VA Culture–Gamesmanship and Oversight

In the VAs gaming culture, it seems clear that the “secret wait lists” were the result of decisions to expand VAs mandates, the resultant exacerbation of the backlog, and next resulting mandate to address the backlog. Employees faced with a mountain of work, high expectations, and poor management and oversight all converged to present the appearance of progress–possibly additionally motivated by the allure of monetary bonuses for making progress–without regard to the real world consequences.

Institutions are always ‘sociopathic’, that is, lacking in empathy. There is a process to be followed. Empathy in institutions only arises at the person-to-person level. That appears to me to have been incentivized out of the VA culture.


Texas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas to lose a BCT each.

An infantry brigade is about 3400 troops, currently. That said, we are not loosing 3400 troops–while some manpower will be lost, the actual cut here is in organizational structure. For example, an Infantry Brigade these days is composed of 6 battalions. By cutting a Brigade, they allow the Guard to create some number, fewer than or equal 6 battalions, elsewhere. That’s the Army 2020 plan–every brigade will get a new Infantry battalion, but they don’t want to change the overall number of troops in the Guard, so–cut three brigades and you can create up to 18 new battalions across the rest of the organization. (There are 20 Guard Infantry Brigade Combat Teams, if they cut 3, and stand up 17 battalions in each of the remaining, then they also cut overall end strength by one battalion, or about 500.) This also puts an IBCT at about 3900 troops.

Part of what’s going on though is deep cuts in defense spending. The Big Army wants to cut some amount of Guard and Reserve force structure in order to preserve Active Duty force structure. There’s a debate about how much–Governors and Congresscritters don’t like Guard cuts in particular. And the overhead per troop in the Guard (or Reserves) is about 1/3 what it is active duty. (So you could actually save all the money you need to by reducing the Active Component and increasing the Reserve Components and end up with the same size or even larger force overall–but Big Army doesn’t like to talk about that.)

It gets more convoluted with Guard troops, too. Those are State resources. So if Oklahoma lost the 45th Infantry BCT. That IS a 3400 troop loss to Oklahoma, because those freed up battalions would go to other states–say KS, LA, MO, WI, and IA each, get plussed up by one Infantry battalion. With the Army Reserve, those are federal resources and it all comes out in the wash, as it does in the Active Component.

The plan, as I understand it now, is to disband three National Guard IBCTs. One in Pennsylvania (2/28th IBCT), one in Arkansas (39th IBCT), and one in Texas (unsure–either the 56th or the 72nd IBCT). The PA unit choice is a bit cagey. It won’t impact Pennsylvania alone, as it’s units are not all located in that state; one Infantry battalions is in New York, it’s Cavalry Squadron is in Ohio.

But Arkansas and Texas appear to take the full hit. Texas is home to four brigade sized units (2 IBCTS, a Battlefield Surveillance Brigade and a Combat Aviation Brigade, and could reasonably be expected to absorb the hit, especially with one of the battalions staying in the state. Arkansas, on the other hand, is reduced to fewer than 4,000 troops statewide from just over 7,000.

And we still haven’t really addressed what the Army wants to do to meet budget restraints. Looking just at end strength, Big Army wants to cut 20,000 troops from the National Guard (after other cuts have gone into effect already). The same budgetary effect could be achieved by cutting ~6,500 active troops. This is like cutting 5 Guard brigades instead of 2 Active ones.

Even if you aren’t convinced by the numbers, the next consideration with the Guard is where these cuts will come from–which states? The Active Component has a formula for deciding which units are to be deactivated which takes into account lineage and history, combat time, and prestige. None of that is considered with Guard units. They threw us a bone in 1968 with the deactivation of many Divisional headquarters, by transferring lineage, honors and identity to one of the succeeding Brigades in that process. That’s why there is, today, a 45th Infantry Brigade (and, 30th, 27th, 39th, 41st…). The decisions as to where to cut could be extremely painful depending on how that decision is made.

Related> Paging Dr. Abrams: Why we need a commission on the structure of the Army.

Starting a New Job. Things I Failed to Plan For.

I started a new job a couple of weeks ago. Since it’s been almost exactly 13 years since I last had a new job with a new employer, there were some things I’d forgotten about.

One was that I have no idea where my old Social Security Card is. I simply haven’t needed it. I used to carry it in my wallet, but my wife pointed out a few years ago that you really aren’t supposed to do that. So I put it somewhere safe. Very safe, as it turns out.

