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West Point Cadets
West Point cadets and instructors

West Point Cadets

A group of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions. Who better to explore the gray areas of leadership than members of The Long Gray Line?

Was 9/11 real enough?

Q: This week's nuclear summit presents one of those difficult leadership challenge: focusing attention and resources on a low-probability problem that would be disastrous if it occurred. Global warming, 100-year floods, financial meltdowns are other examples. How can a leader fight the natural tendency among followers to put off dealing with what seem like such abstract and complicated threats?

On the morning of September 11, 2001, four U.S. planes were hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists and flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Anyone over the age of 16 today can probably remember where they were and what they were doing that Tuesday morning. I was in Mr. Sherman's history class, celebrating my 12th birthday, when the principal announced over the loud speaker that the North Tower had been hit by a low-flying aircraft. Where were you?

Government officials, military leaders and citizens alike hope to never have to pose the question of "where where you when..." again. After 9/11, numerous government programs have been launched in an effort to prevent any major attacks from ever occurring on U.S. soil again. And to this day, hundreds are still playing the blame game on who is responsible for the events of 9/11.

Thus, when President Obama launched the nuclear summit in an effort to establish a nuclear-free world and ensure all dangerous nuclear material is secured, how can anyone object? In this day and age, even if the possibility of a nuclear attack is deemed unlikely, the threat still remains menacing in the back of the minds of all leaders, good and bad.

If somehow, someway, Iran or Al-Qaeda acquired the materials to create a nuclear bomb, the threat of a nuclear attack would not seem so "abstract and complicated." If a significant WMD assault were to occur, fingers would immediately begin pointing for a scapegoat. Becuase our nation experienced that feeling of vulnerability in 2001, President Obama ought to have the support of all Americans in his mission to guarantee the security for such a "low-probability" threat. -- Cadet Megan Snook

The reason leaders have backbones

Picture this: Upon conducting an extensive review of trends in meteorological patterns, an esteemed scientist approaches the governor of a state and reports, "Mr. Governor, our findings reveal with 99% confidence that a devastating hurricane capable of leveling everything within five miles of the coastline will strike this state in the next two-to-four years. My team has run the appropriate algorithms, and fortunately, if we begin augmenting the levee structures now, the foreseeable carnage can be completely prevented. All we need is your permission to begin." The governor responds, "Please tell me more precisely: Will it be two years or four? My term will be over in three."

They say that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," but since when has prevention ever been considered sexy? Let's face it: the system of politics we as Americans have grown comfortable with does not exactly reward foresight beyond four years. Nor does it adequately incentivize actions that may not bear immediate results.

The problem for leaders is that the solutions to abstract and complicated threats are rarely, if ever, tangible in the immediate term. So what will it take to overcome this? It will take a servant's humility to potentially allow another to take credit, and a leader's backbone to do it for the gut feeling that the pursuit is right. -- Cadet Woo Do

The Boy Scout way

I learned a valuable lesson from my adolescent days in the Boy Scouts. To this day I still subscribe to the simple Boy Scout motto of "Be Prepared." As a young scout it meant thinking through and being prepared for all contingencies no matter how slight the probability of occurrence was.

Now as a soldier, the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) has me always consider the Most Dangerous Course-of-Action (MDCOA). Again, this mechanism serves to identify a low-probability high-risk problem and take steps to mitigate against that threat. Considering this unlikely course of action is my duty as a leader of other young soldiers. Similarly, as a husband and father, I purchase multiple versions of insurance to protect my family from financial distress in the unlikely event of an auto accident, natural disaster, or worse.

As President Obama and leaders from the international community gather in Washington this week to discuss the containment and security of nuclear arms around the world, they must ensure in no uncertain terms that the world recognizes the "most dangerous course of action" in this nuclear arena. Until this supposed low-probability threat is a zero-probability threat, we must be prepared for the worst and our leaders must strive for total containment if not complete eradication.

Part of being prepared means continuing to take the steps necessary to eliminate this threat, though it is a "low-probability." It is the duty of a leader -- it is the duty of our nation's leader. This summit is a step in the right direction and though it may yield great promises of hope, John Fletcher said it best, in that "Deeds, not words shall speak me." As the Boy Scouts of America celebrate their 100th anniversary this year, we as leaders could all are better served by embracing their motto of "Be prepared." -- Major Chris Midberry

Politicians, eat your vegetables

The CBO estimates that interest payments on our national debt will spiral from 1.4% of our current GDP to 4.1% in 2020. Why? Because amidst two wars, a recession, and state-funded healthcare, politicians seeking re-election -- like children served vegetables -- demur from the unpalatable options of cutting costs or increasing taxes.

Short of dredging Voltaire from his grave to appoint an enlightened monarch, how can our trains resemble Japan's and our tax laws become decipherable?

Leaders will implement avant-garde policies to the extent that they are valued by constituents, shareholders, and subordinates. We at least indirectly choose our leaders -- and by extension, we choose their policies. Using voting booths and grass-roots movements, citizens need to incentivize politically inconvenient but necessary choices -- not the expedient back-room logrolling that casts but a winking homage to national interests.

