The Real SXSW

Fort Irwin NTCSXSW starts today. No, not that SXSW. The real SXSW.

It’s a pity too. Last year I had just arrived at Fort Hood and didn’t get to experience that other SXSW. This time, I’ll be in the box.

I’ll be away for the next month or so. I’ll be unable to respond to anything going on in the world or get back to anyone leaving comments or sending messages.

See you on the other side!

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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?


Preparing for the ‘End of War’ in an era of uncertainty

2014 is a very strange year for the military. We’re still in Afghanistan, but whether we’ll be there past December is uncertain. Units are training and deploying, trying not to be distracted by the strategic level decision-making that actually has a direct impact on their and their families’ lives.

The recently proposed Defense budget will likely shrink the size of the military and could potentially reduce benefits of service, including cuts to Basic Allowance for Housing and Commissary subsidies. The upcoming ‘Officer Separation Board‘ will likely result in some 2,000 Captains and Majors – most combat veterans – being kicked out. Some of them will get the word while deployed.

Meanwhile, Iraq and Syria are blurring into a single conflict. Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s all very discombobulating and is creating an odd climate of uncertainty.

Writing for the New York Times ‘At War’ blog, Air Force Major Brandon Lingle captures this in his piece titled Watching Football, Waiting for War:

In the midst of the American drawdown in Afghanistan, after more than 12 years of war, we could be among the last United States forces headed into the country. We’re headed overseas against the current. We have a long, long way to go.

After Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial, a senior airman said: “What’s with all the military commercials? It’s like they’re trying to make the war cool again.”

These words ricocheted in my head. To me, they acknowledged that our Afghanistan odyssey drones on in the background of our national dialogue. They underscored that a vast majority of Americans have no connection with the military, especially the 37,500 service members still serving in Afghanistan. They argued that commercials, tributes and ceremonies were no substitute for a meaningful conversation about the war. They showed that young Americans who joined the military after 9/11 know that their country isn’t really paying attention.

And then there is this, a quote from a young First Lieutenant in Stars and Stripes, finishing up a sleepy deployment in Afghanistan:

“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?” Vaughn said. “I’d argue no. We’re not here to conquer or gain more ground. We’re trying to leave.”

2014 is a shaping up to be a very strange year.

video games

Operation Supply Drop: A charity that sends video games to deployed soldiers

Operation Supply Drop

I read about Operation Supply Drop last year on Kotaku. It’s a charity that sends video games to deployed and wounded soldiers.

When I saw they were looking to make a supply drop to our British allies, I reached out to a friend I met in London on the set of World War Z (nbd) who happened to serve in the British Territorial Army. He, in turn, passed the information along to another friend, who then contacted Operation Supply Drop.

And boom! Behold the power of social media!

UNION JACK: Our First Supply Drop to Our British Allies!

Followers of this blog know that I’m a gamer. There is a hard intersection between video games and war that I like to write about. It was just last week that I posted about KSM who is also very aware of how central video games are to young soldiers.

With that, it’s refreshing to see this kind of charity that provides a service that I know soldiers will actually appreciate while they’re down range. Boredom is a terrible enemy. I wish, wish, WISH, this charity existed when I was enlisted. Some of my favorite memories from OIF I is playing Halo tournaments in Baghdad’s Hotel California. And like the founder of OSD, I too knew the importance of having a Gameboy Advance with Final Fantasy Tactics!

To learn more about Operation Supply Drop, check out their website, follow them on Twitter, and like them on Facebook.

top search of the week

Tom Finton Vietnam


Week ending March 2, 2014

I didn’t do a search term of the week last week because it was just the usual suspects. This week, the term was Tom Finton Vietnam. I had no idea what this was in reference to. I’ve written a number of posts orbiting Vietnam but the name Tom Finton didn’t mean anything to me.

After searching around my blog, I found a comment referencing Tom Finton on my post titled Conscientious Objection and the Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers. A little more searching and I learned that he wrote a book titled “The Folks Back Home Won’t Believe This.” Tom Finton didn’t agree with the Vietnam War and the book chronicles his service in the Army and in Vietnam. I haven’t read it, but it does seem interesting.