I found myself at the Social Security Administration office very early in the morning to request a replacement. While I did have to arrive two hours before the doors opened (as I figured) to ensure being at the head of the very long line, I have to hand it to the folks at that office–it was orderly, and quick. The receipt was enough to keep from being dismissed from the new job. Yikes.

Health insurance was another thing. For all the talk around the ACA and such, my wife and I still find ourselves uninsured until the beginning of next month. Yeah, we could have used COBRA to extend the old policy, but the cost is astronomic, and this should only be three weeks. We had to make a few adjustments, regarding existing appointments, but we’ll be okay.

That hasn’t kept some folks from worrying on our behalf about being denied for pre-existing conditions…. Just in case anyone reading this might have a question, it didn’t work that way before the ACA was passed either.

Another factor in turning down COBRA; we wouldn’t have had the money anyway, even if it were affordable. The last pay check was only for one week and it takes some time to get into payroll at the new job. We have reserve cash and we’ll make it just fine, but COBRA would have broke the bank forthwith.

So the lawn is getting tall. It was drill weekend two weeks ago, and this past weekend I got the mower out for the first time this Spring. Second year in a row and the mower won’t start. Damned ethanol. I’ve sent the EPA an e-mail asking who I send the small engine repair bill to since it’s their policy that prevents me getting real gasoline. We’ll see.

So yesterday I mowed. My mower still doesn’t work, and I can’t budget for repairing it at the moment. When we bought the house, I was deploying to Afghanistan for the first time. My wife lived in the house for a year before I did–we closed the day before I reported for mobilization. She bought a reel mower, you know the old fashioned push type that has no engine. Its been hanging in the garage ever since.

Some lessons learned on manual mowing. Rake the yard well before you start. The smallest twig will bind the blades. After you rake, walk the yard and pick out any twigs you can see. Then rake it again, this time with the purpose of raking in the opposite direction you intend to mow. You are still going to have to cover every inch at least twice, and if the grass is long (mine was), you’ll still have lots of whiskers standing up when you are done. The spin trimmer is electric, thank God.

Perfect Choice for HHS Secretary; Continuity Assured

The nomination of Sylvia Matthews Burwell, lately the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to be Kathleen Sebelius’ successor as Secretary of Health and Human Services is a great choice.

With Burwell’s track record, its an inspired choice, really.  It shows a determination to maintain continuity in the position.

She was intimately involved in the efforts to make the government “shutdown” as painful as possible.  This shows that she is just as unquestioning and loyal as Sebelius was.

And if you are concerned about competence and management, worry no longer.  While she has not been at OMB for quite a year, she did absolutely nothing to reverse the failure of the President to produce a budget recommendation on time.  Late for 6 years running and Dead on Arrival in the House, just as the rest–so quality is obviously a key concern as well.

Truth, Justice, and …

The relationship between science and Truth is, or should be roughly analogous to the relationship between law and Justice.  Truth and justice are, in human terms, imperfectly attainable goals.  As a result humans have developed processes, science and law, the adherence to which results in, we hope, as near an approximation of the desired goal as possible. Trouble ensues when the process is given equal standing with the desired product.  Science IS Truth.  Law IS Justice.  This leads us down all manner of dangerous roads.

Neil Degrasse Tyson has said, “That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.”  This is a fundamentally backward statement. Law and science are only useful to the extent that they continue to work.  When they cease to work, we can look at the result in either of two ways; what it True or Just has changed, or that science or law must change to accommodate what we now know to be True or Just.

Here’s an example.  We all know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  But how would an unaided, earthbound observer know that?  If the Sun really did revolve around the Earth, in what way would it look different?  The answer is that it is not observably different. The Heliocentric model devised by Copernicus was actually more complex than the old Copernican model.  It was superior in only one aspect; that it more accurately described the length of a solar year.  It would take better measurements, more discoveries, and other perspectives to fully explain, for example, retrograde movement of the planets. And that’s the key.  The Truth appears to have changed.  In reality, it was science that changed, bowing to a new theory that simply worked better than the old one. There’s nothing wrong with believing that the Earth is flat.  But when you approach the edge of it, you might come up against the need to devise a new theory when your prediction fails.  But that’s an issue for that individual.

