During a recent quarterly counseling session with an officer I rate, I found myself waxing poetic about the nature of “success” in our professional field. While we Judge Advocate officers stress that we are members of a “dual profession” (of arms and of law) and are held to account by rules of conduct and ethics of both, having two ways in which to quantify success does not necessarily make it easier to do so. In fact, as staff officers—a population that often feels more like the oxen and less like the plow—it is altogether easy to forget what true success looks and feels like. We are not the “deciders,” and not—usually—responsible for all the good or bad that a unit, command, or organization accomplishes. We do not stand out in front of the formation, accepting the unit colors, and we’re usually not the ones being interviewed or assessed by the historians of our trade.

However, we Mentat-warriors, burning the midnight oil updating slide decks and trackers, cross-planning with organizations to the left, right, below, and above, and interpreting our commanders’ guidance and intent into actionable plans do, nevertheless, have ways and means to gauge success. Whether you are the officer-in-charge for a staff section, or a member of the commander’s special staff like the chaplain or JAG, the place you sit is the source of your value: that is, you bring to the commander’s ears a specialty, a knack, a subject-matter expertise, or conceptual familiarity that commanders either do not possess, have shelved for the time being, or long ago forgot.

While I admit that my perspective is somewhat narrow, as most readers here are not legal advisors, I believe there is a more generic application to what I found myself explaining to my young captain.

For the Judge Advocate (and his or her supporting paralegal team), I like to say that our single “no-fail mission” is information. For an artilleryman, that no-fail mission might be putting exactly the right rounds downrange at an exact grid coordinate and exact time. For the surgeon, it is leaving a patient healthier than he or she was before hitting the operating room. For the technical advisor—whether it be an S-2, or S-4, or S-8, or Judge Advocate—the one thing we cannot mess up is the information we provide to our commanders. Information must hit the Three C’s: it must be clear (unambiguous), it must be concise (nothing extraneous), and it must be comprehensive (everything relevant to the decision is there for evaluating and weighing). If the information we access, review, interpret, sift, and explain to our commanders is not clear, not concise, or not comprehensive, then we have failed in our duty to them as their executive agents—they cannot make an informed judgment without such information, and we are its wellspring.

That much is probably undebatable. But the trick, and what I hoped to explain to my young captain, was that our skill set as advisors, and what gauges our success, will not be so simple. It is often said of many complex professions that there is an “art and a science” to the practice. I think this is true, though incomplete, and we risk not meeting our principals’ expectations as their agents when we don’t fully understand this. There is, certainly, a science: the technocratic, rule-memorizing, regulation-regurgitating knowledge that forms the basis of what we do as staff officers. For most, it comes as doctrine in one form or another. For Judge Advocates, it is knowing how the Rules of Evidence permit or prohibit certain things from being introduced at a court-martial; it means knowing how to craft the wording of charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice so that it puts the accused on notice of what to defend against; it is knowing the legal difference between a “search” and an “inspection.” Ultimately, the “science” part is about the information we collect and the information that must be followed.

There is, also, certainly an art: writing a good concept of the operation to ensure subordinate commands understand the gist of the mission and the context for their specific tasks; the articulate explanation of a complex set of relationships defining the targets and their relative importance. For Judge Advocates, it is writing a persuasive motion to the judge, or negotiating an advantageous plea deal, or zealously creating a narrative of a crime during a heated closing argument.

Without the “scientific” or technical rules at your beck and call, you cannot artfully or wisely do your job under the myriad and often-tumultuous and information-poor settings in which we are called to act. But delineating between the art and the science of such things is usually where we stop the analogy. For expert advisors, however, there is good reason to believe that the art of our practice is deeper than typically imagined.

The “art”—which we typically associate with the mature, experienced, wise counsel that we (any staff officer) give to our decision-makers—is really an art of the “paint-by-numbers” approach. That is, there is room to be somewhat unique, idiosyncratic, adaptive, and independent . . . but ultimately you’re still bounded by rules, regulations, SOPs, past practice, assumed expectations, or clear orders. In other words, you can select the particular hue and size of the paint brush, but you’re still hemmed in by bold lines and directions about where to put it. This is the limited and confining space in which most young staff officers find themselves. They have mastered whatever baseline technical knowledge they must have (which colors are complementary, which paints work best under certain conditions), but believe that success in their duty is capped by staying within the lines and following directions. Success, for them, is how picking the right pigment and making the final product conform utterly to printed expectations.

I propose to think about the art of advising as having another layer. There is a need, certainly among Judge Advocates, to master the first: they must learn to write and deliver persuasive arguments applying the law to case-specific facts; they must understand the abstraction of “justice” and what that fluid abstract concept might mean to a victim, the unit, or the Army when negotiating with opposing counsel over potential terms of a guilty plea. But, ultimately, these skills only go so far. In many instances, decision-makers need to be fully confident and fully aware of not only what you think, but why you think it, and how their particular decisions will affect others beyond the slim consequences of the immediate battle drill (other units, other soldiers in similar positions, the sense of discipline throughout the command, etc.). In this way, the advisor must graduate from paint-by-numbers to Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism.

Go to a museum or gallery and stand across from a Monet, or a Jackson Pollock, a de Kooning or a Mark Rothko. You will see a surreal swirl of colors, of hidden forms, of lines that seem to evoke certain ideas, senses, or images. The accuracy of the subject is immaterial; it is blurred, indefinite, or outright obscure. You either hate it or love it. But either way, it never remains the same thing to a single person, and is never the same thing from one person to another. You, the observer, have a unique relationship with that piece of art, and all of your experiences, insights, and aesthetic preferences factor into how you perceive, appreciate, or describe that abstract art.

Successfully advising the commander, from the position of expert advisor, is bound by many of the same considerations. You do not always know the bigger picture that motivates or constrains that decision-maker; your advice is splattered on the canvas and you might not yet know what final shape it takes; and very often the hodgepodge of rules, issues, demands, and minutiae that you bring to the “studio” are seen by that commander as formless, bizarre, abstract, and distorted. Nevertheless, this kind of artwork stimulates the imagination, and is inherently creative as it deliberately sets as its goal portraying something known as new, uncontrived, and novel.  If the artwork stops the wandering gallery walker for a moment in which the passerby looks upon it and questions, or appreciates, or finds something to consider, the art has demonstrated one of its values. This ought to be the same kind of relationship between agent and principal—the expert advisor and his or her decision-maker. Success, in this relationship, goes far beyond how quickly and accurately your data is. It is measured by the relationship itself between the advisor and principal decision-maker.  Is it characterized by trust? Is it deep? Is it candid? Does it forgive errors and accept nuance and a bit of chaos? Is it built to allow for the time to be all of these things, or is it nothing more than a twice-monthly status report?

To measure your success, ask yourself this question about the work you do as an advisor: over the long term, am I simply painting by someone else’s numbers, or am I trusted to leave my impression—for all of its wrinkles and blurriness and abstraction—on the canvas for the commander to ultimately appreciate and decide?


Maj. Dan Maurer is a contributing writer to MWI, and currently chief of military justice as at a large Midwestern installation. He is the author of two books forthcoming this summer: Crisis, Agency, and the Law of U.S. Civil-Military Relations (Palgrave Macmillan) and the monograph The Clash of the Trinities: A Theoretical Analysis of the General Nature of War (Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College Press). In his limited free time, he sometimes inadvertently stains his kitchen floor with the occasional splatter of dripping oil paint.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Military Academy, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.


Image credit: Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond, US Air Force