[December 12, 2018] Back in 2007, I was putting together a large military construction effort and working closely with a senior Colonel from the Australian Army. One day we were talking about how military construction project secrets so quickly reached the newspapers. In his typical Aussie approach he told me that when the grass is cut, the snakes will show.1
His point was that to discover who was giving out secrets; we needed to reduce the size of those who might be suspect. In that way, it would be easier to find the real culprits. Those who would do us harm for personal gain, he told me, like to hide among the innocent.
Our problems were about construction efforts that would telegraph our intent to the bad guys. The exposing of classified upcoming offensive tactics would put our troops at risk, so we had to do something about it. My favorite project was a major highway project that would allow a better logistics flow to combat forces. We briefed it one day to General Petraeus and staff, the next day it was headlined in the New York Times.
When in combat or developing a new product or just wanting to keep prying eyes away, you will be looking for an advantage. The best way is to keep your plans secret. For the reason I mentioned, there will always be those who hide their motives and their behavior. Senior leaders will be aware of this … but their difficult task is to uncover those who would do us harm.
The origin of “when the grass is cut, the snakes will show” is likely built on this challenge. And it never goes away. We are always looking to reduce risks in any human endeavor and while the specific techniques from doing so differ greatly, to reduce the field of exposure first is among the most common.
Our effort to construct a new highway in the Baghdad area was canceled. It was just too much money, too slow, and our efforts became clear to the enemy. General Petraeus changed his plans and drew upon another strategy that today we call the troop “surge.” His new operational effort was highly successful.
By “cutting the grass” – reducing the size of those who knew of the new plan – we were able to keep most of the operational secrets from the enemy and the media. Along the way, the “snakes” were exposed, several arrested, and many simply slithered away.
- The origin of this phrase is probably Australian. I’m unclear on the history of phraseology, but it makes sense. Anyone who might know, please send me a message via email or post it here. Thanks.