Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Q & A with Leftwich Trophy Recipient, Maj Benjamin Middendorf

The Marine Corps Association & Foundation's (MCA&F) Roxanne Baker sits down with Maj Benjamin Middendorf, this year's recipient of the Leftwich Trophy.

Middendorf accepted the award at MCA&F's 10th annual Ground Awards dinner in 2013.

"It's a huge honor to say the least and I hope to do it justice," he said. "Just to be a Marine by itself, that's enough for me. I don't need any other recognition or title other than 'United States Marine'."

Listen to the podcast.

MCA&F publishes the Marine Corps Gazette.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Innovation and Lean Startups in the World’s Largest Bureaucracy: DEF2013

In his 2011 work The Lean Startup, serial entrepreneur Eric Ries describes a method for successful entrepreneurship that stresses the importance of rapid iteration over extensive planning, adaptive learning over causal logic, and getting an idea into the hands of end users well before it is completely validated.  While this technique was considered innovative and ground breaking in the business world, Ries’s approach to problem solving should seem very familiar to Marine leaders. 

The oft quoted mantra “the 80% solution executed violently and on time is better than the 100% solution executed too late” is Reis’s theory in action.  The best planners and leaders understand that while a well thought out scheme of maneuver is the first step to any operation, no plan survives contact with the enemy.  The ability to adapt to a changing situation (or in business speak to “iterate and learn”) is just as important as the ability to create the “perfect plan”.  The business world and the Marine Corps are closer than both would like to admit, and we can certainly learn from each other.

It is with that in mind that we invite all interested Marines, Sailors, and like-minded individuals to the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (, a conference to be held at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business over Columbus Day Weekend. The conference will bring together individuals who want to explore and accelerate their ideas with the assistance of business school faculty, seasoned entrepreneurs, successful investors, and senior military officers.

While Ries’s methodology is just one example of the wave of entrepreneurial thought that the emerging generation of civilian private sector leaders has embraced, most Marines would agree that we have used this adaptive learning philosophy throughout our Corps’ history.  Examples of recent Marine innovations include the development of Female Engagement Team (FET), which became an official Marine Corps program and was adopted by the Army. The Harvest HAWK, a cargo plane with a payload of missiles bolted onto its wing, is an instance of developing an inexpensive close air support platform quickly to provide support to ground forces.  Another example would be squadron pilots inventing a system to use iPads to view the over 1000 paper map sheets covering the Helmand Valley, all for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars less than a contractor would charge.  These and hundreds of other innovations, both technical and non-technical in nature, are key to our success as an organization, especially considering that fiscal cutbacks are likely to eviscerate our operational budgets over the next decade.     

A member of a USMC Female Engagement Team (FET)

We are organizing DEF2013 with other junior and former military officers from across the services because we have seen the utility of innovation at the unit level and its outsized impact on our organization as a whole. Results such as FETs and the Harvest HAWK must become more of a standard than an exception. We are not seeking to disrupt the military, but rather trying to figure out how we can foster best practices, like the lean startup methodology, from the civilian sector to our military units. This is particularly critical as we shift away from twelve years of sustained combat operations into a peacetime setting with significant budget cuts and manpower drawdowns.  As Winston Churchill is alleged to have said, “Gentlemen we have run out of money; now we have to think.

The weapons station on a KC-130J configured as a Harvest HAWK

As is tradition, the Marine Corps will likely be hit hardest by these cuts, and more agile thinking will be needed from the service that already does more with less. Lessons learned and ideas from the private sector and in academia have been used extensively throughout the military, to include the creation of the Counterinsurgency Manual. We believe that there is also opportunity to also bring in thoughts on innovation, and are creating a community to not only share ideas, but to ensure that we are applying those ideas in real time. 

So come join us from October 12-14th in Chicago to accelerate your ideas or learn how to accelerate them in the future.  Leaders who have already committed to supporting DEF include Brigadier General William Mullen, Kevin Willer, former CEO of the startup incubator 1871, and Chicago Booth Professor of Entrepreneurship Waverly Deutsch.  If you are interested in taking part in the discussion, we are already generating topics for our innovation sessions and discussing important ideas for entrepreneurship in the military on our forum at .

Marine Corps Captains Michael “Squirrel” Christman, Tony “STORQ” Hatala, and Lindsay Rodman all currently serve on active duty. Former Marine Corps Captain Evan Johnson is now an MBA candidate at Chicago Booth. All serve on the board of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

Back to the Future Part 4: On Strategy


For few years now, I have been harping on the Marine Corps for its poor strategic education program. (Sorry, CG 13, EWS Class 2012-2013, I know you’re tired of this.) By poor, I do not mean that the strategic education is bad. Command and Staff College, where Marine officers receive their first real dose of strategic theory, has a great curriculum and outstanding staff. Rather, this dose of strategic theory comes far too late in an officer’s career. No tactical action exists without strategic context, but we pretend that it is not necessary or possible for an officer to understand that context until he or she is a field grade officer. This is false.

The justification for teaching officers strategic theory so late is that lieutenants and captains are not strategic leaders, they are tactical leaders. Theirs is not to question why, theirs is but to do or die, if you will. The decisions that company grade officers make on the battlefield are tactical in nature and thus strategic theory is unnecessary. It only makes sense that tactical leaders do not need strategic sense in order to make good tactical decisions.

