Two o’clock in the morning courage

Napoleon at the Sphinx

A couple of months ago, in a professional development session, the subject of ’2:00 AM courage’ was brought up. We were reading about Napoleon, who had this thought about courage:

When he mentioned courage, Napoleon had also in mind moral courage – what he liked to call “two o’clock in the morning courage.” When bad news comes to a person at that hour, it is dark, he is alone, and his spirits are at low ebb; it requires a special brand of courage at such a time to make the necessary decision. Such courage is spontaneous rather than conscious, but it enables a general to exercise his judgement and make decisions despite the unexpected or the unfortunate surprises.

I don’t think this type of courage is relegated just to the late night or early morning, but also to generally trying circumstances. Said plainly, it is easy (or easier) to make difficult decisions when seated comfortably in the office chair or even in the middle of the day at the Company CP. It is an altogether different task to make a difficult decision when time is short, morale is low, and there is an overwhelming desire to slow down or get some rest.

It is in these situations that I’ve always found value in asking myself “what is the right answer?” Usually, we know what the “right answer” is, and by simply asking the question, the right thing to do reveals itself. By ignoring that question, it is easy to slide by, and ultimately, do the wrong thing.

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PowerPoint is a Crutch

Or rather, it can be.

Once every couple of years, someone writes about how terrible PowerPoint is for the military. And then a counter argument is written about how PowerPoint isn’t the problem, it’s the way we use it that’s the problem.

We gnash our teeth and it gives us something to talk about around the water cooler for a few days before it disappears again.

In the past, I found myself getting annoyed at the idea that PowerPoint itself was a problem. I’ve always been of the mind that if used effectively, it can compliment briefing and teaching. I still believe that.

There are two recent incidents, however, that have challenged that belief, and I’m starting to move towards the ‘PowerPoint is bad’ camp.

A few weeks ago I was charged with running a rifle marksmanship range and needed to develop a concept of the operation, or CONOP (much more on that here). What I really needed to do was develop a plan – the no shit, how am I going to execute this?

The unofficial gold standard is the “one-slider.” That is, a single PowerPoint slide jammed with information that lays out, in general terms, what is supposed to happen. ‘One-slider’ isn’t a doctrinal term, but everyone knows what it is.

Step One : Look to see if this has been done before – does an old version of that ‘one-slider’ exist? If so, is it still relevant? Can it be modified?

A ridiculous amount of time can be spent searching for a 90% product to ease the pain of having to build your own.  Often, a 90% solution could have been created if one went straight to planning and executing instead of foraging.

In my case, I had about a 50% solution and had to build the rest. As I was building my ‘one-slider,’ I wondered:

“If I didn’t have PowerPoint, how would I do this?”

There aren’t many folks left at the Company level who can answer that question anymore. Those folks are the ones who served in the military pre-9/11, when email wasn’t that big of a thing and people sent runners all day to do their communicating. The “sharedrive” was a filing cabinet and no one would leave work unless there was already a timeline for the next day – they wouldn’t be getting any late night text messages with that information because text messages didn’t exist yet.

The right answer, as it turns out, is the operations order (OPORD) in a written format. Or if the intent really was to deliver a simple concept, then maybe I could physically write out what I intended on accomplishing on a single sheet of paper, neatly.

The point is, the presentation tool we use has a significant effect on how we plan (or fail to plan). And as MG(P) McMaster said, “…it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.”

The second thing that happened, or rather, hasn’t happened, is a class that I’ve been wanting to pitch for a couple of weeks now simply because I haven’t built a slide deck. I’ve attended so many briefings and classes in the military and civilian world given with beautifully crafted, colorful slides – some with animation – that they have affected the way that I envision myself briefing or instructing. My vision, of standing up in a darkened theater with gorgeous, simple slides seamlessly transitioning behind me to a riveted audience before I deliver “one, more, thing,” weighs on my mind as I delay – again – beginning the process of building that slide deck for a short class. I need to spend time building the slides, making sure they’re relevant, using the correct graphics, and then finding a projector, a screen, and a room big enough to fit the participants.

Meanwhile, the nature of the class is such that it can be pitched under a tree with a couple of 3 x 5 cards as notes. Just as effectively.

