosevelt was assigned to the staff of the 4th Infantry Division and would earn a Medal of Honor for his heroism in leading the first wave of troops ashore on D-Day, June 6th, 1944.

“Sorting the lucky from the unlucky”

Other U.S. Army commanders – indeed most of those relieved – fell victim to what Rick Atkinson described as “sorting the lucky from the unlucky.” They attempted to carry out plans that went awry, for any of the myriad reasons that military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described as friction:

Here the fog [referring to the weather, not the Fog of War] prevents the enemy from being discovered on time, a battery from firing at the right moment, a report from reaching the General; there the rain prevents a battalion from arriving at the right time, because instead of for three hours it had to march perhaps eight hours; the cavalry from charging effectively because it is stuck fast in heavy ground.

From signal failures to mechanical breakdowns, faulty ammunition to fuel shortages, misfired flares to misprinted maps, combat commanders struggle to overcome and adapt to friction. Training, planning, and calm, quick-thinking leadership do matter. But so does luck, and the history of the U.S. Army in World War II is filled with stories of calm, quick-thinking commanders who simply did not get lucky enough to defeat both friction and the enemy.

Indeed by 1944 senior leaders realized the army was too capricious in dismissing field commanders. Units might serve under two or three commanders in the course of a single operation, sometimes in the course of a single day. Far from elevating the bold and culling the timid, the system fostered excessive caution. Field commanders learned to dot every i and cross every t of military procedure, even if that meant letting opportunities slip away.

“The incentives for hard work diminish”

Klein concludes with a truly remarkable and ludicrous claim:

There is a larger point here. It lies in the nature of government work. It is near-impossible to fire anyone in the civil service – and without the fear of firing, the incentives for hard work diminish. (There are also very few rewards for finding creative solutions.) This is the 130th anniversary of our Civil Service system, enacted by Chester Alan Arthur. It may have been a good thing in 19th century, when even Abraham Lincoln was hiring political hacks to run the post offices – but it has transformed agencies like the VA and HHS into lugubrious sludge glaciers in the 21st century.

In fact, as the army’s experience in World War II demonstrated, the fear of being fired is a disincentive for both hard work and creative problem-solving. In a fear-based workplace, people will more often demand crystal-clear rules and procedures, and then do exactly enough to avoid the axe. To encourage creativity, an organization must make it safe to take well-judged risks … and safe to fail when well-judged risks go awry.

Neither Klein nor any of the other pundits and politicians braying for heads to roll over the website has produced a single shred of evidence that the software has bugs because the programmers didn’t fear getting fired. Klein, like too many others, simply sees a problem and concludes a priori that such a problem would never have happened if those involved were scared enough to do their jobs right. In an evidence-based world, he should have to prove that premise before we consider his conclusion.

His column isn’t about leadership. It’s about mythinformation.


Happy Halloween!