The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Dec 252009

Very nice piece in the NYTimes by an officer who is almost certainly a Generation X (born 1961-1981) (he started serving too early to be a Millennial (born 1982-200?), and he is not high enough ranking to be a Boomer (born 1943-1960)). Any survey of generational divisions in today’s the armed forces uncovers Xer officers who feel bollixed by their Boomer superiors. The Xers want to decentralize decision making, reduce the bureaucracy, give more initiative to leaders on the ground, make decisive choices, and embrace risk rather than shun it.

Why all the smothering oversight? To reduce American casualties, of course, say Boomer and Silent (born 1925-1942)elders. To create an idiot-proof (Boomer-speak for Xer-proof) safeguard against bad headlines for political leaders back at home. But, counter the Xers, what if this approach simply ensures that America’s effort is ineffectual and that we are still there ten years from now, still slogging around and suffering casualties?

Speaking of the Nomadarchetype at war, I am reminded of the memorable scene in the movie “Patton.”  Omar Bradley (who was given all the best lines because he advised the director) got owned in one exchange after castigating George for being too aggressive in a particular attack in the Sicilian campaign and suffering needless casualties. Patton’s response—and I loosely paraphrase from memory: “Sure, Brad, some died. But we broke through, didn’t we? We brought this war closer to an end, didn’t we? If we did it your way, we might still be pinned down there, dying as we speak.” It is an interesting question whether the war would have been over in Europe in 1944, instead of 1945, if Patton had remained Bradley’s superior during and after D-Day. Germany might never have been divided, and the Soviet postwar domination of Central Europe would have been much weaker.

Ulysses Grant was another famous Nomad warrior who understood better than his elders (except for a few, like Lincoln and his friend Sherman) that sometimes you have to take risks, including the risk of losing lives, to get the job done. This is how the midlife Xer-in-charge pushes the mood toward the Fourth Turning (Crisis).

The final remarks in this article explicitly and eloquently point to the tethering of Generation X leaders:

“The culture of risk mitigation could be countered with a culture of initiative. Mid-level leaders win or lose conflicts. Our forces are better than the Taliban’s, but we have leashed them so tightly that they are unable to compete.”

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  • ericlanke

    I've always heard that one of the reasons the Allies beat the Germans in World War II was because the Allies allowed for decentralized decision-making and the Germans didn't. Captains and even sergeants on the ground were given the latitude to make operational decisions, while their German counterparts were stuck waiting for orders from commanders far behind the front lines. If true, is there a connection to your generational theory?

    • lloydconway

      The Germans were actually the most decentralized army in WW II, as in WW I. That's why a Rommel could, as a 1st Lieutanant, command a half-battalion for expeditions over extended periods of time. What he did in WW I was SOP for the Gewrman Army, and remained so when his generation commanded in WW II. German forces maintained a 1.4:1 ratio of casulties inflicted to casulties taken, as Martin van cerveld found in researchin one of his books.
      Germany made the same mistake as 5th Century Athens in the Pelloponesian war: They took on too many enemies at one time. (Prophet-generation hubris?)

  • Vaccaro graduated from Norwich in 2004 or 2005, so figuring a college graduation age of 22, he’s either a very late 13er or a very early Millennial. At any rate, he’s got an Xer attitude. Ironically, many of those colonels he castigates are Xers, my age, in their mid- to late-40s. It’s the damn generals and politicians, Boomers to a man, who not only clog up the decision-making process but who clog up field-grade Xers by conditioning them to be too cautious.