The `K Street Clausewitz’ Remembered

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Mark Thompson’s 27 December posting, “General Newt,” alerted readers of Battleland to Karen Tumulty’s pastiche of mini portraits of Newt Gingrich’s martial prowess.  Mark highlighted one the few passages that zeroed in on the insubstantial essence of the K Street Clausewitz.

Unable to contain my mirth, I immediately forwarded Mark’s posting to to my close friend, the noted military reformer, Pierre Sprey, who replied immediately, with his usual rapier wit:


…What no reporter seems to have tumbled to is that Newt is dumb as an old boot. John Boyd and I had several years of “working” with him in the Congressional Military Reform Caucus, years during which Newt found it advantageous to pose as a reformer.

Within a month or so, John and I both realized that Newt had almost perfect recall of other people’s intellectual-sounding ideas and phrases–and could barf them back convincingly without understanding a shred of the content. At the drop of a hat he could string together a two hour lecture on anything from concocting new war-winning technologies to optimizing grand America’s strategy the 21st century. For the listening layman, the entire two hours would flow seamlessly and every idea would sound newly minted and carefully crafted. But for those of us who knew the sources of Newt’s cribs, it was perfectly obvious that not one of those ideas was his, nor did he have the shallowest comprehension of any of them.

You can imagine what an intellectual giant that major general was who found Newt’s Flag Officer War Fighting Course lectures so mesmerizing.


John Boyd and I also met with Newt a few times in the early 80s, when I worked in the Pentagon. To give a little background: At that time, I  was a member of a small group of Pentagon insiders who became known as the “military reformers.” Boyd, a retired Air Force colonel, legendary fighter pilot, a noted airplane designer and tactician, was the spiritual leader of our merry crew. Boyd was also one of America’s leading strategists and theoreticians on the art of war. Boyd and Sprey were the intellectual leaders of the movement. I was happy enough to be a foot soldier in the effort.  A short bio of Boyd can be found here; and Robert Coram’s very popular book-length biography of Boyd and the inner workings of the reformers can be found here (it is still in print after 11 years and sales are now approaching 100,000).  A compendium of Boyd’s famous briefings on the the nature of conflict together with the associated theory of the Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action (OODA) Loop, “A Discourse on Winning and Losing,” can be downloaded here.[1]

Newt’s propensity for bombastic lecturing on subjects he knew little about was immediately obvious to us all. In fact, I was so impressed by Newt’s utterings I nicknamed him Neutrino after a small, almost massless, sub-atomic particle in physics. Like Newt, neutrinos are made possible by decadence — intellectual in the case of Newt, radioactive in the case of physics; like Newt, neutrinos flit about uncontrollably at very high speeds, while producing even more  chaotic reactions that fold back on themselves — self-destructively in the case of the Newt, or as anti-particles in the case of the physics. So, like Newt, neutrinos are very hard to make sense out of. Of course no analogy is perfect — neutrinos have no electric charge, whereas it very clear Newt is highly, if erratically, charged.

Quite unlike Newt, Pierre has substantive defense bona fides: fluent in German and French, as well as English; he is a widely-read polymath with degrees in mechanical engineering, french literature, and mathematical statistics. Pierre’s track record has established him as a brilliant engineer and mathematician and he has been a path-breaking pioneer in analyzing the lessons of combat and how to apply them to the design of weapons.[2]    Along with Colonels Boyd and Everest Riccioni, for example, Pierre was one of the central intellectual forces evolving the design of the F-16, perhaps the most successful US fighter since the Korean War F-86.  Pierre was also the chief intellectual inspiration behind the design of the brilliantly successful and highly-feared A-10 close air support aircraft.  He has written widely on military reform as well as design, testing, and weapons acquisition issues, most recently contributing the insightful Essay 9, “Evaluating Weapons: Sorting the Good from the Bad,” to the The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It, an anthology written by nine defense insiders with over 500 years of cumulative experience. (Truth in advertising: I am author of Essay 1).

Witty as it is, Pierre’s evisceration of Neutrino goes beyond mere entertainment; it is important because it brings into sharp focus a truly scary aspect of the emerging presidential election, not to mention American politics in general — namely, the dangerous addiction to mindless warmongering that now pervades the defense debate in America, be it explicit in the case of the Republican presidential candidates  (Ron Paul excepted) or implicit in the reckless triangulations  of a weak, cynical president (discussed in my last posting).  Neutrino is one of the America’s leading warmongers — and like most of his brethren, has he never served a day in uniform. Nor has he slugged it out in the trench warfare of fixing Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex, although he slopped in the gravy of its cash flows.  Yet as Tumulty pointed out, he is lecturing our generals how to fight wars.

The James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, understood the endgame when political neutrinos short-circuit the synapses of the collective mind:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. [3]

The fact that US generals invite a mental disarmament specialist like Newt to lecture them on the arts of strategy and warfighting and are then are mesmerized by his lectures says more about the intellectual and professional state of our military leadership as it does about the Neutrino.  It goes a long way to explain (a) why our military interventions since WWII are devolving into one of history longest string of “incomplete successes” (to borrow Jimmy Carter’s immortal reference to the disastrous Iranian hostage rescue mission made at a 29 April 1980 press conference), and (b) why the old reformers went on record for one last time by producing The Pentagon Labyrinth in 2011 and make it available, together with a huge a amount of source information, free of cost on the internet at this link.


[1] Boyd’s works has been written about widely since the late 1970s and has had enormous influence in many fields.  If you doubt this, just google “OODA Loop”

[2] I used the descriptor polymath advisedly; Pierre is also the founder and chief engineer of Mapleshade Studios, considered by many audiophiles to be one of the finest and most innovative producers of sound, especially jazz.

[3] James Madison’s letter to W.T. Barry (4 August 1822).