Hicks: A different 1 percent pack a big influence

November 9, 2013

This Veterans Day marks the 10th since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but we have been fighting in the broader Middle East for 25 years. Perhaps 3.5 million servicemen and servicewomen have participated in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans of our large wars have returned to remake the world. Revolutionary War vets built the Midwest, Civil War veterans the West and a new republic, while those from World War I gave us the modern age. Of course, the World War II generation built a new world.

The small and fast wars, the painful constabulary actions and the Cold War just didn’t muster the numbers of veterans to leave a lasting mark. With the exception of Korea and the Spanish-American War, the rest were fought by professional armies that did not return to long civil lives.

Vietnam veterans, the best of their generation, made a quiet mark but could not overcome the self-centeredness of their peers in defining an age.

The more recent wars have been fought by a mix of regular and citizen soldiers, and so I believe will leave a lasting mark on our nation. The first Iraq War vets are 40-something or older now, and the youngest of the Afghanistan vets are still in their teens.

We make up just over 1 percent of the population and are imperfect in many ways, but I believe our numbers are enough to matter in business and society.

Military service, especially in combat, is mostly about leadership. Technical incompetence is poorly tolerated, and weak, indecisive leaders are quickly purged.

Recent veterans who enter government or education will find themselves in a sluggish setting, where bad leaders are routinely shifted from job to job until retirement (think IRS). It will prove unsettling to many, but some lucky few will provoke sufficient change to leave their mark.

Business does not tolerate failure, but it often allows it to pack a golden parachute. The unseemly executive bonuses for leaders of failed companies of recent headlines would never have passed muster with a board of infantry sergeants. Leadership by example will matter more in organizations and businesses with significant numbers of recent veterans.

Veterans are more likely to understand a strict mission focus in business and government and appreciate how different parts of an organization fit together.

As veterans of recent wars age, we will see more of them in positions of influence in business and government. If we are lucky, our institutions of commerce and governance will become places where nimbleness of action with mindful leadership by example is the norm.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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