Tag: Divergent & Red Ideas

Red Ideas: In Praise of Divergent Thinking

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

To best serve the nation, the Profession of Arms must nurture a culture of candor that enables good ideas and adaptation in order to successfully adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of the modern world. To achieve this, we should practice moral courage by occasionally, respectfully expressing Divergent and “Red” Ideas.

The truth can be difficult to express and infinitely more challenging than a lie.  As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel notes in his recent book, “Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.” There are fewer Sam Damon‘s than we might wish.

Moral courage is in short supply due to social pressures (not wanting to rock the boat amongst peers) as well as a strong sense of positional inferiority (i.e. “he’s a Colonel so he must know something I do not know”), both of which serve to clam up well-meaning individuals.  The Profession of Arms, in particular, is uniquely susceptible to this lack of candor owing to two reasons: the high punishment in lives and resources for military mistakes and a relatively rigid senior-subordinate hierarchical structure.

To address this gap, the Army War College has published studies on “closing the culture chasm,” largely based on business reports on developing a working “culture of candor.”  The Profession of Arms feels as though it must instill this characteristic somewhere in the arc of development as a reservoir of moral courage to safeguard against applying old solutions to new challenges.  But we can look beyond the narrower Profession of Arms to the wider world to find support for this value. 

There are some excellent personal codes on offer from three titans of our world. Marc Andreesson, the fantastically successful entrepreneur is known for his mantra: “strong opinions, weakly held.”  Tony Judt, the essayist, once famously stated, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” And, the one appropriately held in highest esteem amongst members of the Profession of Arms, Sir Michael Howard wrote in his 1982 book, The Causes of Wars (p. 6): “I make no apology for any contradictions or inconsistencies that may be found in [these essays and lectures]. Those who do not change their minds in the course of a decade have probably stopped thinking altogether.”  Andreesson, Judt, and Howard are instructive in that they give us cover to adjust our thinking as paradigms shift.  Members of the Profession of Arms must recognize that warfare and our world is constantly changing and so should our estimates and appraisals.

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What Cadets Should Study – and Why Military History is Not Enough

Note: We’re revisiting some of our most popular material from the past 10 months for our newer readers; this was originally posted June 4, 2014. Enjoy!

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

My last essay – on a representative list of questions West Point does not emphasize – generated some  strong feedback.  In the spirit of discussion, I feel obligated to address some of these criticisms. For example, via email I received a message with this question:

“Is the reason why war fighting and academic education are stove piped, is because the Army doesn’t want officers to have to ‘think’ during combat operations?” 

There are clearly times when officers must respond reflexively and times where they ought to pause and consider the strategic effect of their tactical actions.  This is akin to the two systems of thinking Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Officers should always be thinking – the type of thinking will differ according to the military situation they find themselves in.  

The argument I advance is a simple one: West Point does not currently offer any regular study of modern war that is relevant to the needs of soon-to-be junior Army officers.  It should.  In fact, as I’ll describe at the end of this essay, and as the picture above depicts, this is an old idea that ought to return to cadet education.  To develop this idea, what will follow is a list of my responses to the comments (which can be viewed here) from the original essay.

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