On the rare instances that I find myself on post on Sunday morning, I always enjoy how quiet it is.
No traffic. No noise. No soldiers.
Just about everyone I meet in the Army has a Facebook account now. It is more odd to not have one than to have one. Whenever I am up, standing in front of soldiers, I automatically assume I’m being Snapchatted. Social media is out there and exists. There’s no putting it away.
There are loads of military themed sites that vie for the attention of service members and veterans. Years ago, it was soldier blogs that made waves, giving others a peer inside the world of the military. Those have mostly died off, replaced instead with aggregate sites that allow many more voices to be broadcast to a much wider audience. These are sites like Task & Purpose, We Are The Mighty, The Rhino Den, Havok Journal, SOFREP, etc.
Then there are the strictly social media landing spots – Power Point Ranger, U.S. Army W.T.F. Moments, Gruntworks, Doctrine Man, etc. The list goes on and the low barrier to entry – an internet connection and an idea – allow these sites to rapidly proliferate and compete for the attention of its audience.
While aggregate sites allow for the display and dissemination of partially to fully formed ideas, the social media sites are pure candy. They post clickable, shareable, rage-baiting images and ideas designed to trigger an emotional response. Some of it is hilarious. A lot of it is nonsense.
Last week, before the media event and graduation at Ranger School, I heard soldiers speaking with confidence to one another that the outcome was pre-determined because of the Havok Journal article that claimed the President was going to be at the graduation, so ipso facto, the women got a free pass. In the circles I heard the claim, no one made a correction. No one said it was nonsense. It was read on the internet, disseminated, and settled.
A couple of months ago, when this article about the demise of Army leadership began making the rounds again, I was approached by a good soldier asking me why he should stay in the Army, because that article resonated with him.
Back in Afghanistan, I watched junior soldiers grow enraged over the ARCOM awarded to MSG Moerk because they saw a thousand memes on it. I could never imagine why a junior soldier – or any soldier – would be so interested (and outraged) at an award a senior NCO gets at a post, far, far away.
I’m not sure I’m shedding any new light on this. I’m sure in institutions all over the world social media is having a similar effect. I certainly see it in politics. It’s just something I’ve noticed a lot more in the military recently.
There is still this assumption that what happens online, stays online. That is an outdated understanding of the internet. What happens on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, interplays with conversations in morning formations. That funny picture I clicked ‘like’ on before PT becomes the actual thing someone references during the run. Only, out in the wild, removed from its original context of a funny thing on a goofy military site, it might not be so funny.
Related: The Military Meme Machine. I’m not a fan.
Today CPT Griest and 1LT Haver graduate Ranger School, ending a journey that’s lasted years.
As interesting as the topic is to me, I purposely haven’t written much about it because frankly, the room is crowded and loud.
Today is a very good day to be in the United States Army and I’m proud to serve.
The Udairi Desert, Kuwait. An abandoned compound in Baghdad. The woods of Fort Benning. An MRAP on the road between Bagram and Jalalabad. A cemetery in Texas.
“Okay, so there’s a sausage, a piece of french toast, and a waffle, right? And they’re all arguing over who is best breakfast food. So the french toast walks up to the waffle and says ‘hey, I’m the greatest breakfast food ever.’ The waffle doesn’t take no shit so he just beats the crap out of the french toast and that was that. Then the waffle walks up to the sausage and says ‘yo I’m the best breakfast food that ever lived’ and then the sausage grabs the waffle and throws him into the ocean.”
Soldiers’ attitudes change when they go to the field. There’s something that happens between the moments of loading the vehicles with MREs and gear and that last run to the Shoppette to stuff your rucksack full of candy, nicotine, and beef jerky.
It doesn’t really hit until you get to wherever you’re going, the vehicles’ engines shut down and then it’s just quiet. Everyone jumps out the back of the truck, moving gear, already wondering about what time chow is coming. The silence is noticeable, and I imagine it’s similar to what campers or hikers experience when they finally get out there.