I suspect that part of the allure of PowerPoint is that is can be saved and it is forever. Once I’ve created a good ‘one-slider’ I can go back to it and swap out some details and be done with it. No real planning has occurred, but it briefs well. Likewise, there is no “digital record” of the class I wanted to pitch if I did it under a tree with 3 x 5 cards. No slide-deck to send around. Just my good word that I did it. And if I wanted to do it again, I’d have to save the notes. Yikes.

So while I haven’t completely abandoned camp and deleted my copies of PowerPoint, I’m more mindful now when I am using it or feel compelled to use it. If I have to brief or instruct and I instinctively reach for a slide-deck,  I now ask myself if this needs to be briefed on PowerPoint (and who said so), and if so, what are my constraints, or am I creating my own?


How To Send A Red Cross Message

Red-Cross-LogoThere is no faster way to notify a soldier of an emergency (and have the notification result in action, like getting that soldier home) than by sending a ‘Red Cross Message.’ It cuts through the chain of command like a hot knife through butter.

Here’s how to do it (via the American Red Cross):

How to Contact the Red Cross for Assistance

The American Red Cross Emergency Communications Center is available to help 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Call (877) 272-7337 (toll-free) if you are currently, or if you are calling about:

  • Anyone on active duty in the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard
  • An activated member of the Guard and Reserve of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces
  • An immediate family member or dependent of anyone in the above categories
  • A civilian employed by or under contract to the Department of Defense and stationed outside the Continental United States and any family residing with them at that location
  • A military retiree or the reiree’s spouse or widow(er)
  • A Cadet or midshipman at a service academy; ROTC cadet on orders for training
  • A Merchant Marine aboard a U.S. Naval Ship

When calling the Red Cross, be prepared to provide as much of the following information about the service member as is known:

  • Full legal name
  • Rank/rating
  • Branch of service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard)
  • Social Security number
  • Date of birth
  • Military unit address
  • Information about the deployed unit and home base unit (for deployed service members only)

Wearing dress socks under Army socks on a foot march: It works!

Beautiful feet

For the first time ever, I finally tried wearing Army dress socks underneath regular Army socks on a long foot march. Since joining the Army, I’ve heard soldiers say that you can wear Army dress socks as an under-layer and it will help prevent blisters. Blisters typically form because of friction caused by materials rubbing against the skin over time. The chief cause of this is improper or worn out boots.

Back in OCS, a friend turned me on to SuperFeet, which is a kind of hard insole. I always assumed that you wanted to get a cushioned insole and I’d often go to the PX and buy throw-away .99 insoles that were soft and squishy. My friend said that what you actually wanted was a hard insole to support the foot. He was right. That, plus good fitting boots have made blisters rare for me.

Back to the socks.

Yesterday, my unit did a 25 mile foot march and I figured I’d give the dress socks a shot. My boots fit a tad snugger because of the extra socks, and also a little warmer, but nothing too extreme. I didn’t change my socks at all during the movement and although my feet are sore, I didn’t get any friction blisters. I did get one impact blister on the ball of my left foot (you can just barely see it – the one on the right). I drained it last night and it doesn’t really hurt anymore. Walk far enough and it doesn’t matter what kind of socks or boots you wear, you’re going to get a blister.

Had I not worn the liners, I probably would have changed my socks at the turn-around point. I think the liners helped. My feet weren’t super-calloused before the foot march and I probably would have had some more blisters had I just worn Army socks. Going forward, I’ll probably wear the liners if I have a 12+ mile foot march.

Also, those are the prettiest feet I’ve ever seen on an infantryman, post-foot march.


Conscientious Objection and The Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers

The Deserter

This has been sitting in my queue of things to write about for two months now. It is an essay in the Boston Review titled ‘The Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers.’ It is written by Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University.

One of the topics on war that interests me is the ‘why we fightstuff. I wrote recently about the ‘virtue of the conqueror,’ and how the disappearance of that as an actual thing makes the whole episode of war more difficult to swallow for the individual charged with fighting it.

Professor McMahan writes about the moral dilemma soldiers in an all-volunteer military face when thrust into an unjust war. What are they to do?

Much of his essay is an exploration of the all-volunteer military and just war theory and how the two interplay. Then, he posits that it would be in our best interests as a nation to allow for selective conscientious objection.