Here’s how he opens the book:

On the rear bumper of my ZX3 I have a 10- by 3- inch Vietnam campaign ribbon sticker. On the left rear side window I have a peace sticker. I put both stickers on the car when Bush went to war after 9/11. Occasionally someone will recognize the campaign ribbon and comment as if we have a symbiotic patriotic bond. When that happens I just nod politely and go on my way. But one day a woman who appeared to be in her mid-40s spoke to me in the grocery parking lot. She had seen both stickers and it piqued her curiosity. “I was in the Army,” she said, “Don’t you think it contradictory to display both stickers?”

As a former Concerned Officer Against the War in Vietnam I responded, “Not at all.” She didn’t stop to talk. Her bemused smile turned to a disapproving scowl as she walked past me.


Khalid Sheik Mohammad on American Soldiers: They play video games and kill themselves

Soldier playing video games

I’ve been sitting on this for a few weeks now. Khalid Sheik Mohammad, one of the plotters behind the 9/11 attacks wrote a manifesto covering his views on a number of things. Of particular relevance to readers of this blog is this paragraph about American soldiers:

In the same manner, hundreds of American crusader soldier men and women join the U.S. army, wear the latest military gear, eat the best food in Iraq and Afghanistan, and play with their play stations while their enemies, the poor Muslim can’t find their daily bread or jacket to protect themselves from the harsh snowstorms over Afghanistan mountains, but at the end, the American soldiers go back home and commit suicide but the poor man still with his dry bread and black tea lives with his poor wife in their humble muddy house but with happy hearts and souls.

You can read the whole thing here.


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)
middle east

So you wanna know about the Middle East?

Battle of Karbala

A friend recently sent me an email asking for book recommendations to get up to date on the Middle East. I didn’t have any good recommendations for her, but what I did share was the list of news sources and blogs that I read daily that helps keeps me up to date.

Shortly after firing off that email, I realized that it was a pretty good list and would make a good post.

Below are the sources in my feedly list that I have collected over the years.

If you know of any good ones that aren’t listed here, please let me know in the comments.

Al Jazeera English (Middle East): News outlet with a focus on the Middle East.
Baghdad Bureau (New York Times): This is the ‘At War’ Blog at the New York Times. It often runs essays by military/veteran personalities and others usually in regards to wars in the Middle East.
Middle East Channel (Foreign Affairs): Short excerpts from Foreign Affairs on the Middle East.
NYT>Islam: News from the New York Time’s Islam section.
NYT>Middle East: News from the New York Time’s Middle East section.
The Independent – Middle East: News from The Independent’s (UK) Middle East section.
Robert Fisk: Controversial and outspoken journalist that covers the Middle East.
WP: Middle East: News from the Washington Post’s Middle East section.
BBC News – Middle East: Middle East section of the BBC.

hawgblawg - Ted Swedenburg, ME anthropologist. Mostly blogs about the kufiya and Arab pop music.
Informed Comment- Juan Cole. ME Studies Professor. Liberal bent. Very good ME stuff.
Jihadology - a source for translated statements from muslim extremist groups.
MEI Blog - Blog of the Middle East Institute. Sporadic historical posts.
al-bab - Blog of Brian Whitaker, Middle East journalist.
Letters from the Underground (was ‘Frustrated Arab) – blog by an anti-imperialist activist.
gary’s choices – Tumblr blog by Gary Sick, former National Security Council Advisor. Iran-hand.
intelwire - Blog of J.M. Berger, Middle East analyst focusing on extremism, especially in social media.
Jadaliyya – Ezine on Middle East. Mostly political stuff. English/Arabic.
Jihadology – Mostly translated Islamic extremist releases/messages.
jihadica - more jihad stuff.
jillian c. york - prominent blogger on ME issues and social media.
Marc Lynch - Formerly ‘abu aardvark,’ blog on ME stuff hosted at Foreign Policy.
Musings on Iraq - Iraq centric blog by Joel Wing.
Mondoweiss - Blog focusing mainly on Israel/Palestine issues.
Sandbox - blog by Middle East Scholar Martin Kramer.
Saudiwoman’s Weblog – Blog focusing mostly on Women’s Issues in Saudi Arabia.
The Arabist - blog about Arab politics and culture.
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer- Arab politics through football.
Views from the Occident - Blog by PhD student in Islamic Studies. Focused mostly on extremist groups and imagery.


Book Review: Plenty of Time When We Get Home

Find the latest information on the book here.
Click here for an NPR story on the book.

I’m taking a quick break from the End of War Reading List to review Kayla William’s new book, Plenty of Time When We Get Home.

