If monarchy and oligarchy are rule by the few, and aristocracy and democracy are rule by the best and the many, then bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt tells us, is rule by Nobody. It is often easier—and often more accurate—to blame a bureaucratic system than it is to blame the individuals in it for its failures, and even for its nature. Because of that inability to hold individuals accountable, Arendt tells us that “rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all.”
Arendt, writing in the 1970s, believed rule by Nobody was a leading contributor to social unrest and violence in her time. Today that tyranny is on full display within the Department of Defense, where it instead produces inaction and inertia. The Army’s most senior leader went on publicly decried the slowness of the Army’s process to pick a new pistol, only to have his spokesperson release a statement about how the Army would continue to follow the process without prejudice. The military has fought in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, regularly making questionable claims of progress as each senior leader switched out with the next, and few in any part of government were held accountable for the actual lack of results. This system can inspire a sense of helplessness, a sense that failure can, and possibly should, be blamed on constraints created by DoD’s bureaucracy that even its most senior leaders seem powerless to change.
These failures include DoD’s seeming inability to adopt modern information technology. Soviet military theorists, recognizing the potential impact of the United States’ growing deep-strike capabilities, predicted a revolution in military affairs in the 1970s. An industry was born in the United States. Despite the abundance of literature about revolutions, transformation, and offsets, however, the Department of Defense has struggled to take meaningful steps to make the future predicted in the 1970s become a reality. Instead, sensors and weapon systems remain in silos rather than highly connected networks, continuous delivery of software is more of a talking point than a reality, and data-driven decision making in tactical environments still seems like science fiction. Frustrated reformers often blame these struggles on lethargic acquisition and personnel systems, personified by the frozen middle that neither enthusiastic senior leaders nor innovative junior leaders can ever seem to thaw.