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Sunday, November 21, 2004

It's all about governance....

A few posts back I promised some reflections on Colin Powell and the nature of military style accountability. So here it goes....

In my work on accountability, I've attempted to explore some of the "cultural" and organizational variations on the norms and rules surrounding formal and informal account-giving behavior. And among the most distinctive are found in the US military. I assume that surprises no one, for it's always been taken for granted that even (or especially) in a democracy, the operating values and norms of the armed services would be different from the "civilian" side of the state. What is surprising to most, however, is the nature of that difference, for it is not the military's hierarchicalism or reliance on discipline that stands out, but rather its professionalism and status as a "moral community".

Powell's career and character as a public servant has been a manifestation and reflection of that distinctive form of accountability, and that is why I find him a compelling "case" for study. What we know of his character comes mainly from the news coverage and myths that have built up around Powell's life, and a good deal of that can be attributed to Bob Woodward's work over the past 14 years. From The Commanders to Plan of Attack, Woodward has documented the "inside story" of decisions from the Panama invasion and first Gulf War to the current war effort in Iraq. Powell, while not necessarily the focal point of these works, is the most interesting and intriguing personality in them. The image that emerges is that of an engaged infighter who does not hesitate to take a stand during the debates; but also a "good soldier" who, once the decision is made, salutes and carries out his orders with dedication.

Such is the image of the generation of "general officers" who took the helm of the US military in the post-Vietnam era. Journalist James Kitfield offers the best single portrait of this group and their development in Prodigal Soldiers, a book that deserves much more attention than it has received. The focus is that group of field-level officers (i.e., majors, colonels) in Vietnam who took over a demoralized military and rebuilt it from within during the late 1970s. Kitfield''s narrative not only focuses on the individuals (Powell is only one of those featured, but as much attention is given to Berry McCaffrey, Schwartzkopf and others) but also the emerging doctrines and attitudes that would eventually find expression in what is today called the Powell Doctrine. [Originally articulated as the Weinberger Doctrine -- after Powell's boss at DoD under Reagan -- it is notable for not being followed in Iraq.]

The nature and power of accountability in this military culture needs more exploration, but in many respects it is far different from the forms of accountability found in the civilian sphere or in other arenas of governance in the US (e.g., corporate). For one thing, it is far less hierarchical and litigious and a great deal more dependent on socialization into a community-based code of conduct. It is much closer to the legendary Japanese culture of corporate accountability, and thus difficult for "outsiders" to grasp. [When attempting to teach the difference to my students, I rely on "A Few Good Men, a movie (and play) best known for Jack Nicholson's "you can't handle the truth" speech.]

Bottom line: if we are going to understand the behavior and choices of the Colin Powells of the world, we need to enhance our understanding of the role of accountability in the military. Thus, the same knowledge that will help us deal with the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the recent events in Fallujah, can give us insight into the decision making that put those troops there. Those who think accountability is just about democracy, transparency, ethical behavior etc., etc. miss the point. It's all about governance.

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