I just finished it. I read it in two sittings, the first was 200 straight pages, interrupted only because my flight landed and I had to stop to get off the plane. I’m not the type of person that will slog through 200 pages if it’s boring, so it is to Kayla’s credit for writing a book that flows well and keeps the attention of a picky reader.

I’ve earmarked much of the book and will start going through it below, but I want to say upfront that what makes this book special is its honesty. This book stings. The back jacket says memoir, but to me, this is a love story. A brutally honest, real-life, painful, painful love story.

First thing’s first. The book is good, and I’d recommend it to anyone who read Love My Rifle More Than You, is curious about what it’s like to come home from war and try to build a life, or fans of human drama.

The way I like to do book reviews is provide a brief synopsis, and then go through some of the parts that stuck out to me.

Kayla starts off the book just about where her first book left off, and from page one I felt like I was jumping into the sequel. Her first book examined what it was like to be “young and female” in the United States Army, mostly through the lens of a combat deployment to Iraq in 2003. This book links back to that one through the opening chapter, where her future husband, Brian, is injured in an IED explosion on the ride back to his unit after returning to Iraq after mid-tour leave.

From there, the book follows Kayla home and chronicles her journey through bars and post-deployment checklists during the honeymoon phase of redeployment. Brian and Kayla begin dating and start figuring out what it means to be war veterans in an Army getting ready for the next deployment and a nation at war but not really paying attention. Kayla leaves the Army and Brian is medically retired. The book follows them as they try to establish a life on the outside, discussing in parts; the release of Kayla’s first book and her involvement in the veteran community at large, going back to school, trying to find work and a place to live, her own struggles with adjusting to the civilian world, and starting a family.

The crux of the book, however, is Kayla and Brian’s relationship. Brian’s injury – which she brilliantly describes in calculating detail a lá one of my favorite parts in The Short Timers – significantly affects his ability to transition smoothly to civilian life.

Where Love My Rifle was raw and angry, Plenty of Time is reflective. There is still plenty of ‘shock and awe’ in the book, but written in such a way as not to be gratuitous for its own sake.  Kayla’s writing style feels similar, but not as fiery as Love My Rifle, which I think is a good thing for this book.

Both Brian and Kayla can be terribly frustrating. Brian for his outbursts and Kayla for both dealing with it and sometimes not fully understanding it. Through it all, their love for one another is clear.

If there are any faults in the book, it is in the repetition of a few key lines or ideas almost word-for-word that felt like heavy-handed ways to get a point across. For example, on more than one occasion Kayla discusses war news scrolling on the “little ticker at the bottom of the screen” as a way of demonstrating how divorced from the war the general population is.

Also, I feel like it is worth mentioning that Kayla writes unapologetically about her political leanings in the book. She’s never been one to hide them, and is very up front with her advocacy. Still, the last 1/3 of the book discusses in some detail her and Brian’s work with various political organizations. I mention it only because I know there are some readers who can’t help but get worked up about those types of things.

That out of the way, below are the things that I found particularly interesting. These are just reactions to interesting things in the book, so my apologies if one paragraph doesn’t seem to flow fluidly into the next:

Kayla does a fantastic job capturing how funny Brian can be, as he provides much needed comic relief throughout the book. For all of the faults and setbacks in their relationship and his recovery, he comes across as the guy that you really hope would be your friend. Some examples:

-The first thing he says after having a thick piece of metal shrapnel lodged in his head is “Give me a cigarette.”
-When he kept getting falsely accused of sleeping with another guy’s wife, he decided that if he was going to get accused of it and have to take so much shit for it, he might as well do the deed. So he did.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Brian and Kayla have while they are still in their flirting stage in Iraq. It is a nice, genuine moment, albeit foreboding since the reader knows where the book is headed. When my eyes passed over the words “…plenty of time when we get home” I felt something deeply sad.

Kayla’s great at capturing how little things matter. She often opines at length on the importance of a good commute, being a thrifty spender, and how hard it can be to get in a good workout. She describes the way their crazy dog Kelby wreaks havoc on their attempts to get their lives under control. How can they get their shit together when they have this maniac dog costing them tons of money and making life miserable?

