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Do we really need airborne forces?

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When I was still in high school an Army recruiter visited and gave a short presentation to a bunch of disinterested, super-cynical New York Public School students. The recruiter, in his sharply pressed BDUs and shiny black boots paced back and forth in front of us. He spoke about the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunity to travel abroad. When those carrots didn’t pique anyone’s interest, he spoke about the opportunity to jump out airplanes for a living. I shot my hand up and reminded him that this was 1999, and asked him if the concept of airborne forces weren’t outdated, because, you know, missiles. Like a true professional, he fielded my question and spoke at length of the esprit de corps of the airborne community and he explained the importance of maintaining the airborne “forced entry” capability. I felt smug, having bested the poor recruiter.

A couple of years later I would be jumping out of airplanes.

When Failure Thrives, which explores the concept of airborne forces in the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US, is the inaugural publication of The Army Press, which just recently popped up. As their mission states:

The Army Press is a single organization that serves as the Army’s focal point for identifying, encouraging, and coaching prospective authors to publish original contributions on history, policy, doctrine, training, organization, leader development, and the Army Profession. The Press’ programs and products enable scholarship, facilitate professional dialogue, and promote a fuller understanding of the Profession of Arms for uniformed and civilian members of the DoD and JIIM communities.

It’s a fascinating examination, and it captures a lot of the barracks banter that will be familiar to anyone who served in the airborne, only, it’s backed up with facts. In the case of the American airborne community, its ability to exist is in large part due to the initial investment of talent and resources during World War II, the ongoing redefining of the airborne’s mission (The Pentomic Division, lol), and the strong patronage of current and former paratroopers.

What I found really interesting is just how unsuccessful airborne forces have been over the past century (more failures than successes) and even when measured by historians aiming to gauge combat efficiency, airborne forces don’t perform any better than their conventional counterparts. For all the shit-talking that goes on, there just really isn’t a lot of data to back it up.

And as a friend and mentor once said to me, the hurdle to get into your traditional airborne units isn’t very challenging  – it’s 3-weeks of airborne school and you’re in.

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The Dichotomy of Black Humor and Memorialization

8657967805_c671651da9_o Likely, you’ve heard about how important black humor is for soldiers. The ability to make dark fun of whatever situation you may find youself in is super important for soldiers leaning off of the edge of the world. Cadences that ask to “bury me in the lean and rest” (the push-up position) or Blood Upon the Risers highlight the theme of black humor in the Army. And then, Animal Mother’s famous quip “Better you than me” when looking down at two dead Marines in Vietnam put the nail in the coffin. Troopers use black humor as a way to desensitize themselves to terirble situations. What’s interesting to me, is the way that the black humor  transitions to the way troops are memorialized. Military funerals are often very, very sad affairs. Whenever I find myself running in formation and a cadence comes around screaming “bury me in the lean and rest” I can’t help but think if anyone has ever actually requested that as part of their funeral. Blood Upon the Risers tells the story of a paratrooper who jumps to his death, his parachute never opening, and it’s sung in an upbeat, ‘hey-it-happens’ manner. I’ve always been struck by the strange dichotomy of the black humor of the military and the hardcore memorializing that happens when someone dies.

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The Chattanooga Shootings and the Era of Persistent Conflict

Forever War

Forgetting we are at war has become very easy. Although we still have troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it feels as though those two conflicts have been tucked in, put to sleep, and we’re tip-toeing out the door, trying not to wake them up.

For those who have served, last week’s shooting in Chattanooga did not come as a major surprise. While the media quickly shifted to searching for the “why,” looking for rock-solid connections between this or that terrorist group and the shooter, many veterans instinctively knew it was tragically just another SIGACT in the Global War on Terrorism, to resurrect that dying phrase.

In 2008, when I was in New York City attending college, a bomb was thrown at the Times Square Recruiting office. Just another SIGACT.

I remember waking up early one morning when I was attending school in Egypt and reading the news about the Fort Hood massacre, where MAJ Nidal Hassan murdered 13 people at an SRP site at Fort Hood, Texas. In the same year, there was an attack on a recruiting station in Arkansas that saw one soldier killed and another wounded.

Then, as now, I didn’t wonder about the motive.

The term “era of persistent conflict” has been thrown around a lot in the past decade, and honestly, I’ve mostly ignored it as another buzz-phrase that’s shuffled out to further obscure whatever it is we’re actually talking about. A throw-away line in a speech that keeps the timer ticking down to zero. That, and I wasn’t sure that we really were facing an era of persistent conflict.

It sounds, dreary.

Then, the other day, I read this piece by David Kilcullen. As a refresher, Kilcullen is the former Australian Army Officer who wrote “The Accidental Guerrilla.” He advised General Petraeus in Iraq and is one of the important figures in devising the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. He’s not infallible, and he has his detractors, but it is hard to argue he’s not an important voice on violence in the 21st century (Given their penchat for preaching that the world is getting safer, I’d be curious to think about what the folks at On Violence are going to think of this post).

We’re living in an era of persistent conflict. This isn’t my insight – you can read it in the latest concept documents of half a dozen western militaries. But it doesn’t seem to have hit home, for the public or some policymakers, that the notion that this can all end, that we can get back to some pre-9/ 11 “normal,” is a fantasy. This – this instability, this regional conflict surrounded by networked global violence, this convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, this rise of a new aggressive totalitarian state from the rubble of the last war – is the new normal, and it’s not going to change for a very, very long time. There are no quick solutions: we need to settle in for the long haul.

