books

The beloved captain and the infallible leader

250px-Donald_HankeyOne of the benefits of having a CTLT cadet attached to your hip for a few weeks is you get invited to a bunch of events that lowly lieutenants would never get invited to. As the saying goes, the biggest demotion you get in the Army is when you graduate from West Point and pin on Second Lieutenant. Or so I hear.

During one of the half-dozen mandatory briefs/discussions, the III Corps Commander was talking about officership and mentioned, half-dissmingly, A Message to Garcia (which I’ve only recently even learned of myself). Where that tome is supposed to imbibe the young officer with the propensity to find his own way in things, the general recommended another book that he thought would be worth reading called The beloved captain. He spoke about it for a moment as I made a note to check it out later.

Weeks later, after the CTLT experience had ended, I googled it and ordered a copy. It’s not really a book, it’s more of an essay. Actually, three short essays written by Donald Hankey who served and was killed in World War I.

I finished them all yesterday. The story is told from the perspective a junior recruit, and begins with initial training and ends in the war. The recruit is writing about his “beloved captain” who was just a junior platoon leader when he first arrived, learning how to soldier just as the rest of them were.

Then he started to drill the platoon, with the sergeant standing by to point out his mistakes. Of course he made mistakes, and when that happened he never minded admitting it. He would explain what mistakes he had made, and try again.

The idea of the leader admitting his mistakes is one that I know a lot of junior leaders shy away from, instead going for “the infallible leader.” I’ve received much unsolicited advice to always be the hardest one, always have the right answer, never mess up in front of the men, never let them see you sweat, and on and on. The advice comes from the right place, to ensure that you are capable of doing the things you ask of your subordinates, but it also seems a bit inhuman and realistically unachievable. Like most “advice for platoon leaders” it boils down to be great at everything at all times and you’ll be good to go.

Instead, as the recruit notes here, a leader who admits shortcomings and actively works towards getting better gains the respect of his subordinates.

The recruit also writes about the importance of physical presence:

No trouble of ours was too small for him to attend to.

Being phsyically present at the shittiest detail or most uncomfortable activity is probably the best piece of advice I received from a senior officer. It’s not always possible, but being present has an effect on a number of things; discipline and morale being the chief two. It also sends the message that whatever it is you’re doing is important.

The beloved captain is a super-short read, and worthwhile because the advice seems counter to what is popularly understood as good company grade leadership, i.e.; the infallible leader. You can read it for free, here.

 

soldiering

On Morale

EIB

Every year or so, an article appears sounding the alarm over morale in the military. This piece from World Affairs Journal is no different, analzying recent data and polling on the state of military morale.

I made a note to write about it, because it seemed alarmist and disingenuous.

Reading through the text, there isn’t a lot of hard evidence that indicates morale is actually low. Most of the data comes from informal polls that don’t directly correspond to “morale” but instead touch on things like pay and job satisfaction.

Morale, as an idea, should to be defined before it can be analyzed.

morale |məˈral|
noun
the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time: their morale was high.

That’s a book definition, and it seems ok for a start. But I’ve been unable to find an agreed upon military definition of morale, which seems odd, since it is always touted as a chief concern. With no firm definition of morale, it’s hard to say if it is high or low.

This Stars & Stripes article from October 2003 (a time where I can personally attest to as a period of low morale) unpacks the discussion of morale and trying to define it. All soldiers know it’s important, but not everyone can agree on what it is, only, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

Of course, there are the three pillars of morale: chow, mail, and pay. Mess with any of those and morale will sink. For today’s troops, I’d add in free time and connectivity, to a lesser degree. These are elements of “big tent” morale. These are things that depend on acts of Congress and the Department of Defense to deliver.

Polling as a means of measuring “big tent” morale is ineffective. Soldiers, since time immemorial, always gripe, no matter how good or bad the situation.

Instead of polling, recruiting and retention numbers serve as a better measure of “big tent” morale.

At a time when the military as a whole is downsizing, benefits are becoming more restrictive, and the operational tempo remains high – despite the wars “being over” – recruiting and retention numbers remain at one-hundred percent and above in a recovering economy. That is, there isn’t a rush to the exit. Servicemen and women continue to join and stay in the service.

Anecdotally, the grass is always greener on the other side. Troops today talk about wanting to deploy more, like we did in the mid-2000s. There’s also a post-COIN running discontent with trying to accomplish a myriad of seemingly distracting tasks while being told to always find and exploit opportunities to train.

Even some of the guys who served back then talk about those days with a tinge of nostalgia.

It’s easy to forget how tough those times were. Friends were being killed, deployments lasted 15(+) months, and the military enacted policies like “stop-loss” and Individual-Ready Reserve (IRR) call-ups to make numbers.

When the military has go to the small print in enlistment contracts to make numbers, that’s a sign of overall low morale.

Just like the APFT is simply a benchmark of physical fitness, recruiting and retention numbers only provide a snapshot of overall morale.