Those leaders courageous enough -- or with congressional seats secure enough -- to make shrewd policies are charged with convincing voters that an inundated East Coast or a globe shrouded in nuclear winter are prospects worth combating. Like a statistician playing poker, we have to assign expected value (i.e. political priority) based upon both probability and the magnitude of a given event's outcome.

The situation mirrors the basic principle that Dr. Stephen Covey teaches: if you don't put your big rocks in the jar first, they'll never fit. While mushroom clouds, polar ice caps and Chinese hegemony may seem unlikely to affect our prosperity now, wise leaders will devote the resources necessary to defuse those inconvenient risks before they ignite. -- Cadet Sam Goodgame

As the full story behind the recent coal mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia is now just coming into the light, it is being reported that the company in charge of maintaining the mine has been cited for years of failure to adhere to safety regulations. Specifically, the citations from the federal government explained that the mine had problems with its ventilation systems, which could potentially cause a lethal build up and explosion of methane gas. While the official report is still months from completion, one of the proposed of causes for the explosion was a buildup of methane gas due to improper ventilation.

If the mine owners knew they had potential problems, then why did they not immediately fix them? It's the same reason why the finical collapse of 2008 occurred. While we always hope for the best possible outcomes, no one ever wants to prepare for the worst-case scenario. It's human nature to be optimistic, but leaders often have a problem with the fact that life does not exactly turn out as planned. In the cases I mentioned, the leaders in charge assumed that the chances of total failure were so slim, that it did occur to them that the cost of failure would be so high.

Leaders are placed in positions of authority for a reason. They are tasked with planning for all possible scenarios and preparing their followers to handle whatever life might throw their way. From practicing fire drills and evacuation plans to controlling global warming and nuclear proliferation, leaders must do what they feel is right for their followers, even if the followers do not see an immediate need to do so. For the leader, this is not so much an option, but a requirement. -- Cadet Alex Stodola

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

By West Point Cadets

 |  April 13, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: We are all 'slackers' | Next: The duty of leaders


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To Cadet Goodgame

Thirty years ago, we had another president- Jimmy Carter- who tried to get Congress to eliminate unnecessary spending programs. He lasted one term. He was blamed for "hollowing out" the military, when in fact there was plenty of money for military spending except that the Congress refused to close unnecessary bases and instead cut the O&M lines to meet Carter's budget numbers.

Every president since then has either proposed more spending, or just nibbled around the edges with spending cuts, rather than meet Carter's fate. Very few programs have been eliminated. Everyone in Congress knows these facts, but it takes political courage to shut down passenger air service in underutilized airports, cancel unneeded Cold War weapons systems like the B-52, or eliminate agricultural subsidies to companies who would still be profitable without them. People are selfish and they want everyone else's spending to be cut except for their own; even when their own makes no sense in any overall national purpose.

Within the timeframe of your military career, you will see America's creditors band together and demand that Congress cut spending and/or raise taxes, before they will lend more money. I hope for your sake and that of my children that this happens sooner rather than later, because that's the only way it's going to change peacefully without a run on the dollar or massive inflation. The voting majority is either deluded, apathetic or greedy; there is no sense of the common good of the whole country any more.
There's no other way out of this; the economic model based on building subdivisions, office parks and regional shopping centers will not again create full employment with $3 per gallon gasoline.

Posted by: stillaliberal | April 13, 2010 11:44 PM
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Cadet Snook speaks of a potential threat from Iran and Al Qaeda, but not of the US policies that are to blame. For generations, our leaders have pursued a policy of supporting "the enemy of my enemy," even when that means supporting a ruthless dictator (like the Shah of Iran) or religious fanatics (like the Islamic mujahadeen of Afghanistan). Time and time again, this stupid policy has blown up in our face - sometimes, as on 9/11, literally so. Either the tyrants and murderers we support turn on us, as Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda did, or they are overthrown and we are hated by those who replace them, as happened in Iran.

We are still pursuing the same policy today by supporting a corrupt ruler in Afghanistan. Another corrupt ruler we supported, the leader of Kyrgyzstan, seems to have been overthrown; will we lose our vital air base there because we have allowed ourselves to be identified with that country's deposed tyrant? When will our leaders stop making the same stupid mistake over and over again?

Posted by: continental46@aol.com | April 13, 2010 11:12 PM
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To Cadet Megan Snook:
Was Hiroshima and Nagasaki real enough?

Posted by: wturecki | April 13, 2010 11:05 PM
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duh!!! why would Iran attack the US? And why would it attack with a nuke or dirty bomb, knowing that it would be obliterated by the country that is armed enough nukes to destroy the planet several times? By assuming that you people are the only rational beings in a world full of unequal and irrational beings, you prove the world over how irrational you are... Yes, I am Iranian!

Posted by: shabanian | April 13, 2010 10:03 PM
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Since the citizens of Venezuela elected Hugo Chavez to office, I find it difficult to lay blanket statements on the situation there.

Could it be better? Sure.
Are there foreign fingers meddling in their affairs? Most certainly.
Are some of those fingers American? Of course.