Through the book, it seems incredibly irresponsible to read some of the lines from doctors and military officials in giving advice on how Brian should proceed after receiving his injury. From “just avoid activities that seem dangerous” to “you should just feel lucky to be alive.” It serves as a reminder that in those early years after the wars began, we (as a nation) didn’t really know what we were doing. Things have gotten significantly better since then, but it should serve as a reminder that things progress, and we should be humble in all of our so-called certainties.

Refreshingly, even after over ten years, Kayla hasn’t forgotten how wonderful some of the simple pleasures are upon redeployment. The first part of her book is peppered with references to “hot and unlimited” showers and other similar gems. As time and distance separates the veteran from war-time service, it gets easier and easier to forget those simple things.

Kayla writes an interesting story about repeatedly losing her shit at bars when no one would buy her or her friends drinks after getting back from Iraq because people assumed they weren’t combat veterans, because they were women. And then Kid Rock bought Kayla a beer.

She writes about a guy who should be everyone’s hero. The guy that says confidently that he or she is dealing with PTSD. I’ve met guys like him – the guy that is respected and a good soldier who is not afraid to say when he is hurting. The guy who drops the tough-guy facade and speaks the truth. We need so many more of them.

Kayla manages to capture a great scene depicting one of my favorite things: absurdity. Here, she is describing an accountability formation for soldiers who are assigned to a particular unit, but all in different situations which has them wearing different clothes. As stupid as this is, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read it. It reads like a scene out of Enlisted.

“One day when I went in with him, I was completely astonished at what the formation looked like. Soldiers who had assignments like Brian were there in suits. Others were in BDUs (battle dress uniform-camouflage). Still others were wearing PTs (physical fitness uniforms). Many were on crutches and clearly struggling to stand upright. Some were actually dragging IV stands with them. “What the hell?” I said. “Isn’t this excessive? Can’t they just send the squad leaders by their rooms or something?”

In a small, but very interesting anecdote, Kayla captures how selfish soldiers and veterans can be when she writes about an argument with her mom after she (mom) failed to pay a bill Kayla had trusted her with. When deployed, there’s this feeling that life should revolve around you and everyone should stop what they’re doing at once if you need something. Kayla repeatedly writes about how easy it is to do things when “someone’s not trying to kill you.” When Kayla yells at her mom for missing the bill, her mom turns the tables and tries to guilt Kayla out (which family members are very, very good at). Kayla argues back that it’s “her turn to be crazy” which goes back to the world revolving around the combat veteran. No one else should be allowed to be upset or tired or anything, so goes the thinking, because hey, at least YOU’RE not the one with someone out to kill you.

It’s an interesting area which I don’t think has been explored enough. I also got the feeling that for as honest as Kayla is in this book, there is more behind the relationship with her mother than is revealed here.

The two most powerful parts of the book describe Kayla breaking down, contemplating suicide, and a terrible, alcohol-fueled confrontation she has with Brian. It’s raw and honest. It’s terrifying. The confrontation will make you angry. Angry at both Kayla and Brian for letting things get to that point. But it’s real. And it is an amazing thing to read and it must have been a terribly painful thing to write.

Towards the end of the book, there is a telling scene where Kayla and some other female veterans get together to discuss another book by a female veteran (Hesitation Kills, by Jane Blair). It was interesting to read about a bunch of female vets hating (mostly) on someone else’s experience. They discussed at length, some of the things that annoyed them about Jane’s experiences, like choosing to forego drinking water to spare herself the embarrassment of having to stop and pee, or her belief that maybe as a female (and an officer) she might not have to go to war.

Admittedly, as I read this I started to think that maybe this was just a bunch of girls, hating on another girl, like girls (in popular media) tend to do. As I thought about it, I realized that this “hating” is essentially the same thing that male soldiers do when talking about other military people, especially those who put themselves out there and write a book. The military – male and female – is made up of a bunch of ambitious ‘type A’ personalities, and when one steps up front and says something, especially if he or she puts it down in a book, seemingly seeking recognition, it is very likely that that is going to be challenged, dissected, and attacked.

I enjoyed reading the book. Honestly, there was a part of me that thought getting through it might be a chore. It is very easy to get burned out on military books. Kayla masterfully paints a narrative that is accessible to anyone, who like I said earlier, is interested in human drama. It is incredibly brave to open your life up, warts and all, to a voyeuristic gazing public salivating for details about what goes on behind closed doors. Kayla lays it out and lets us look in and see, and I think anyone who reads this book will be better off for doing so.