I furrowed my brow at that, thinking, we already had a means to exit the service through conscientious objection. I remembered from my enlisted time the stories of soldiers deserting and fleeing to Canada shortly after the Iraq War began and the groups that sprouted aiming to assist soldiers get out of the military as conscientious objectors.

I thought that it would be a pretty glaring error to publish something in the Boston Review without checking first, so I dug into Army Regulation 600-43 (Conscientious Objection) to find out more.

Interestingly, I found that one cannot attain status as a conscientious objector “based on objection to a certain war” (para 1-5, no. 4). That is, if an individual soldier thinks a certain war is unjust or whatever, that is not criteria to attain status as a conscientious objector and either be moved into a non-combatant role or discharged from the military altogether.

Being a soldier is hard. It’s especially hard when faced with ambiguous situations (which is why I compare war to the game Mass Effect, not Call of Duty). It’s been shown time and time again that “I was just following orders” is not a defense for illegal or immoral behavior on the battlefield. Individuals are charged – rightly or wrongly – with processing orders from superiors through filters of appropriateness before acting. In the grander scheme of things, a soldier has to decide whether he can live with himself after taking this or that action. That is hard. Soldiering is hard.

All that said, it’s often not that hard to know whether a given action is right or wrong. Usually, just asking the question “is this the right answer?” is enough to know what to do.

Back to Professor McMahan: his charge is that individual soldiers should have a way out of specific conflicts, which the current regulation prohibits. Ethically, that seems to make sense. How can we ask an individual who has voluntarily put his faith into “the system” to go to war in a conflict that he or she sees as unjust or immoral?

There are pitfalls here, which McMahan concedes. One being the test of sincerity. How do you know that one is really opposed to a specific conflict and not just trying to avoid going to war, especially if that war is particularly gruesome?

It’s tough being a soldier. And without writing a long thesis on it, I’ve personally found solace through “believing in the system” as cold and distant as it can seem. If you fundamentally believe in the American project, then carrying out its orders doesn’t come with great difficulty.

The individual always reserves the final vote, however – the ultimate veto. And in the end, each of us – as individuals – has to be prepared to answer for our actions. “I was just following orders” will not work on the front page of the newspaper or the trial of our gods.


What it’s like when a new Platoon Leader meets his Platoon Sergeant in combat

When I saw this scene, I immediately thought it looked like a new platoon leader meeting his platoon sergeant. Especially in a dire situation, like combat. It is one of the strangest arrangements we have – a young, fresh soldier is placed in charge of a few dozen men, many of whom are older and more experienced.

The tit for tat exchange in the beginning of the scene is similar to what will happen over time in a new platoon leader’s experience. Members of the platoon will test the leader by pushing the limits of what can be said in his presence, the other members of the platoon (in this case, the boat) looking on, waiting for the reaction.

Later in the scene, Theon meets his First Mate – which is really more akin to the platoon sergeant in this case. The bald guy in the beginning is more like the super-aggressive squad leader. The First Mate welcomes Theon, and says “They’re not going to respect you until you prove yourself.”

Here’s the text of the first scene below:

Theon: You’re the crew of the Sea Bitch? I’m your commander. Welcome.



Your captain commands you to stop!


Rymolf: Where are we headed, captain?

Theon: The Stony Shore. To raid their villages. There’ll be spoils in it for you, and women, if you do your jobs well.

Rymolf: And who decides if we’ve done our jobs well?

Theon: I do. Your captain.

Rymolf: I have been reaving(?) and raping, since before you left Thelon’s balls. Don’t reckon I’ve got much use for ideas on how to do it. Don’t reckon I’ve got much use for a captain at all. I’m thinking I can do the job of captain real well myself. All I need is the ship. You don’t know where I can find myself a ship, would ye?


We do bad things to bad people: Oversimplification in the Military

The other day I noticed another soldier building a “smart book.” A “smart book” is informal military terminology meaning a book that contains lots of information, allowing the soldier who wields it to be “smart.” People in the military like to pare things down to their basic elements so that they’re most easily understood – that’s a good thing.

