Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Ten Whats With…Kevin Benson

by Micah Zenko
August 10, 2011

Kevin-Benson

Kevin Benson (Courtesy Univ. of Kansas, Creative Commons License).

Quick Bio (2-3 sentences): I was raised in Wisconsin and left after high school to go to West Point, 1973-1977.  I served on active duty in the U.S. Army for thirty years during which my wife and daughter endured eighteen moves, including overseas to Germany.  I recently completed a PhD in American History and am teaching at Fort Leavenworth, KS.  I work for AECOM.

What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?

The most interesting project I am working on is the development of a three-day course on critical thinking for the U.S. Army School of Command Preparation.  The three-day program is a part of a ten-day course for colonels who are selected for brigade command.   The men and women who are selected to command brigades in our army form the pool from which most of the general officers that form the senior leadership of the army are chosen.  The project I am a part of is designed to enhance the abilities of these men and women to think critically, accept alternative perspectives, and develop more nuanced concepts for operations.

What got you started in your career?

When I was a young lad I read about soldiers in American history.  One of my grandfathers fought in World War I and my uncle and my father fought in World War II.  While they were not professional soldiers, their service inspired me.  When I read about West Point the idea of being an army officer and commanding soldiers really took hold.  I’ve never had a “mid-life crisis” because I had the privilege of serving something larger than myself as well as jumping from perfectly functioning airplanes, shooting tanks, and commanding American soldiers.  The responsibility of command is like no other responsibility.  Leading and training soldiers is very satisfying.

What advice would you give to young people in your field?

Take the profession of arms seriously but do not take yourself seriously.  An officer’s highest obligation to the Republic is being ready to fight.  This takes mental and physical preparation because the best officers lead by force of personal example.  They share the discomfort and the danger with their soldiers.

What person, book, or article has been most influential on your thinking?

People: My father, Taylor G. Benson.  Dad was not a great figure in history, but to me he was a great man.  He set an example of what being a man means; be true to your word, respect people, judge by the individual not by the group, care for your family, have fun, and know when to be serious and when not to be so.

Books: Once an Eagle, and Command Missions.  Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle contrasted two fictional soldiers and talked about leadership and the characteristics of good leaders.  General Lucian Truscott’s Command Missions is the finest WWII autobiography written by an American general officer.  Truscott does not spare himself in terms of identifying errors he made and how he learned from them.

What was the last book you finished?

Gordon Rudd’s Reconstructing Iraq.  Dr. Rudd’s book is the best book written to date on the planning for the opening stages of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  I was the lead planner for Third Army, the overall land command headquarters for the invasion, and I learned a great deal from Rudd’s book.

What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?

I am tempted to say that if I knew the answer to this question I would still be on active duty.  I think that it is our ability to be surprised that an adversary can surprise us by finding a new asymmetric vector of attack.

What is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?

Terrorism.  Terror is a method.  Waging war on terror is akin, in my mind, to waging war on the common cold.  We will treat symptoms for a long time.  Terrorism is not a problem for the police, however.  Groups outside the United States are a military problem.  Killing them is the most effective means of preventing dastardly actions, when the threshold of intent and capability is crossed.  The option to use the method of terror is deterred by our demonstrated ability to find and kill people belonging to international groups who flirt with the notion of threatening our nation through weapons of mass effect or destruction.  These groups’ decision calculus should be complicated by the sure knowledge that they are living on borrowed time if they threaten our nation.

What is the most significant emerging global challenge?

Food distribution and the availability of clean drinking water.  Famine in Somalia, drought, rising food prices, and social media, all of these various factors, coupled with using access to food as a weapon of control, are ugly conditions that will lead to war.  If our national values are now equal to our national interests–ala intervention in Libya–we will certainly be conducting armed humanitarian interventions in areas where water distribution is an issue, water for irrigation is disrupted, and food is not made available to different minorities and ethnic groups.  Think about rules of engagement in those situations!

What would you research if given two years and unlimited resources?

I would assemble a panel of people from the geographical middle of the country and offer “A View from the Heartland” on topics of national interest; for example, defense, immigration, the budget, etc.  It seems to me that far too often Washington, D.C.-based think tanks dominate the policy world and assemble the usual suspects to write papers on the Quadrennial Defense Review, for example.  It is time to offer views from different perspectives and locations.   There are many wise people in our country, and not all of them live on the coasts.

What do you think about the budget brouhaha and cutting the DoD budget?

All the points of view from Fareed Zakaria to former Secretary Gates to my own Kansas congressional delegation commit the same error I’ve seen in all my years of service.  They all jump on a number–x Billion over y years of reductions.  The hard part of this reassessment of how much we spend on defense, in my opinion, really ought to begin with a reassessment of what it is our country will defend, what is our policy regarding vital national interests and national values.  All of the spending reductions and the spending increases I lived through in my career were all focused on systems.  I know that systems are built in factories and factories are built in congressional districts and money talks.  I cannot recall a no-kidding review of “what we’ll defend” since I raised my right hand to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  I do not count the Quadrennial Defense Reviews or even the National Security Strategies because I am unsure of whom, aside from the “iron major/lieutenant colonel” authors really reads them.  In my view the reductions in defense spending were the root causes of the following increases because one party wanted to gain political advantage, or we were surprised by an enemy tactic.

If I were the Secretary of Defense for the day, I would direct a policy and strategy review of our national defense and vital interests.  The review would be done in one month.  I’d include security studies professors, House and Senate staffers, and officers and students in the advanced military studies schools of the Armed Forces.  I’d ask who is deterrable and who is not.  I would demand identification of the ends and ways of a strategy and then determine the means necessary.  I would also demand an assessment of how much over the required means must be on hand, because I firmly believe that “whatever we’d determine would be incorrect, thus our goal would be to be not too badly incorrect,” to paraphrase Sir Michael Howard.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Doug Johnson

    Kevin – great to see this!
    Did you ever finish the SAMS research you were doing?
    I am writing a new history of the AWC and would like to see what you have done with SAMS as I make several references to it

  • Posted by BISE

    I like your texts very much. That is why I like to use them in my article, if it is possible. I am interesting in that topic, and I need you help. Please, say YES. I warmly thank you.

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