If you routinely read Pentagon reports, speeches, hearings transcripts, and news articles, you occasionally come across an assumption or claim that stands out. Yesterday, the Pentagon released a news article that summarized a speech given by Director of the Joint Staff Lt. Gen. David Goldfein at the Brookings Institution. The article included the line: “Last year was the most complex year since 1968, the general said.”
To understand what approach or metric led the U.S. Air Force three-star general to make such a definitive statement, I turned to text of his actual speech at Brookings:
I had the joint staff historian go back and I asked him, ’Hey, from just a joint staff perspective, how does 2014 look like relative to other years as you’ve looked back?’ And he said, ’It’s number two in terms of the total number of issues that we’ve had to work. It’s number two only to 1968’ —in terms of as far as he could go back and look at the records. And in 1968, what did we have happen? Well, we had Russia invade Czechoslovakia—history rhymes right?—you had two major assassinations with RFK [Robert F. Kennedy] and Martin Luther King, you had the USS Pueblo, we had race riots across the country. So that joint staff was no doubt busy. This joint staff in 2014 was incredibly busy.
This is an interesting way to think about complexity in the world, often described as “the strategic environment” by U.S. military commanders. Here, there is no apparent effort to characterize the world precisely, objectively, or with any degree of completeness. Rather, it is by the volume of total issues that the Joint Staff decided to work on. A more critical puzzle for the historian to examine would be why those issues were chosen and based on what prioritization, which were avoided and why, how they were tied to national and military strategic guidance, and how they were practically useful to inform civilian officials and military commanders.
Conceiving of the world through the lens based on the quantity of issues is somewhat similar to conceiving of success on the soccer pitch through “work rate,” which is how much a player contributes by running and defending during a match when they do not have possession of the ball. A high work rate that is measured in terms of kilometers covered is not indicative of worthwhile contribution to the overall success of the team. It quantitatively proves that you put in a lot of effort, but not whether it was the most suitable or essential to achieve the desired objectives.
There is also the question of whether the volume of issues selected by the Joint Staff to work on reflected the needs of the volume of employees. According to the most recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimate, the Joint Staff consists of 2,572 authorized positions—1,455 military and 1,117 civilian. It is impossible to know the size of this Pentagon headquarters organization in 1968—the GAO found that 2005 was “the first year we could obtain reliable data”—but it was markedly smaller, perhaps consisting of 400 to 500 personnel. If the world in 1968 was actually more complex—based upon a metric of total issues—it is remarkable that far fewer people working in the J-sections were able to deal with it.
I would predict that this same time next year, the Joint Staff historian would find that 2015 will outrank 2014, given that that virtually all U.S. intelligence and military officials describe the world as perpetually becoming more complex and challenging. To what degree this is an accurate depiction of things, or how these officials project America’s role in the world, is worth a much fuller debate about U.S. grand strategy. Webster’s defines complex as both, “an emotional problem that causes someone to think or worry too much about something” and “a group of things that are connected in complicated ways.” The extent to which the military’s ideas about international complexity reflect the former or the latter is also worth considering.