soldiering

Leadership: Be Ready to Be the Man on Day One

Photo by Charlie Haughey. Click the picture to go to his Facebook page.

Photo by Charlie Haughey. Click the picture to go to his Facebook page.

One of the hardest parts about assuming a leadership position in the military is realizing that no one is waiting for you, and really, no one cares. To you, it feels like things have been building towards that moment, and really, they have.

For you.

Training, self-development, “rowing,”: finally getting to step in front of soldiers is the end of a long process of getting there.

For you.

For them, things have been going for a long time. They’re really not that interested in how big a deal this is for you, other than wondering whether things will get better (if they’re bad) or if things will get worse (if they’re good).

On top of that, it’s likely that you, as the smart new leader, already have a plan for how you’re going to lead. Maybe the plan is to show up and assert dominance through a gut-checking speed run. Or maybe you plan on staying silent and in the background, quietly observing how things run before making any significant changes.

Likely, no matter the plan, there’s this feeling that this is the beginning, a fresh start.

For you.

For them, it’s just another day. They might be worn out, just coming off of a deployment or an NTC rotation. They might have been sucking on red cycle, doing laborious details for months. Or they might be relatively fresh, having just come off of leave.

Either way, it’s not a brand new start. There’s a vibe that courses through the unit that is informed by the recent and not-so-recent past, significant events, personalities, ass-chewings, and loads of other inputs that you are likely completely unaware of.

Even knowing that, which you do because you’re a smart new leader, it will still feel like the beginning. You’ll get there and begin executing your plan.

In the combat arms, this would ideally look like a settling in period where you gauge the unit and get to know people, followed by a train up period where you slowly get them where you want them to be, and then the unit “peaks” just at the same time as you get on the plane for a combat deployment. You go on the deployment, win the war, and then come back home, go on leave, and transition out. Very neat, very perfect.

As it happens, the universe is conspiring against you, and something will invariably get in the way of the grand plan. It could be your commander, a subordinate, a family member, a death, a suicide, infidelity, a no-notice deployment – the lists goes on.

The point is, you have to be ready to be the man on day one. The hardest decision you make during your time as leader might be in the first month, or week, or day. It can be terribly infuriating to have something interfere with the plan – YOUR plan.

But without question, something will absolutely get in the way of the things you want to do and accomplish. It’s just a matter of when. And like I said, there is a pulse that runs through the unit that has been there long before you and it continues to beat, even as you sit in the commander’s chair plotting the grand scheme. The only variable is when the big event will happen. Will the decisive point be right where you want it, when your feet are firmly planted and you fully understand what you’re dealing with. Or will it be when you first arrive and have no idea what the hell is going on, knocking you off of your feet?

You don’t really get much of a say. But you have a responsibility to be ready and own it, whatever it is and whenever it may come.

@dongomezjr

soldiering

Antenna Discipline

RTO AntennaIf you’ve ever been an RTO and whipped around, smacking the face of your PSG or PL with the antenna of your radio, you’re likely familiar with term “antenna discipline.” It’s not a doctrinal term, but it’s one that I’ve heard used so often that it ought to be.

Antenna discipline is being aware that you have 3-foot long floppy stick poking out of your backpack, and that when you move around, it moves too. An RTO with good antenna discipline is generally aware of where his antenna is at all times. It’s like another appendage; his tail. He moves slowly and cautiously, and he’s aware of the people around him. When he moves, he moves in such a way that his antenna glides through the air. When it droops, he adjusts it as needed.

An RTO with poor antenna discipline moves wildly, his antenna flailing around with him, smacking everyone in the face.

@dongomezjr

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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.

@dongomezjr

soldiering

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.

@dongomezjr

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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.

@dongomezjr