David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Profiles in Type L: General Paul Van Riper

A few months back, in Battle Lines, I talked about the divide between the free-market technocrats and the conservative old boys in American society, dubbing them Type L and Type C respectively. To review:

  • Type L: libertarian, technocratic, meritocratic, pro-business, anti-government, laissez faire,  pro-science, positivist, secular, elitist, progress-driven, Whiggish, optimistic. “The best should have the power.”
  • Type C: tradition-oriented, pro-status quo, nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, xenophobic, social conservative, pro-business, pro-government (at least in regards to furthering other goals), pro-religion, cronyistic, chauvinistic. “The powerful should have the power.”

(Remember, I don’t identify with either of them! They’re just all we have.)

I had no trouble coming up with big-name examples of Type C (see: nearly our entire political system and corporate overlords), but had a harder time thinking of big-name Type L’s who weren’t associated with technology or economics. Part of this is that these are probably the only relevant places in society where Type L’s can thrive without being utterly annihilated by cronyism. The space for someone like Arnheim in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities doesn’t really exist, and I’m not sure if it ever did. Musil had to contrive a situation for brilliant (but oh so wrong) thinkers to be in positions of political power, and while the voices of the time speak through his characters, I suspect his characters may be improvements on their models, no matter how much he damns them.

Perhaps some CIA wonks might qualify, along the lines of George Smiley, but somehow I doubt it.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley - Insert Star Wars Reference Here

But tonight I thought of someone in the military who fits the bill: Paul K. Van Riper.


Paul K. Van Riper

Van Riper first came to notice when he very publicly failed to give the military the results that they wanted in their Millennium Challenge 2002 (note corporate brand). The war game was supposed to prove the validity of Rumsfeld’s super new strategies of high-tech, low personnel forces, and Van Riper took on the “Red Force,” some unnamed Middle Eastern player.

Hellbent on showing Rumsfeld how stupid he was, Van Riper used all sorts of clever gambits to render the high-tech stuff useless. In exchange, the Army cheated, ignoring his orders, handicapping him and resurrecting US forces to ensure the US won against Red Force. Van Riper, already retired, went public:

Van Riper said this approach ran counter to his notion of how an experiment should function. “You don’t come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out,” he said. [Type C never says this.]

Van Riper said the blame for rigging the exercise lay not with any one officer, but with the culture at Joint Forces Command. “It’s an institutional problem,” he said. “It’s embedded in the institution.” [Who is he, David Simon?]

He was highly critical of the command’s concepts, such as “effects-based operations” and “rapid, decisive operations,” which he derided as little more than “slogans.” [Type C never ever says this.]

“There’s very little intellectual activity,” Van Riper said about Joint Forces Command. “What happens is a number of people are put into a room, given some sort of a slogan and told to write to the slogan. That’s not the way to generate new ideas.”

Van Riper’s single-mindedness can sometimes rub other experiment participants the wrong way, said a retired Army officer who has played in several war games with the Marine. “What he’s done is he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it,” the retired officer said. “He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that as possible.

“He can be a real pain in the ass, but that’s good. But a lot of people don’t like to sign up for that sort of agitation. But he’s a great guy, and he’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons.”

Van Riper is probably about ten miles to my right on all sorts of issues, but his very visible break with the US military and civilian leadership in this exercise and again shortly after the start of the Iraq war sets him aside from the military leadership as a type. So in a Frontline interview, while he praises Colin Powell even as he trashes McNamara and Rumsfeld, he also says anti-cronyistic things like this:

I see inside the United States Army the germs of a second intellectual renaissance that’s approaching these problems. And they’re not caught up in the sloganeering that most of the Joint community’s caught up in. They really are studying; they’re having conferences. The conferences aren’t love fests, where they put out some idea and try to get people to sign up to it. It’s a real debate, real argument, trying to synthesize some new knowledge out of it.

Is there anything in the current Defense Department that would lead you to believe those ideas will flourish?

I see nothing from the highest levels of the Pentagon that would lead to this. What I see is a support of the Joint Forces command by edict being told to be innovative. You cannot demand innovation. You can’t simply say to an organization, as Mr. Rumsfeld apparently did to the Army: “Be more innovative. You’re not innovative enough. Service Chief, you’re out of here.” That’s not the way to do it.

This is, of course, exactly what so many non-technical executives say to their R+D people, and this is exactly the response that the R+D people always have, right down to the ridicule of love fests. Type C’s have love fests because they are celebrating all being rich white guys; how can they not have love fests when they get together? They certainly would not let ideas get in the way. They say stuff like this:

Gen. William “Buck” Kernan, head of Joint Forces Command, told Pentagon reporters July 18 that Millennium Challenge was nothing less than “the key to military transformation.”

Van Riper would not use the phrase “the key to military transformation,” and I bet he never had a nickname like “Buck.” (He’s clearly more Sterling Hayden than George C. Scott in the Buck/Rip(p)er dichotomy.) And I bet he hates William “Buck” Kernan. We have an apparently near-perfect recreation of that sort of love fest Type C in David Rasche’s Rumsfeld/Bolton character from Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop:

These sorts do not like to lose wargames, ever. Reality must shift to accommodate them.

