reaction

The Minutemen (of the veteran community)

Minutemen

Last week I made a reference to the Minutemen of the veteran community. What I was talking about is that cadre of veterans who have a megaphone or a soapbox out there that can quickly rally whenever some event happens – usually when veterans get slandered as a whole or misrepresented in the media.

I’ve been having this conversation with other veterans for the past few weeks. It’s been interesting to watch how mature the veteran community has come in terms of responding to nonsense out there. Milblogs have been around for awhile and have always been a fertile dumping ground for angry veterans to rant about this or that. What’s changed now is how connected and polished some veterans have become over the past ten years.

Go to war, come home, go to school, get educated, learn to write, meet the right people, get connected, and now you can rapidly put pen to paper and get a piece published somewhere prominent to respond as an “authentic” voice. The explosion of social media helps this, for sure.

It’s hard for me to know, but I can’t imagine that Vietnam veterans had the same potential outlets as this generation does. Or at least, the barrier for entry was much higher.

Also interesting is how the Minutemen are pretty much leaderless. It’s like a headless insurgency. There is a pulse out there of what’s going on, informed by Twitter feeds and what’s trending on The Duffle Blog. The Minutemen don’t need to be told what to write or who to attack or what to defend. It’s just known and happens usually about the time it needs to happen.

reaction

Some thoughts on Major Gant…

I’ve read a lot of good articles on MAJ Gant over the past couple of weeks, timed of course with the release of ‘American Spartan,’ a very indulgent title choice, I think.

Joseph Collins wrote a great, succinct review over at War On The Rocks. His last paragraph is the critical one. In it, I think he captures the story hidden behind the hyper-masculine Spartan shield that the book tries to portray (as I can only imagine – I haven’t read it yet).

When we ask ourselves why Major Gant fell from grace, we also have to look in the mirror.  The all-volunteer Armed Forces — active and reserve components — are not made for a decade of large-scale, protracted warfare.  That fact, however, did not and will not stop us from engaging in protracted warfare.  The U.S. Government chose to wage large-scale, protracted war in part by grinding down the best and the bravest until many of them died, broke, or fell from grace.  On the jacket of Tyson’s book, Gunner Sepp, himself a former special operator, writes: “There are many stories here.  One of the most troubling is about what happens to elite troops after their country has kept them in combat for more than a decade.”  Jim Gant’s fall is an object lesson for America and a warning to our nation’s leaders.  It will also be a blockbuster movie that probably will not be as good as the book.

What happens when we ask young, patriotic, hard-charging Americans to go overseas to fight a war “predicated on being implemented by geniuses?” In MAJ Gant’s case, he goes and tries his best to win.

What comes back?

reaction

The Tipping Point: Veterans and Violence

The Lament for Icarus (Herbert James Draper, 1898)

The Lament for Icarus (Herbert James Draper, 1898)

It’s been a hectic few weeks in the media concerning veterans and violence. After the Fort Hood shooting, there was the initial wave of reporting that made casual linkages of PTSD in veterans with increased rates of violence. The much maligned Huffington Post article (now removed) was aggressively jeered and rebutted by the Minutemen - the veterans and veteran advocates who rapidly respond to these type of pieces, whether in the form of highly explosive torpedo tweets or full on essays at major news outlets.

There was some other nonsense too, like the BuzzFeed article that treated Fort Hood and the soldiers stationed there like zoo animals.

And then this week, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times with the headline “Veterans and White Supremacy.” The Minutemen rallied and defended.

A lot of the articles being written are really good – on both sides. There is a canvas being slowly unfurled. Unfortunately, it seems that whenever anyone writes anything on this subject, there is an immediate reaction from “the other side” that tries to sink the other ship.

This morning, I read a good piece at Slate: “War is Hell, And Hell Rubs Off” which pretty much says what I know a lot of people have been thinking: “Maybe – just maybe – there is something going on here.”

The idea that PTSD is unrelated to violence back home is one of the central pillars of today’s rigid “support the troops” campaign. After every mass shooting event involving a veteran, Veterans Affairs psychiatrists and veterans advocates deliver the same stern warning: Mentioning PTSD in conjunction with these shootings is not only inaccurate, it hurts veterans.
-David J. Morris

The article is written by David J. Morris, a former Marine officer, which gives him the space to say what he says without immediately being branded as a traitor or a dove. In it, he basically argues that there is scientific data that connects combat stress with increased levels of violence – not new information, mind you. He also, and more importantly, tells a deeper story – and this is the story that I think combat veterans know, but don’t want to talk about – that there is something here we are not acknowledging, whether it is the “thing” that draws people to the military in the first place, the brutal process of militarization, or the “thing” that happens to you when you go to war, that “thing” that stays with you.

