Analysis: Gates’s Speech on the All-Volunteer Force

Posted: September 30, 2010 in Uncategorized
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The transcript of Secretary Gates’s speech at Duke University is called a “lecture” by the headline writers at the DoD Public Affairs web site and is an interesting piece for sure.  At a little over 4000 words, it’s not insignificant, and it’s clear the Secretary keeps his scriptwriters busy.  Gates has told us to parse through his speeches like the Kremlinologists used to do back in the day.  OK, here’s my brief attempt at parsing out and instant analysis.

As background, Gates’s writers employ the golden rules of speechwriting, that is, brevity (4000 words isn’t that long), humor, and references to famous and long-dead people.  Check, check, and check.  Good writing makes for good speeches, so Gates is off to a reasonable start.  Of course, public speaking is an unavoidable burden of leadership, so with that out of the way, let the parsing begin.

Words matter and speeches are made for a purpose, whether it’s to entertain, inform, or to send a message.  It seems the main purpose of Gates’s speech is to prepare the battlefield or to set the conditions for debate regarding future changes affecting the defense community, and by extension, national security.

Most prominent is the theme that the nation is asking too much of too few.  This idea is first made manifest in a sort of nostalgia regarding the draft.  Many characteristics of the draft, or better said, of military service, created a sort of burden sharing and the associated quasi-universal experience itself provided a certain amount of national security benefit, even as the Secretary views a return to the draft as politically dead-before-arrival and militarily unattractive.

But if asking too much of too few is the issue, the solutions are constrained to 1) doing less, 2) having more people, or 3) a combination of these two.

The ‘asking too much of too few’ idea flows to less evident but unavoidable practical outcomes: a call to disengage (doing less), a call to cut costs (doing less), and a call to create a military force with a greater leadership representation including from those who attend so-called ‘elite’ universities (having more people).

Why is this ‘elite’ university thing an issue?  Because if you’re the President and I’m the general and we both went to Harvard (for example), we’re more likely to connect with each other due to our shared experiences.  Or if you’re the President and served in the military and I’m the general, we’re again more likely to connect effectively, again, due to our shared, common experiences.

There’s lots more that needs to be said on the Secretary’s speech and time and conditions permitting, I plan to unpack it more fully in next week’s The Wright Stuff.


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