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Challenging Transformation's Clichés

Challenging Transformation's Clichés - Cover

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II.

January 2007

37 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Critical thinkers analyze and refine ideas underpinning the foundation of American defense policy and military strategy today so the defense community can apply them in strategy and force development. This is an ongoing process: new ideas emerge, are tested, and adopted, revised, or discarded. The author challenges some of the accepted notions that have become foundational to contemporary theories of military transformation. In his view, any endeavor as resource-intensive as military transformation is too important to rest on uncontested truths.


Much of the dialogue concerning military transformation in the United States employs a number of popular, but hitherto unchallenged clichés. Clichés and catchwords are merely handy ways of capturing and conveying truths. Unsubstantiated clichés, however, can masquerade as truths and, unless exposed in time, ultimately prove costly and harmful to policy. This monograph examines five of the more popular clichés, or myths, found in transformation literature today. The fact that they continue to gain currency in the dialogue suggests that we need to examine our accepted truths more regularly.

The first cliché is that military transformation is about changing to be better prepared for the future, as if we could somehow separate the future from our current agendas, and as if we had only one future for which to prepare. In fact, transformation is more about the present than the future. Our views of the future are just as distorted by our biases and perspectives as are our views of the past or present. If forecasting the future is always affected by the present, the influences of the present are not always bad. Without biases, much of the information we receive would remain unintelligible. What we need, then, are the means and the willingness to recognize our biases, and to test them—to filter our filters.

The second cliché is that strategic uncertainty is greater today than it was during the Cold War. Unfortunately, this view overstates the amount of certainty that existed then and exaggerates the level of uncertainty in evidence today. We should not forget the amount of uncertainty that clouded conflicts in Korea, Indochina, the Middle East, and northern Africa, as well as the invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, the Munich crisis of 1972, the Suez crisis of 1973, and the many tense moments that attended the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today’s uncertainty may be qualitatively different, but it is hardly greater than that which obtained during the Cold War. Moreover, we actually know a great deal about today’s threats, especially that of transnational terrorism; many recent works have added, and continue to add, to our wealth of knowledge about terrorism and specific terrorist groups. We know the demographics of these groups; their pathologies; the values they hold; their goals; the conditions they need for success; their sources of support; their methods, even though they continue to change; and in many cases, their structures and innerworkings, even though the experts themselves do not always agree.

The third cliché is that mental transformation is the most difficult part of any effort to change. Actually, the most difficult part of transformation is the complex task of managing the change itself. The ideas behind Gustavus Adolphus’ reform of the Swedish military during the 17th century—which included mobile artillery and greater use of musketry—were not hard to grasp. Likewise, Napoleon’s tactical and operational innovations—which involved combining mass and firepower with self-sufficient army organizations called corps—were not difficult to understand. In fact, the truly hard part about change is managing the change. That requires backing up vague visions and lofty goals with concrete programs that can provide meaningful resources for new roles and functions, and offering incentives or compensation packages capable of appeasing institutional interests, especially the specific interests of those groups or communities most threatened by change.

The fourth cliché is that imagination and creative thinking are critical for any successful transformation. While these qualities certainly are important, they are only vital when the effort is open-ended, or in its early stages. Once the transformation effort gains momentum, a new orthodoxy replaces the old one, and creative thinking, unless it remains “in the box,” becomes inconvenient. To be sure, creative thinking can generate a wealth of potential solutions to the practical problems and the incidental friction that come with implementing change. However, the next step, the critical analysis of those solutions, is essential to moving forward. In short, the only truly essential key to transforming successfully is the capacity for critical analysis, which enables us to challenge clichés and assumptions, to expose vacuous theories and seductive jargon, and, in theory at least, to assess the results of war games and other exercises impartially.

Finally, the last cliché is that militaries tend to transform slowly, or not at all, because they like to “refight the last war,” rather than preparing for the next one. While militaries tend to rely on historical models almost to a fault, organizations need to learn from their experiences. An organization that cannot, or will not, learn from its past is not likely to prepare itself very well for the future either, except by chance. Assessing what worked and what did not from historical data is integral to critical analysis. Learning from the past and preparing for the future require an ability to evaluate events as rigorously and objectively as possible.

Admittedly, readers easily can find more than five such catchwords or myths running through today’s transformation literature. However, the purpose here is not to address every particular cliché, but rather to point out the need to challenge accepted “truths.”

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