There has been so much point and counter-point going on in the media concerning veterans and violence that I think the shouting match has become the story. It seems, though, that we are now at the tipping point. Voices are growing bolder in recent days, spurred on by the deluge of articles where violence and extremism find themselves on the same page – in the same story – as veterans and service members. We might be reaching the point where instead of instinctively pushing back or deflecting, we start talking seriously.

What does this mean? The beginning of a more thoughtful, honest conversation about war, I hope.

reflections

Military Meditation

Around the time I started to transition out of the Army, I started to get very interested in “productivity.” I followed blogs like lifehack and 43 Folders. I kept reading articles about and by people like David Allen and Merlin Mann. I developed my own system for “getting things done” and have revised and revised over the years to get to where I am now (it’s still a monster,  but it’s my monster).

Somewhere along the way I came across Gretchen Rubin. I found her through her blog, The Happiness Project, which later became a best-selling book. In it, she describes her journey on finding happiness through self-experimentation. It’s a fantastic book which I eagerly read when it came out and have given as a gift a bunch of times.

Fortunately, Gretchen maintains her blog and posts pretty regularly. She frequently posts interviews with people in the field of whatever it is she is researching at the time. Right now, she’s writing a book on ‘habits.’ Back in February, she posted an interview with ABC news correspondent Dan Harris.

Now, if you are a very close reader of this blog or you know me personally, then you are already aware of my fascination with early morning news television. Wherever I am, I’ll always watch the local news, mostly because it is often extremely awkward, and then if I’m around, I’ll stick around for the highly-polished national news. It’s hardly news anymore – it’s more like BuzzFeed – just a mashup of some news items with some celebrity stuff and viral videos. It’s supposed to wake you up, I guess. Anyway, my preference is Good Morning America, and I usually only get to see it on weekends, when Dan Harris is on. I have always liked Dan Harris. He’s done some good war reporting. He’s also pretty dry and can be sarcastic.

So when Dan Harris popped on Gretchen Rubin’s blog, it was, for me, one of those weird intersections in life of people I admire.

In the interview, I learned that Dan Harris meditates and just wrote a book aggressively titled “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

As someone who has flirted with meditation before (more on that below), I pre-ordered the book and shortly thereafter, shipped off to the National Training Center.

After returning home, I finished up one book and then jumped into Dan’s book.

I’m not reviewing the book here. I’ll just say that it was really good. Funny, well-written, and practically helpful. If you’re interested in meditation, mindfulness, or the drama that goes on behind the scenes at ABC news, you will enjoy the book.

In it, he refers to the Marine Corps’ experiments with teaching meditation to marines as a way to make – better marines. For its part, the Army has embraced “resiliency” as not just a thing you should be, but an entire methodology for teaching and living (meditation in the classic, Buddhist tradition is not currently part of the instruction, though).

When I was going to college in New York, I learned about a guy named David Wagner who was offering free meditation sessions to veterans. At the time, I was organizing the City College Veterans Association and wanted to see what it was all about. Like Dan says in the book, meditation’s biggest problem is bad public relations. The stereotypical meditator is the touchy-feely hippy who is lost in his own world. There is probably no subculture of people that might be more skeptical of meditation than the military – with your “dip and velcro and all your gear.”

I met David in his Manhattan office. He was about my height, with a full beard and dark, wavy hair. He smiled widely as he greeted me, but wasn’t overly friendly. As we walked into his office, I looked around the room and saw a sticker that read “Fuck the Naysayers.” We sat down, and he excitedly shared with me a theory he had about war veterans, based on things he has read and his own study of meditation. I’m paraphrasing here – it’s been over five years since this conversation – but he explained that there is a deep inner understanding that meditation practitioners work to achieve through years of patient work. He spoke about Greek mythology and the notion of the warrior achieving enlightenment through combat. We discussed the overwhelming feelings that overtake a person the first time bullets fly overhead. His theory, is that at that moment, a person is fully present – which is one of the goals of meditation, after all. The fear and excitement of combat supercharges a person into the here and now by necessity. That soldier has touched that deep inside ‘thing’ for a moment, and then the adrenaline goes away and Dan’s ‘voice in the head’ comes back and takes over.

You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly. -@babyballs69

David believes that through meditation, veterans can recapture that feeling of being completely present – the exhiliration of combat (without the fear) through meditation, and ultimately, be a better person.

I liked what he was saying, and it made sense. What I especially liked is that David wasn’t approaching help for veterans as a charity case to address PTSD – which I’ve seen over and over again when it comes to doing anything for veterans. While meditation might help veterans with PTSD (I haven’t seen the research), David was more interested in using meditation as a way to build the next-greatest generation. To put it plainly, his thought was that through the crucible of combat, veterans achieved something that most people will never achieve – a kind of self-enlightenment that was actualized, and then locked away, deep inside the body. Through meditation, that “thing” could be unlocked.