This is right. Company grade officers are tactical leaders. But that Prussian-accented voice at the back of my mind whispers a quiet, “Nein.”
Strategy thereby gains the end it had ascribed to the [tactical] engagement, the end that constitutes its real significance… The original means of strategy is victory- that is, tactical success… Strategy, in connecting these factors with the outcome of the engagement, confers a special significance on that outcome and thereby on the engagement: it assigns a particular aim to it… Successful engagements or victories in all stages of importance may therefore be considered as strategic means… Not only individual engagements with particular aims are to be classified as means: any greater unity formed in a combination of engagements by being directed toward a common aim can also be considered as a means. - On War (Howard/Paret trans.) Pages 142-143.
What he means is that strategy determines ends and that those ends can only be accomplished through tactics. Tactics are only effective when endowed with significance that serves the strategy. A tactician must choose tactics that have that significance. Tactics that do not serve the strategy are, at best, wasteful. At worst, they are detrimental. Sun Tzu agrees: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Yet, we send lieutenants out to make tactical decisions without arming them with even the rudimentary skills necessary to give those decisions meaning. We cannot expect effective tactical decision making without strategic insight.  In fact, our doctrine depends on it. Maneuver warfare theory preaches that decision-making must be delegated to the lowest levels, that junior leaders must make their own decisions in the absence of orders or if the situation demands, that Marines must have a bias for action. This vacuum can be filled by only a few basic strategic theory classes at TBS and EWS. These basic classes would not be intended to make experts, but only to guide the self-study of those interested. On War is a mainstay on the Commandant’s Reading List, but few can pick up that tome and understand it without guidance or explanation. The Marine Corps expects every officer to conduct this self study but has yet to provide a decent guide to that study. The strategic theory forest is dark and thickly wooded, but a few chemlights along an officer’s path can do a world of good. 

To be sure, the Marine Corps is not a strategy-making body. However, the Marine Corps has a responsibility to inform those that do on tactical and operational plans. The necessity to understand strategy is clear. The Marine Corps used to understand this precept, one needs only read the first few pages of the Small Wars Manual to see that. Unfortunately, one needs only read a few pages of today’s diluted doctrine to see that it has forgotten it. Fortunately the solution to this problem is inexpensive. Since the future of the Marine Corps is one of budget austerity that looks worse all the time, education might be one of the last areas that the institution can affect. Thinking is free, after all, and adding classes on strategic theory to TBS and EWS is far more cost effective than the next leap ahead weapon system. What we cannot afford is to continue to ignore this important aspect of our profession.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why the West is the Best

This post is part of a series highlighting books on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List in an effort to promote the study of military history and other professional subjects. This month’s selection is “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.” Next month’s feature is “The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It.”

For the last 2,500 years Western military forces have held the advantage when confronting non-Westerners in battle. From the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th Century B.C. to the modern era in which the industrialized nations of the West project military power into any corner of the world, Western military forces win far more than they lose. Some scholars, such as Jared Diamond in his landmark Guns, Germs, and Steel attribute Eurasian dominance to accidents of geography, others to technology or even morality, but in Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, Victor Davis Hanson puts forth the premise that Western military dominance springs from the cultural traditions of the Greek city-states dating back to the 7th Century B.C.

Hanson, a noted historian, begins his work by exploring the creation of the Western cultural tradition in the rugged hills and sparse valleys of ancient Greece. He examines the Greek concept of infantry-centric shock battle in which disciplined rows of hoplites fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the great battles of Xenophon’s 10,000 and Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire. How was it that men, often outnumbered and far from home, could keep in disciplined ranks and advance in unison when confronting fierce warriors charging from every angle? Hanson believes the answer lies in the concept of individual and political freedom coupled with rationalism; that free citizens in a constitutional government give the West its advantage on the battlefield. From this basis comes other qualities addressed throughout the book: democracy, property rights, free speech & markets, the rule of law, individualism, dissent; all of which provide the people of a political entity, be it a city-state or a modern nation, with the belief that they make the decision to go to war and willingly send their citizens to fight in it with inherent rights and norms agreed on and adhered to throughout the conflict.

It’s an abstract idea, but Hanson strives to show a correlation between an army of free citizens and success in war. He goes on throughout the book to link the Hellenic cultural tradition to other societies and battles throughout the ages. From the Battle of Tenochtitlan through Lepanto and Rorke’s Drift to the modern clashes at Midway and the Tet Offensive, Hanson attaches offshoots of the Greek tradition to each engagement: the discipline of professional soldiers, the effect of capitalism on fielding the great weapons of war, and the role of dissent on pressuring governments to change failing strategies. These concepts are contrasted well against losing armies who fought as slaves to an emperor or with weapons based on ritualistic form instead of rational science. It would seem easy to dismiss Hanson’s work as deterministic or even racist, but he strives to avoid leveling judgment, although he certainly leaves room for one to draw the misguided conclusion that all nations should embrace the Western cultural tradition and perhaps by extension that the U.S. should crusade for that end as a matter of policy.

While Western nations have a strong record of military dominance, it is not immune from disaster (the Anglo-Afghan War, the Russo Japanese War and of course Dien Bien Phu just to name a few). Nation-states and non-state actors across the world study and adapt not just the Western way of war, but many are moving towards the Western cultural tradition, or like China’s blend of socialism and capitalism, are displaying a hybrid of both Western and Eastern traditions. Hanson believes that these traits are both enduring and universal; therefore they can be used or discarded by any military force or society. Therein lies the reason that military professionals need to read and study this book. Marines should ask themselves if they are emulating the qualities that Hanson notes as decisive in enabling victory in battle. Is constructive dissent within your unit encouraged or viewed as a threat? Is discipline applied with room for individual initiative to be applied in the fog of war? These and other points raised in the book are worth considering for leaders of Marines. A study guide is posted at the MCU website and a debate between Victor Davis Hanson and Jared Diamond is on YouTube and will add to your understanding of the central ideas in their works. Please leave a comment if you do or do not recommend this book for others to read.