Ever since MSNBC host Rachel Maddow began her rise to prominence as a frequent fill-in for Keith Olbermann, she has described herself as “national security liberal.” Military issues are a frequent subject of discussion on The Rachel Maddow Show, and she’s anchored her show from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the eve of the release of her first book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Maddow offered four ideas on how the military can be a potential force for innovation--in its own ranks and in other aspects of American public life.
1. Re-Focus On The Core Mission
Innovation has long been a buzzword in the military, Maddow says. But talking about innovation doesn't always mean improvement in our national security--or any lasting innovation on the ground. Much of the innovation that has taken place in the military has been focused on building new weapons and new armament technologies, something Maddow says isn't necessarily a good thing. "Innovation does not necessarily follow dollars. That's certainly true with military spending," Maddow tells Fast Company. "There's been so much money invested in military R&D, so we've ended up with a lot of neat stuff. The question is whether or not that's the best thing for the country as a whole. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have protected my own life in Iraq. When's the next time we're going to be in Iraq though? We spent billions of dollars on developing these tools. It was a totally worthwhile investment for the Iraq War, but it's not going to necessarily redound to future events."
Maddow talks about an instance in 1996 where when the Defense Science Board Task Force on Outsourcing and Privatization urged the Pentagon to use outside private contractors because, as members of the private sector, the task force concluded, they could bring much-needed "innovation and creativity" to the military's operations around the world. But the contractors added more complications than anything else. Brown & Root, one of the supposedly "innovative" companies used on this project, was "flying sheets of plywood into Bosnia from the United States, thus transforming each $14 sheet into an $85.98 sheet."
2. Expand The "Startup Culture" That Exists In The Military
Some aspects of the military resemble startup culture, Maddow says, but they're found in counterintuitive places. "You absolutely feel the startup energy within the military when you are with deployed units. We are asking our military to do things that are so far beyond traditional military responsibilities that they have had to adapt so fast and really MacGyver it out on the front lines," Maddow says. "This is happening with forward-operating bases, civil affairs units, the counter-insurgency work they have had to do, working with people in villages who have no interest in us being there. They have to do such big work with so few resources. From the captain level down, the things that these young, ambitious, incredibly talented soldiers have done are not just heroic ... they are impressive from a business point of view."
Throughout America's last decade of war, fighting men and women have been asked to take on nearly impossible assignments, almost always with insufficient resources and in hostile environments. But, Maddow cautions that the belief that the military can and should be able to do "anything" has been part of what has led the military to extend itself so much. She adds that "it really makes a difference what we as a country think the military is capable of doing. Their nature is to be able to say 'Yes Sir. Can do sir' to any mission they are assigned. So you can't fault them for becoming almost 'implausibly capable' of saying what it is that they can do."
Returning veterans who have had to make decisions on the fly and have learned to operate in a foreign culture are qualified for bigger things in civilian life, Maddow says. Private business should hire returning veterans not just because it is the right thing to do, but because their experiences of on-the-fly problem-solving when the stakes were life and death makes veterans highly qualified for entrepreneurial jobs when they return home.
3. Bring Back Big Ideas
The Internet famously came out of a 1960s-era military research project that was funded by ARPA, once the military's crown jewel of basic research. Many innovations came out of ARPA and its better-known successor, DARPA, but the basic research has been de-emphasized and underfunded in the last few years as military budgets have focused on paying for the wars the U.S. has been fighting. Even when military research organizations attempt to tackle important technologies with substantial national security implications, they are often shut down or criticized for political reasons.
Recently, for example, the Navy proposed an effort to develop biofuels that could power planes and ships. But Senator McCain criticized the plan for its potential to become "another Solyndra." While noting her respect for McCain, Maddow finds criticism of such an effort frustrating. "The Pentagon is the biggest user of fuel energy in the world. They see this as a sustainability, affordability, and security issue. The Pentagon, by virtue of necessity, needs to pursue clean energy."
With so much politicization of the energy issue, could the military once more be a research engine to tackle a tough problem like this? "We're at a point where if you want to get something big done, you really have to do it through the military. The Pentagon is one of the few institutions in our society that has close to infinite resources." If things work in the military, Maddow says they can come into the private sector later. "When innovation happens it has a way of making its way to market. If it's worth it, it becomes profitable and it gets sold. The military needed [the early Internet] so that's why they built it, and then it turned out that everyone could use it."
Innovation thrives on competition. Yet competitive bidding within the military has declined as megamergers have taken place among defense contractors, and there are fewer and fewer companies left with the scale to bid on military contracts. Moreover, in a time of permanent war, no one wants to question the military budget, and defense programs are often approved because of lobbying or political fear of opposing them, rather than because a certain program or new weapon system is really the best that it could be. "If we can get to a place where a Pentagon dollar is seen as the same as every other dollar in budget negotiations, where Pentagon money isn't protected from scrutiny because it has the word 'Pentagon' associated with it, we might make different decisions," says Maddow, arguing that we have to find ways to instill greater competition in the funding process.
The lack of competition sometimes leads to alarming problems. According to a Brookings Institution Study that Maddow cites, in the past 60 years the U.S. has spent $8 trillion on nuclear weapons. In that time, some of the problems of our nuclear weaponry have included: losing several nuclear bombs, accidentally dropping nuclear bombs on Spain, and missiles tucked away in warehouses that are rotting with fungus growing on them. "Everything that we invest in and that we build has consequences. Those consequences are partly in terms of the opportunity cost, but also in terms of what we become responsible for taking care of in its lifespan. In the case of nuclear weapons we are responsible for something that will not go away for any number of countable generations into the future." Maddow believes that tackling the long-term future of nuclear weaponry is one of the major security issues of our future. "We have a lot of places in the world where we could use talented engineers, weapons experts, and airmen. Aging missiles representing trillions of dollars of investment, sitting there in ICBM silos pointing at what used to be the USSR isn't a good use of resources. We need to think about how to safely retire our nuclear arsenal and retarget the intellectual talent that created these weapons to the land of usable resources. That needs some big thinking."
David D. Burstein  is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08 . He is also the founder & executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in early 2013.
[Image: Flickr user Carl Jones ]