The US does not, can not, will not allow a pro-Socialist state, even one only semi-Socialist, to exist without trying to stamp it out. Venezuela is one such state. How unfortunate for rabid capitalists (what happened to those Free Market ideals?) that this state happens to have come about through political process... and his nation happens to be rich in oil.

Posted by: psienesis | April 13, 2010 9:57 PM
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The 9/11 hijackers were funded by rich Saudi's... of which none have been brought to justice and the Saudi govt stonewalls any investigation. The Saudi's stonewall any attempt by the U.S. to investigate al-Qaida in Saudia Arabia.

Posted by: kkrimmer | April 13, 2010 9:06 PM
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Cadet Snook needs to look beyond what they taught her in Cannon Fodder 101 and ask herself some questions. For example, when was the last time in history that Iran actually attacked another country? Or, when was the last time her own country attacked another country on false pretenses?

Or how about why isn't North Korea, which is run by a certifiable madman, admits it's developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them as fast as it can and is within striking distance of U.S. territory not her government's number one security concern?

Posted by: politbureau | April 13, 2010 8:28 PM
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"If the mine owners knew they had potential problems, then why did they not immediately fix them? It's the same reason why the finical collapse of 2008 occurred. While we always hope for the best possible outcomes, no one ever wants to prepare for the worst-case scenario. It's human nature to be optimistic, but leaders often have a problem with the fact that life does not exactly turn out as planned."

Cadet Stodola: The whys are right in front of us. Because mine management and shareholders put their profits over people's lives. Read what Mr. Blankenship has said in the past. There was no union at this mine looking out for workers. That's the case in most of America, where employees have little if any input into how their workplaces are run. Just be more productive and accept wage and benefit cuts if they tell you, even if your productivity is way up, and that is the case in America and has been for a long time.
Regulatory agencies are stocked with industry-friendly staff. Elaine Chao, Sen. Mitch McConnell's wife, was Labor Secretary during the Bush years and consistently took the side of management over Labor. Companies know any penalties they might have to pay are negligible so they'll just risk people's lives, not a big deal to them. Pfizer formed a separate subsidiary just to settle lawsuits.
The middle class has been under assault by transnational corporations for decades. Those companies, with no allegiance to any nation except the green flag of profit, have no morals but now it's been decided they are persons with rights of free speech. They exist only to make money, and that's a standard some would have humanity reduced to.

Posted by: bdunn1 | April 13, 2010 7:28 PM
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Cadet Megan Snook is mistaken about Iran. The National Intelligence Estimate recognizes that Iran is run by cold, calculating men. They would not attack the US with nukes, nor would they give the crown jewels of their arsenal to anyone, especially terrorists.

Al Qaeda, of course, is another story. They will nuke us if they can. But Iran would not.

Posted by: Garak | April 13, 2010 7:12 PM
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I was sitting in Prob. and Stats on the 3rd floor of Thayer Hall on 9/11/01. If the planes that hit the WTC had instead held stolen nuclear weapons, and had been detonated mid-air, the probablity that I would have been able to spend several more 9/11's in Afghanistan would have been drastically reduced. Multiply that by the millions of people who live in the Metro DC area and the NYC, and there is the difference that makes action on nuclear proliferation necessary now.

Reading your insightful responses makes me proud to be a member of the long grey line - grip hands!

Posted by: willis9000 | April 13, 2010 4:40 PM
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I have issues with the threat of nuclear terrorism being considered "complicated and abstract."

On the contrary, it demands MORE attention than possible "rouge-states" or "un-allied" states having nuclear weapons.

If say N Korea were to attempt to attack the US with nuclear weapons, there would be a palpable (and addressable) "build-up" to the possible moment of attack.

It is entirely possible that all the "warning" we would get of a nuclear terrorist attack would be the mushroom cloud rising over NYC or DC.

That is far more dire a possibility to address than any rogue or other state related nuclear threat.

Posted by: AnonPoster | April 13, 2010 4:25 PM
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To the first commenter, NewAgent99:

In some respects you have a fair point -- some of the things done by current or past US governments have caused anti-US anger that is either justified or at least understandable.

But it is usually case that the corrupt, wealthy elites are the ones opposed to the US, and are actively fomenting hatred of the US in order to deflect popular anger onto a foreign strawman. Want a list? The PLO (Yasser Arafat died as one of the world's richest men); Venezuela (Chavez's group has become rich through state-sponsored theft); dozens of Arab state governments; Russia; Zimbabwe; Burma/Myanmar; Cuba; Bolivia. I could go on.

The elites in these countries are fomenting hatred against the US because the US is threatening the elites. The US is the good guy in all these situations. As you'll recognize, unless you are as confused as Chavez's friend, Sean Penn.

Posted by: rowerinva | April 13, 2010 3:57 PM
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If the USA didn't interfere in other countries governments (especially by backing the currupt wealthy elites who virturally enslave their own people) we wouldn't have so many issues with other coutnry's peoples hating us.

Posted by: newagent99 | April 13, 2010 3:40 PM
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