Still, individual units can have high morale when morale across the force is low, even (or, especially) down to the squad level. Plenty of units had high morale during the mid-2000s when things were tough. This morale is different from the “big tent” morale discussed earlier. This is the morale that comes from small-unit cohesion. The biggest factor in this is, of course, leadership. A good leader who can filter out the nonsense while still accomplishing the mission can (mostly) insulate his or her element from low morale. This is why you’ll often hear soldiers talking about how great “their last unit” was. What they’re really saying is that they liked it better with their previous leadership.

This type of morale might be better measured through polling, but not in the aggregrate. This morale is better measured through small unit sensing sessions, informal discussions, and listening to the remarks from soldiers as you pass them by – the things they say in your presence, just to see how you respond.

On the other hand, simple measures of low morale and discontent would be desertion rates and “fragging” incidents. Although there may be others, these two in high number, or beyond the infrequent lone episodes would be a good indicator that there is a true morale issue in the force.

Interestingly, new Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey is looking at troop morale through the prism of small, common sense changes that can be made, to include allowing headphones to be worn in fitness centers while wearing the phsyical fitness uniform (a source of much emotional heartache for this author). While small things like headphones and socks might seem inconsequential to troop morale, these micro-policies can have a stifling effect over time.

There are so many other places the morale discussion can go. Discipline and punishment in a unit has an effect on morale. A soldier who goes unpunished for an infraction only to see another soldier who commited the same infraction receive an Article 15 can be a blow to overall morale, as it reeks of favoritism and selective enforcement.

Admittedly, I didn’t do a ton of research for this post. I’d be curious to know if an actual military definition of morale exists (it doesn’t in Operational Terms and Graphics). It’s also an interesting discussion to have, even in terms of our allies. The Iraqi Army, as a whole, likely suffers from low morale, as indicated by the high rate of desertion in the face of the enemy. Individual units, though, like ISOF Gold, seem to have higher morale. What is the cause? Leadership? Pay? Equipment? Sense of purpose?

SKULL MASKS?

reflections

#JadeHelm

So no shit, there I was.

Driving between Dallas and Fort Hood, returning from a recon for a funeral detail.

There I was, at a nondescript rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

In uniform.

I paid for my coffee and waited for a fellow soldier to pay for his Red Bull when an older man approached the counter. He was about my height, balding, overweight with a stained, sleeveless cutoff shirt. He looked me square in the eyes, making sure we were locked in.

With both hands pressed against the counter holding him up, he looked at me hard and asked with a straight and serious face: “Jade helm?”

I may or may not have responded with a sarcastic remark.

Without going into the details, the rest of the conversation revolved around preachers, preparations, and treason.

Without question, it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been in regards to civilian-military relations, and I’ve dealt with a lot of anti-military rhetoric, having been a part of veterans issues in New York City and attending graduate school at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In those settings, challenges towards my military service usually resulted in me thinking critically about my decision to serve, and eventually hardening that resolve through deliberate thought.

In this instance, being called treasonous by an angry Texan, I wonderd what might be sitting on his belt. I got out of there as fast I could.

It’s interesting – and a little scary – to read on the internet about this group of people worried about an obscure military exercise. It’s a completely different and strange thing to actually be confronted by it and challenged by it.

I didn’t like it.

reflections

End of War: Post-Deployment Nostalgia

We just hit our 3-month mark of coming home from Afghanistan.

First there was the honeymoon phase and joy of being back in America.

Then there was the long block leave period and the slow yearning to be back in a rhythm.

Then the madness of a unit reset into the gradual resumption of business as usual.

Now, I’m starting to see, hear, and feel the beginnings of post-deployment nostalgia. Guys are starting to talk about being “back on deployment” with a tinge of longing. Four or five months ago, we cursed the very ground we walked on. But now, it exists in our memories as a vacation from the drudgery of garrison life.

Soldiers stand around in groups and tell stories, words going back and forth between them, weaving a bond through every telling and re-telling.

“Fuck this place” is slowly becoming “Remember that time when…”

 

 

army myths

Army Myths: There is no “right” way to lace your boots

One of the first things I learned as a new soldier was how to lace my boots. I remember sitting there with a boot tucked between my legs and holding the ends of a long black boot lace in each hand and asking the guy next to me if there was a “right” way to lace my boots.

“Yeah, left over right, the whole way up.”

Left over right, the whole way up.

Why?

Because “we always start with our left” or something like that.

For over a decade I have always laced my boots this way, left over right until complete. When I ask others what the “right” way to lace my boots is, they confirm that it is left over right.

It turns out this is another myth. DA PAM 670-1 says nothing about how the laces are to crossed, only that:

According to the regulation, there is nothing wrong with going right over left, or going back and forth between the two, or – unfathomable – some kind of random design.

All this said, I’ve always done it left over right and I like the way it looks.