What caught me with this was that the title of the actual book that was printed on the cover was “smart book.” I thought about it for a moment and remembered back to learning about the book, and the jokey way it was introduced to me. The term “smart book” has been used so much that it has become the actual thing and not the thing it represents. People don’t build a book containing lots of information for a specific reason, they build a “smart book.” The whole process has evolved, and I don’t know if it’s for the better.

I suppose I see this most with the way language is used in the military. A few years ago, before I came back in, I remember this story about the Marine veteran being heckled at a town hall meeting at Columbia University about the potential return of ROTC (I wrote about it here). People started laughing at him when he says this [audio]:

“It doesn’t matter how you feel about war, it doesn’t matter how you feel about fighting, other parts of the country – or, other parts of the world, are plotting to kill you right now, when you go to bed. [laughter] It’s not a joke! There are a lot of tough men out there willing to do bad things to bad people to keep you safe. These people are trying to kill you. They hate America, and they hate you. [heckling]. It’s true, and I’m not lying about it, because I’ve been there, I’ve seen it. I know these people. So when you think that war is evil, it’s true, I believe you [more heckling] war is evil, but it’s not a choice that you have, and it’s not a choice that I have.”

The proximate reason I think he was heckled was because of the simple language he used to describe the reason for the military’s existence (people out there trying to kill you when you go to bed, bad things to bad people, etc.) To an audience of college students, that’s a gross simplification. Maschek, the Marine student-veteran, was informed by years of military service where NCOs and Officers stood in front of formations and said those same things “bad things to bad people” because it was a simple way of generating enthusiasm among the men (and women).

What works in the military for cheep hooahs and oorahs doesn’t translate into the civilian world. Worse, I think it might dumb us down from tackling problems in a thoughtful way.

There’s more to this phenomenon than I understand right now. Maybe I’ll write about it again later – I’m not even sure what to call it. Just some thoughts.


Army Culture: Boots on a Wire, or, the last, desperate act of a disgruntled soldier

Boots on a wire

It’s getting cold in Texas. As last week came to a close, a friend came to my office and asked me if I knew anything about why there would be a pair of painted boots in a tree outside of our headquarters. I smiled, ear to ear, because I hadn’t heard of anyone tossing their boots up over a wire for a long time.

I first saw it at Fort Bragg. Going outside for morning formation, a pair of leather combat boots, painted glittery gold were dangling high over us, rocking slowly under the electrical wire. We formed up and I watched the First Sergeant quietly fume as he took roll call.

I asked someone what the boots were all about and I was told that when a soldier gets out of the Army, one of the last things he might do is tie the laces of his combat boots together, paint the boots, and then throw them up over a wire or into a tree in front of the commander’s office, or as close as possible. The ballsier you were, the higher up the chain of command you went. I also heard of stories of soldiers trying to get the boots on the actual desk of the commander. Boots on a wire is was a way of getting in one final insult to the Army before disappearing to real world.

“I don’t get it,” my friend said in my office, “how is that offensive, it doesn’t mean anything.”

I smiled again. “Right, it doesn’t mean anything to the commander. But to everyone in the unit, they know what it means, and the point is, the commander was not able to prevent it and now that the soldier is gone, there is very little he could do in retaliation.”

He shrugged and we walked outside to see a group of soldiers climbing the tree to take down the boots.

Painted Combat Boots


The Infantrywomen of Instagram #inyourface


What a day for military women!

Yesterday was a day where that ugly topic, women in the infantry, reared its head again and for some reason was all over the place. It’s one of my favorite subjects because it is about so much more than just women in the infantry. It’s an exhausting, emotional topic and I’ve been happy not having to write about it for awhile.

But here we are again.

As it has been reported, the four women pictured above will likely be the first four women to complete the United States Marine Corps infantry course. A milestone day, and more on the picture in a bit.

On the same day that this photo and story emerges, I also read an article in the Washington Times titled “The feminist campaign to make weaklings of America’s warriors,” an article in Politico that suggests that as the Army moves closer to integrating combat arms, it would “behoove us to select more average looking women for our comms strategy,” and a blog written on Ranger Up’s Rhino Den asking “Where is the Army I Joined” in which the author rants about the impending implosion of the Army, mostly because of women.