There IS a problem when you are so convicted of your version of a Scientific Truth that you seek to halt debate, crush dissent, mock “deniers,” and persecute sceptics.  Those should be greater impetus to further testing, better experiments, more detailed or precise measurements, more inclusive hypotheses; that is, an escalation of science.  But when Science IS Truth, we no longer have a need for science, for we have already arrived at an unalterable, unquestionable result.  Science is no longer science, but that other great human search for Truth: Religion.  It’s results are Dogma and not to be questioned.

And most often, these ideological strongpoints exist today in those scientific propositions that are least testable.  Neither Evolution nor Anthropogenic Climate Change can be tested by experiment.  They cannot be viewed in a lab.  I am not arguing for or against either proposition.  I am arguing that the argument on neither can be considered closed. Contrary to Dr. Tyson, truth, in human terms, is what works and science is only that process to find what works, or to eliminate what does not.  Believing only enters into the proposition that far, and the results of that process are only as good as the last theory and may change with the next one.

Related and Funny:  There are No Such Things as Scientists, by Frank J.

War and Civilization

And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better.
Ian Morris writing in The Atlantic

Mr. Morris’ point is about how war has been a net positive in human history, a thesis that I have long embraced. But this paragraph leads me to change the subject a little. Decreasing aggressiveness and violence as a net positive is, I believe a fallacy. We’d be better off to be more aggressive and more violent in the prosecution of wars once begun.

Robert E. Lee famously observed that it was a good thing that war was a terrible as it was. But we have managed, in the intervening century and a half, to civilize the waging of war, W.T. Sherman notwithstanding. The result has, perhaps, not been exactly what Lee told us it would be, that we would come to enjoy war, but we have certainly learned to live with it, even viewing it as normal.
In the US context, somewhere between the Soldier engaged in a firefight and the President, there is a rapidly declining sense of ruthlessness. The trigger-puller has no choice, given a desire to live. His leaders, at some remove from the survival imperative, somewhere lose their aggressiveness and considerations aside from achieving victory and accomplishing strategic goals take precedence. So much so that the result is a willingness to keep putting warrior’s lives on the line in the furtherance of “something else,” where that something is anything other than martial success.

And the general public, the least aggressive and violent participants in any question other than the decision to go to war, is okay with that.

In some ways then, we need to be more barbaric as a society, especially where, contrary to Mr. Morris’ point above, our opponents are not as “culturally evolved” and so retain that aggressive nature, because, confronted with an opponent like us, that pays off better still.

Inequality is good.

Natural inequality, the differences between people in all manner of personal attributes and their individuality, is as much a function of freedom as equality before the law.

Were it not for inequality, there would be either no survival or no society.  Assuming that all were universally competent in all things, people would have no need of each other, and with out that competence, some external force would arise to exploit those areas lacking.

Instead, all people are endowed from birth with different potentials and talents.  In this way there are needs that some people have that can only be fulfilled by interaction with others.  And that doesn’t account for material differences which may limit or enhance the activities of humans, but they are no different.

Dealing with inequality, that is attempting to have needs fulfilled which any given individual is unable to do on his or her own, is the basis of society.  It is the motive that brings us together.  There are two basic ways that people can use, and have used, to achieve this, by the institution of either slavery or trade.  Only one of these is capable of producing, preserving, and perpetuating freedom.

A Tale of Two Wrong Presidents

There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what is meant by American Exceptionalism.  The concept as alluded to by both our President and by the president of Russia recently are both incorrect, the former a confusion of cause and effect, and the latter a result of Marxist infighting of the 40’s and 50’s.

President Obama referred to the exceptionalism of the US in that only the US can project the kind of military force at Syria that the situation may require.  That ability, though, is the result of US exceptionalism, the product over time of a nation that is unique in its offerings of liberty, opportunity, and diversity that have lead then to prosperity and innovation that have developed, among other things, military might and the capacity to project it.  I’d also add that it is my opinion that President Obama only included such reference in an attempt to borrow opposing vernacular in an attempt to persuade those who really believe in American Exceptionalism, as well as properly understand it, to support his plans.  I believe that he doesn’t believe in it, in part because he doesn’t understand it.

President Putin, on the other hand offers the more usual warning of the dangers of a belief in exceptionalsim, a warning that we have heard at least alluded to by President Obama when he is not trying to pander to US conservatives.  This warning is based on a false understanding of American Exceptionalism, borne of a schism between post WWII international Communists, non-US, and especially Russian, Communists, criticized US Communists as still holding to an idea that the US was exceptional in the world.  Criticism predicated on the mistaken notion that that exception is born of superiority.

