reflections

10 Things My NCOs Told Me That I Can’t Forget

Over the years, NCOs (non-commissioned officers) have uttered little sayings or missives that have been forever etched in my mind. Whether they are true or not is not clear. Either way, I cannot forget these little sayings, and as far as I am concerned, they are the absolute truth, simply because a good NCO told me it was so:

1. Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

What makes him so special?

2. Every day of PT that is missed requires two days to make up.

It’s not science, but he was wearing a Drill Sergeant hat.

3. A stretch is ineffective unless it is held for at least 15 seconds.

Because 10 seconds is too easy.

4. You really don’t want a CIB.*

There’s a lot of baggage that comes with it.

5. Never, ever, mention rain in the field.

If you do, it will inevitably rain.

6. Nothing good ever happens after someone says “watch this shit…”

But it is probably funny.

7. You can always squeeze in one more.

One more rep, one more person in the truck, etc.

8. If it’s stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid.

Unless it is stupid.

9. Fake it until you make it.

False motivation is better than no motivation.

10. If it smells clean, it is clean.

Pine-Sol the shit out of the latrine!

There are likely many more that I just can’t remember right now. If you’ve got some gems, please leave them in the comments.

reflections

Remnants of an Army

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I walk down the steps and outside, limping from the pins and needles in my legs from sitting too long. The cold air wraps around me and I look up, squinting, catching the dark, looming mountains of the Pashtun border behind a strand of concertina wire along the wall of the cantonment . Turning a corner to head back to my room, the white blimp sits in the air where it always does; black from its own shadow. A low-tech drone buzzes nearby like a lawn mower.

reflections

The Nostalgia of Old Places

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A couple of weeks ago I found myself on a camp somewhere in Afghanistan for a few days. This was the camp where my deployment began. For the two weeks I was there back in July, the camp was busy, hot, and active. We did a lot of good training and then I left and went to another part of Afghanistan. Being back on that camp, the weather cooler and far fewer people around, an old nostalgia kicked in the way it seems to whenever I revisit a familiar place after a long absence.

It’s something I experienced powerfully when I passed through Kuwait en route to the United States on mid-tour leave from Iraq in 2003. I spent over a month at TAA Champion in Kuwait as the US was gearing up for the invasion. Thousands of soldiers busily milled about, preparing for war. When I returned on my way home, the tents were gone and it resembled an empty lot, the way the amusement park looks in the movie Big near the end of the movie when Tom Hanks returns to Zoltar.

It’s a nostalgia that I’ve experienced a lot in video games, too. At the end of Mass Effect 1 when Commander Shepard uses the conduit to get back to the Citadel - where the journey began – I felt that pang of nostalgia. I felt that same nostalgia when Cloud and team re-entered Midgar – where their journey began.

I think part of the nostalgia isn’t just the old place, but the way it is different when you return, in these examples, emptier and less active. There is something about the change in dynamic and the passage of time that pulls the nostalgia right up. The place is different now.

reflections

Accidental Empire and the British Colonial Service

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When I initially got out of the Army and went to college, I liked to have conversations with people – mostly International Studies students – about how America could be more effective overseas. This was between 2007-2011, and the limits of what military power could accomplish in foreign lands in terms of democracy-building or statecraft was becoming well known, with then Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously urging more funds to go towards the State Department, even if that meant less for the Department of Defense.

Between classes, over coffee, or at some dive bar near the City College of New York, I argued to anyone who would listen that what we needed was a more “expeditionary” State Department. We needed young Foreign Service Officers who weren’t afraid to get out on the streets and do the hard work on the ground, even if that meant strapping a pistol to their belt and taking a couple of IEDs along the way. In my mind, the stereotype I had of the foreign service was a risk-averse, cubicle-chained organization. In 2007, as the United States began its “surge” in Iraq, there was backlash from some foreign service officers over potentially being sent to Iraq, some describing it as a “death sentence.” I remember reading those stories at the time and feeling frustration, as it exacerbated the idea that the military was fighting the war in Iraq, while everyone else – including the State Department – looked the other way.

On a scholarship application in which I discussed the State Department, I wrote this:

Specifically, the State Department will need Foreign Service Officers who have an expeditionary mindset and are willing to sacrifice personal safety and comfort to meet the nation’s objectives.

Still fueled by the fire of being an enlisted infantryman fresh from Iraq sling-shot into college life, I was adamant that what the world needed was a more aggressive foreign service. At CCNY, we had a diplomat-in-residence, a State Department official who holds an office at a college to recruit and teach classes. Ambassador Robert Dry, a former Middle East hand (and Navy veteran) was the diplomat-in-residence at CCNY. I often visited him in his office and tried my best to keep up with him – he’s exceptionally intelligent. When I spoke confidently about my ideas of a more robust and aggressive State Department, citing the recent examples of the resistance to go to Iraq by some, he quickly fired back, saying that it sounded like I wanted to recreate the defunct British Colonial Service.

I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing it. What was he implying? At the time, I wasn’t really aware that there was a thing called the British Colonial Service but I instantly understood what he meant. The argument that I was making, and one that continues to be made by prominent figures, is that we have found ourselves managing an accidental empire and that requires different mechanisms than the ones we’re familiar with. Not an “empire” in the sense of territorial conquest, but rather we have “boots on the ground” in lots of places, and as a result, the need to “do it right” becomes apparent.

The conversation between the Ambassador and I then shifted to what then to do; if you find yourself running an accidental empire, do you create the institutional structures to adequately manage it, or do you address the policies that led to its origin? Or in paratrooper parlance, do you try to “slip-away?”

As I’ve gotten older and have watched things develop, I’m not as gung-ho about the idea of simply strapping a pistol to the leg of a foreign service officer as the antidote to America’s challenges overseas. I suppose the continuing troubles in the Middle East and the recent stories (linked above) about more frequent deployments and calls for reforming how we do whatever-it-is-you-call-it that is being done, reminded me of these old conversations in the dark, granite recesses of the ‘Harvard of the Proletariat.’