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In 2013, the US Army’s Chief of Staff ordered a team of officers to draft an honest, undiluted history of the Iraq War. He said the army wasted the first few years in Iraq relearning lessons because no one had produced a proper study of the mistakes made in the Vietnam War. This time, he said, would be different. The research would be done while the memories were fresh. This time, he said, the study would tell the absolute truth. Three years later, the team produced a 1,300 page draft that was said by none less than US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to be “the best and most comprehensive operational study of the US experience in Iraq.”

So what is the unvarnished truth?

The absolute truth. All the facts. Honest, accurate, frank, candid, undiluted, all the facts. Varnish is the clear version of coatings like shellac and wood stain. People would make their worn old floors look glossy by applying varnish. It corrected surface damage and gave the wood a shine.

The decision to seek the “unvarnished truth” was driven by the failure of military leaders to learn the lessons of Vietnam

In Vietnam, we were slow to learn how generals in the field provided false information by downplaying failures and exaggerating successes. When the Pentagon Papers were published, we learned politicians had manipulated public perception to further their political careers. The Iraq study found that top Army officers made many erroneous assumptions and underestimated how long the war would take and what it would cost –  just as they had done in Vietnam. The honest, undiluted history of the Iraq War is still unpublished, and Army brass have disassociated themselves from it, going so far as to remove references that it was the Army who commissioned it in the first place.

How can this happen?

For one, the Army is not an institution that engages in the kind of self-criticism organizations need to improve their performance. Top military leaders are always concerned with their image. It is always in their interests to suppress anything critical, especially those things that are based in fact. The Army doesn’t like outspoken people, especially those who ask questions. In the Army, career officers are promoted in no small part according to their ability to toe the line and provide unquestioned loyalty. Those who challenge the status quo are deemed unfit for leadership.

This is not so different than life in corporations

We were once asked by the president of a multi-billion dollar company to look into customer problems he suspected were being withheld from him.  Reports that made it to the boss’ desk were so invariably rosy that he became skeptical of their honesty. 

Was his skepticism well-founded?

Across the board, his top people failed to honestly report customer problems and issues, keeping him in the dark. When reports are manufactured so that problems are buried, we are prevented from finding ways to solve them. And when we don’t solve them, they go on and on, like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.


Ask yourself these four questions:

  • Are your customer satisfaction figures so rosy that you should be skeptical of their honesty and accuracy?
  • When was the last time you commissioned a study that took a closer look at unreported issues?
  • How capable are your top people of objective self-criticism?
  • Which of your “generals” are more concerned with how they appear than they are with providing you with the unvarnished truth?

1975 U.S. Embassy rooftop evacuation, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

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