The classes were free, so what did I have to lose?

I met with David over the course of a couple of months and began meditating. It’s was a frustrating process, because it takes real discipline and buy-in. Over those months, I sometimes meditated regularly and sometimes stopped for long periods of time. David was always nice about it when I said I hadn’t meditated in awhile, pointing out that if I looked at a chart of my life, I was still meditating a lot more than I had over the past twenty seven years. During that time when I was meditating regularly, I felt good, and strangely, it manifested itself in the gym - I was working out harder than ever.

In my last year at City College, I tried connecting more veterans with David and meditation. I pushed, but it was too hard a sell at the time and required a lot more energy from me than I could give to make it happen. It’s unfortunate, because I think David is really on to something. As Dan’s book points out, the research is there. Meditation is not just some lovey-dovey cosmic thing – it’s proven by science to improve a number of things. In Dan’s case, he claims to be at least 10% happier. Not a bad return on the investment.

So, I leave this all here for you to pick through and think about. I know I’m convinced.

 

soldiering

Two o’clock in the morning courage

Napoleon at the Sphinx

A couple of months ago, in a professional development session, the subject of ’2:00 AM courage’ was brought up. We were reading about Napoleon, who had this thought about courage:

When he mentioned courage, Napoleon had also in mind moral courage – what he liked to call “two o’clock in the morning courage.” When bad news comes to a person at that hour, it is dark, he is alone, and his spirits are at low ebb; it requires a special brand of courage at such a time to make the necessary decision. Such courage is spontaneous rather than conscious, but it enables a general to exercise his judgement and make decisions despite the unexpected or the unfortunate surprises.

I don’t think this type of courage is relegated just to the late night or early morning, but also to generally trying circumstances. Said plainly, it is easy (or easier) to make difficult decisions when seated comfortably in the office chair or even in the middle of the day at the Company CP. It is an altogether different task to make a difficult decision when time is short, morale is low, and there is an overwhelming desire to slow down or get some rest.

It is in these situations that I’ve always found value in asking myself “what is the right answer?” Usually, we know what the “right answer” is, and by simply asking the question, the right thing to do reveals itself. By ignoring that question, it is easy to slide by, and ultimately, do the wrong thing.

reaction

On bringing your girlfriend to war

Mary Anne BellI’ve been catching up the goings-on since I’ve been gone, and I came across a couple of stories on MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time’ (who I mentioned in Monday’s post). At the Huffington Post, an article by David Wood that chronicles the rise and fall of MAJ Gant. And over at War is Boring, David Axe hones in on the fact that MAJ Gant “brought his girlfriend to war.”

It’s one of those wacky stories that you can’t possible think is true, yet somehow, is.

It reminds me of the story of Mary Anne Bell, the peppy girlfriend who visits her boyfriend in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. Once there, she gets swept up with a team of Green Berets (hmm) who are co-located on the same camp. She starts going out on missions with the team and quickly becomes enamored with the war. Over time, she completely disappears.

For anyone who has served in a war zone, the idea of having a loved one come to visit is absurd. Yet, it’s only a plane ticket away.

Is bringing your girlfriend to war that strange, after all?

 

books

The End of War Reading List: One Hundred Victories-Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare

quote-for-to-win-one-hundred-victories-in-one-hundred-battles-is-not-the-acme-of-skill-to-subdue-the-sun-tzu-188541.jpg (850×400)

This is another book that wasn’t on the original list, but it’s relevant and was recommended to me by someone on the ground. One Hundred Victories (by Linda Robinson) is about ‘Village Stability Operations‘ (VSO), which is one of the principle missions of special operation forces in Afghanistan. The author tells the story of of the VSO mission in Afghanistan and in attempt to make the book more palatable to generalists, she wraps it all up in the final chapter on what the future of war might look like.

One Hundred Victories will appeal to anyone interested in what special operation forces are currently doing in Afghanistan, classic Special Forces missions, and to those who may interact with the VSO mission at some point in the future (SFAAT staff, infantry uplift personnel, CA/MISO, etc.). Outside of talking to those who have done a VSO mission, there really isn’t much else to read on the subject other than some articles on Small Wars Journal or whatever is out there in open source (not much). Right now, this is the definitive book on the VSO mission.

In terms of narrative, the author bounces around from team level stuff outside the wire to big boss decisions being made at headquarters. With the exception of some of the notable Generals, there are no ‘characters’ that are followed from start to finish. The bulk of the research comes from team embeds and interviews that the author conducted over the course of a few years. There are some familiar names that pop up through the book who are associated with the VSO missions. Notably, MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time‘ and profiled in the just released book ‘American Spartan’, and SSG Robert Bales, the American soldier who murdered 16 Afghans in 2012. SSG Bales was assigned to a VSO team as part of the the aforementioned ‘infantry uplift,’ the pairing of conventional infantrymen to a VSO team to augment security.

