Small Wars Journal

The Strategic Knucklehead

Tue, 09/13/2011 - 1:56pm

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The nature of the hyper-connected, media-saturated, and socially-networked international stage requires that strategic leaders be more attuned than ever to the risk posed by individual actors within their commands, agencies, and organizations.  Individual actors – “strategic knuckleheads” – whose incompetence, irresponsibility, bad acts, or culturally insensitive symbols or gestures pose strategic liability to leaders which must be managed constantly, assiduously, and sensitively.  Strategic leaders are saddled with responsibility for these individual acts which take on disproportionate importance and significance in the fully-networked world – unfavorable incidents committed by “friendlies” which a generation ago could be managed effectively now often pose an instant and immediate strategic crisis.  Acts which once were contained to a specific locale now generate ripples 10,000 miles away in a matter of minutes.  The challenge of the strategic leader now, more than ever, is to adopt appropriate mindsets, recognize vulnerabilities, anticipate problems, plan to mitigate bad effects, and react with increased political and operational sensitivity and sensibility when the inauspicious acts of “strategic knuckleheads” inevitably do occur.

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About the Author(s)

Butch Bracknell is a retired Marine officer, an international law professional, a former international security fellow at The Atlantic Council of the United States, a member of the Truman National Security Project, and fellow at the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.  These opinions are his own and may not be attributed to any organization or institution.



Sun, 03/04/2012 - 8:00am

This is a subject worth re-looking, in light of recent events.


Wed, 09/14/2011 - 12:26am

I've always assumed that the publicly told story on the Davis case is fiction, simply because it makes no sense. I don't know what was really going on, and I don't suppose anyone else does either, unless they are privy to information that they shouldn't be discussing in public. I don't see how a determination of knuckleheadedness is possible unless the facts of the case are known, and I don't think they are.

A better example might be the Daniel Smith rape case in Subic in 2005, which posed an irritating and completely unnecessary kink in Philippine-American military relations for some time. On the basis of uncontested evidence the incident represented an extraordinary degree of knuckleheadedness, but the truly incomprehensible behaviour was on the part of whoever allowed the young Marines involved to be out drinking unsupervised in an environment where it was well known that there were well connected people eagerly awaiting any opportunity to blow any incident into a public issue. How hard is it to figure the probability that testosterone + alcohol + females is likely to equal incident? I know a lot of people remember the supposed "good old days" in Subic fondly, but the old days are done; how hard is it really to keep the boys off the juice and with the pants zipped up? Stupid enough to boggle the mind.


Wed, 03/14/2012 - 11:07am

In reply to by Ken White

That last paragraph sounds perilously close to this.

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent -- their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy -- they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

Ken White

Tue, 09/13/2011 - 10:25pm

Interesting article with interesting, perhaps, presumptions on the Davis incident. As LtCol Bracknell said in essence another place about another case, too early to tell...

This, However:<blockquote>"Leaders must work to identify organizational strategic knuckleheads, mitigate the risk they pose through training, suitable assignments, and accountability, and prepare to moderate the consequences when their individual actions create strategic liabilities and compromise U.S. national security ends."</blockquote>is quite accurate and no presumption. I certainly agree that <i>should</i> be the norm.

Unfortunately, it is also unrealistic -- unless the author has developed a way to mitigate the effects of a well meaning but deluded Congress that insists, to the point of crippling absurdity, on 'fairness' and 'objectivity' in all personnel matters throughout the Federal service, military and civilian. They and personnel systems that insist anyone of given attainments can do certain jobs as well as any other with similar attainments -- systems structured to avoid reliefs for cause and summary judgments -- almost completely tie the hands of Leaders.

Those problems and a risk averse, dependent upon government society have produced, it seems to this long serving and even longer time observer, a culture of 'prudence' and caution that will insure that mitigating risk continues to take precedence over achieving desirable results.

Mediocre performers are as or possibly more dangerous than Knuckleheads -- and they rarely accomplish much...

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 09/13/2011 - 9:50pm

Hmmm… he calls Raymond Davis a "strategic knucklehead". I heard a lecture last week in which a very knowledgable Pakistani scholar described how Davis had been doing some very important and effective intelligence work and it was because he as so effective that he was targeted and in fact it was a deliberate assassination attempt. I do not know the facts; only what I have read in the press and what I heard in a lecture. But I doubt that LtCol Bracknell has all the facts about Raymond Davis either (or else he would not be writing about him and violating security rules). And I am sure the press has not had access to all the facts either. But as the saying goes one would rather be tried by 12 than carried by 6. Lt Bracknell is obviously one of the 12 putting Davis on trial. There but for the grace......