What all of this says to me is that on a day where four women have done it – they’ve proven that they can do it, the running line is still that they are here to make us weaker, destroy our Army, and it would be in everyones best interest if they weren’t attractive.

As I’ve written about extensively, women in the infantry is a topic that I am conflicted about. But that conflict doesn’t stop me from responding to false narratives, bad ideas, or poor arguments.

Now as I learned the last time I responded to a piece in the Washington Times, they often retain a strong bias when it comes to military issues. This article was no different. In a nutshell, it argues that the military can’t have it both ways, as in, it can’t say that it wants to reduce the number of sexual assaults in the military (making women victims) while also trying to push women into combat arms (making women warriors). The hidden claim is that there is some mystical male sexual power that is a necessary thing for combat, and that by letting women into the show, that power will be diminished or destroyed(!). I wrote about sex in the infantry, and it made a lot more sense when I wrote it.

Most of the article is complete nonsense, a stringing together of old tropes and anti-feminist fears. I’m not even going to do it the favor of fisking it. I will say this, though. His central claim, that there is this hidden feminist cabal that has an agenda and in their crosshairs is the infantry as an object of hate, is a theory I have heard quietly whispered in hallways before. I have no idea where this is coming from, but there are people out there that believe it is a real thing, and if they were reading this paragraph right now, would scoff at me and say I am being naive.

The Politico piece which reports on an email shared with them recommends we showcase “average looking women” in strategic communications because pictures featuring pretty women often undermine the message. As friend of the blog Kayla Williams said on her book’s Facebook page: “Army guidance on pics of women inarticulate but not misguided – more images with mud/camo instead of mascara = good.” As in, we all know what was said in the email is true, but it feels bad hearing it. When we see a picture featuring an attractive female soldier, it undermines the message mostly because we’re all very immature. The email looks bad but the message is correct. What’s sad, is that we’re still at a point where we have to say these things – pick ugly women so they’ll be taken seriously. We’re still cavemen: There Are No Girls With Good Personalities.

Now the Rhino Den piece. Ugh. I like Ranger Up, but I feel like that as their brand matures, I expect more from them. For every great Rhino Den article, there are three or four that ride the line of racist or misogynist. I’ve always enjoyed the “barracks” level stuff that comes out of there, but to keep this in military terms, the Rhino Den isn’t a Private anymore. It’s a First Sergeant now, and First Sergeants can’t get in front of the formation and say some of this shit (or at least, they shouldn’t).

The piece is a mostly rage-fueled anecdotal trek into why one soldier believes his Army is falling apart, and it has mostly to do with women and his belief that the top generals are only interested in pleasing their political masters who have grand schemes for reshaping the military. It’s a sad article, and I am sad that it’s on the Rhino Den, where I imagine thousands of people will read it.

I could go line by line and show what’s wrong with the article, but that would be tedious and boring. I’ll just leave this here to give you a taste. You can click the link if you actually want to read the whole thing:

I wish that was a stand-alone incident, but the more time I’ve spent in the Army has taught me that this actually happens to be the norm. The vast majority of female soldiers I have encountered think it’s some sort of game and view the Army as a playground for them. Despite what anybody says, the Army is very much still male-dominated, and rather than aspire to show they can do what the males do, the average Army female adopts that playground mentality and engage in a variety of unprofessional conduct, the most common being flirting and sometimes sleeping with upper ranks. A female E-4 I encountered during in-processing to my first duty station had told me stories of sleeping with lieutenants and captains and her philosophy was that rank only applied on duty.

With that out of the way, I can go back to the good news story of the day, the four women in the picture.

What I love about that picture is that I feel like I can see what they’re feeling. Knowing that they are finishing up their infantry course and are near graduation, I can see the relief and exhaustion in their faces – that feeling of completing something hard. They are clean for the first time in probably over a week. They watched the dirt flow into the drain and felt that simple satisfaction of stepping out of a hot shower for the first time in a while and smelling good. Their smiles show the happiness of achieving something great, and I know their minds are fantasizing about the things they are going to eat that they couldn’t while they trained and the things they will buy with the money saved up while in the field.

It is a picture I’ve seen hundreds of times of young infantrymen near graduation day, happy and ready for the big adventure. They are the greatest pictures and they make me happy. #nofilter

What a day for the military!