In a world filled with noise and distraction, the sudden silence is deafening and often leaves soldiers cutting it with their own noise.
I learned very early that I get funny in the field. Where I might be more serious in garrison, being in the field makes me want to entertain others.
Standing around in a circle, everyone’s hands in their pockets because it’s cold and the will to enforce basic standards has started to erode, a grizzled NCO will demand that someone tell a joke. The demand is usually met with silence as soldiers quietly rack their brains for something that’s funny, appropriate, and also not one that’s been used before.
“Seriously, whose got a fucking joke?”
Now it’s become a quasi-order.
These jokes are rarely good. Every now and then you’ll have a soldier who has an amazing depth of jokes saved up for these occasions. He’s a goldmine, because a well timed joke can wash away the grime and suck of the field for a moment.
One of the soldiers in our platoon used to tell absurd jokes that he seemingly made up as he was telling them. A week in the field will make people a little odd, and he was no exception. We’d be laying on our backs, heads resting on our rucksacks looking above into a star filled sky surrounded by darkness as he would rattle off a fifteen minute story-joke about soldiers crossing creeks naked, holding balloons. His jokes were never really funny, but he’d pull us along, all of us yearning for a punchline which never came. Eventually, he’d suddenly end the joke. There’d be an awkward pause, and then someone would say “That’s it!?””
“Yup,” he’d reply.
And then we’d be back in the field.
Watching him, I learned that joke telling in the field can be therapeutic not just for those hearing the joke, but even more so for the joke teller.
He’d tell awkward jokes. Jokes in which he would have pre-coordinated with one or two soldiers to laugh at an absurd punchline that makes no sense. When he’d hit the key-word, those in on it would erupt into wild laughter like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Soldiers who weren’t in on the joke would start laughing nervously, not wanting to feel left out. This in turn would cause the original joke-teller and those in on it to laugh even harder, watching as their buddies faked the funk just to fit in.
And then there was the waffle joke.
The waffle joke is the ultimate field joke. Once learned and mastered, it can be used at the right moment to keep a platoon of infantrymen’s minds focused not on how much it sucks to be in the field, but on trying to solve the riddle of a joke with no answer.
I’ve told the joke about a dozen times, and it’s all in the telling, not the substance. The context matters too. You can’t tell it on the first day of the field when everyone smells good and their uniforms are clean. You have to be patient. Guys need to be sucking. You have to feel it out, and usually, in the moments when you’re just sitting around, waiting for chow to show up, or you’re in a school resting before resuming the patrol, you stand up and ask “Hey, who wants to hear a joke?”
Tired faces look up and shrug. Someone says “Send it.”
You enthusiastically declare that this is the greatest joke they’ll ever hear, that you’ve been telling it for years and it always delivers, but you’re remiss to tell it, because it always ends the same way. Everyone in the platoon will hate you for telling it. The worst part of it is, no one will get it now. You might think you’ll get it, but you won’t. In a few days time, it will reveal itself and then you’ll laugh. You’ll either think it is incredible or the stupidest fucking shit you’ve ever heard.
Someone interrupts “Just tell the fucking joke!”
And so you tell it, suddenly stopping on the word “ocean.” You peer into their confused eyes, watching them search for the meaning. One or two soldiers laugh, thinking they’ve figured it out. The rest of them stand there, faces twisting in disgust and confusion.
For the next few hours, soldiers will come up to you with their solution or questions: “Okay, so it was the waffle that got thrown in the ocean, right? Was he unconscious?”
It becomes a topic of conversation. The topic of conversation. Some soldiers enthusiastically throw themselves into solving it. Others decide they don’t even like you anymore. The joke reveals everything there is to be human.
At some point, the time is right, and the joke reveals itself, as you promised it would.
One or two soldiers quietly chuckle. The rest stare angrily with the black face of death.
Everything you said was right.
And they all hate you.
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.
Training, self-development, “rowing,”: finally getting to step in front of soldiers is the end of a long process of getting there.
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 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.