Reviews: July/August 2019

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Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons from a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon
Ash Carter ’76
Dutton, $30
Reviewed by James Ledbetter ’86

James Ledbetter ’86 is the editor of Inc. magazine and the author, most recently, of One Nation Under Gold.

We tend to think of the Pentagon as a place where wars are plotted and commandeered. But as former defense secretary Ash Carter ’76 explains, it also represents one of the most formidable management challenges on the planet. DOD’s budget is larger than the GDP of Sweden, and it employs more people than Amazon, McDonald’s, FedEx, Target and GE combined. Moreover, the complex and often cozy relationships that the defense department has with a small number of highly technical contractors almost guarantee that delivery delays and cost overruns are the order of the day.

It’s through this managerial lens that Carter tells his compelling and convincing history. Although his training was in physics, his military credentials stretch back decades. He learned firsthand the politics of defense spending when he published in 1984 a scientific paper refuting the premise of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Although he was roundly attacked by conservative media and members of Congress, the Republican defense establishment reached out quietly to support him.

Negotiating the politics of both military budgeting and fighting wars eats up an incredible amount of a defense secretary’s job. Carter compares Congress to “a board of directors with 535 members,” and is particularly harsh toward modern Congressional gimmicks like “continuing resolutions” and out-and-out government shutdowns. He tells of one instance when the bodies of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan were flown home to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware—but because the government was shut down, there was no money to pay death benefits, nor even travel expenses for the families to meet the plane. Carter had to call a friendly billionaire in New York who was able to raise millions privately, but the experience left him “galled” and “angry” at Congress.

One interesting piece of advice for future secretaries: Carter keeps “a special kind of to-do list . . . of actions that I know are the right thing to do but for which the right time has not yet emerged.” That might be a good idea for the rest of us as well.