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.