[This may be why I am more sympathetic to the analytic philosophy community than a lot of bloggers out there. The only thing worse than a room of people fighting over abstract issues and shutting each other down is a room of people all agreeing with the most powerful one there, be it Rumsfeld or Derrida. This is an oversimplification, obviously, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.]

Van Riper, who has been retired for many years, was last heard from in 2006 calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. What took him so long? Though I share some of Gary Brecher’s respect for his cleverness in U Sank My Carrier, my intention is not to praise Van Riper. I suspect he adheres to a form of realpolitik that I would find morally repugnant. I suspect he has his own sort of obsessive myopia indicated by tidbits like this: “General Van Riper would spend his chow break by issuing speeding tickets all across MCB Quantico.” I suspect I would find him rather scary. But if you are looking for the counterweight to the current ruling class of CEOs and politicians, people like Van Riper are probably the best you can do.


  1. I think finance and consulting people have a Type L strain, and sometimes those folks reach the commanding heights. E.g. Mitt Romney if he wasn’t running for President. There are US Senators with backgrounds like this, though I don’t know much about them.

    It may be that Type L is “made for” professional elites (b/c self-validating and matches their tastes) while Type C is “made for” rulers, since the latter have to be approved by a conservative population. So I’m not surprised to find Type L among high-ranking commissioned officers.

  2. David Auerbach

    29 March 2011 at 21:23

    Van Riper makes a point of saying that the Joint Chiefs have become inundated with Yes Men, as though it were an infection. It’s something I’ve seen myself: one Type C manages to get a foothold, then brings in all his cronies and forms a unified bloc. And it takes a major crisis to clean house.

    I fear your “elites” vs. “rulers’ distinction is all too true. Wouldn’t that make Type L more little-c conservative than Type C, since Type L is much more liable to adhere to “Don’t fix what ain’t broke” than Type C’s, who are all too happy to try to do stupid things for no reason like Rumsfeld’s modernization? Type L = British civil service.

    I hate to admit it, but I suppose Romney’s Massachusetts health care (to the left of Obama’s bill) does brand him as far more open-minded than many.

    The subdivisions of types in corporate politics is something I find fascinating, and I’d go into it more if I didn’t think it’d bore most of my readers. Finance people are tricky because the line between policy wonk and ideologue can get awfully confusing (see: Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, Larry Summers; Ayn Rand followers manage to mix the worst of both categories), and I admit my own tendency is to be uncharitable. Hacks like Ken Lay or Carly Fiorina are Type C’s all the way, but what about Lloyd Blankfein and George Gilder, or even George Soros? It gets fuzzy.

  3. Des Esseintes

    1 April 2011 at 00:26

    The distinction does blur. I think part of what muddies the water is that L elites often have a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, they believe, as you say, that “the best should rule.” On the other hand, since they have made it to the top, they also believe that the best DO in fact rule.

    Witness this maniac:
    There is a link to a pdf at the bottom where the real madness starts. This is a guy who started what became the world’s largest hedge fund and who bet correctly and impressively enough leading up to the ’08 crisis that Obama wanted his advice. And he’s basically Pangloss with social darwinism turned way up in the mix.

    I think that for many of these guys who are actually talented–and the Ls are often very talented–a personal mythology takes over at some point.

  4. David Auerbach

    1 April 2011 at 17:53

    Indeed, nothing wrecks your judgment like success. (See my article on Thomas Disch and the moral value of failure.) It’s very, very rare for a company/CEO to have more than a single brilliant success. Apple sort of pulled it off with the iPod/iPhone (I’ll count those as one).

    It’s not just the elites, either. There is a huge group of not-particularly-wealty Ayn Randian-ish meritocrats who really do believe that the rich deserve to be there and that they will get there if they work hard enough. Now that’s false consciousness! This statistic could be completely false or manipulated, but I do recall reading somewhere that 50% of Americans think they’re in the top 10% of wage earners, and 80% think they will be someday. Given that 25% of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth, I can believe it.

    Kevin Drum (who is pretty Type L himself, having gone from being a moderate Democrat to a fire-breathing moderate Democrat out of sheer disgust with corruption, lack of enforcement, and general lack of accountability) said that if people understood what had happened in the financial sector in 2008 or so, there’d be pitchforks in the streets. I think they do understand, at least enough to make me sad that there aren’t pitchforks in the street. “Enlightened self-interest” is evidently too much to hope for.

    So despite his proud lack of culture and his moral laxness, I do have to give Warren Buffett some credit for saying stuff like this, which would get him branded as a pinko were he not one of the five richest people in the universe: “I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.” (And even *that* gives a bit too much credit to the finance folks’ talents.) Robert Nozick is turning over in his grave.

  5. Completed staff work is what it is , something old and not something new but it takes an honest soul and a Marine among the politically motivated and less celeritous of thought to speak honestly.Take verything on evidence there is no better rule.

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