Petraeus, Eisenhower, Miles Davis and the Power of Modesty


No, this isn’t about the enough-already General Petraeus affair. This is about his uniform.

A couple of opinion columns recently focused on how leaders of the U.S. military present themselves these days – relentlessly wearing, for too many occasions, dress uniforms bedecked with the “fruit salad” of ribbons and awards – and the awe they conspicuously inspire from the public and politicians alike.

If you look at photos of General Petraeus and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, you’ll see the difference immediately. Unlike Petraeus, Eisenhower didn’t make his wife Mamie sew the ribbons everywhere. Maybe he figured, in his modest Ike jacket, that most people knew what he was up to – and who he was – without the dazzle. Even his predecessor, Ulysses S. Grant, wore only four stars on his shoulder and nothing else on his uniform. And these were two guys who earned more than a few medals between them.

With Petraeus and his comrades weighed down with bling on every square inch of their uniforms, well, where did our culture of military modesty go? The aw-shucks hero variety we expect.

This lack of modesty speaks volumes. And, oddly, it reminds me of Miles Davis. If Miles’s mid-century trumpet solos can be described by a single phrase, it might be “doing more with less.”

Despite his world fame, Davis wasn’t a flashy or highly technical player. At the height of his genius, the late 1950s and early ’60s, his music was melodic and economical. And in an article by Aaron Gilbreath, “Miles’s approach can teach writers a lot about the power of concision, suggestion and space.”

“Davis showed me how to be affecting without being opaque, lyrical without being verbose,” Gilbreath writes. “Editing imbued each of Davis’s notes with more weight. It also let his melodic lines breathe, an effect that highlighted the depth and strength of his lyricism. No matter the tempo, Davis’s precise, deft touch produced solos whose moods ranged from buoyant to brooding, mournful to sweet.”

Miles showed how measured, uncluttered phrasing increases the impact. His solos “didn’t divert from their emotional center by wowing the audience with speed and facility. With less distraction, the force of his music lands more squarely” to this very day.

Most writers, including many corporate writers, succumb to the “more is better” reflex by packing their sentences with adjectives, fancy descriptions, and winding tangents – trying to impress by saying the same things in different ways, yet with no added insights or poetry. The bling of too many words. With all modesty intended, I’m not one of them. I try hard to whittle down my words as precisely as I can.

What’s the point? Whether you’re a five-star general, a jazz great, a writer, or just a citizen, it’s useful to remember that modesty, and less beating around the bush, can have enormous power. Less is almost always more – except when it comes to lattes and ice cream.

10 comments on “Petraeus, Eisenhower, Miles Davis and the Power of Modesty

  1. Even when it comes to lattes and ice cream – at least in my case. Brevity matters. Nice, Don.

  2. Make room for white space in life. I like your article, Don.

  3. In addition to lattes and ice cream, less isn’t more when talking about the region below the belt. Perhaps the amount of bling a general wears above the belt is a reflection of his lack of bling below the belt. I guess only Mamie and Holly (or Paula) will be able to attest to the veracity of my theory.

  4. Another good article Don, and short too! I enjoy reading your posts. I agree, our whole American culture is riddle with “more is better”. We are overloaded with messages to read and absorb everywhere. I truly appreciate brief but informative communications. Seasons Greetings to you, have a great holiday ,and year end.

  5. Less. Agree. Need I say more?

  6. Howard Drescher on

    Well said!

  7. bulls-eye, especially the part about ice cream though maybe in honor of the season you’ll let me add an overabundance of home-made egg nog.

  8. It’s the same message in acting class, less is more. I guess the philosophy transcends many of life’s experiences. By the way, I didn’t see a comment from that guy Peter this time. I always look foward to his insightful & incisive thoughts.

  9. Ellen Erlanger on

    As usual Don, beautifully written and expressed. In my humble opinion, the more insecure a person is, the more they need “symbols” to prove to others they are valuable. I am still working on the art of brevity in my writing and, twitter has been useful for learning how to say more with less.

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