I only highlighted three things as I read through the book. The first, mentions a friendly-fire incident:

“A US soldier from a conventional unit was killed at Sar Howza one night in a friendly-fire incident. He approached on of the local police checkpoints and was mistakenly shot by an ALP policeman.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is the program that the VSO mission is all about. It is a ‘bottom up’ recruitment, training, and fielding program that develops a local security platform. It is separate from the Afghan National Army (ANA) or other security programs.

The second thing I highlighted was in reference to MAJ Gant:

“Finally, a young conventional infantry lieutenant attached to Gant’s ad hoc team decided to blow the whistle after being asked to falsify a situation report. “This is just not right,” he told Gant’s superiors, adding that things were out of control in the camp. The command ordered a “health and welfare” inspection of Gant’s camp in early March 2012. It appeared that Gant had been living out some kind of a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled fantasy, becoming, as one officer put it, “a legend in his own mind.” Alcohol and steroids were found in his hooch, along with large quantities of Schedule II, III, and IV controlled substances and other drugs. Classified material was also found unsecured in his quarters, a violation compounded by the fact that Gant had been keeping a reporter-turned-lover at the camp, moving her around to prevent his superiors from learning of her presence.”

Lastly, on human terrain:

One special operations officer confided his dismay at seeing a terrain model in a senior general’s office in Afghanistan that was festooned with labels such as “block,” “attrit,” and “isolate” — a pretty clear indication that the general viewed the contest as a fight over physical terrain that could be addressed with a conventional scheme of maneuver.”

For a review of the book in the New York Times, click here.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

fieldcraft

Fieldcraft: Platoon Leader Planning Board

COA Sketch

You may recall a couple of years ago (sheesh!) I was posting ‘fieldcraft‘ articles pretty frequently. Well, the intervening year had me busy doing the King’s work, but now I’m back in the field and thus, a new fieldcraft post.

It was highly recommended to me by my commander that I develop a “planning board.” You may recall my post on building a plexiglass map board. It’s kind of like that, but a little more involved.

The purpose of the board is to provide the leader with a tool in the field for planning a mission. It is highly customizable, and I based mine off of my commander’s, though I added things that I thought I would find useful.

My board is made out of four pieces of 8 1/2″ x 10″ plexiglass (from Lowe’s Hardware), copious amounts of 100 MPH tape, some transparency sheets, dry erase markers, binder clips, plain pieces of white paper, excerpts from the Infantry Leader Card GTA, and an execution matrix that I created.

This isn’t hard or expensive to build. It just takes a little time.

After building the thing, I wasn’t really sure how useful it would be. I brought it with me to NTC, and I can confidently report that it was a great tool. Most useful was the blank space in which I could draw out simple COA sketches and the execution matrix which pretty much ran my scheme of maneuver. Often I had simple graphics that I could use for a given mission which helped me on the ground (yes, I brought this thing with me on missions).

This is definitely something I’ll take with me on deployment. I’d like to refine it, though. I actually didn’t use a lot of the weapons data – so I might modify what I put on that front piece – maybe planning info? I’d also like to find a way to stow this thing on my gear without needing an assault pack. I’m not sure what that would be – maybe a D-ring attached to it? I don’t know.

Anyway. It’s a good tool and I’m happy to share it with you.

Instructions:

1. Tape the edges of the plexiglass first.
2. Use a piece of 100 MPH tape to connect the pieces of plexiglass together, ensuring you leave enough space so that it will close on itself.
3. With the fourth piece of plexiglass, tape it to the top (or bottom) of the middle piece so that you have the ability to insert a map or graphics. You can also place extra pieces of transparency paper inside of this space to keep until you need to use it. Use a binder clip to keep it closed.
4. Place a piece of white paper on one of the boards and tape it down, and then place a piece of transparency paper over it and tape that down – this provides you a space to write/draw on.
5. Use one side to tape down relevant data – I chose weapon system information, engagement area development, and call for fire information.
6. On the backside, tape in a pouch to store markers, protractors, and whatever else you want to store.

update

The Real SXSW

Fort Irwin NTCSXSW starts today. No, not that SXSW. The real SXSW.

It’s a pity too. Last year I had just arrived at Fort Hood and didn’t get to experience that other SXSW. This time, I’ll be in the box.

I’ll be away for the next month or so. I’ll be unable to respond to anything going on in the world or get back to anyone leaving comments or sending messages.

See you on the other side!