This isn’t unique to those Soviet critics.  It’s an effective tactic to demean to point out how someone thinks that they are superior.  It’s a staple of 50’s and 60’s US comedy to portray Russian characters as holding to a similar notion—if asked, all great innovations came from Russia and all other ideas are western propaganda.  Even Mr. Chechov on the original Star Trek was portrayed this way.  True American Exceptionalism, however, has nothing to do with innovations, inventions, or even prosperity.  It’s also not patriotism, or pride in one’s home or origin, though it can enhance those feelings.  Real American Exceptionalism can be summed up in Lincoln’s word from the Gettysburg Address, “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  However imperfectly we’ve implemented that conception and proposition, these are still the basis of our republic; liberty—freedom to pursue one’s own course and without onerous restrictions—and equality before the law, and that unique founding has resulted in further unique wealth, power, and influence.  But it takes someone who understands this to wield it properly.  Both presidents have disqualified themselves from this.

On Veterans Benefits and the Blue on Blue (on Blue) Politics of it.

At the bottom of this post is the video that inspired this post.

Rep. Darrel Issa posted it, apparently in agreement with Rep Duckworth’s treatment of the businessman, Mr. Castillo, over his use of veteran’s disability to gain an advantage in competing for contracts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a fan of LTC Duckworth’s civilian service.  Her association with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association is troubling.  Her past positions with the Illinois state VA and the federal VA, also, especially in the light of this particular exchange.  if the rules are bad, she’s been in a position to fix them, or at least bring them to light, longer than many.  In essence, if she told me that the sky was blue, I’d have to head outside to check.

Seems that Mr. Castillo once attended a military prep school and while there, hurt his foot playing football.  And that is the basis for a finding of 30% disability from the VA which allows him to apply for contracts as a disabled veteran with the preferences that that brings.

I can see where Issa and Duckworth are coming from.  This is a case of a man lacking a properly functioning moral compass, who would take advantage of something that he should not.

But that’s not the whole story.  It also seems that he did nothing wrong.  The rules, as written, allow this.  A disabled moral compass gets no assistance here from the laws.  Laws and regulations, I might add, written by Congress.  Reps. Issa and Duckworth are, and have been, in a position to have done something about this.

There’s still more.  At one point in the harrangue, Rep. Duckworth, compares Castillo to others she has known who are disabled because they “picked up a weapon in defense of this country.”  The danger here is in placing a higher value on those who have engaged in combat compared with those who may have been just as greviously wounded, “only” in training.  There’s a whole continuum here.  I have deployed to a combat zone three times and have never fired a shot in anger.  I have a friend who was, in fact, injured, in training, but as a National Guard member with no active duty time, is entitled to no medical benefits at all.

But the rules, as written, allow someone hurt playing football for a military prep school to even apply?

There are injustices here.  But Mr. Castillo, while probably (I’d like a lot more context) misguided, is far from the bad guy.  Instead it seems to me that it’s those who are keeping the rule book who are most at fault.

An Observation on Leadership

A major factor in being a leader (and it matters not if one is in a leadership position–leaders lead regardless of rank, position, or assignment) is just knowing what’s going on.  This seems axiomatic, and to an extent, it is.  But many would-be-leaders, especially among those within the set that possess rank, position, and highly responsible assignments, come to it with the impression or expectation that because of those things that others will tell them the things that they need to know.  For many it is a hard lesson, a few never learn it, but that’s just not the case.  Often those around you don’t know what it is that they should be telling you.  Even more likely, is that the aspiring leader cannot possess sufficient situational awareness to ask all the questions that need asking.

The 70% solution to this problem, I have found, at least within the context of the National Guard, is the sacrifice of personal time.  In particular, if you really want to know what’s going on, you have to arrive early and stay late. And if you can only do one of these, arrive early.  It is in those early mornings when all the real decisions about who, where, and when are made, as that’s the time when the assumptions are finally confirmed or debunked and everyone is close enough to the target to see it clearly and all the much maligned changes to the plan that was briefed get made.  Staying late is still important, especially if you are responsible in any way for the welfare of others.  It is in those moments before subordinates walk out the door, that they become most aware of any deficiency to be corrected, or requirement to be fulfilled.  And they can most easily share those things with you if you are still present.  And they are more likely to do so as well, before the cares and obligations of their regular lives overshadow and lead them to forget about the things that seemed important on the way out the door.