For some reason, this opening paragraph resonated with me. I think it’s the idea of returning to “some pre-9/11  normal” that got me. I can’t even imagine what that would be like anymore. It does sound like fantasy. So maybe, it’s just time to accept that we’re really in it for the long haul.

But the truth is, that doesn’t mean it has to be miserable.

As Kilcullen says, there is a convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, and that is the new normal. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that the shooter in Chattanooga felt like he wanted to belong to something greater than himself, and by attacking members of the military – who are symbols of the state – felt like he contributed to something global, something cosmic.

It happened, and is happening, and if we’re to belive Kilcullen, will continue to happen. The policymakers, in their talk about “persistent conflict,” are aware of it. On an anecdotal level, despite the slowing deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the operational tempo remains high. Train, Fight, Reset. Over and over again. Even in 2015.

Generally speaking, I think what’s important is that there has to be some expectation that these things are going to happen. Not every event can be predicted or prevented. The critical element is how we react. Do we over-correct and batten down the hatches? Or do we mourn and resolve ourselves to presevere our way of life in the face of unknown threats?

I know that for a military that is struggling to find the next mission, understanding that nothing is over, and that we are indeed in an era of persistent conflict, provides a training focus going forward. In the face of budget cuts and a shrinking force, it’s sometimes hard to see what the purpose is.

But if you’re looking through the wide lens, you can see it.

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Leadership through Group Text

Pissed-a-bunchOne of the first things I noticed upon re-joining the Army a few years ago, besides the proliferation of hand sanitizer, was how widespread smartphone use had become. For good or for ill, they are here. The ire of Commanders and NCOs everywhere is soldiers sitting around the company area, drumming away on their smartphones.

And like other industries, the fact that virtually everyone has a cell phone means that there is an expectation that you can be contacted at just about any time. Add to this the fact that in the Army “you’re a soldier 24 hours a day,” and there is now a built in expectation to be completely reachable through the marriage of duty and technology.

There is so much that can be written about smartphones, connectivity, and the expectations therein as they relate to the military, but I wanted to address the prevalence of the group text message as a means of putting out information.

In the pre-smartphone era, vital information would either be put out in a meeting and subsequently disseminated or there would be a final formation that would set the conditions for the next day. If a leader wanted to make changes to the plan after that time, it would have to be done through a phone chain, which was tedious and painful. Therefore, leaders were generally less likely to change things on the fly because of a late night good idea.

Today, you can check your weather app, see it’s going to be colder than you thought tomorrow and just send a group text out at 2045 and expect everyone to be wearing full winter PTs the next morning.

“I didn’t get the text.”

Leaders used to be extra sure everyone understood the expectations for the next day, which forced a deliberate thought process that allowed for contingencies. Now, the fact that we have the ability to instantaneously broadcast orders and intent allows us more flexibility – which is a good thing, kind of. We don’t have to go through that deliberate thought process – which frees us up to do other things, whatever those things may be.

The power to send group texts makes the rapid dissemination of information possible, where a face-to-face meeting was once required.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Didn’t you get my text?”

Simply sending a group text message, thought, does not guarentee the message was received. We’re still figuring it out, and etiquette and norms have yet to be developed. To me, it seems a good general rule to send an acknowledgement that you have read, digested, and will comply with a message, whether it comes over the radio, email, or group text.

The fact that the smartphone occupies the same space that look at memes and play games as well as put out “mission-type orders” makes the medium feel not as serious. This is why you might get a message like “where r u” from an NCO at a random time, and wonder what the hell is going on.

Smartphones aren’t going away, so it’s a matter of finding ways to better use them in a way that makes sense. But if you’ve ever had to suffer through an Army group text argument, usually late at night, on a weekend, likely fueled by alcohol, then you will question whether they are truly worth it.

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Weaving the Crusader Quilt

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Through the magic of hyperlinks I found myself on the personal blog of David Perry. I read what I came to read, and then just before I clicked away I saw a “Crusaders in Iraq” link floating off to the right. While I’ve focused my efforts on continuosly exploring and unpacking the self-identifying ‘infidel’ movement in the military, there is another corollary which revolves around “crusader” imagery.

I clicked the link.

It’s interesting to see other folks who have also caught glimpse of this trend and find themselves troubled by it.

Like I’ve written before, the strangest part of it is the legacy it’s leaving behind. As we extract ourselves from Iraq(?) and Afghanistan, there is still a large swath of both the military and civilian population that self-identifies as infidels and crusaders through imagery, social media, or by brandishing knives forged in pigs blood. Of course, there is a growing number of businesses that have stepped up to fill the space and provide an ever growing supply of infidel and crusader inspired gear for a demanding public.

While free speech is protected, military members who fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice come dangerously close to falling into the “extremist organization” orbit when they brandish these things.

I continue to think that the esoteric nature of understanding the crusades and the Arabic required to really know what the hell you’re talking about when it comes to defining what an ‘infidel’ is and how that may or may not be a helpful term, is the reason there isn’t a more hard line on managing the phenomenon within the military.